Tuesday, December 28, 2010

itchycoo park

St. Bride's, East Kilbride - Gillespie, Kidd and CoiaI like brutalism.

a good few architects like brutalism.

some non-architects like brutalism.

a huge amount of people use the word concrete in a derogatory way. for the sake of the argument I'll assume these people don't like brutalism, probably not even the brick brutalism of Klas Anshelm, GKC or Bernt Nyberg.

how is the architect supposed to relate to the views of the public?

how do you avoid making a bland populist design? should you avoid making a populist design? as whatever you do will be the part of the daily lives of thousands of people, what responsibility do you, as an architect, have to those people?

Berkely Library, Trinity College, Dublin - Ahrends, Burton and Koraleksome of these problems were dwelt upon a long time ago, as far back as in the 18th century but that time in writings on landscaping. there is a quote from sir Uvedale Price in Nikolaus Pevsner's Visual Planning and the Picturesque which quite clearly explains the difference between landscaping on the one hand and food and drinking on the other, but it could as well be used to discuss the differences between architecture on the one hand and art or music on the other:

'it can hardly be doubted, that what answers to the beautiful in the sense of tasting, has smootheness and sweetness for its basis, with such a degree of stimulus as enlivens, but does not overbalance those qualities; such, for instance, as in the most delicious fruits and liquors. take away the stimulus, they become insipid; increase it so as to overbalance those qualities, they then gain a peculiarity of flavour, are eagerly sought after by those who have acquired a relish for them, but they are generally less adapted to the general palate. this corresponds exactly with the picturesque; but if the stimulus be encreased [sic] beyond that point, none but depraved and vitiated palates will endure, what would be so justly termed deformity in objects of sight.'

the Barbican, London - Chamberlin, Powell and Bonand that cuts straight to the heart of the matter, the issue of architecture's ubiquitiouness, how it is impossible to escape. it is no problems to me – a meagre whisky drinker at the best of times – if the person sitting next to me on the tube likes to drink whisky that tastes like pouring an entire fishing village down your throat, because I won't have to experience it myself. and for those amongst us who like our buildings a little rougher, a little more elemental, I guess we might be seen as having 'acquired a relish' for this. and once we're hooked we just go deeper and deeper until finding the ultimate trip: usually a stage involving Lewerentz's flower kiosk, or in partciularly bad cases Anshelm's extension to Lewerentz's last flat. but at times it can be wise to remember Price's words and try to put a restrain on ourselves. maybe try to be a little more populist and not let the roughness be all encompassing. because as beautiful as those buildings can be to the person looking for that kind of thing just as overpowering can they be to the person coming there just looking for a book, or to get a medical examination.

Flower kiosk, Östra Kyrkogården, Malmö - Sigurd LewerentzI know we should design buildings able to stand for hundreds of years, and that during that time taste changes and they may become cherished by thousands – however rough or smooth they are – but I'd say that as a rule of thumb the closer a building is to everyday life the less challenging it should be. and the further removed from the matters of living and the closer it is to ritual and memory the rougher it can be. thus the only sorts of buildings entirely in the realm of architecture in the views of Adolf Loos – the monument and the tomb – can be as rough and uncompromising as the architect feels like.

come to think of it, if you subscribe to that view the Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht would pretty much be the perfect monument. too bad the rest of Mies' work seems to be monuments too, and smooth ones at that ...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

bricks and mortar

Town hall in Lund - Klas Anshelmafter a visit to Lund last weekend I suddenly realised the striking similarities between Klas Anshelm's Town hall (1964) and Giancarlo De Carlo's Magistero (1976) in Urbino. having known about both buildings for years and having been very fascinated by De Carlo's since I first saw drawings of it I can't see why it took me this long to realise. even though De Carlo did have contact with Lund through ILAUD in the 80s I haven't found any information suggesting he was aware of Anshelm's building while designing the Magistero.

first and foremost they're both large brutalist buildings in the context of a medieval town* and secondly they're organised in a very similar way: the plan is one huge expanse into which multi-storey bodies housing specific programmes are set leaving the rest of the plan for circulation. in both cases the shapes for the main functions are clearly visible from outside, thus hinting at the functions inside. for his building De Carlo chose to work with non-directional plan shapes like circles and semi-circles while Anshelm deploys the directional mandorla shape for his two most important rooms – the assembly hall and the audtorium. in one way you could make an analogue comparison between the open floor plates of the buildings and the 'western' modernist idea of endless free-flowing space in city planning. in this comparison the multi-storey volumes are seen as buildings.**

19th century map of Lundas well as similarities there are, of course, some major differences, especially in how these buildings relate to the surrounding city. De Carlo's project is built inside an old monastery where the existing brick perimeter walls are retained and thus camouflage the building when seen from the surrounding streets. in Lund Anshelm actually demolished buildings around the existing Town Hall and put a free-standing triangular building in their place. although the triangular shape doesn't align with the geometry of the surroundings it is very appropriate – creating some very nicely proportioned interstitial spaces when you walk around it – and doesn't feel like it ruptures the streetscape.

to the east of Anshelm's building there is a narrow office-building, separated from the Town Hall by a pedestrian path, which is also part of the original scheme and that Anshelm built against an existing firewall. while this side adapts to the constraints of the site the other two work to both separate the new building from the existing Town Hall and to act as a backdrop to the classical building when seen from a distance.

apart from being beautiful pieces of architecture in and of themselves I would say that both buildings serve to show alternative ways for modern buildings to relate to their surroundings without resorting to explicit mimicking. in the case of the Magistero you could claim that its camouflaging is a way of cheating but I would see it ass more of a trojan-horse manoeuvre in that it manages to slip radically modern accommodation into a sensitive medieval context without compromising either context or programme, and there are some modern windows and doors visible from the street that hint at the transformation of the space behind the walls. in the case of the Town Hall it neither simply adapts to the existing street-pattern nor is integrated in the building mass of a bigger city block, instead it is a free-standing volume – in full accordance with modernist dogma – but placed in such a way that it actually improves the existing streets and patterns of movement.

ps. I apologise for the lack of good drawings etc. but at the present all my books are in storage so those pdf:s are what I managed to find online.

* the similarities between brutalism and medieval architecture crept up just a while back in a comment to a post Owen Hatherley did on Southampton. see also the chapter on Scottish tower houses in Andrea Deplaze's Constructing Architecture where he compares their general layout and Louis Kahn's Phillips Exeter Academy Library.

** this 'western' conception of space was the main theme for Gunnar Asplund's inaugural lecture as professor at KTH (the Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm. a concept Asplund found in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

two sisters (pt. 2)

O'Donnell + Tuomey and Bjarke Ingels seem to have more in common than I at first would have thought...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

the road to ruin

it seems there are, once again, plans to do something about Gillespie, Kidd & Coia's St. Peter's Seminary in Cardross.

I really hope something happens this time, it was a beautiful building once and it deserves better than to rot away behind a fence, slowly being overtaken by plants and grafitti.

and I must admit the romantic in me quite likes the suggestion of turning it into some kind of brutalist semi-ruin. as can be seen in online photos and films the robustness of the concrete and masonry gives the building a medieval air, like a strange distant relative to the tower houses abandoned in the middle of a forest. if you can harness that while clearing out all the rubble and making parts habitable you could be on to something good.

Monday, November 01, 2010

two sisters

Alexandra Road, London - Neave Brownmy last post made me reread Neave Brown's article The Form of Housing (Architectural Design, September -76). this in turn had me thinking about two recent housing projects which might, in different ways, be said to relate to Brown's theories as expressed in that article and in his housing at Fleet Road and Alexandra Road in London.

first I should probably acknowledge that Douglas Murphy has already pointed out the similarities between BIG:s 8 House and the Smithsons' concept of streets in the sky.

I've mentioned one of the projects – the 8 House in Ørestad, Copenhagen – and the other is O'Donnell + Tuomey's Timberyard in Dublin. what these two projects – if very different in scale – have in common is the wish to relate the single dwelling to the surrounding city at the same time as it's relating to all the other dwellings that make up the project.

in his article Brown argues against the free-standing British post-war housing and its tabula-rasa approach to the surrounding city and for housing that acknowledges its context and adapts to existing street patterns. he thought that the concept of streets in the sky was a step in the right direction but that it wasn't going far enough, there were still 'a no-man's land' separating the different buildings and the city. according to him housing is characterised less by the differences between different types than by what they have in common and he wants to give back to housing 'the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue'. this was something he found in the traditional British terraced house. unfortunately that model could no longer handle the demands of modern society so it couldn't just be replicated, instead there had to be innovation to give these qualities to mass housing.

Timberyard, Dublin - O'Donnell + Tuomey ArchitectsBrown claims that 'it is the architect's job to structure the environment, incorporating in a single form all the concepts that have a claim to inclusion. to make a perceptible order requires more than an assembly of parts, more than the recognition of meaningful relationships by the tactical arranging of the pieces. it requires the integration of all the pieces into a single gesture in which unity and interdependence can be recognized at whatever level they are perceived'.

like Brown's own Alexandra Road both the 8 House and Timberyard excel at this integration of pieces into a single gesture. unfortunately things aren't as straight forward as they were back in Brown's day, no longer content with just being part of a collective we all want to be individuals. so when in Alexandra Road different kinds of apartments hide behind almost identical elevations both O'D+T and BIG go out of their way to make monolithic buildings in just a few materials but whose plan shape and more detailed massing create a diversity within that unity. to differentiate further both buildings, just as Alexandra Road, employ a sectional layering of different types of apartments. in the case of Timberyard it constitutes of both maisonettes and one-storey apartments and the layers in the vastly bigger 8 House are -from ground up: commercial space and offices, row houses along a pedestrian/cycle path, apartments and finally maisonettes entered off another outdoor path (for a further explanation from the architects watch this film).

the main part of accommodation at Alexandra Road stretches along a pedestrian path between the community centre in the east and Abbey Road in the west. to the sides of this brick-clad path the dwellings are stacked in two artificial ridges of concrete and glass, the northern eight storeys high and the southern four. all apartments are provided with outdoor space in form of a terraces and in some cases this terrace also functions as a front yard from which you reach the entrance.

Timberyard, Dublin - O'Donnell + Tuomey ArchitectsTimberyard is located on Cork Street in central Dublin. that street has recently been lined with fairly hideous and blandly modern apartment schemes with retail space on the ground floors, the less that's said about them the better. O'D+T opted to refuse the retail space asked for by the planners and instead chose to let as many apartments as possible be entered directly off the ground. to be honest I must say I kind of miss the commercial element, not the hangar-like spaces from further up the road, but a small office or shop facing Cork Street could have been quite nice.

just as Alexandra Road is built along a pedestrian path so is Timberyard focused on a semi-private courtyard set in brick (coincidentally the same material as the path in Alexandra Road). it is off this courtyard that most dwellings are entered and it is here that the communal space is located. to make the transition between public and private space less brutal all private entrances on the ground floor are set back slightly and the entrances provided with external benches. towards Cork Street the building line is pulled back somewhat with planters keeping the line of the footpath and a narrower path between the planters and the entrances to the apartments.

the 8 House, Copenhagen - BIG, Photo by SEIER+SEIERthe 8 House is an aluminium-clad block at the very extreme of the new Ørestad area of Copenhagen. at the moment it's even more remote than what is intended as the economic crisis of recent years have slowed down construction. this means that it and a neighbour are the only buildings within a couple of hundred meters. having said that the building makes the most of its edge condition with slopes and different heights that aim to provide as many apartments as possible with views out over the adjoining nature reserve.

as the lowest floors are taken up by commercial space and offices the different apartments can't have as direct a connection to the ground as in Timberyard or Alexandra Road but the architects have instead extended paths from the ground up on top of the offices and the so called row-houses are entered off these paths through a small front yard. the same applies for the maisonettes on the top two floors. just as in Timberyard this is done in the hope that it will create a feeling of community amongst the inhabitants. in-between these row-houses and the maisonettes are several floors of apartments clustered around stair shafts. that these are entered from the street on the ground floor should help to counter the risk of the surrounding streets becoming dead as soon as the businesses close for the day.

the 8 House, Copenhagen - BIG, Photo by SEIER+SEIERcomparing the two schemes I can't help but to think that Timberyard is the more successful. one of my problems with the 8 House is that even though it's mostly built up right to the edge of the pavement the width of the road coupled with a canal before reaching the closest neighbour make for a very un-urban streetscape which I find unfortunate. having said that it's hardly the architects' fault and achieving the gritty urban character of a thousand-year-old part of the city in a yet-unfinished district on virgin land is obviously hard.

the 8 House does boldly continue the intentions of Alexandra Road, though, and on such a heroic scale it's hard not be impressed. it is also much better urbanistically than any of the previous PLOT/BIG projects in Ørestad, eschewing the piloti of the VM Houses and the Mountain Dwellings, but there is still something slightly odd about how it touches down. I'm not sure why, it might just be that the vertical aluminium fins prevent any diagonal views to the interior which makes the building feel more closed up than it actually is. Timberyard on the other hand feels like the end result of serious contemplation about a specific city and what can be done to fit modern accommodation into it without entirely rupturing the atmosphere of the place. there are still things that are problematic about it but it surely is a type of accommodation more suited to Dublin than any of the other new buildings along the rest of Cork Street.

official site for the 8 House
Alexandra Road on Modern Architecture London

photos of the 8 House by SEIER+SEIER

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

song for a friend

this link I post for purely nostalgic reasons; Maiden Lane once a start for something that is now over.

too bad I can't see myself managing to go to London while the exhibition's still on.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

you know I'll miss you when you're gone

here's a link to an inaccurate but most beautiful section of Slussen made as a collage of innumerable photos:


Slussen is a modernist traffic-circus sited between Gamla Stan (Stockholm's old town) and Södermalm due to be replaced by an incredibly bland proposal courtesy of Foster + Partners and Berg Arkitektkontor.

View Larger Map

even if the section doesn't show the actual Slussen it captures the Piranesian feeling of the place: the criss-crossing passages, the suddenly appearing depths, the vast empty spaces, the darkness and the damp. of course Slussen will be replaced, it would have to, wouldn't it? after all it isn't the bland and brightly lit white space we in this ambitiously middle-class part of the world like to identify ourselves with.

don't get me wrong – I like what they've done to that arcade below Hamngatan – but there comes a time when you just have to find a new way, when repeating the same formula once more is one time too many. and I'm pretty sure we're past that point a few years ago. rather than trying to raze to forget we should actively try to re-build and re-adapt. there can be times and places where a total rebuilding might be ok, but doesn't it all feel a bit too early 20th century?

to me Slussen is a weird breathing space between the posh/touristy Gamla Stan and the über hip Götgatsbacken – a semi-dilapidated piece of artificial ground entirely out of context with its present surroundings, full of weird holes and corners housing a diverse range of activities and businesses that could never afford to be anywhere else in the inner city. I guess the rock venue Debaser is the main exception to that rule, but on the other hand Debaser probably couldn't have started out anywhere else.

it's not that I'm against a redevelopment of Slussen per se, but when the proposal is worse than what is there now we have an obligation to stop it – to demand something better.

still, I know the battle is already lost - and it seems I'm on the losing side together with what's been dubbed 'the cultural elite' - but this is a major disgrace and the last straw in turning Stockholm into the upper middle-class reservation it has actually become (partly because of that 'cultural elite'). and that could be a great thing, if what's being forced out of the city centre could resurface somewhere else but the City doesn't really seem too interested in creating plans for anything but housing in the suburbs. thus the living city centre surrounded by dormitory suburbs will become an un-affordable dormitory city-centre surrounded by dormitory suburbs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

cemetry gates

I just saw a post on Tony Wilson's nicely asymmetrical gravestone as designed by Peter Saville and Ben Kelly. it made me think of the great concrete headstone at Patrick Caulfield's grave at Highgate Cemetery in London. at the time I saw it I hadn't got a clue who it was for, but it is a great gravestone indeed. during my visit I did all I could to find Sandy Wilson's grave. unfortunately, though, I had no luck. it would've been interesting to see.

more on gravestones (and architects); here's a cut-out of Mies' grave by Sam Jacob of FAT.

Monday, September 20, 2010

the glasgow school

it seems Steven Holl has unveiled his design for the Glasgow School of Art. his building is for the site opposite their main building, the one presently occupied by several buildings (one of which is a dingy wooden thing by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia). I'm not exactly sure what I think of it, and never having been to visit a Holl building I'm not sure what the renderings and sketches might turn out like, but at first glance I'm slightly disappointed. it just doesn't seem to compare favourably with Mackintosh's main building and I have my doubts about all that glass. I wonder what Grafton Architect's proposal would've looked like?

further illustrations of Holl's proposal can be found here.

who do you think you are?

the more I think about it, the less certain I become that architects are the ones most suited to write about architecture. architects are way too caught up in the actual making of buildings to be able to analyse them in a good way. it's very presumptious of us to not only think we're the ones best suited to design buildings but also to be able to analyse them properly. especially considering just how complex they are, both as technical systems and as the backdrop against which we all live our lives.

but who, then, would be better suited?

an art historian? the ones I've come across have always been too focused on the visuals and on the 'intention' behind different parts of a building for me to take seriously. and as we know there's a lot of post-rational explanations put forward by architects so that they won't have to say they just liked something. an architectural historian would make more sense in the way that most of them are educated as architects and thus – at least partly – aware of what it is to design a building. they are also aware of some of the constraints society put upon us in the form of regulations and maybe even the constraints procurement brings to a building. but as they're educated within the discipline they know the hidden codes (the 'lore of operation', in the words of Reyner Banham), and are thus not able to analyse a building for what it is, without an overlay of Architecture. they can be great for that, though, – analysing a building and it's relation to other buildings in the canon of architecture – but that's not what I'm after.

I'm looking for someone that writes about architecture and how it interacts with its users and its surroundings. someone caring as much about the performance as about the art of a building. maybe what I'm actually after is a novel, any novel really, or even just films. but most definately not those films so adored by architects, say Playtime. not the arty, very stylish and artificial films but films where people move about in buildings, unconsciously: most films. or maybe that's just me that having very naïve view of what it's like to make a film? maybe all films are so choreographed there's nothing unconscious about them?

I don't know, maybe I've just spent a little too much time reading history books about the Modern movement recently. it is an odd thing, though: history books dedicated to the frozen moment a building is new. history ignoring the passing of time, a history of Platonic Forms rather than of anything in the world of substances. I guess it's an acknowledgement that architecture is mainly ideas, but with the tiny problem that as soon as you start analysing built works you're no longer dealing with the idealised but rather with the incredibly mundane.

I know, I know, the theoretical hunt for someone 'unspoilt' is futile and history is full of examples of people trying and failing. more importantly architectural history is full of people trying and failing, but that's for another post some other time (and that'll be an opportunity to revisit Reyner Banham).

Sunday, August 08, 2010

the clash

the AR has a nice piece on the Casbah in Algiers on their website. for the first time since I was seven and obsessed with pyramids and Tutankhamun I'm now considering an African holiday.