Shocked to hear of Zaha Hadid's death on the RPI overnight service early this morning while trying to sleep in a motel in Revelstoke. I was shocked; just a couple of weeks ago I'd heard her on Desert Island Discs - surely one of the most interesting people they've had this past year. She was a worthy, yes, being Dame Zaha Hadid, but her music choices were brilliant, new, Drake alongside Umm Kulthum.
Kirsty Young asked her what her parents though of the young Zaha wanting to be an architect, and Zaha replied that it was expected that all the women of her generation in Iraq would be professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers – indeed her entire high school class went on to become professionals.
How different to the expectations of my high school class, in a small west coast Canadian town. It wasn't that my parents weren't educated, my father came from a long line of university degrees, but their expectations were probably that I'd be a teacher, despite Dad saying (frequently) that all teachers were useless. The Desert Island interview was pure Zaha as I remember her at the AA: sharp, full of humour delivered deadpan, little patience with people she must have seen as polite, 'nice' but naive and self-effacing, as I was brought up to be.
It has been a hard row to hoe for any woman of my generation in architecture, even as brilliant as Zaha was – christ, if she had a hard time, think how it was for the rest of us.
Entries in architecture (72)
Shocked to hear of Zaha Hadid's death on the RPI overnight service early this morning while trying to sleep in a motel in Revelstoke. I was shocked; just a couple of weeks ago I'd heard her on Desert Island Discs - surely one of the most interesting people they've had this past year. She was a worthy, yes, being Dame Zaha Hadid, but her music choices were brilliant, new, Drake alongside Umm Kulthum.
Cardinal and Gaboury are both cited by David Fortin as Métis architects. Their work is characteristically expressionist: curvy, curvy, curvy, sometimes structural (Gaboury), sometimes merely shapely (Cardinal). I’m not sure either of these two practice a métis architecture of any sort of theoretical nature, given the times in which they worked – late twentieth century eccentric architecture which, however, was built securely within an establishment of clients, financing, contractors, developers, lawyers and government. Gaboury, in Préciex Sang, above, referenced both Le Corbusier and Eladio Dieste.
Their ethnicity as Métis does not mean they practice a métis architecture any more than one could say Zaha Hadid’s superlatively expressionist architecture is is métis. The identification of expressionism with métissage isn’t safe. The whole discussion must go beyond the visual.
With some surprise I see that this year's RAIC festival is in Nanaimo. Gone are the days when only large cities could host large conferences, by dropping down in size, clearly new, interesting venues are available. That said, Nanaimo? I look carefully at the tours and significant buildings: very few, if any, in the public domain. For someone who lives in Nanaimo it seems to be one very long highway of strung out malls and car lots, and a struggling downtown where rents are so high that a third of the storefronts are empty. And then a tragic mistake made some years ago, to take away one side of a third of Commercial Street, the crooked main street that originally followed the coastline, by building a convention centre, all smoked glass and blank street wall. I’m confused about it being considered an architectural destination worthy of an RAIC conference. Perhaps, however, architecture isn’t about architecture any more, rather it is about culture and community: get these right and then one’s heart will be in the right place to do an appropriate architecture.
I wonder if this is correct?
The conference theme is Connexions, why this strange spelling is not clear. Perhaps it is to update the idea that all will be well if we only connect, in this case, the public and the architects of Canada. Shawn Atleo is one of the speakers. First Nations have been rewarded with significant architectural attention in recent decades, something difficult to reconcile with the inability to get basic infrastructure right in the northern reserves: are community centres, schools and friendship centres meant to be seed projects for continued federal attention that might spill over into schooling, health, safety? Patrick Stewart (Tzeachten First Nation) and Alfred Waugh (West Vancouver), both First Nations architects, illustrate two generations of aboriginal architecture. Patrick Stewart, older, shows late post-modern commercial on his website, Waugh, a more recent graduate, the Peter Busby-inflected architecture of curves and exposed structure. Oh, and Peter Busby is a speaker as well.
The connections appear to be green building, first nations needs and small town planning. In theory, this might lead to the development of a vernacularism not based on historic models, but on present needs: small towns are more intimately connected with First Nations, especially in British Columbia; there is the powerful westcoast legacy of Greenpeace, David Suzuki, environmental activism and a new aboriginal veto on industrial development of pipelines, mining and logging; and there is a particular geography of separations in British Columbia – islands, valleys, coastal settlements. This is a distinctive trifecta that indeed could lead to an originary architecture, if allowed to naturalise itself.
I’m an optimistic person, I hope this is what this conference leads to.
Gordon Matta-Clark had such a brief career, but what he did was so influential. For Splitting, 1974, he took an abandoned house and cut a channel through it as if with a cheese cutter. The house didn't fall down although the attack on its structural integrity would have been drastic if it hadn't then been subsequently demolished. Splitting actually refers to the set of photographs Matta-Clark made of the rooms slashed by light from the narrowly sliced outside wall.
One doesn't cut through a woodframe house as if it was a piece of cheese. It took a chain saw to cut each roof shingle, sheathing board, beam, joist, floorboard, lathe, plaster wall, plumbing pipe, window frame, chimney breast, stair tread and riser. The thought is conceptual, the act is laborious.
His beautiful film:
Matta-Clark's work is generally seen as 'a critique of bourgeois American culture' which makes little sense to me now. It seems what he was doing was classic modernist sculptural technique, in the way David Smith assembled and welded steel sheets and then sometimes cut the piece in half and rearranged it. My source for this is an ancient film I once saw on his working methods where he was working with steel the way the rest of us were working with cardboard. The difference between working with mild steel and walls of a building is perhaps financial: abandoned houses and warehouses were available the way wrecked cars were for John Chamberlain. But because both these materials fall into the category of detritus, or found materials, or salvage, their history leads to a set of particular and peculiar narrative arcs for the sculpture made from them.
Peter Eisenman's House VI of 1975, just one year after Splitting, famously had a glazed slit in the bedroom from ceiling to wall to floor. At the time it was discussed as an illustration of the wilfulness of the architect, forcing his clients to sleep in twin beds to preserve the slipping planes of the design process that at one (arbitrary) point stopped, was built and occupied. Although Eisenman's slice out of three planes of the room appropriates Matta-Clark's slice out of a house in New Jersey, it comes from completely different reasoning.
Here is a video by Steve Trefois and Laurent Arnoldi on House VI, if one has the patience.
No doubt everyone has seen this, the whitewashing of the old Sunset Pacific Motel slated for demolition on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Vincent Lamouroux is the artist, there are several videos out there about the process (big machines spraying the trees, the ground and the building itself); it was open as an installation from 26 April to 10 May, 2015 and then left to the weather, again.
Much has been made of the informal reference to the motel as the Bates Motel and Hitchcock's Psycho, despite the motel in the film being one of those old auto courts beside a lonely stretch of highway, and not in a city at all. But whatever, a motel is a motel, evidently. Does any derelict and empty building become sinister because it no longer functions in society? And are motels particularly susceptible to this? Motels in film always offer anonymity for antisocial plot and action, it is a building type that exists outside the narrative of law and order, family homes and settled, normative lives.
Martin Luther King was shot at the Lorraine Motel, now part of a Civil Rights museum in Memphis. As it stands, un-whitewashed, it seems conventional, disengaged from its history. If it had been painted white, or black, or any detail-obliterating colour, would that have transformed it, empowered it, or rendered it exceptional? This touches on a discussion in On Site review 33:land about the limits of architectural expression; how much of architecture is form, how much is typology, how much is programmatic history.
The Sunset Pacific no-longer Motel has become a 1:1 white gessoed model piece in the greater model that is the actual city: its form is both heightened and made meaningless, its typology is lost along with its function, but its history is alive in both its nickname and in its original, hopeful, end-of-Route 66 name: Sunset Pacific. This is old California, the palm trees, the deco assemblage of building parts, and it is middle California of Sunset Strip, sleaze and screens that got small – all clichés that made a derelict building very attractive for the transformative processes of art. Now it is a French art installation in an arid city in an urban desert in a four-year drought.
A beautiful room, the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Petrograd/Leningrad/St Petersburg. It was her apartment in the Sheremetev Palace, a 1750 palace that included a hospital, a theatre and orchestra and a formal, fountained estate. Akhmatova's apartment was in the south wing, and she lived in it from 1925-1966.
Akhmatova's second husband was a tutor to the Sheremetev family; they stayed on in the north wing after the family fled during the revolution. Her third husband was assigned an apartment in the south wing and there she stayed.
There is Akhmatova's history, her poetry, her modernism; there are her intellectual husbands – poets, art historians, artists; there is the trajectory of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: all was well with her poems and her affairs until 1921 when her then first husband was shot as part of the Kronstadt rebellion. With the loss of Lenin and the ascendance of Stalin that hardened the Russian commune, all the promise of the Russian avant-garde was turned: the Suprematists, Malevich, el Lissitsky slid into a perceived counter-revolutionary bourgeois activity. She lived through it all, biographies list her countless affairs – intellectual, political and physical. She wrote, sometimes published, often not, she wrote against Stalinism, confusingly she was deemed a soviet poet with czarist leanings, a promiscuous classicist in revolutionary times; she lived on in her beautiful apartment.
Please, just give me a room with these proportions. I'd take out the fluorescent unit in the ceiling.
Roca, a Spanish bathroom fixtures corporation, is behind Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid in 2011. Based on the movement of water evidently, it is curvy white space and currently has an exhibition, Urbanistas, curated by Lucy Bullivant, showing the influential work of five architects, women, young and successful: Alison Brooks, Muf, AWP, J&L Gibbons and Irena Bauman.
In a long article in the Guardian, Bullivant explains just what defines their work. It is a commitment to 'a public realm of social value' and this spins off into climate, weather and seasons, multiculturalism, the knitting together of infrastructures, nature and landscape – long term strategies that, as Bullivant points out, are the opposite of development quick turn-arounds. In this article are statements from each architect: none talk about gender, rather they simply talk about their aims for architecture and urban design. Landscape Urbanism hovers in the background. Irena Bauman mentions the 'professional vanity and commercial growth as the primary drivers of [the architectural] business model' and explains how the work of Bauman Lyons presents an alternative, including only accepting work within two hours road travel from their studio, not going for awards, working a 4-day week, and collaborating on and co-producing work. Collaborating.
Women collaborate, and Bullivant indicates that as there are now more women in the profession they have a larger influence on it. It has long been difficult to collaborate with a profession that valorises the Ayn Rand hero, and if this seems a cheap use of a cliché let's just say it is based on experience of a certain generation, thankfully now at career's end. Liza Fior's sentence, 'We endeavour in all our projects to make spaces where more than one (fragile) thing can coexist at a time' indicates just how far the professional discourse with which these five architects are engaged has moved.
Lucy Bullivant's essay – all that is available to me, in stead of the exhibition – is encouraging, rewarding and very inspiring. I am heartened.
Dorchester Projects, a cluster of houses and storefronts on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, includes this house, before and after. Gates' explanation is that he 'purchased the neighbouring two-story vacant house [next to the storefront he was living in] and initiated a design project to restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift'. There is a gallery of photos on his website which show how the interior has been largely stripped to structure and resurfaced with floor to ceiling bookshelves, slide trays, recycled board sheathing. Despite the street-front propriety of the house in 2009, it was abandoned and must have been unuseable inside for such a massive re-configuration of surface to have occurred.
Unuseability is not just cosmetic: the hierarchy of spaces in a prairie four-square house is also without utility. Of course anything can occupy and make do with any kind of space if it has to, but the project here is not just to move into an old house because it is all you can afford, but to make that old house spatially part of the community. The slide room is itself, not a previous bedroom: the present bears no relationship to the past. This is the difference between repurposing and renovation. Gates bought a structure and stripped away everything that did not apply to his project of community building, replacing it with salvaged materials that come with no evidential history.
Nor are the collections of music and books cast-offs, discards: the front of the store is a listening room for the 8,000 LPs from a former local record store, Dr Wax Records that went under in the economic downturn in 2010. The back of the store is a reading room for the Johnson Library: the Johnson Publishing Company's in-house editor's library and the Ebony and Jet magazine archive. Johnston Publishing is the largest African-American-owned publishing house, and was founded in Chicago in 1942. The Dorchester Projects grounds these African-American histories in buildings whose purpose is to keep them alive, rather than locking them into some sort of museological archive. This is yet another part of Gates' project – to keep history close.
The sink, below, properly plumbed in but without a cheap vanity from Home Depot holding it up: this is like cooking with completely unprocessed foods. Given the pre-processed and over-manufactured rubbish that appears in building dumpsters, no doubt a cheap or even a good vanity could have been found, but the 'vanity' comes with so many bourgeois associations of, again, propriety where the facts of plumbing have to be hidden, that it becomes a negative force in the house. An assemblage of beams, frames and trims to get the sink to a useable height has no references: the material was free, it fulfills a need. This isn't art, although it is arty enough, this is identity politics.
Paul Makovsky and Michael Gotkin's 'Postmodern Watchlist', Metropolis Magazine, November 2014, discusses the historic preservation of postmodern buildings from the 1970s and early '80s and how the commission that designates landmark buildings hasn't a methodology for the kind of modifications and additions that both characterise postmodern buildings and are their fate.
The critique that divided 'building as object' from 'buildings as fabric' developed in the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York was about this very quality of combative individualism) where more and more buildings were suddenly realised to be part of a significant context. The buildings in the list waver between a genuine appreciation of historic methods and materials, and the semblance of such which was the thing that eventually made a mockery of architecture and architectural postmodernism: the keystone that was merely a keystone-shaped incision on the brick, or marble, or stucco rain screen.
The 60-year rule (that a style reaches its nadir at 60 and after that starts to gain historic currency), means that mid-70s architectural postmodernism, when the idea was at its newest and most exciting, won't be the subject of positive theoretical investigation until the 2030s. I distinguish between architectural postmodernism and postmodernism in other disciplines as architects were distinctly vulnerable to image and style: slapping a pediment on a curtain wall tower was technically simple but theoretically complex. But that kind of complex discussion was for the critics, who actually existed then, unlike now.
David Balzer's book, Curationism, points out how criticism has been supplanted by curatorial practice: the choosing of arrays of material, ideas, lists, that in their array begin, hopefully, to frame some sort of discussion. This perhaps has to do with unstable critical positions, no longer is there the magisterial Pevsner, or a Peter Collins, or a Colin Rowe, historians that put architecture into linear continua. Balzer and the reviewers of his book all cite the deep and lapidary access to unprocessable amounts of information today – we look to curators to process and chart paths for us through this democracy of material. And it is precisely this democracy that obviates a 'central' critical position. We are free to choose curators who aggregate images for us.
In the tricky postmodern era of the late 1970s and early 1980s there was no web, in fact there was no personal access to computers. Information came in books and magazines, journals and architects travelling the lecture circuit, showing their work, talking about their ideas. They still do that, but I'm not sure why given that we can find it all somewhere on the web if we really look. Metropolis started in 1981, a wildly exciting monthly tabloid-sized architectural newspaper from New York, not much distributed outside major US cities, but if you went to New York and found a copy, holy cow, it was such a shot of adrenalin. It was news from the centre of the earth. I'm just not sure that kind of thing exists any more – that sense that there is a centre, or even a pulse. Nonetheless, this was the climate that the postmodern Manhattan buildings, listed in the November 2014 Metropolis, grew up in. These were buildings that 'curated' the city.
Agrest and Gandelsonas's East 64th Street townhouse, above, was, quoting Diana Agrest, 'a hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church.' This is classic architectural postmodernism in the best sense: the obligation of any building to its context, the city and the history of architecture as a conversational act. Architecture as a mediator.
Where did that go? I'm not sure, for although we now live in a socially and culturally mediated world where it is difficult to discern an original thought in the long curated lists of likes, most architecture remains out of sync with this role as a mediator. It is still, more often than not, a declarative act, viz. the newly opened Museum of Human Rights which conducts a rather shouty debate with angry excluded communities.
Or, perhaps it is the curators who assume we still want shouty debates, breaking news, cutting edges, heightened reactions, and, as always, the quiet side of the culture of architecture, such as the Agrest and Gandelsonas townhouse, is still seen as a minority interest.
A rather beautiful, tiny little video for Andrew King's current lecture about his work.
And a full lecture here: Gerald Sheff Lecture Winter 2012 at McGill.
Albert Frey, Swiss, studied at ETH Winterthur, a critical point as technical schools taught construction and technology. He graduated in 1924. What a time to be a young architect: he worked with LeCorbusier and Jeanneret in Paris from 1924-28 alongside Sert and Perriand, then moved to the States. He joined Lawrence Kocher in New York and worked with him until 1935. Kocher was also the managing editor of Architectural Record, a journal that promoted American modernism.
Frey worked on the Museum of Modern Art in 1937-9 and after this moved permanently to Palm Springs, falling, like so many European architects, for the freedom and space of the American south west.
Two Frey and Kocher houses: the Aluminaire, a demountable house faced with aluminum panels, which was moved several times in its life, and a canvas cabin, both done in the early 1930s. They did permanent houses, including one for Raymond Loewy, but these two are in the nature of workshop experiments.
The canvas house, built for Kocher, consists of painted sail canvas stretched over a redwood frame, insulated with aluminum foil. These details come from Joseph Rosa's book on Frey, but compared to the Aluminaire there appears to be little information on the canvas house. The images here are from a single website.
However, in Popular Science, February 1933 the canvas house appears. For 15¢ (20¢ in Canada) what an exuberant little publication this was: packed with ideas, inventions, the wonder of developing technologies and sheer curiosities — it shows a most positive and active engagement with newness that I just cannot see anywhere today. Here is a pdf of the Feb 1933 edition.
On p 42, just above identifying dogs by their nose prints, is 'Architect Designs Cotton Houses'. The write up: 'Houses of cotton are proposed by Lawrence Kocher, noted architect, to solve the low-cost housing problem. Models of two types, a $1,500 five-room home and a week-end house, have been designed. A weatherproof exterior is provided by a roof and walls of fireproofed cotton ducking stretched over a wooden structural frame. Inner walls are also of cotton. Insulating material may be added to exclude heat and cold. Since the canvas is flexible, it is adaptable to any shaped surface. '
This is the Villa Savoye for Depression-era America: inexpensive, democratic, inventive, flexible.
So, FIFA. It has a headquarters, in Zürich, in a very Swiss building by Tilla Theus. There are so many architects in the world doing really lovely work that we rarely hear about – Tilla Theus's presence on the web doesn't extend to english-language sites at all. However, she studied at ETHZürich and has a small practice of sixteen people, Tilla Theus und Partner AG. The FIFA headquarters in Zürich-Hottingen was built between 2003 and 2006.
The building wraps a garden where (superstitiously I would think given that just this morning there was a report of the Brazilian team sprinkling beach sand on the pitch for its meeting with Croatia) earth from all the FIFA member countries has been placed. The glass skin on the outside is ambiguous: slightly torqued, it appears to shimmer in its landscape. The transparency is an architectural conceit, given how un-transparent and allegedly corrupt and open to bribery some FIFA members are. Photographs show an elegant, serious, marbled hall of mirrors. Unfair to project FIFA's operating politics on a piece of architecture, that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Forget FIFA, the building is beautiful. The materials are emotional, rather than the structure, or the programme: tilted translucent alabaster walls, polished stone, layers of structural glass so that the building envelope is both transparent and thick.
It is cool, a cool, calm setting for what must be often quite hot negotiations about politics, money, face, national identity, whistleblowing, power – is architecture capable of calming tempers, holding a moral high ground? Or does it legitimise impunity. This is a question that has been applied to Le Corbusier and Neimeyer's UN Headquarters in New York since it was built in 1952. For Tilla Theus the project was to do an excellent piece of architecture in the city in which she lives and practices. Very Swiss. It can't all be smooth sailing though, as I struggled through German texts and interviews I came across this little comment: 'I am a woman, I always take criticism personally.' Well, yes.
As we have a call for articles out for On Site review 32: weak systems. I've been thinking of such things: Buckminster Fuller's postwar experiments with geodesics and space frames: how light can structure be – how much material can be removed so that what is left is the stress diagram alone? Jeffrey Lindsay was one of his young engineers – from Montreal, ex-RCAF WWII pilot. It all coalesced evidently in 1948 at Black Mountain College where a combination of sculptors, Josef Albers, John Cage, Fuller, Merce Cunningham and ex-pilot engineering students who had learned about geodetics as navigational theory (straight lines that describe a sphere) experimented with building domes out of lath.
Lindsay moved to southern California, but continued to work with both Fuller and other architects: he was the engineer for the vast space frame at Simon Fraser University, 1966. If you look him up on wikipedia there is a huge image of Fuller's geodesic dome for the US pavilion at Expo 67. These are dramatic structures: transparent, minimal material with huge impact: architecture no longer a solid against the world, but a structural system that mediates between internal space and the outside – it turns the outside into a romantic vision of otherness, seen through a scrim.
And from a different angle altogether, another example of structural minimalism is Powell & Moya's 1951 Skylon, the overriding symbol of a magical technological future for Britain. It really was a lovely thing, a javelin balanced on three slack cables strung from three steel posts canted away from the centre to balance the weight of the skylon. It is stabilised by near-invisible guy wires. How exhilarating it must have been to see, unlike anything that had ever come before. This was not to be inhabited but to be looked at: straight symbolism, which was also its downfall as it was dismantled and cut up for scrap when the government changed from Labour who used the Festival of Britain as an event to mark the change in Britain's fortunes –away from rationing and bomb sites to a gleaming future; not surprising that it fell given the postwar economic state – to the Conservatives under Churchill, cold warriors who felt Britain should recover its imperial trappings from half a century and two world wars earlier.
I don't think American structural minimalism ever had this political charge – postwar United States was in its technological ascendency, a consequence of the space race, another cold war contest. The American reaction was to rush toward this conflict, rather than bluster about a glorious past.
okay, here is the ultimate expression of architecture's current stars: a Wall Street Journal article from January 2014 on what they call Koolhaas's protegés, cleverly named as out of the Rem Schoolhaas. ho ho. I had a friend who went off to work in Koolhaas's studio in 1984 or so, and found it really grim, utilitarian, hyper-efficient: they got work done. This is the antithesis of the WSJ article, that carefully sets up young people who have worked with him, left him, and now dress in Prada and Lanvin. Is Koolhaas responsible for this? I don't think so.
Koolhaas writes, he is clever, he has a photogenic topographic Dutch face, he had many years in the conceptual wilderness of the 1970s before he even got on the lecture circuit. OMA started with Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, passionate Europeans to the core; they started small, interesting and significant. His protegés are more savvy however, they trade on his name. How, on earth, would they ever have agreed to this photo shoot if they hadn't known that today, publicity trumps all.
Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio, Hangzhou, Zhejiang. When most of China seems to be the playground of capitalist architectural excess: an excess of ambition and money, the new China seemingly free of inhibiting content, we have Wang Shu, whose statement of intent on his website reads:
I design a house instead of a building. The house is the amateur architecture approach to the infinitely spontaneous order.
Built spontaneously, illegally and temporarily, amateur architecture is equal to professional architecture. But amateur architecture is just not significant.
One problem of professional architecture is, that it thinks too much of a building. A house, which is close to our simple and trivial life, is more fundamental than architecture. Before becoming an architect, I was only a literati. Architecture is part time work to me. For one place, humanity is more important than architecture while simple handicraft is more important than technology.
The attitude of amateur architecture, - though first of all being an attitude towards a critical experimental building process -, can have more entire and fundamental meaning than professional architecture. For me, any building activity without comprehensive thoughtfulness will be insignificant.
Ningbo History Museum is built from tiles, brick, concrete and stone, salvaged from other buildings, sites of collapse, rubble: each piece comes with a fragment of history and unrepeatable form, giving an elasticity to its use: fit is unpredictable but follows very old techniques. There is a patience both to assembly and to the concept as a whole: the building evolves from its materials.
When one thinks that the Great Leap Forward only happened in 1958, the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and the economic reforms in 1978, it is possible that Wang Shu is reclaiming China's deep past — not historicism, but a sophisticated historical thinking.
A provocative portrait of the architect and her building. Zaha Hadid's addition to the Serpentine Gallery has opened; big fanfare, diehard modernism that neatly jumps over all those tedious conversations about architectural context and replication of: the original 1805 gunpowder magazine remains intact with its proportions correct, the new and necessary addition for a new gallery, restaurant and lobby lands like a hankie beside it.
1805: Napoleon had designs on an invasion of Britain, the magazine was part of the defensive strategy, built in the gardens of Kensington Palace. Just because it was a warehouse for armaments, no reason not to make it look lovely. War with Napoleon appears to have been the backdrop to continuation of elegant Georgian reason: Jane Austen's novels are full of it; some of the most beautiful buildings in London are military. Today, our military occupy dismal metal or concrete buildings set far away: aesthetics are, perhaps rightly, completely absent from military life, and the military is completely absent from public view.
All that aside, one feels it keenly, the absence of an aesthetic public realm here: no annual pavilion by famous architect set in beautiful palace gardens, no gallery additions by famous architect, no galleries actually. Here in wealthy oil land life is very utilitarian.
When the Gruen's left Germany, just before the outbreak of war, they went to New York and did a number of shops (Lederer's, Ciro's) plus eleven branches of Grayson's, a clothing store. Both of these images contain all sorts of first iterations of something so commonplace that we don't even see them anymore: strange leaps of scale, an ambiguous play of sun, shadow, neon and armature in the signage itself, so that it is never quite the same at any one time, the facade as billboard, the ambiguity about where the sidewalk ends and the store starts – the blurring of boundaries between in and out, private and public: it is all chimerical, but still involved in the serious business of commerce.
How does one make shopping accidental, inadvertent yet habitual, where one drifts into an impulsive purchase rather than marching, money clutched in fist, to buy something very specific? The blur between cash and credit is anticipated in these storefronts. Consumption has indeed become inadvertent, the point of purchase is never quite clear.
Much dismay that the Vancouver Art Gallery is going to move out of its present location, the classical Rattenbury court house on Georgia Street, and into a new building on the site of the old bus depot on Cambie. The streets don't mean much to those who don't know Vancouver well, but the bus depot site is at the end of Georgia that is accumulating large cultural edifices: the CBC building, Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and now the art gallery.
The QE Theatre — an opera and ballet hall – is in its original 1959 Affleck building, the library moved from its 1957 Burrard Street location and building into the 1995 Safdie coliseum-referenced library on Georgia: Library Square with huge public spaces in and out, often used by the CBC as performance space. The CBC is in a 1975 Merrick building on Georgia, expanded in 2009 (Dialog and Bakker) to include a 4000 square-foot performance studio and a glassy public face on the street. The 1958 McCarter Nairne Post Office building, also on Georgia, its future very much in danger, has been discussed as a possible home for the Vancouver Art Gallery: right location, large industrial spaces, although its massive structure would make changes almost prohibitively expensive, plus it was sold in March for $159 million to a developer.
The Vancouver Art Gallery's first building was built in 1931 on a 66'-wide lot (the original CPR survey grid based on chains for residential plots) a couple of blocks away on Georgia from the Hotel Vancouver. It looked like a bank vault, which says something about the way art was perceived, as a precious commodity meant to be safeguarded.
The building was given an International Style renovation and expansion in 1950 by Ross Lort: a part plate glass front wall, part slab, all offset planes and classic white gallery space behind. It had become a small, exceptionally accommodating gallery that under the direction of Doris Shadbolt and Tony Emery, was at the centre of the explosion of art and performance, from N.E. Thing Co to Gathie Falk, in Vancouver in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Then, in 1983, the Vancouver Art Gallery moved to the Erickson-renovated 1911 court house building, made redundant by the 1980 Erickson-designed Law Courts complex and Robson Square which filled the two blocks to the west behind the court house. It seemed appropriate in the ghastly post-modern 1980s when protests on the Court House steps were over, and museums, opera companies and symphonies turned to block-buster shows for survival, that the VAG be housed in the pomposity of a building shouting out its authority.
Art goes on no matter what the official gallery is, artists challenge and change; where they do it and where you see it is worthy of attention. In the 1980s artists were like the punk scene occupying marginal and arcane spaces, they certainly weren't in the main spaces of the new Vancouver Art Gallery in the way that they had fluidly slipped in and out of the old modernist unpretentious gallery down the street. The more we pull access to art out of the everyday, the more inexplicable it becomes to the everyday. Much like the original 1931 vault-like gallery, the court house gallery demanded, simply by the architecture itself, reverence for the exceptionalism of art.
I'm not unhappy to see the Vancouver Art Gallery leave the court house building, but one does worry about the current civic support, all over the country, for Bilbao-effect galleries and museums. By their very spectacularity they become objects rather than fabric, appropriate one would think perhaps for programs such as justice, or health, or governance. Historically, art is deemed to be one of these important conditions requiring separation in a significant architecture.
Might we have something more wabi-sabi: a necessary anchor for history, retrospectives, biennials and curation, plus the infiltration of the rest of the city, starting from that block, with a rootless, opportunistic, transient architecture that reflects the kind of programming most major galleries are engaged with today. There must be some place for a gallery architecture to constantly renew and reconstruct itself if it is to be an embedded part of the processes of cultural renewal and reconstruction, and not just the place where, after the fact, such changes are displayed.
Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, which is perhaps what spurred the posting of this 1970 BBC documentary of Peter and Alison Smithson talking about the design of Robin Hood Gardens, the conditions they found in Britain after the war, the lack of intelligent housing. It is filmed in classic Grierson style by B S Johnson with long slow pans of the project in construction interspersed with Alison and Peter talking about it: Alison with a strangely constructed accent — Alison from Doncaster in north-east England, who studied architecture in an era when no women studied architecture without a lot of trouble and yet, with the earnest Peter in a sparkly silver tie, can speak so passionately about the hopes and expectations of architecture while wearing a silver leather jacket. I don't think we have any idea what her back story was.
The documentary style with the slow pans: compared to today when no image is allowed to be seen for more than a second, preferably shorter, this was typical of the still, contemplative, postwar mise-en-scène of longueurs, of silences, of the populating of landscapes with people just outside the frame. It is a style revisited by Patrick Keiller in London, 1994 – the same slow suppressed anger. The Smithsons On Housing is strangely elegiac considering it was made before Robin Hood Gardens was even finished.
Why did Robin Hood Gardens become redundant? Society changed, moved on. The housing Robin Hood Gardens replaced was a Victorian fabric of terraces: no front or back yards, back-to-back brick rows and shared privies, incapable of expansion or change, interspersed with temporary wartime housing and outmoded dockland infrastructure. Robin Hood Gardens replaced fabric with an exceptional model: expandable, collective, much open space for children, all on the CIAM derivée: one lives up in the light and air and frees the ground plane for play. This isn't fabric, although the people destined to live in it were the fabric of the working class. By the late 1960s when the project was designed, that class was in violent transition; when Mrs Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and arranged for the privatisation of council housing, projects such as Robin Hood Gardens – which relied on social solidarity, a shared understanding of values and one's place in life – became not only redundant, but an active hindrance to individualistic striving.
Somehow Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson's earnest, thoughtful, intelligent analysis of what was needed in housing completely misinterpreted the times. Typically it is architects who wanted the buildings listed and protected rather than condemned: a handsome place to live with all its trailing social idealism and visions of a collective understanding of deep history and place, of London's industrial past, of – above all – solidarity, a now deeply outmoded concept.
The 5 acre site that had carried Robin Hood Gardens's 252 units in what had been the Poplar district, will be part of a larger 7.7ha (19 acre) Blackwall Reach development of 1575 units, double the density. The demographic has changed, the regeneration of East London is in full flow: how many new reports did we see in the run-up to the Olympics from that extremely glitzy, high-end shopping mall with reporters saying 'this isn't the old east end' ? – dozens. However the new schemes still show tower blocks, slab bars of housing, green parks between; the buildings will still be concrete, but now they look white, rather than concrete-coloured. There is a homeowners association, thus there is a financial commitment by future occupants to Blackwall Reach: it will be a 30-year mortgage rather than a weekly rent. Is this the significant difference? Participation in a financial structure which has shown in the past few years to be so unsteady and insecure?
Robin Hood Gardens could have been renovated, restored, divided into separate titles even, but its form is so embedded with a belief in the essential good of government and people, betrayed as soon as the building opened in 1972, that it has become a tragic glyph in a rather tougher economic text.
Walter Dorwin Teague, the designer of the Kodak brand from logo to cameras to stores, was commissioned in 1937 by Texaco to design a corporate identity that included a standard gas station. Texaco sold gas in each state of the USA, unique evidently, as well as throughout Canada. Teague had gone to Europe in the late 1920s, seen Corbusian modernism and brought it home. The Texaco Service Station was a clean, white vitreous enamel-panelled box with a canopy. Three green bands tie the canopy to the box, red stars are affixed above this dado, the T of Texaco sits in the red star of Texas. The stations are like three-dimensional line drawings, delicate, much like the vitreous enamel panels – the material of pots and pans, strangely durable and at the same time fragile if in the wrong place.
Because of the clarity of these stations, they sit in their landscapes much as Arne Jacobsen's station did: a precise bit of industrial sculpture. 20,000 were built between 1940 and 1960. They linger, these white stations, although the company is gone from public view, as have gas stations: they are now, generally, self-serve pumps attached to convenience stores, part of an invisible, banal service landscape. The Teague Texaco station in this neighbourhood, closed as a gas station in the late 70s, sold computer parts for a long time and now is used, by someone, for storage. The wide plate glass windows are full of cardboard boxes.
This image isn't the one in my neighbourhood, it is somewhere in New York I think, but no matter, they were all the same.