back issues

28:sound links

 Issues earlier than this please go to our ISSUU site

Entries in architecture (75)


Greg Barton: Sir John Soane's Venetian Cabinet


delicate landscapes

Georg Gerster. Orchard in Jordan, 2004

Clifford Wiens, grand old man of Saskatchewan modernist architecture, did a campsite on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Maple Creek, that looked like this orchard.  I stayed in it in the mid-80s and all the trees were thin and weedy, indigenous species such as poplar and aspen, saskatoons and willows.  The layout was like a miniature version of the Dominion Grid, each camp site a section.  It was enchanting, so deeply rooted in a historic organisation of land, so proud of prairie trees that flutter in the relentless wind, so very orderly and in its way, unsentimental about what is needed when one pulls off the highway after a long day of driving. Strangely I seem to have forgotten completely the heroic concrete entry pavilion that usually represents this project:

Trans-Canada Highway Campground Maple Creek, 1964. Photo courtesy OFOF Clifford Wiens and John Fulker.

In 2001, driving back from Halifax, I tried to find it, actually to camp in.  This after a whole day of driving across Saskatchewan and finding the network of small towns that had existed just fifteen years before completely gone, and this campsite abandoned.  The trees were tall and untended, some had fallen, one ripped off my radio aerial as I drove in thinking I might stop there anyway.  But it felt haunted, a tragic failure of provincial pride.  A most uneasy site.   It had been a small thing, approached with a brave sort of rigour.


Pedro Gadanho: Casa em Torres Vedras

Fernando Guerra, FG+SG, photographer. House in Torres Vedras, Portugal, by Pedro Gadanho

Another package of beautiful photographs from Fernando Guerra in Portugal: Casa em Torres Vedras by Pedro Gadanho.  This is a nineteenth century house with a massive renovation that owes a lot to utopian visions of the 1970s: plastic, colour, capsules, re-inhabitation where modernism bumps up against plaster mouldings, pre-fabrication, James Bond and Star Trek done by Zefferelli.  There is a kind of sentimentality here, not for a pre-modern costume drama past, but for a pre-cynical view of the future.   

Clearly Lisbon of the 2010s is the Barcelona of the 1980s.  Its architects seem particularly free to break from any kind of deference to any kind of thing.  Although Guerra's photographs strip out all signs of inhabitation showing just the abstract space and surfaces – this in itself a high modern tradition – this folio led me to Gadanho's blog, shrapnel contemporary: completely exuberant, messy, articulate, provoking, graphic, self-serving, terrifically interesting.

Gadanho's discussion of the Casa de Carreço (below) is a brilliant little text about making architecture: a miniature manifesto, and all the more powerful for its throw away form.

Fernando Guerra, FS+SG Photography. Casa de Carreço, Portugal.


the open hand of chandigarh

This comes by way of Reza Aliabadi, of atelier rzlbd.



Snøhetta. Turner Contemporary, Margate UK. competition entry, 2001

In 2009 Snøhetta paid £6 million to Kent County Council over the failure to keep the Turner Contemporary costs under control.  The project, won by competition in 2001 had been estimated at £7.4 million but had gone up to £25 million by 2006 when the project was cancelled. 
It was a lovely project: a great wooden shell on the water: like all Snøhetta work, visionary, conceptual and sculptural.  We published it in On Site 4, 2001 and at the time I thought that if Margate, a disconsolate seaside town with a sad pier notwithstanding J W Turner painting there in the 19th century and thus the Turner gallery project, if Margate could choose such a brave path why couldn't the rest of us.  Architecture can be anything, why not make it romantic and beautiful.

Unfortunately for my architecture of possibility, this project came to grief.  But what is worse is that the Council did not go back to the other 5 short-listed projects from the original competition, but instead launched a second competition and chose David Chipperfield.  His £17.5 million project recently opened and is something of a shock, not for its beauty but for its extreme dullness.  It is like very cheap Meier: utilitarian, conventional white galleries – a warehouse no doubt technically proficient, but as a serious building for contemporary art, a real default position. 

The architecture of the new Turner Contemporary proposes that art is a curious phenomenon that the building must avoid while going through the palaver of keeping it temperature-controlled.  Snøhetta's original project proposed that Margate had a maritime history, that contemporary art was interdisciplinary and collaborative and would collaborate with the architecture, and that space has a presence rather than an absence. 

It is terrible that the choice is between an architecture that is emotional and brave and one that is technocratic and bleak.  This isn't modernism, it is utility and budget control masquerading as modernism.  

David Chipperfield Architects. Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. 2011


Chaubin 2

Crematorium, 1985. Kiev, Ukraine. photograph: Johansen Krause.There is more Guardian discussion of Chaubin's book, by Jonathan Glancy who is quite taken by the exuberance of the projects Chaubin discusses. 

The crux of it is the liberation from centralisation in Moscow which had previously laid down dictats about style.  The architects of such experimental buildings did not become stars, they seem to have been genuinely experimental.   But it is never architects alone, the client state has to lead the way by commissioning, enabling, paying for and promoting any kind of architecture for whatever reason. 

That architecture is still taught as an idealistic discipline and then practiced as a pragmatic business is a slight problem here.  Stars produce buildings as brands more often than as detailed investigations into accommodation.  The epitome of this is Gehry's hubristic cloud in the Bois du Bolougne for Bernard Arnaud of LVMH, the ultimate brand-manufacturer, which has been stopped by what is in effect a community association for the care and welfare of the Bois, much, if the press is to be believed, to Gehry's fury.

What I find interesting about the Soviet buildings from Chaubin's book is that they are unknown to us, they are devoid of the language of late-capitalist modernism, and they seem fragile and optimistic.  There is something quite cynical about the everyday architecture that I see, for example, filling up Calgary.  It is repressive in a whole other way.   


Frédéric Chaubin's USSR

The architecture faculty at Minsk polytechnic, with a succession of overhanging lecture theatres. Minsk, Belarus, 1983. Photographer: Frédéric ChaubinAbove: the architecture building at Minsk Polytechnic.  I would not be surprised had this been a photo taken on any Canadian campus.

Frédéric Chaubin documents 90 soviet-era buildings in a new book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP- get it?).  Some of the images are on the Guardian website, with the introduction:
'They reveal an unexpected rebirth of imagination, a burgeoning that took place from 1970 until 1990 and in which, contrary to the 20s and 30s, no school or main trend emerges.  These building represent a chaotic impulse brought about by a decaying system.  Their diversity announces the end of the Soviet Union.'

I find this commentary both spurious and confused.  1970 was a long way from 1989, must we continue to believe that Stalinism reigned implacable and as solid as concrete until the wall fell, and any sign of architectural exploration was necessarily aberrant and subversive?  The relationship of architecture to political systems is rarely thought of outside the use of buildings as deliberately partisan symbols which, as most architects in practice know, is the least of a building's form.

In that architecture is a cultural product and as such comprises an archive of cultural systems, yes, one can point to the transparency of the International Style of the 1950s and 1960s as part of the USA's optimistic demonstration of its 'openness' in comparison to Soviet 'closedness', but the architects of such projects were not building political manifestos, they were absorbed in the exploration of curtain wall technology. 
And since when is diversity seen as chaotic?  The language used when speaking of the Soviet Union is still so slanted it makes one wonder if the Cold War is actually over.  


e|348 e|spaço

e|348 arquitectura office and site, Póvoa de VarzimA lovely panel of images from e|348's website showing where they are. 

Póvoa de Varzim is a small town of 66,000 outside Porto in northern Portugal.  Seems a hotbed of interesting architects.


Didier Faustino: don't trust architects

Didier Faustino. Flatland. Fundaçào Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. In Flatland, a spectator becomes an actor by projecting himself into the backside of a movie screen using a swing. The other spectators seated in the theater can see the surface of the screen frontside distorted by the swing of the body, as an empirical three-dimensional effect. Flatland questions what is reality and what is fiction, offering the possibility to a spectator to become the main character of his imaginary.Didier Faustino, such an architect despite the title of his exhibition: lots of brilliant talk while other little bods run around making the piece.  Click on the image above to take you to a short video of the setting up of this project. 

From the press release: '"Don't Trust Architects" by Didier Faustino at the Calouste Gulbekian Foundation.  Didier Faustino is presenting a series of new pieces at the Calouste Gulbekian Foundation (Lisbon) from 14th January to 3rd April 2011. Five new installations produced for the exhibition will immerse visitors in the permanent confrontation of the body with architecture and architecture with movement, via visual and sound tools implemented by Faustino.'


e|348 arquitectura: capela de Santa Maria da Feira

e|348 arquitectura. Chapel, Santa Maria da Feira. photographer, Fernando GuerroThis is a lovely little chapel, built in a triangular plaza where three roads meet in Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal.  Here is a case where there is a dramatic photograph, and as it is unlikely we will ever see this chapel, could be simply dramatic photography, but no, it is actually a shapely little building by e|348

This project comes, as usual with all the Portuguese projects I show here, from FG+SG, Fernando Guerro architectural photographer, who regularly sends photographic portfolios of new Portuguese architecture.  While there is coverage of Alvaro Siza and Gonçalo Byrne, there are also very small projects from young firms. 

And, thinking of issues of national identity, there is a real love of bleached wood floors and white plastered walls, and a minimalism that for a while I thought came from the photographer, but must come from a common sensibility where buildings – chapels, cottages, schools – are minimal containers for a rich life built by the inhabitants. 

Ferando Guerro documents the material fabric of each project.  e|348 photographed the chapel in use. We need both.

e|348 arquitectura. Chapel. Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal, 2010. photograph, e|348e]348 arquitectura. Chapel. Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal, 2010. photograph, Fernando Guerro


MVRDV: the balancing barn

MVRDV. The Balancing Barn, Suffolk, 2010. photographer: Edmund Sumner/PRAlain de Botton is the creative director  of Living Architecture, and identifies the architects they commission to build interesting houses around Britain.  de Botton wrote a book a few years ago called The Architecture of Happiness, the secret art of furnishing your life.  On his website description of the book he takes the usual swipe at architects: 'Whereas many architects are wary of openly discussing the word beauty, the book has at its centre the large and [faux] naïve question: 'What is a beautiful building?'  and then proceeds to 'change the way we think about our homes, streets and ourselves'.
Thank you for that.

MVRDV, Rotterdam is Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries, who had worked either with OMA or Mecanoo before forming MVRDV, a firm quite known for its starry and international architecture.

Living Architecture started by de Botton, commissions interesting world-class [his words] architects to build houses around the United Kingdom which are then rented out as holiday lets by Living Architecture, a 'not-for-profit organisation set up to revolutionise both architecture and UK holiday rentals'. 

Well, this is the background to the photograph of The Balancing Barn by MVRDV.  Edmund Sumner has taken an admittedly dramatic chrome-plated building and made it even more dramatic and soaring by the lens he has used.  Was it not charged enough as it is?  Why do philosophers and photographers insist that architecture needs jazzing up.  I don't think they get it, but they do get an audience.


Populous. The Stadium, London 2012 Olympics. photo: Alex Sturrock

Stadium as a 21st century pantheon: it all seems so light, so far.  Delicate structures, cabled, stretched fabric, pale and luminous, strangely intimate give these buildings' sizes. 

The crumpled distressed logo is at odds with the grace of some of the architecture.  



Populous. The Stadium, London 2010 Olympics. seating in place November 2010. photo: Alix SturrockThe stadium has been designed by Populous, formerly HOK Sport, and Peter Cook, with Buro Happold as engineers and built by Robert McAlpine.  It is meant to be completely wrapped in a graphic skin which seems to have encountered a number of problems.  The most recent solution is a wrapping of digitally active fabric. 

This is a brilliant team: Populous, aka HOK Sport keeps it on time and on budget probably, Buro Happold makes it possible, Peter Cook thinks of things such as vast broadcasting screens, and Robert McAlpine builds it.  Evidently the seats have already been installed, almost two years in advance of the event. 


Hopkins and Partners in construction

Hopkins and Partners. Velodrome, London 2012 Olympics. photo: Alex Sturrock

The velodrome, by Hopkins and Partners, is a hyperbolic paraboloid, the same roof shape as the Saddledome.  This one is flatter and the supporting walls are wood panels that fit between the cables.  The wood is meant to echo the wood cycle track, but it gives it a lightness that floats slightly above the ground.  It is this lightness that perhaps concentrates the activitiy within: a suspension of time and belief at the performances that happen at Olympics. 


Zaha Hadid in construction

Zaha Hadid. Aquatic Centre, London 1012 Olympics, 2010. photographer David Goddard/Getty

just some lovely pictures this week of the new buildings for the London Olympics 2012.

Zaha Hadid's aquatic centre construction site.
It looks like a skate rippling along, fluttering into that messy, complex and beautiful seabed that is a construction site.


Zaha Hadid's Evelyn Grace Academy

Zaha Hadid. Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton. 2010 photograph: Luke Hayes/PRLost in society.  When I lived one tube stop away from Brixton it had race riots and people lived in crumbling Victorian terraces if not in tower blocks – Dickens in the late twentieth century.  Some things haven't changed much although Brixton has its gentrified pockets; Rowan Moore says it has the highest crime rate in Europe.  This is the site of Zaha Hadid's Evelyn Grace Academy, a leaning z-shaped building with the running track shooting through it. 

Rowan Moore's review is worth reading for how this project actually happened, who commissioned it, the educational and school-building context under Labour and why children who suffer much privation should have a serious piece of architecture in which to be schooled.  He points out the architecture of Edward Robson whose schools were built across London under the Elementary Education Act of 1870 – buildings of grace and light, still in use today, although not always as schools.

The Evelyn Grace Academy is what we would call a charter school I suppose: strict discipline, uniforms, traditional teaching.  The sense of it being a social service community centre is not in its brief.  The architecture is, as Moore states, adult, rather than child-centred and cute.  It supports the academy's expectation that students be adult and responsible. 

Not sure what the students would think about it but  I can compare it to the dreary box I went to school in, the imaginatively named NDSS, whose architecture supports (still) the expectation that students be careless with buildings and indifferent to architecture, and as I recall, careless with learning, and indifferent to almost everything.


problem-solving genres

Wallander. Yellow Bird, Left Bank Pictures and TKBC for BBC ScotlandJust finished reading Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled.  There is always so much more in the books than in the television versions, good that they are.  It is interesting, the huge number of detective books and dramas on offer right now, from the ongoing popularity of Agatha Christie to the relatively newly discovered Stig Larsson.  What they all share is that the narrative, no matter how complex, is sorted out by the end of the book.  In fact solving a conundrum is the end of the narrative.  In Mankell most of the police wander about in a Swedish fog, pursuing dead ends, being sad, working to overcome personal difficulties, not being able to work because of personal difficulties, generally going nowhere other than collecting a lot of disconnected material and then at the 11th hour the focus sharpens and it all falls together.  In real life things rarely fall together.  Narratives drift, like dreams, into new stories, none of which ever really end.  Perhaps this is why detective fiction is so popular: the genre guarantees that the story will end.  How attractive.  There is retribution, there is payback,  I like it.  It doesn't often happen

Early detectives - Holmes, Poirot, Whimsy - shot straight through all the clues. The story was complex, but logical.  New detectives are plagued by personal demons, nothing is as it seems.  This too is attractive.  Life is very confusing.  They bring order to it.

Thinking about architecture and how by its very nature it solves problems, whether those problems are program, density, image, brand, materiality or energy consumption.  There is an end point, the building is done and its post-occupation narrative is not allowed to wander too far off expectations.  Compared to other arts where difficulty and inconclusiveness have long been the norm, architecture is like a tightly plotted detective novel with no surprises.  Should this be a measure of its success -- that it responds to our desire for the tidy ending in a sloppy uncontrollable world?  Or, should architecture lean towards the fluid accommodation of extremely fluid and migratory life in the world today?



More on Oikos, the theatre made out of scraps, pallettes and determination.


John Pawson

Monastery of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, Czech Republic, 2004. phot by Stefan Dold.From the exhibition 'Plain Space' at The Design Museum from 22 September 2010 until 30 January 2011


Kaltwasser and Kobberling's Jellyfish Theatre

Kaltwasser and Kobberling. Jellyfish Theatre, 2010. South London
Jonathan Glancy wrote yesterday about this project in the Guardian, with a quick survey of informal building practices from found materials, from the precision of Walter Segal and the eccentricity of handmade houses in the 1970s to more current informal architecture in European cities.

A theatre out of pallets and scrap wood, ephemeral, shaggy; a political and social project.  Kaltwasser and Kobberling's projects appear to be quite loved and propose an alternative to, as Glancy says, 'more public places and shopping malls'.

Here, and I can't see why it would be any different in Europe, building is so regulated and so narrowly conceived, that the thought of alternatives to our increasingly tedious urban environment is both fragile and socially provocative.  It speaks to an intolerance of any kind of alternative ideas for everyday life.  Propriety is a powerful social force, from Mrs Grundyism to repressive community associations that pass visually illiterate judgement on all new buildings proposed for their neighbourhoods. 

We seem to be out of love with things that can be valued for their materials, or their cleverness, or their inherent beauty.  Instead we seem to love brands and all that they represent.  City branding is a particularly hot topic. Calgary is abandoning its previous brand, 'Calgary, the heart of the new west' underlined by a crayon cowboy hat, and has hired Gensler Los Angeles to come up with something better, which is going to be, evidently, 'Canada's most dynamic city'.  As long as we think of a city or a building, or a house or a pair of shoes as a brand, it doesn't really matter what it actually is: the thing becomes invisible behind the brand.  

Will there be room in Canada's most dynamic city for a theatre made out of pallets?  Um. I don't think so, but we do have an enormous new Holt Renfrew, dazzling and white, and just like the Vancouver one.