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Entries in architecture (75)


Lateral Office's Prix de Rome

Lateral Office. Emergent North, 2010The Canada Council has announced this year's Prix de Rome: it is Lateral Office, Lola Sheppard and Mason White, who have proposed a research project called Emergent North.  They are off to Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, Alaska and Greenland to find and document northern settlements: 'the public realm, civic space, landscape and infrastructure emerging from a unique geography'.

Good, and grand.  At last a Prix de Rome which is not dependent on going off to Europe or Asia, and while we are at it, might we also not shed the colonial name Prix de Rome and call it Prix d'Ottawa?

There are three components of Lateral's proposal.  In Ice Road Truck Stops, ice road reinforcement mesh acts as a self-maintaining road building process and a support habitat for lake fish. 
Caribou Pivot Stations are installations which provide feeding oases for migrating caribou (which find it hard uncover moss and lichen under an increasing number of ice layers in the snow pack).  These micro-climates are made by a building which manipulates snow and wind to keep a clear feeding field throughout the winter. 
Liquid Commons is a water-borne education system of school boats that operate between eleven Nunavut settlements: the opposite to the aggregate medical and educational facilities in the north that draw people out of their communities to a central hub.

The projects are a combination of ecological, social and infrastructural propositions.  Yes there are physical things drawn out that one could call buildings, but which really are less relevant than the ambitions of each proposal.  This is profoundly political architecture, moving the very definition of architecture from stylish spatial modulations of surface – especially in the north of metal siding in bright colours, to charts of concerns and how they might be addressed.

I think it is the first significant and independent Prix de Rome we have had.


Vivienda prefabricada en Cedeira: MYCC Arquitectos

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Vivienda prefabricada en Cedeira, MYCC Arquitectos, Madrid. 2010

MYCC  consists of three Spanish architects who studied variously in Dresden, Rotterdam, Vienna and Dortmund and then all arrived at ETSAMadrid, graduating in 2005.  Carmina Casajuana specialises in housing and urban design, Beatriz Casares works with Arquitectura Viva and Marcos Gonzalez is a specialist in urban environments. 

The project shown here is a pre-fabricated house in Galiza: Prefab House Cedeira. MYCC's statement about prefabrication and modularity clearly distinguishes between houses that are manufactured and those that are built – 'Something that leads us to believe in the efficient assembly line of an industrial building, covered and controlled, unlike a traditional work setting at the mercy of external factors that determine the construction.

Nothing too controversial here, this has been the argument for pre-fabrication for decades.  However, there isn't a great history of pre-fab housing in Europe: it simply isn't in their architectural tradition as it is in North America.  MYCC appears to be unhindered by the conventions of pre-fabrication with which our manufactured homes seem to struggle. 

Right, so it is about the design, not the process.  Perhaps.  This house has a loft, it has a glass front, it has a rusted steel screen over the glass front with workable shutters in it.  It is really beautiful, minimal, efficient, romantic.  It looks like an art gallery, it really is a cabin in the woods. 

Side walls and roof are the same material: from the photos it looks like an insulated steel panel.  We have these.  They are made in Airdrie and used to make ghastly imitation new urbanism housing for northern reserves.  However, here in the Casa Cedeira, the side walls and roof wrap the two storeys: the gable end walls are glass and steel.  How do we know this isn't Canada?  None of the steps have handrails and so they read as plane changes.  The main view of the ocean is screened, protected, rationed.  The relationship between house and landscape, even given that this house is newly constructed and the site is still scarred, is pretty uncompromising: it sits like a barn — neither the house nor the landscape are mediated or softened.  The hard line between building and site seems to have an urban sensibility to me.  Anything romantic about it is contained within the building itself, in the screen, in the light and shadows inside, not in its relationship with nature. 

I wonder if in Canada with our well discussed and theorised relationship with nature and survival, our cabins and cottages, camps and summer houses aren't too apologetic in their architecture, trying to either be invisible, or so deferential to things such as 'the view' that nature (whether it be the beach, the woods, or the front street) is over-exposed and unremitting.   Cedeira is more like a little fortress, autonomous and very much in control of its position.

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Vivienda prefabricada en Cedeira,night. MYCC Arquitectos, Madrid, 2010


João Mendes Ribeiro

João Mendes Ribeiro. Mala-Mesa, 1998

João Mendes Ribeiro is a Portuguese architect, set designer, performance artist, theorist. The core of Ribeiro's work, according to Vasco Pinto whose essay on Ribeiro one can read in the usual bizarre translation provided by Google, is Uma Mala-Mesa, a table which packs itself in and out of a suitcase.  This transformative action is minimal in form, going from motion to stasis, from parts to construction to object, from solidity to spatiality.  The suitcase-table has been constructed many times for different locations from Morocco to Berlin to Prague with slight variations each time, and presented as installation, performance, film and dance. Inherent in the suitcase-table is its double referencing, which Ribeiro takes into his architecture. 

Ribeiro came to my attention through a Portuguese architectural photographer, Fernando Guerro, FG+SG who regularly sends us portfolios of new projects.  Ribeiro and Cristina Guedes collaborated on the 2009 Casa das Caldeiras, a new art studies building at the University of Coimbra which used an old steam plant and added a new building to house a cafeteria, bookstore, academic spaces for graduate studies. Exhibition space is in the old coal room.

Pinto, writing from within Portuguese culture sees the Casa das Caldeiras as about the primacy of form, and in the 100 or so photographs of this project you can see the theatricality of many of the spatial decisions: staircases are great wood sculptures in white-walled galleries, an outside deck is as narrow and precarious as a gangway over a stage. 

If there are any double references it is in the elision of architecture and performance, the conceptual underpinning to Ribeiro's work.  The sense of architecture here is not narrowly described as programme, or brand, or image, or budget, or context.  If these five conditions circumscribe one's architecture, then that is the architecture that results.  Last week I went to an absolutely numbing lecture by a well-known and respected Canadian architect who spoke only in these terms.  When I wrote the other day about work being used merely as a trigger for topical critical discourse, it has to be understood that there must be something in the work to initially nourish the discourse, something more than a preoccupation with image and brand.

Why does new work from Europe often look so beautiful?  I don't think it is my un-decolonised self asking this question, rather it is a recognition that the terms of reference we work under are not the only ones that contribute to the making of architecture.

FG+SG. Casa das Caldeiras, Coimbra, Portugal. 2010


material and conceptual sustainability

EMBT. Spanish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010When the Shanghai Expo opened a few days ago, one of the tv news clips was shot in front of the Spanish pavilion designed by Benedetta Tagliabue of Miralles Tagliabue (EMBT).  Clearly very photogenic, its skin consists of thousands of grass, raffia, wicker and reed mats laid like loose shingles on a steel frame heaped up on the site like a pile of ribbon.  The mats were woven in Shandong Province; the pavilion has three exhibition rooms focussing on Spanish film makers.  It all seems conceptually and materially clear. 
Good series of photographs can be seen at designboom and dezeen

Might we spare a few moments of thought for the Canadian pavilion, a big steel frame 'C' covered in Canadian Western Red Cedar, cut in our forests and shipped from BC to China.  One can still see logging trucks on Vancouver Island carrying obviously old growth cedar 5 or 6' in diameter: it will be seen someday as criminal as killing elephants or whales.  And to what end?  To make a great big opaque wooden 'C' in a distant country.  It seems conceptually trivial and materially profligate.


Cirque de Soleil. Canadian pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010


Karen Wirth

Karen Wirth. Staircase at the Open Book Center, Minneapolis, in conjunction with MSR ArchitectsThe Open Book is a Minneapolis centre for reading, writing and book arts, founded by three independent non-profits – the Loft Literary Centre, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Milkweed Editions.  What a neat thing this must be.  Minneapolis is a city of about 400,000 with a catchment area of 3.5 million.

The Open Book has a staircase designed by Karen Wirth, who is doing a workshop this week at the Alberta College of Art and Design.  The press release includes this lovely statement:  
How is a staircase like a book or a wall like a page? Karen Wirth explores the relationships between books and architecture through artist’s books, sculpture and public art. Through analogy, she examines space and experience, presence and absence, revelation and concealment, public and private.

Sounds good.  How is a wall like a page?  It is the difference between a trade paperback, printed as inexpensively as possible with stingy margins, and an art book.  or an artists' book.  Between industrial production and craft.  One too boring to consider aesthetically, and one too precious to take seriously.  

As designers haven't we always striven to produce the illusion of careful craft using industrial materials and techniques?  This after all was what the Eames house set out to prove.  Maybe I just live in a backwater city of a mere million people with a catchment area of a few thousand more, but I simply do not see any evidence of the craft of architecture, either in intent or in fact.  It pains me.  We don't have a book centre either.


Ivan Hernandez Quintela

Ludens. Mobile LibraryIvan Hernandez Quintela is a Mexican architect who regularly publishes small urban guerilla projects in On Site.  He has a new web journal, interferencia: notas informales de ludens, which shows photos of inexplicable, ambiguous, enigmatic urban findings.   The pictures are like old polaroids used to be, square and soft.  His one line commentaries are enchanting – he turns a snap of a broken park bench into a note on who has expectations of comfort in the public realm.  It is a small observation, but an important one.  He takes the environment as he finds it seriously.

On his website he says 'i am not looking for conclusive answers but for a series of possibilities'.

This will do.


Elemental in Santa Catarina

Alejandro Aravena. Elemental. Housing cores: a half-house on the ground floor and a two storey apartment above. The empty slot between the white cores are meantto be built into, shown here in a yellow example. Elemental, the Chilean architectural practice of Alejandro Aravena, has just won an award for a 70-unit housing project in Santa Catarina near Monterrey, Mexico.  Using government funding the expensive part of each house is built first: bathrooms, kitchen, stairs, party walls and roof.  This is the first half.  The second half is eventually built into the space between these cores.  Visual cohesion comes from a continuous roof over each set of units, and the placement and rhythm of the first halves.  There are 70 units on .6 ha; the area is middle class, not a slum, and half the project will be self-built.
Similar Elemental projects have been built in Chile, with less money and for poorer people.  It is a case of putting whatever funds are available where they are most useful, and leaving the rest to individuals who have some building skills and often innovative ways of occupying space, but not the wherewithal to build  a safe structure, a kitchen and bathroom, and then connect them to the utilities infrastructure.  Elemental SA is in a partnership with COPEC, a Chilean Oil Company to design projects with social impact through 'the development of complex initiatives'.  To get projects such as these in place requires more than a brilliant idea, it requires partners at all levels of urban development.  The city is their workshop.  

Formally built social housing all over the world is a landscape of regimentation; informal barrios and slums all over the world are landscapes of desperate invention.  Elemental's model allows the best from both: safe building standards and people's participation in their own dwellings. 


Philip Beesley

programming Hylozoic Soil: Méduse Field, 2010. studio d’Essai of the Coopérative Méduse

Philip Beesley's Hylozoic Ground is at studio d’Essai of the Coopérative Méduse in Québec City as part of Mois Multi, a multidisciplinary and electronic arts festival that runs until February 28.

Hylozoic Soil: Méduse Field, a biomimetic installation, includes a first generation of protocell chemistry systems developed with the University of Southern Denmark and integrated sound and light devices developed with Quebec’s Productions Recto-Verso. Dense arrays of sensors, mechanisms and digitally fabricated elements shiver  when someone walks by and then generates movement of geo-textile structures which withdraw, release and open up again.

This project has been developed by Philip Beesley Architect with Waterloo's School of Architecture.  It was chosen for the 2010 Venice Biennale next fall, and then it will tour around after.  The Canada Council and the RAIC are collaborating in the presentation of Hylozoic Soil in Venice as, they say in their press release, 'part of a larger project to investigate developing support for the advancement of the presentation and appreciation of contemporary Canadian architectural excellence in Canada and abroad.'


W J Turner's Miss America

W J Turner. Miss America. London: Mandrake Press, 1930About 15 years ago I built twelve feet of glass fronted bookshelves, floor to ceiling, in the back room.  These unfortunately cover the only socket in the room, so I have to pull a handful of books out each time to plug and unplug lamps.  The handful I pulled out yesterday included W J Turner's Miss America from 1930, sandwiched between The Razor's Edge and Reading English Silver Hallmarks.  I don't ever remember seeing it before, which is a problem with libraries – one forgets what one has.

Today if someone wants to rant about something they blog it.  This book is 169 septets about the daughter of an architect who, dismayed at how his skyscrapers last only twenty years before being replaced, travels to Europe and comes up against a kind of decadence that really depresses him.  Meanwhile his daughter glimpses another kind of life, of freedom, gender ambiguity, equality, but returns to the US for a conventional marriage which ends in a Reno divorce.
Miss America is a long meditation on the gaucheness of all new world cultures compared to Europe.  Turner was Australian and in the 20s and 30s was on the edge of the Bloomsbury group and Ottoline Morell's Garsington parties.  They loved tall handsome colonials, especially those who wrote poetry.  They were seen as a kind of curiosity – the same attitude they had to Mark Gertler, the painter who was  beautiful, Jewish and from East London. 

Here, the evanescence of the American city and its buildings means that in the US nothing need last, nothing is important enough for any kind of commitment.  There is no longue durée.  Strangely, this is not liberating at all, everything becomes measured and rote, fulfilling functional requirements only. 

But Time to his employers was more real
To be amortized duly to a dime—
"In twenty years we pull the damn thing down
Two decades is too long for one old town!"

Those words 'the damn thing' sank into his brain,
What a description for each fair creation
With which he laboured to adorn his city!
Upon each site and prospect lay this stain—
Most durable of arts (life can be witty!)
To flourish so conspicuously in a nation
That builds for change and never for duration!

I live in a city which, like 1920s Philadelphia in the long poem, is in a continual process of tearing itself down in response to development pressure, to make room for the bigger and the newer.  In theory this ought to give architects and their clients great scope for innovation and invention, but instead it seems to entrench a conservatism that is unwarranted.  Turner was writing about this in 1930.  


small urban things


Projet : Concept développé par Leblanc + Turcotte + Spooner. Crédit photo : Leblanc + Turcotte + SpoonerMontréal recently held a competition for the design of new bus shelters.  The design chosen was by Leblanc + Turcotte + Spooner.  The press release outlines a way of thinking about urban design that all cities might adopt. 

Montréal has 'made a firm commitment to making such competitions a widespread practice, promoting innovation and excellence in architecture and design, and continuing to position Montréal as a UNESCO City of Design. This project is a concrete illustration of our willingness to ensure that Montréal’s designers play a paramount role in shaping our city’s future.  This design competition is one of the five shukôs, or creative challenges, issued on September 30, 2008, by the Mayor of Montréal. Besides providing tangible impetus for creativity in design and architecture, it aims to widen access to public design commissions to greater numbers of practitioners.'

The Ville de Montréal has within it the Design Montréal office, which runs the competitions; its mission is to improve design throughout the city and to position Montréal as 'a city of design'.  This is how a city uses its designers and architects. 

The bus shelter competition was a public, not a private, initiative involving the Ville de Montréal, the Société de transport de Montréal and the Québec Department of Culture, Heritage and the Status of Women.

The shelter is good too: free standing, modular, a communications column containing digital components and back-lit ads, and an integrated solar system freeing the shelters from dependence on the grid.  The bench is interesting - more like a perch.  Calgary's latest bus shelters have seats divided by a small handrail, presumably to make it impossible to sleep on the bench – a nice little punitive touch.  In Austin, Texas, the downtown bus stops had a row of flip down seats on the side of the building lining the sidewalk. 

Bus shelters are small projects that look after the street.  They project the way a city looks after its people.


small countries

Teemu Kurkela. Finland Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010

Expos are strange things.  What are they for?  The Seville Expo was a chance to present post-Franco Spain to the world.   It seems that the Shanghai Expo is an opportunity for the world to present itself to China.  Each pavilion struggles to something about the identity, the ambitions, the intentions of its country.

Finland's pavilion, by Teemu Kurkela of JKMM Architects, is a serene bowl floating in a lake.  Minimal, calm, the sky looms large.

The Netherlands pavilion is an antic figure-eight street of little houses.  It looks much more interesting on site than in the presentation rendering, which looks absolutely mad.  John Körmeling is the architect; on his website is a left hand column of conceptual ideas often for highway treatments -- sections of roads that  float off into the sea, etc.  The right hand side shows the Expo project, called Happy Street.

One does get a sense of the intensity of the Netherlands: it has 16.5 million on 33,900 sq km, the size of Nova Scotia.  The open landscape of Finland has 5.4 million people on 338,000 sq km, half the size of Saskatchewan.  These two countries are small in area and population.  They both seem to have a clear idea of how to do a pavilion that says something significant about themselves. 

Is Canada too big?  I ask this rhetorically, as our pavilion says nothing that I can recognise about this country.  

John Körmeling. The Netherlands Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010


small pavilions: large expos


Canadian Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010Lisa Rochon wrote a good piece in the Globe and Mail on the Canadian pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010 which was handed off to Cirque de Soleil to sort out.  Who needs architects any more?  Theatre designers must be much more fun, however, this pavilion is a dreadful crinkle of stuff, inward-looking, quite random.  But not, perhaps, as embarrassing as the Canadian pavilion at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006 which was a gigantic log cabin with a Mountie parked outside.

We are not alone in having ghastly pavilions.  Ireland's pavilion is a P3 project out of the Taoiseach office.  Thomas Heatherwick did Britain's pavilion, a great waving anemone-like haze of fibre optic tentacles.  Miralles did Spain's but I expect he wishes he hadn't.

The Shanghai Expo website describes all the pavilions with a particularly child-like wonder: the Russian pavilion, which looks quite beautiful, is  '12 white towers inspired by traditional Russian womens' costumes.  A 15m tall central building will link the towers.  The 20m towers, in white, red and gold, will duplicate the ancient Ural towns dating back 3,000 years ago, but given a modern touch with their irregular shapes'.

Oh dear, oh dear, what does that mean, given a modern touch with their irregular shapes?  Would one not think that in an exposition of science, technology, arts and architecture there would be just a little sophistication in how architecture was explained?  It all sounds like a second-year design studio – lots of wild expression and very little rigour.

Wojciech Kakowski, Marcin Mostafa and Natalia Paszkowskahe, the architects of Poland's pavilion, seem to have the scale right: a folded plate that shifts the ground plane and shines like one of those lovely cut out tin lamps.  It appears as less splash, less hubris and more thought.  I wish it had been ours. 

Polish pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010


small things: Josep Muñoz i Pérez

Josep Muñoz i Pérez. New Door, Foment de les Arts i del Disseny, Barcelona.This is one of the projects that has been sent to us for On Site 23: small things.  It is a door on the Plaça dels Ángels, dominated by the chapel entrance to the Convent dels Ángels in Barcelona.  Muñoz' project was to push the entrance to the FAD into view. 

That's it.  The whole project, which won several awards, is a door.  It wasn't just one part of a larger project, the FAD existed, and needed a presence on the Carrer dels Ángels.  Can an architectural commission be smaller?   Barcelona is stacked with young architects, and has been so since the mid 1980s.  As a result, every detail, every litter bin, every bollard, door handle, window frame, sign, news kiosk, bench and handrail has been designed by an architect.  And these architects treat every project, no matter how small, as the making of their reputation and the development of their architectural voice. 

I weep at the really horrible nature of the utilitarian objects in the public domain in our cities, and how institutions that should know better: art galleries, publishers, design schools, libraries either camp in some other building and accept the generic details of their host, or treat their entrances as just a way to get into the building.  That sense that the contents of the building can spill outward into the public realm is missing.  Doors here shut the outside out and the inside in. 

Is an appreciation of small urban moves, marginal architectural interventions, possible here?  We can all think of how things could be better, but what does it actually take in terms of approaching city parks departments, or transportation departments (the heart quails) with self-generated projects in hand?  Because if we wait for them to make a move, we will be old and grey before it happens.



Nobel minds

Alfred Nobel as a young scientist

Nobel Minds on the World Debate, BBC World December 12 2009.  The link takes you to a series of YouTube segments of this program. I can't figure out how to get them in order, sorry.

On Nobel Minds (BBC Saturday), the efficient and amazing Zeinab Badawi powered the physics, chemistry and economics 2009 Nobel winners through a 50-minute discussion of their work, how they made their discoveries, their childhoods, life and work.  Ribosomes and telomeres seemed to dominate chemistry, CCDs and fibre optics the physics and common sense the economics.  Boyle and Smith developed the CCD sensor that allowed digital imaging, 40 years ago at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.  As Smith told it, Bell put pressure on the lab to come up with something innovative to justify its expense, and after brain-storming for an hour and a half, they came up with the CCD sensor.  Do I believe it happened just like that?  Well, no, but it was his story and he was sticking to it. 

They were all brilliant and ordinary, outstanding and humble.  They stressed that study for study's sake was what they did.  It was curiousity-driven research, not application-driven that led to their discoveries.  Ramakrishnan, one of the three Chemistry winners, also pointed out that prizes are misleading as science is done by a huge community, they all acknowledged the contributions young people in their labs make and how they facilitate the best in their students.  Boyle and Smith are very elderly and very retired and Kao, who developed fibre optic glass, has Alzheimers, but the others when asked if there was life after the Nobel prize seemed aghast at the question.  Of course, nothing has changed, they are just eager to get back to their work.

It occurred to me that in the discussion of any sort of work that is driven by interest, it is the interest itself that is the most difficult to define.  It is not enough to be useful, competant and reliable, clearly one must be driven, and not driven towards worldly success but simply towards the production of knowledge.  Other people will figure out what to do with your discoveries, and certainly do.  There was a certain amount of iconoclasty in these laureates.  They broke new ground because they didn't really care about the ground as it stood at the time.  Elinor Ostrom's work with farmers in developing countries rejected market structures as the model for land management and instead looked at such things as the family unit, or the local community governance structures.  Of course I might have this all wrong, but it appeared that she looked at the smallest units and how they work rather than meta-theory. 

I keep trying to relate such ideas to the discussion of architecture.  There isn't a Nobel prize for an architecture that improves the state of the world and contributes to peace.  There aren't even such discussions.  What actually defines 'interest' in architecture?   


Maya Lin: the scale of drawings

Maya Lin. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Competition Drawing, 1981.

While browsing through the World Digital Library I came across the original panel Maya Lin had done for the Vietnam War Memorial competition when she was an architecture student at Yale.  Her black granite walls cut into the green sward, the terrific power of the thousands and thousands of individual names, the absolute simplicity of the idea – all of these things mark a division between pre- and post-Vietnam War Memorial projects.

Finding the original panel was a shock. The chalk and charcoal drawings were widely reproduced at the time, and in my mind they were large - maybe 3' wide. However, in reality these iconic works were small, sketchbook-sized.  The text describing the project is hand written and glued onto the panel – in fact all the pieces are glued onto a piece of tan matboard.  As presentation goes, so accustomed are we to computer generated layouts, Maya Lin's panel appears clumsy, unaligned, naïve, un-formed and yet, and yet, these are the drawings that outlined, in an open competition, the most powerful monument of the 20th century since Vimy Ridge.

This is a document from a time when the medium simply put the message forward.  It wasn't the message itself, and it certainly did not dominate or even obscure the message to the extent that we see today.  I don't think this is a case of my not being able to 'read' the layers of photoshopped composite images, but rather that drawings today are validated by the complexity of the processes that produce them.   

Were Maya Lin's chalk sketches and simple hand-written text the last of the clear relationship between hand and thought?  In 1982 when the memorial was dedicated most architectural offices had their new Macs.  Adobe Illustrator was launched in 1986, Photoshop in 1987.  The computer is only a tool, like a pen, or a knife, but it is a willful tool and makes complexity very easy to do.  At some point we have to ask, is complexity what we need?

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