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Entries in construction (28)


Wang Shu: Ningbo History Museum, 2008

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura

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.  

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura


that different country

Now, this is a lovely thing: the Paris, Texas music of course, Ry Cooder's take on José López Alavez's 1915 'Cancion Mixteca'.

It is overlaid on an unrelated early film on the Navajo (for which I cannot find any information – on the film, not the Navajo), and shows construction details of hogans along with what always looks like a bucolic, slow, quiet life when looked at across the divide of seventy years or so.  We know it wasn't so, as with the whole continent, sequestration and, confusingly, assimilation was in play.  The kids posing behind the granny spinning wool indicates something of the coming divide: jeans and dresses; the velvet jackets and tiered skirts already marked as folkloric. 

This was part of America's terra nullius, the landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico, and they used it accordingly.


mexican vaults

Mexican vault. photo by Michael Ramage, Scaffolding to structure seminar, Cambridge University. This example was done by unskilled students in a learning process sort of way, but it shows the nature of the brick used.

A very interesting pdf of a Scaffolding to Structure seminar, under Philippe Block and Lara Davis at Cambridge University in 2010, is here.  It includes the building of a mexican vault, above, outlined for them by Alfonso Ramirez Ponce, a Mexican architect who lectures at UNAM and teaches low cost sustainable construction using regional materials. 

Such vaults are called bovedas; an odd little video, below, shows precisely how they are done in Mexico, by skilled masons:


The Boveda at Casa Chorro from bloodredcolt on Vimeo.



the timbrel vault

Rafael Guastavino's patent application for the centuries old timbrel vault. ca 1880

This wide, flat vault relies on thin layers of brick, tile or stone with carefully misaligned joints, that make a laminated shell. The layers are mortared and so all the edges are held in place not by the gravitational pressure exerted on each chamfered brick or tile face running parallel to the direction of the vault, but by laminated continuous lightweight surfaces — cohesive construction, called so by Rafael Guastavino who imported the technique to the United States from the northern Mediterranean where it was ubiquitous — the Catalan vault, for example.
All this is from a dandy set of photos and texts from Low-Tech magazine

What is quite interesting is the absence of formwork, other than some regulating lines at the base of the vault.  Masons stood on the finished portions of the vault itself as the next section cantilevered ahead.  And all layers were laid down at the same time.  It is an incredibly elegant construction system, and was what Dieste used in his extended cantilevered ribbon-like vaults.

The timbrel vault in construction


Eladio Dieste's bricks

Eladio Dieste. Salto bus station, Uruguay, 1974

Dieste's hallmark: double cantilever self-supporting thin-shell single-layer brick vaults.  Here for a bus terminal in Salto, Uruguay in 1974.  Dieste lived from 1917 to 2000, a surprisingly contemporary career, little known here.  Gaussian vaults: double curves.  The book on all of this is Remo Pedreschi's The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture.  Pedreschi's explanation of masonry vaults points out that the thinness of the shell is dependent on the dimensions of the block and the finishing layer, typical ratio is 30/80. Dieste's vaults were 130mm thick, and the vaults spanned 50m, an astounding relationship using bricks and mortar and not achievable using concrete.

Pedreschi writes that 'Dieste's sense of cosmic economy' – what a lovely phrase – led him to derive strength from form, rather than from mass, using hollow brick (2/3 the weight of concrete) and extremely shapely catenary curves, i.e. higher, curvier vaults.

So, what was going on in Uruguay while this beautiful work was being built? State of emergency in 1968, Tupamaros geurillas defeated by the military in 1973, torture, break up of the unions, torture, the removal of the Communist Party, torture, political prisoners, dictatorship, mass emigration, economic crisis, desaparecidos. 

Does stability lead to complacency, and does complacency lead to dull thinking?  I've always thought so myself.  In theory it should be the opposite, but in practice it isn't.


Melnikov's bricks

Konstantin Melnikov's Moscow house in construction, 1929. © / janvaneyck

The AD Classics description of Melnikov's house by Tim Winstanley  explains:
'Exterior walls finished with white plaster are constructed in a honeycomb latticework using local brick.... The shapes of the windows are a direct result of the honeycomb structure, with the angles determined by quarter lengths of the standard local bricks. Nearly 60 hexagonal windows employing nine types of frames establish the aesthetic quality of the rear cylinder, showering the interior with light. The manner of structure and glazing system employed also eliminated the need for structural lintels or sills. Voids that were not glazed in the honeycomb structure were filled with clay and scraps, adding mass to a wall system that helps to mitigate the extreme temperature differentials of summer and winter.'

Is brick the material for this?  In 1929, did Melnikov say, hey we could do a diagrid. Shukov did it in steel in 1896, but times are tight so we could do it in — BRICK!  

Probably.  Embargoes, economic collapse, 5-year plan failures, absence of the full spectrum of building materials is the spur to invention.  We need them as much as we need advances in technology.



From the elegantly sublime, Niemeyer, to the desperately expeditious:

Tabby concrete. St. Augustine, Florida. Photo by Nathan Wolkenhauer, 2011In between Roman concrete and the discovery of Portland cement in 1830, there was tabby: burnt oyster shells (lime), mixed with water, sand and broken shell.  Originally Moroccan, although North Africa was part of the Roman empire so it might be continuous with Roman concrete work, the use of tabby migrated to Spain and eventually to Spanish colonies, such as Florida, using broken shell as aggregate when stone was not available.  

The lime/sand/water combination occurs all along the lower east coast of the USA, dating generally from the early 1700s.  The oyster shells were found in huge middens left by the aboriginal peoples of the Atlantic coast. The reported size of the oyster shell piles, and the size of the shells themselves – 6 to 8" x 15 to 20", evidently oysters were gigantic in pre-historic times – indicates a cultural landscape rarely discussed and long vanished.There are shell middens on all coastlines, often thousands of years old, but not all were turned into sources of lime for concrete.   

An article by Jingle Davis on the Tabby Trail on the southeast coast of the US tells how the shells were found, mined, fired, and the resultant lime and wood ash mixed with clean sand and water.  Floors were laid and hammered with linseed oil into marble-like hardness. Walls were built up using slip forms.  

Now, here's a recipe: ten bushels of lime, ten bushels of sand, ten bushels of shells and ten bushels of water gives you sixteen cubic feet of wall. 
1 bushel = 8 gallons, so presumably a bushel of lime is enough lime to fill an eight gallon container.  There is something suspiciously coincidental that all the components for tabby are in ten bushel portions.  It might be loose science, done more by feel than precise measure.

It is interesting that the making of tabby almost replicates the process of producing calcareous limestone itself.  There is something about all this lime, heat and water process that is strangely circular.

A tabby building at the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island in Jacksonville, Florida. Tabby concrete was used in the 1700s and early 1800s in Florida and coastal Georgia. In this photograph, one can see the slip-form casting method uses, whereby each course is a seperate pour. When set the board formwork is moved up for the next pour. photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory



New World Design LLC, the Future Project – T-Wall Housing Proposal, Al Querna, Iraq

T-walls are the concrete units devised for the West Bank barrier wall in Israel.  Different versions are used throughout Iraq and Afghanistan by the US Army: the 1.1m Texas, the 3.7m Bremer, the 6m Alaska.  The 1m traffic barrier, Jersey, has sloped edges at the base and is used on highways seemingly everywhere.

New World Design, Jeffrey Olinger, Heather Boesch, Darby Foreman and Cliona McKenna, have developed a housing project based on T-walls for Al Querna, Iraq.  The T-wall unit is at once concrete wall and foundation: the units are deployed in a morse code grid, and houses are developed from and between them.  A basic L-shaped house unit multiplies to make alleys and courtyards in a number of configurations.  

The project is simple and subversive.  It is useful and uses the defences of war.  It is culturally cognisant and based on imperialist debris.  How much more interesting can this be?

Despite that the term, T-Wall, is a registered trademark of the Neel Company in Virginia for precast retaining walls, t-wall is the common name for the barrier units.  The Arab Land Group, established in 2003 and headquartered in the UAE to work with the US Army, manufactures the barriers.  

Clearly the shape of a pre-cast reinforced concrete slab with a footing cannot be proprietal, any more than can be a gable roof.  What New World Design has done is to appropriate a form that divides and obstructs, and to de-nature its malevolence as a form by embedding it in the construction of housing.


concrete cities

Palestinians sort through the rubble of a house hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, Nov. 18, 2012. Alessio Romezi, photographer, for Time

In the recent coverage of the civil war in Syria and just this past few weeks, the bombings in Gaza City, one is struck by the sheer amount of concrete and rebar left in great tumbled piles.  No trees, no wood, no parks or lawns, Palestinian refugee camps and Gaza itself are dense concrete worlds.  

North Africa and the Middle East sit on a shield of limestone, interleaved with layers of sandstone.  It is all made clear in a really interesting paper on the significance of reef limestones. Calcareous limestone: fossils and shells, sand from the edges of the ocean, oil from the animals and vegetation that lived there: it is geology itself that produces the wealth, the tensions and the landscapes of the Middle East, and has for a long time: the pyramids are sandstone blocks, faced with limestone sheets.  Photographs of Palestine in the 1920s show a sandstone architecture, however, quarrying and building in stone is not the process for quick reconstruction in war, concrete clearly is.  

Concrete debris can be re-used as aggregate: it isn't as strong, but there is lots of it.  All the steel reinforcing bars and mesh can be hammered out and re-used, and concrete can always be mixed in small batches, by hand if necessary.  Not that the entire Gaza Strip is in rubble; there are concrete companies with perky websites just as there are anywhere else.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza allows the entry of construction materials from Egypt only for Palestinian Authority projects.  As the PA does not operate in Gaza, Hamas does, the list is effectively embargoed.  Nonetheless, the territory sits on limestone, abuts an ocean full of sand, and is provided with rubble of all kinds on a regular basis.


béton brut

 The columns under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. 1967 Hubert Bennett, GLC, architect

This is the underpinning of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, London, built in 1967.  The South Bank was a massive cultural centre built after WWII in Lambeth. It epitomises what came to be known in Britain as Brutalism, the term derived from béton brut, or raw concrete, but with all the unfortunate overtones of brutal thuggery.

The image above shows precisely what annoyed Fisac about rough board formwork: it looked more like carpentry than heavy, plastic concrete.  That is all true in terms of material, but in terms of construction and the fabrication of buildings there is something quite wonderful about the fragility of wooden boards, carpentered together because they are needed by the big brute to make form.  The boards leave their ghostly presence behind, forever imprinted on the obduracy of concrete.  The whole building is built twice: once in wood, then again in concrete; the wood is a mould, the concrete the sculptor's material. 

We rarely see concrete formed this way for large projects anymore, unless for bridge piers and earthworks, and of course foundations; the concrete mostly visible in buildings is pre-cast, all the slots, channels, fixing points and surfaces carefully designed and controlled off-site.  This gives the surfaces the ability to be decorative, less forceful than rough poured concrete.  I really dislike precast concrete.  There is so much of it.


Matsys: P_Wall

Matsys, P_Wall. Banvard Gallery, Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. 
15′ x 9′ x 1′, 200

Matsys, the studio of Andrew Kudless, investigates architecture as a material 'body' with its own behaviours, forms and processes of integration.  One of the most photogenic projects is P_Wall, which uses plaster and nylon fabric.  Lest one think this is a random or organic form, it actually derives from pattern analysis. From Matsys's website: 'Starting from an image, a cloud of points is generated based on the image’s grayscale values. These points are then used to mark the positions of dowels which constrain the elasticity in the fabric formwork. Plaster is then poured into the mould and the fabric expands under the weight of the plaster. The resultant plaster tile has a certain resonance with the body as it sags, expands, and stretches in its own relationship with gravity and structure. Assembled into a larger surface, a pattern emerges between the initial image’s grayscale tones and the shadows produced by the wall.'

I love the way we shift from the poetry of 'a cloud of points' to the clunkiness of dowels; such is the process of making architecture.  However, another phrase, 'the self-organization of material under force' is a powerful concept.

Matsys, studio: P-Wall tiles drying, 2009.In 2009 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned a 45' x 12' P_Wall for the exhibition Sensate: Bodies and Design.  Because this kind of hard surfaced building material – they are essentially tiles, to be attached to walls – is unlike any other we have seen, the form calls up any number of metaphoric readings.  Henry Urbach, the curator of Sensate' in his curatorial essay went directly to the parallels with the human body, as if we were also stretchy sacs pinned together, bulging with the weight of too much weight.  

A detail shown on the Matsys documentation of this SFMOMO installation is innocently captioned, 'Detail of a crease.  Notice the surface texture left by the fabric form.'  Well, yes, we can see the delicate texture of the original knit fabric, but we can also see Weston's photographs of vegetables and nudes  — clearly and purposefully sensual.

Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930; Nude, 1927. Edward Weston negatives, Cole Weston prints.Matsys, P_Wall, 2009. Detail of a crease. Notice the surface texture left by the fabric form.


Concrete canvas

Flame test on an emergency shelter made from a Concrete Canvas kit.

Right.  Concrete.  Here is something called Concrete Canvas, a double layer of tightly knit fabric with cement powder between.  It is flexible, light (5, 8 and 13mm thick), is put in place and then hosed down, forming a thin concrete skin.

It appears to be deployed all over the world for emergency shelters, ditches and water redirection, slope stabilisation and concrete repairs.  Its military applications include reinforcing sandbags and bastions and laying down emergency hard surfaces.  It comes in rolls; it seems magical. The emergency shelters could use some design attention.

They have a kit which includes an inflatable liner attached to a front gable door panel, which is inflated, draped with concrete canvas, watered and is ready in 24 hours.  Other openings can be cut in after it is rigid.  The strength is such that it can then be bermed.

I chose the image above from a vast array on the Concrete Canvas website because it is dramatic, but also shows the texture of the surface.  Unfortunately the inside is lined with the plastic from the inflatable – shiny, maybe sweaty.  Emergency shelter is the operative term. It would be very interesting to see just how far these shells could be adapted for permanent use. 


Miguel Fisac: encofrado flexible

Miguel Fisac's own studio in Madrid: concrete poured into flexible formwork, 1971.

Miguel Fisac, 1913-2006, patented and used an idea in the late 1960s for polythene and a rigid frame as formwork for concrete, feeling that using wooden boards as shuttering was 'an incorrect texture' with its references to carpentry and organic and familiar wood grain.  Concrete on the other hand was 'a material that was poured in a liquid state, more closely approximating a stream of volcanic lava'. [this from the Fundacion Miguel Fisac and the section 'Epidermal Years']

Diederik Veenendaal, writing about Fisac for a dissertation at ETH Zürich, refers to Paul Galabru's 1964 book Obras de fábrica y metálicas and 'encofrado flexible' (flexible formwork), from which he speculates that Fisac, had he owned this book, would have found it an influence. 

Fisac himself is an influence, clearly in the work of Mark West, who began to use flexible formwork in 1986.  Trust that this kind of material sensuality came from Latin culture. 


Kevin Harman: Skip 13

Kevin Harman's gallery, Ingleby Gallery, has emailed a link to the latest skip reorganisation, Skip 13, part of Frieze Art Fair 2012.  There is a nice vimeo; click on the photo to be transported there. 

Kevin Harman. Skip 13, York Way, London. October 6-7, 2012

These stacks of material remind me so much of the piles of construction debris found in Sudbury, which I wrote about last year in Destination Earth.  Is there some deep epistemological urge we have to separate, sort and re-present? Or does construction debris itself lead to this.  Unwillingly deconstructed, it longs to be a thing again. 


Kevin Harman: Skip 7

Kevin Harman. Skip 7. 2007 Mixed Medium Friday, take all contents out of skip, break down and place all debris back in skip for opening on Sunday night, leave.

Kevin Harman, Scottish sculptor, has a series of reorganised skips full mostly of construction debris. This is Skip 7, before and finished.

At once performance, community project, statement about density, found materials, deconstruction of the already deconstructed, reconstruction leading to a complete absence of inner space.  Rachel Whitread filled a small house full of plaster, then removed the mould – the structure of the house itself, leaving solid blocks of 'space'.  Kevin Harman takes the materials of a house and squeezes all the space out, leaving a small block of airless density.

The process is public and good natured. Here is an 11 minute 2009 film from Harman's website:

Below, Skip 11, a strangely romantic reorganisation.

Kevin Harman. Skip 11, 2011 Mixed Medium Friday, take all contents out of skip, break down and place all debris back in skip for opening on Sunday night, leave.


branding oil: Stavanger

Stavanger, Norway

Stavanger is Norway's Calgary, in that it is the site of oil companies' head offices for the offshore oil industry.  Once could say that the oil sands were offshore for Calgary as well, as it doesn't have to deal with any of the environmental or social fallout associated with oil extraction.

Stavanger, I read on Science Nordic, is seeking to re-brand itself, acknowledging that the association with oil will not always be positive if climate change continues to threaten our existence.  Evidently, Stavanger is 'historically Norway's teetotallers' town and also the golden buckle of the country's bible belt'.  Its pre-oil industry was canning, but curiously has 'no distinct proletarian culture', unlike Oslo.  I feel as if I am reading all sorts of things between the lines, but can't understand what they mean.  

With neither history nor the proletariat suitable for a modern brand, they are working on Stavanger as an energy town (their italics).  What a surprise.  Calgary's newest brand, coincidentally, is 'Catch the Energy'.  The vagueness of energy: it could mean nuclear, solar, wind, nano-technology, wood stoves – it could even mean people doing a lot of jogging.  It will do well for the future as almost anything can be fitted to it.  

This being Norway, Stavanger, predictably, has a young architecture firm, Helen & Hard, doing beautiful work.

Helen & Hard. Ipark, an office complex for young, innovative companies in Stavanger, 2012From Helen & Hard's description of this project: 'the design concept is based on a simple principle of stacking prefabricated timber elements to create the façades. By horizontally rotating the elements, two spectacular cantilevers are created accentuating the entrances'. 

Norway has trees, we have trees.  Norway has oil, we have oil.  Norway uses wood extensively: Oslo's airport has a large wood egg-shaped bubble hovering over the concourse, the counters in the train stations are wood, the panelling on the transit carriages is wood.  We, on the other hand, do not use wood extensively. I'm pricing spruce and cedar planks to replace my back deck; I am told by every lumber company that I should buy the plastic wood decking instead. 



Hans Hildenbrand. German trenches, Alsace, 1915.

It was often said that when a German trench was captured the British were struck by how well they were constructed.  Hans Hildenbrand was a photographer from Stuttgart who had been experimenting with colour film since 1911, and had been sent to record the progress at the front, mostly in Alsace and Champagne.  We don't often see the other side, but there is a new book out, Endzeit Europa, colour photographs of WWI, and a selection of images is on der Spiegel online.

Just in this small cross section of one trench there is order and hierarchy, massive protection compared to the sandbags at Vimy: enough infrastructure to remove the sense of being caught in a hole dug in the ground.  One of the Airborne Regiment, after it had disbanded, told me how much time he had spent in Somalia, lying in a very shallow depression in the dust beside the highway leading to Belet Uen, covered only by his tarp.

How much 'building' does it take to protect, without giving a false sense of protection.  These German troops seem very confident, but these are posed photographs, not taken in the heat of battle.  They too left their trenches for that darkling plain that was the no-man's land. 



Breach in the north wall of Fort Sumter filled with gabions, 1865. Federal Navy, seaborne expeditions against the Atlantic Coast of the Confederacy, 1863-1865.

Two more weak systems: wicker baskets and piles of rocks that together can fortify a rampart.  This particular kind of gabion can also be found in Viollet-le-Duc's Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de L'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècleViollet-le-Duc. Gabions, 1856.

The same system is in military use today: Hesco Bastions are flat wire-reinforced canvas bags that spring open to make a drum which is then filled with material at hand. 

Donovan Wylie. Mountain Position. Mas Sum Ghar. Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2011This is a Canadian Forces FOB.  Hesco Bastions form a palisade. It all seems so fragile, scaffolds and gabions, yet they are capable of great protective strength. 


a luxury of bamboo sticks

bamboo scaffolding, Cambodia

Haven't much information on this photo, but it is from Vulgare, a most interesting landscape blog from France. 

Clearly this scaffold has something to do with cliff stabilisation: two weak systems pressed against each other to hold everything in place.  The tires at the bottom of the unscaffolded part are another such solution: gabions holding back the base.  And the shade arbour in the foreground, another fragile structure that in certain circumstances could be life-saving.  This is an unpeopled photograph of a scene dense with human need and activity.


scaffolded domes

Taj Mahal, 1942To protect the dome of the Taj Mahal during the Second World War, it was buried in a thicket of scaffolding.  India was full of RAF bases that serviced the Burma Campaign, nearby cities were often targetted by the Japanese: for example Dum Dum airfield was near Calcutta which was bombed several times. 

The construction of the Taj Mahal in 1633 used a brick scaffold, rather than the more usual bamboo scaffolding.  The dome is brick, sheathed in marble.  The brick scaffold was as large as the building itself, built to carry the marble slabs.  It is an interesting relationship between the kind of scaffolding used and the weight of materials: hand sized bricks, laid incrementally, although monumental when finished are small units.  The marble was of a different order completely, lifted and placed by ropes and pulleys attached to the scaffold. 

The other great wartime dome survival story is St Paul's Cathedral in London, which survived. This dome is a lightweight skin over a sturdy brick cone that supports it. The scaffold is internal structure. 

Section through the dome of St Paul's Cathedral