Metamorphosis

I had seen some of Günther Domenig's work, but this bank (sic) building in Vienna is outright bizarre. I don't know whether to be excited or disgusted... but for sure some of the ideas carried out here are epic. The guy must have read Kafka's Metamorphosis during the concept phase because if it doesn't look like a giant insect of a bank building, I don't know what.

 

This looks mostly like the underside of Darth Vader's mask in scale 50:1

And the inside is somewhat anatomical...

Domenig, who sadly passed away last week, is one of those extremely talented visionaries who became hugely influential among a younger group of architects; Wolf Prix, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, the ones that were better at branding themselves and reaching out internationally. The few buildings that were built by this master are worth a closer look, as they will reveal the source for much of the formal language seen in many projects by the above mentioned above (and others).

Read more at: http://www.domusweb.it/en/from-the-archive/remembering-gunther-domenig/

Retrospective addition

As we were in a crucial stage of the workshop last Wednesday for the final lecture, I didn't post anything about WAI's talk. I'd like to resume to that evening and recall some of the works they presented and the discussion which followed. WAI is Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski, and they present themselves both as a small architectural practice and a think tank that is trying to push the current discourse on architecture (or lack thereof) from a superficial flow of images (mainly on the web through blogs) towards a critical discussion about the role of architecture and architects in today's globalized consumer society. The projects they presented range from fairly conventional architecture proposals (fotball school in Puerto Rico, Fashion Museum in Tokyo) to speculative projects on preservation in Beijing, fictional movie makeovers and analysis of "hard core" architectural forms.

The lecture was a compressed version of one they did recently at the University of Puerto Rico, and apart from a few projects that were presented more in-depth, it was mostly a rather forced stream of images, including renderings from well-known global practices and drawings from architectural history, cut and pasted into new or rediscovered contexts. Despite the obvious ambition of dragging such a vast range of architectural expression into the same room for discussion and comparison, the presentation came across as somewhat superficial, and this was also well put by one member of the audience, calling it a "glossy lecture". I am quite sure this was not the intention of Ms Frankowski and Mr Garcia, they obviously tried hard to get all their ideas across by compressing this rather extensive presentation into less than half of its normal length.

This might not have been a good choice, as there was an overwhelming sense of image-washing in this which ended in a cascade of spot-the-manifesto accompanied by a loony jazz tune. Ironically, they also mentioned the problem of architectural drawings and collages being presented in museums all over the world as pure images, without the idea-historical context in which they were made. Truthfully, any image can be manipulated and reread through the way they are presented, and this is exactly the point that was being made. Rather than questioning this fact, I understand their work as personal interpretations, quite speculative sometimes, but very conscious.

Although they do write regularly for a number of architecture magazines, WAI's work seems very focused on images. Without them, the writing comes across as rather superfluous, reducing historical events to one-liners and focusing on the iconization of architecture. A relevant topic all the same, I can't say I am a big fan of the idea of using more images to fight the overflow of images, but if you are good at something, keep doing it. Indeed the most interesting projects presented were the more personal ones like the Wall Stalker story and the Beijing preservation monument tower.

Now I am starting to think of WAI as architecture theory's Kanye West: Young, ambitious and confident enough to be sampling from some of history's real tours-de-force, creating a new, imaginative and pretty groovy universe. All we need now is that they attack the next Pritzker Prize winner during then ceremony and claim it themselves. Keep it up, Nathalie and Cruz.

 

 

Guanxi, or The Power of the Section

Architecture is never an isolated entity. Regardless of whether or not you work consciously with the context of your building, new relationships will follow as a consequence, so by trying to predict and enhance them will be crucial. The essential knowledge of how to work well as an architect comes down to how to create interesting relationships. There are external relationships: Between the building and its context, the city fabric, the stories of the neighbourhood, the landscape, invisible social territories, between inside and outside, open and closed space, private and public, back of house and front of house etcetera. And there are internal relationships: Between different programmes, vertical levels, light and dark, wet and dry, warm and cool, service areas and served areas, active and passive, public and private etc etc. Out of the typical architectural drawing formats we have at our disposal - plan, section, elevation, site plan, perspective - I believe the most interesting one is always the section, because it is where those relationships become apparent. The plan is very good at showing movement and internal flows, but as a means of inviting the viewer inside to experience the life in the building, it is still too abstract and schematic. In the section though, you can tell compelling stories which not only talk about the building, but of a whole society. Since it cuts through many types of spaces; from the basement, perhaps full of illegal (im)migrant workers, to the rooftop, where affluent investors are entertained by lightly dressed ladies; the section is where our urban way of life become clear and undeniable.

There are a number of significant drawings which exemplify that the architectural section is as good as a novel at telling stories. One of the most striking is a survey of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, a hyper-dense illegally built housing block now demolished. The section above was carried out by a Japanese team shortly before it was demolished in 1993.

Another classic example is the famous section of the Downtown Athletic Club, featured in Delirious New York with the above section. The building is a materialization of the heyday of N.Y.'s Wall St bankers and lawyers in the 1920's. 38 stories including squash courts, golf course, medical baths, massage parlours, billiard rooms, boxing ring next to an oyster bar, grill, dining halls and roof terraces, plus 111 hotel rooms for the bachelors who were not set on spending their nights uptown with the society clubs. All wrapped up behind an anonymous red brick façade, making sure that the building remains inconspicuous relative to the social "athleticism" taking place inside.

Once in a lecture about late 19th century Paris by a professor at KARCH, Carsten Thau showed a cross-section of a typical Hausmannian house, showing the full spectrum of social strata composing the then-world-leading metropolis. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find it on line, so maybe I'll have to write to my old professor to know who made the drawing. UPDATE: I successfully tracked down the section, and although it actually precedes the Haussmann typology, it still serves well in depicting Parisian society in the 1850's.

Also please enjoy this slightly more beaux-arts water colour section by Steven Holl depicting MIT Simmons Hall, one of the projects finished in the early 2000's catapulting Mr Holl into stardom.

 

For the design studio I am teaching in Wuhan starting next Monday I will be focusing in on the architectural section as a driver for the design process. The students will embark on a journey by examining a cross-section of their own city, a section they will have to draw. A precise recording of a complex of relations in a city infamous for its chaotic urban composition which will hopefully become an interesting tool in understanding the city. One of the reasons why I find it most interesting to examine the section here in China, is that I have discovered a lack of interest in developing architecture based on relationships. Too often the designs here tend to form isolated objects or enclaves without a dynamic relationship to their surroundings. Perhaps it is understandable since most projects here are conceived as UIMs (Urban Integrated Megaproject) and often on virgin land lacking any previous urban condition. Nevertheless, with a better understanding of the possibilities offered by designing in the section, one can create and nurture new relationship, at least within the same project.

 

Unbuilt and rebuilt

Last week I was reading some references for my upcoming book project about Yongding river in western Beijing. One of them is Subnature by David Gissen, in which a number of "man-made" natures, the biological biproducts of urban activitites, are given special focus. In each chapter, Gissen retells the historical and philosophical background of a Subnature; how and in which context it has appeared in historical documents, how it has been used and viewed upon, and finally pairing it with one or a few contemporary projects which explore its architectural potential. The book devides these Subnatures into three categories: Atmospheres (Dankness, smoke, exhaust), Matter (Dust, debris, mud) and Life (weeds, pigeons, crowds).

Featured in the chapter about debris is Arata Isozakis Re-ruined Hiroshima from 1968, a project emerging from a mutual fascination for one the one hand ruins and on the other superstructures. In his collage the wasteland of post-nuclear Hiroshima provides a backdrop for these mysterious structures which, either appear to be constructed from the debris of the destroyed city, or, in a more fantastic interpretation, landed from above like an alien object, ready to redistribute themselves as the raw material for a new city fabric.

Either way, his striking view of this obliterated city seems curiously familiar when confronted with the desolate images inundating us, from the same country albeit further North. I am not someone to romanticize on destruction, especially with the (abstract) knowledge of how many lives were taken out and chronically disrupted by the earthquake and following tsunami. Yet one can't help start to wonder what kind of architectural response could be triggered by this devastating event.

 

If we conclude that the last decade in Japanese architecture has been characterized by playfulness, lightness and experimentation, it is also important to note that these tendencies to a large extent are restricted to a particular scale; that of single-family semi-detached suburban house. This limitation could of course be attributed to the level of development that Japan has reached, which on a larger scale has been coined the Japanese Economy Stagnation. In other words, large-scale construction is no longer a main component of the economy. Instead, the combination of a refined and well-educated middle-class and rather permitting urban policies have given rise to the continuous stream of meticulous photos of experimental houses reaching the laptops and coffee-table magazines of admiring (if not to say, jealous) architects around the world. Currently, though, we are perhaps not so jealous. The amount of damage done to the Japanese cities in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami are not small. Nevertheless, a few days after the earthquake, Japanese stocks were again rising because of the immanent need of reconstruction, which will generate well-needed growth to the economy.

Putting the economic issues aside, I am curious to see if and how our Japanese colleagues will change their practice in the coming years. Finally, an photo of Toyo Ito's Sendai Mediatheque after the earthquake. Badly damaged, it actually looks worse than it is, as the structure is still standing and most of the debris in the image seems to deriving from the suspended ceiling.

 

Chance

Yesterday a long awaited book was finally delivered to our door: CHANCE from the series Documents of Contemporary Art (MIT Press, 2010). Compiling texts on  20 or so conceptual artists that all have worked with the unpredictable as a main driver of the work, the book narrows down the concept of chance to a few - shall we call it - case studies. The most reoccurring artists Marcel Duchamp and John Cage fail to surprise me. Needless to say, the importance of the former is monumental. The fact that Duchamp held an all-embracing attitude towards chance is perhaps the most prominent aspect of his work. Cage, on the other hand, is still quite unknown to me, and I am looking forward to getting a broader sense of his works and impact. For my part, the concept of chance remains quite important. In the projects I have developed in the past three years I have left part of the design to chance with, shall I say, mixed, but predominant success. It is with this in mind that I aim to look deeper into the art(y) references to understand the potentials of chance as an ingredient in an architectural exploration.

Below are some images from my thesis project LINE-POINT-FIELD where I used a Drawing Machine - essentially a table with a number of acrylic plates and a projected mounted at the bottom -  to distort and reproduce my original drawings. As a strategy to achieve a level of complexity that would be difficult to design, this tool did what I wanted it to. Bringing the table into the photo lab, I allowed the force of light to play a role in the process. Despite not using the drawings directly in my project, the logic related to the drawing machine became very important for the further conceptualisation.

49 percent

As expected, I haven't had time nor energy to write during the first phase of this project. Despite being a great way to clear your mind and sum up the workday, I simply don't find the time to write without it affecting my sleeping or leisure hours. Today, though, apart from being the first day of Easter and April fool's, is our half-time rest, giving my the chance to summarize the first 50 days of my diploma project. In brief, I am working on a hybrid park, a new kind of urban typology, in Beijing. Essentially a synthesis of recreational space (park), productive landscape (agriculture) and habitation (housing), the project rethinks an industrial zone and dried-out river in the west part of Beijing, and its junction with one of the city's main axes: Chang'an avenue. It all started in December last year when I was introduced to the area by my teachers at Tsinghua University, Ron Henderson and Brian Chang. Ron being a landscape architect, we were given in-depth knowledge about the region and its history, the Yongding river and Shougang steelworks. My pilot project in the urban design studio was a strategy based on the observations of the Chinese use of the axis as a way to organize buildings and complexes. By extending the Chang'an axis as a series of buildings instead of just extending the road, a new kind of identity could be given to the area, highlighting its environmentally abused surroundings by contrast.

In January, after returning to Copenhagen, I developed the strategy in my programme, written as a series of small essays on the history of Chinese planning, landscape architecture and public space, as well as analyses of precedents such as Parc de la Villette in Paris. The intention of the programme is to implement a developed strategy comprising two major layers: Fields and Locales. The locales is the string of new public functions along the axis and the fields make out the horizontal layer of recreational and agricultural space. The real challenge is to design the planning and development of these layers over time, essentially a kind of choreographed architecture that assumes its position halfway between top-down and bottom-up design strategies.

I started by documenting surrounding sites which describe some of the the programme of the new park; agriculture plots, the riverbed, hills, gravel pits, villages, industrial sites and housing communities. As I could get aerials from every year between 2002 and 2009, I could see how the sites have evolved over time and what forces are at play in the landscape (in a general sense). These registrations will be essential to the formal and conceptual development of the project. The first attempts to formalize these became very attractive, collapsing the layers into a complex weave of lines and solids. I used a custom-made table to superimpose the layers onto a sheet of paper or eventually photo sensitive paper, which I developed in the lab.

Finally I attempted the same approach in the virtual environment, superimposing the drawings onto my own site and making collage-like drawings that could give the same kind of suggestive complexity as the photo prints. Despite creating very compelling images, it didn't really work in line with my design strategy and I am now back at square one, struggling to find a method to draw and build my project in different stages of its transformation.

Concluding this first half, I am taking small steps only to go back to my original ideas. In general I am slowly understanding how NOT to work, that is, by producing beautiful images from research and using them in a formal way. Instead, I should focus on the genetics and behaviour of my "prototype sites". Which is, needn't be said, quite abstract.

Hopefully I will be able to contribute with some slightly more elaborated thoughts on the process further on.