Monday, 24 November 2014

Ciao Biennale di Venezia 2014

The Biennale - Venice's international architecture festival, which takes place every two years - ends this weekend after five months in situ.

As trips to the Mediterranean coast go, for London architects, MIPIM (where architecture is a sideshow to the world of commercial property) might get you more work - but the Biennale offers a lot more inspiration and food for thought.  Quite apart from the relative merits of Venice and Cannes as places to visit.

This year's Biennale - the best I have been to - was directed by Rem Koolhaas under the rubric 'Fundamentals'.  The Central Pavilion in the Giardini was divided up according to the 'Elements of Architecture' - subject headings related to elements or components of which buildings are made - stairs, facades, roofs and so on.

Unfairly satirised as 'a bit like being at B&Q', what each of the different sections offered - admittedly in a slightly random way, since each was curated by a different group - was constant stimulation and provocation.  What they had in common was an understanding that the present can learn from the past, and that architecture, though to succeed it needs to be more than the sum of its parts, will not emerge without an understanding of the parts, considered individually at the practical level of craft and science as well as at the level of culture and history.  Some examples of what stuck in the mind:

In a hidebound culture, deciding how to deal with new needs that have no obvious precedent is a challenge.  The architectural fantasist Piranesi (1720-1778) was excited in his day by the design of fireplaces - a 3D print of one of his designs, above, shows also his drawing of the fire in the grate - precisely because there were no classical precedents and therefore invention rather than conformity to a pattern was called for.   He might have sympathised with the problems that environmentally sound projects today may have in gaining acceptance if they don't fit with the established (energy-profligate) look of a place.

In the section on stairs - where one learnt of Prof Mielke who, if in fact he has not been made up by Rem Koolhaas, was founder of the Institute of Scalology in Regensburg, has written 31 books on stairs and, if one is allowed to say this, could not possibly be anything other than German.  Typical of the exhibitions thought provoking approach was a section that considered the slope of stairs - a technical /geometrical / ergonomic consideration that all architects have had to deal with on a daily basis - in relation to the social status of those who would be using stairs, through the course of history.  As with a lot of research of this kind, you can guess the results, but it's still worth doing the exercise.

The entirely separate 'Monditalia' section in the Arsenale was terrific as well - one of many highlights was the story of the 60s new town of Zingonia, brainchild of Renzo Zingone - with superb contemporary accounts of its conception and partial realisation.  On reflection, it also looked suspiciously as if it the whole story could be completely made up - but then most of the 60s does now.

Venice will be even better next time if the Comune di Venezia ( the city council) brings in its proposed ban on luggage on wheels.  That is a relatively easy one, though - will they be brave enough to tackle the blight of the giant cruise ships as well?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thiepval and Vimy Ridge

Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval in France is one of the great works of interwar British architecture, and along with other sites such as the Menin Gate at Ypres (by the less highly regarded Blomfield, but here as good as Lutyens) and Herbert Baker’s Tyne Cot cemetery, makes a tour of the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium a worthwhile architectural pilgrimage, whatever other reasons one might have to visit. 

The architect Adolf Loos claimed that 'Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.'  Loos was an interesting architect and writer but I suspect Lutyens, a man of fewer public words, was smarter.  At first glance one might think of Thiepval, a sort of fractal version of a triumphal arch, as an example of what Loos meant.  But when one sees the extent of the panels with the names of the 72,000 missing dead recorded, one can see it quite another way, the multiple piers at the lowest level of the memorial maximising the wall surface to provide the necessary surface area – a practical response to a brief, raised to a higher plane.  In architecture, that is the domain of art.

The Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, designed by Walter Seymour Allward, is mentioned less often (and harder to convey in an amateur photograph) but it is more prominent and better sited, and arguably as great a work of memorial design.  This memorial and Lutyens’ at Thiepval share one of the qualities often found in the greatest works of art: strangeness.   Neither is really quite like anything else.

It is harder – it seems – to do memorials well today.  Commissions exist, but most designers lack the skill or the will, and the mood of the times may be different.   Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam memorial at Washington DC shares the power of the best of the First World War memorials but done with a modernist, more abstract sensibility, and is also popular; but it seems to be harder to reach these heights as the years go by, as evidenced, for example, by London's ludicrous ‘Animals in War’ memorial in Park Lane (inscribed, mawkishly, ‘they had no choice’ – true, but what about the human conscripts?).

In an age when the ephemeral and the pop-up seem to reflect uncertain times, it is good to be reminded by the memorials of Lutyens and his generation of the virtues of solidity and permanence in design – and artistic quality.  If a monument has that quality – as we can see from all chapters of architectural histories, starting at the beginning - then it will last beyond the time when its purpose and those it commemorates have been forgotten – ars longa vita brevis. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

London's skyline debate - lessons from New York

A trip to New York last month to meet fellow professionals was a fascinating chance to find out about attitudes to tall buildings in their spiritual home. 

What was surprising, perhaps, was the extent to which most of the questions raised by tall buildings in London are also debated in similar terms over there (as are other questions such as how to provide 'affordable' housing for the less well off; and how to provide affordable housing, not in quotation marks, for middle income groups).

NY's Muncipal Arts Society's Accidental Skyline report concerns the effects of a wave of very slender, very tall new towers under construction and planned, mostly near Central Park, which will change the views from the park dramatically, and, the report suggests, overshadow it unacceptably.  Generally these new towers are as built 'as of right', the planning parameters - including the transfer of developable area from one site to another to allow ever taller and thinner towers - being established by the zoning system.  There are opponents of tall buildings over there as there are over here - but there is no way to prevent the schemes being built.  There as here, the fact that the accommodation is for the super-rich seems to exacerbate the opposition.  One example, 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Vinoly of Walkie-Talkie fame, is under construction and appears to have reached its full height (that is the whole tower in the photo below, not just the lift and stair core) - and there was plenty of unfavourable comment from New Yorkers that we met. To build a tower in one world city that no one seems to like, though, may be regarded as unfortunate - to be responsible for two...

I didn't entirely buy the objections - it's no more out of scale with its surroundings than the Empire State building, and there are far worse architects than Vinoly - but the objectors may have a point about the cumulative effect of the many towers that are planned.  

The quality of new architecture over there varies from terrific to dire, just like in London. And just as in London, one can't help feeling that at least part of the opposition to new tall buildings is because many of them are not much good - although New York, perhaps because of the discipline of the grid, has not suffered quite as much as we have from the Architecture of Funny Shapes.  And unlike us, they have world class and world famous exemplars that they are proud of, from the Woolworth Building to the Seagram Building, to compare the new ones with.  

One of those, the Rockefeller Centre, may just fail to make the cut of world class architecture, but it represents world class urban design, and that - together with the fact that you can now admire the city from its top level - is undoubtedly one reason why it remains popular.  Recent attempts to do 'towers as placemaking', such as the planned Hudson Yards development, struggle to add up to more than the sum of their parts, and fail to come anywhere near the coherence and quality of the Rockefeller Centre.  

It was a surprise to me to learn that there is at least one protected view in New York. Their approach is different from ours, though, and arguably more sensible.   The  Brooklyn Heights Promenade, laid out in the 1940s for pedestrians at an elevated level above the Brooklyn Queens Expressway which runs along the shoreline, has views out across the water towards Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.  The protected view - put in place when the promenade was built - controls development of the land immediately in front it at the lower level next to the water - now being laid out as the Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The protected view doesn't affect the way Manhattan on the other side of the water can develop, but it ensures you will still be able to see it from a place that was designed to take advantage of a view.  Protecting foreground rather than background was the original idea of protected views in London too, but as so often with UK planning, there has been mission creep.