Sunday, July 22, 2018

Junk Space or Space Jumk: A Visit to Berlin's Free University

Main f acaede, corten steel replaced with bronze in Norman Foster retoration.Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015. Source: web magaine Uncube (reference below)

Freie Universität Berlin
1962 (competition); 1967-72 (Phase 1)
Georgis Candilis, Alexis Josic & Shadrach Woods, architects.

I have wanted to see this legendary building for years - an entire university in a single sprawling structure, with a maze of interior streets and courtyards - an indoor city, like a souk, projected to extend over 350,000 m2 of space -3.5 million square feet- when complete. Though its pedigree is Team X -Candilis and Woods were founders of the group- I imagined it as a physical incarnation of concepts such as Constant's New Babylon or Yona Friedman's Spatial City, a fully-realized adolescent male fantasy of endless, random exploration and encounter - which, apparently, in its salad days of leaking facades and student strikes in the 1970s, it came close to being.

 Original plan. Source: web magazine Socks (full reference below)

But this is not the building my friends and I found. Perhaps we simply didn't wander far enough into the nether reaches of numerical-alphabetically-named passageways. But I wonder too if Norman Foster's restoration of 1997-2004, while saving the building for posterity, perhaps gentrified it as well. Or was it always, with its carpeted hallways and artificial air, its dropped ceilings and fluorescent lights, more akin to a 1960s airport concourse, shopping center, hotel convention center, or other forms of modern junk space? Too soberly German and institutional to be really avant-garde, despite the jazzy facades, the maze-like plan and the endless possibilities of its vastness. Our friend Michael Neil found it simply difficult to breathe. A real city turns out to be much more interesting.

Unless noted, all photos by DC

Strangely, like Hans Scharoun's Philharmonic and other monuments of West Berlin's Cold War period, the Freie Universität is unmistakably suburban in character, rather than urban, despite its enormous size: in its low, two- and three-story profile, in its disregard for street lines, in those grassy borders that separate it from the street like a suburban church. The only thing missing is a parking lot.

Rear facade in aluminum, from Phase II, 1973.79

Our friend Emily Pütter sees the anti-hierarchical character of the design, its bid for "free form" and all that, and its suburban American ethos, as clearly ideological. Of course. And it was built in the heart of the American sector, in suburban Zehlendorf. Similarly, Scharoun's Philharmonic, together with Mies' National Gallery and Scharoun's State Library, are haphazardly scattered in a park-like setting, right beside what was then the ravaged border of the wall, and now is steps away from a re-incarnated Potsdammer Platz, though the vibe is closer to Westchester or Shaker Heights.

Aerial view, 1974. Gabriel Feld and Peter Smithson, Free University, Berlin: Candilis, Josic, Woods, Schiedhelm. Exemplary Projects, 3 (London: Architectural Association, 1999), 16. Source: Socks.

But the vastness of the Freie Universität is ultimately impressive, at least from the inside - junk space of such a scale that it comes to feel like a Star Wars mothership or an artificial planet. Walking down the endless central corridor, with ramps sliding up and down to other levels and corridors peeling off at regular intervals, you feel as if the whole thing is cruising through interstellar space as you walk.

Next time in Berlin I must explore the building alone, like a spelunker, venturing deeper and deeper into its recondite byways, and try again to find the magic. Though the very fact that we were not tempted to do so seems telling.

We came close to such an epiphany in a little bookshop hidden off one of the garden courts. As we walked by some windows, a primitive sign outside caught our eye in a corner of the garden. We found a little door into the garden, followed a meandering, sloping path down into a sunken service road, which tunnels under several wings of the building, and entered a claustrophobic, windowless little basement space packed with books.

Two interesting web sites on the project:

Florian Heilmeyer
"Radically Modern in 60s Berlin (3): The Radically Modular Free University of West Berlin"
Uncube Magazine, Blog Berlin, June 15, 2015

Mariabruna Fabrizi
"The Free University of Berlin (Candilis, Josic, Woods and Schiedhelm - 1963)"
Socks, 10.29.2015

From the latter, edited:

"The project proposed to transform the campus into a deeply interconnected city with internal streets, squares, courtyards and multiple walkways on the model of an Arabic Medina."

"The main concept was a radical rethinking of the educational system with an accent on the flexibility and evolution of space, as well as a literal spatial incarnation of the idea of horizontal communication among students and teachers."

"Classrooms, departments and facilities were to be decentralized and distributed on the grid without any hierarchical organization."

Photo: Lena Giovanazzi, 2015 (Uncube)
Phase 1 construction: 1967-73

Original architects with local project architect Manfred Schiedhelm

Phase II: 1973-79 by Manfred Schiedhelm

Restoration: 1997-2005, Foster & Partners

Phase IV: 2004-2015, Florian Nagler Architects

Phas IV, 2004-2015, with terrain remaining for development
Massing plan, Phase IV outlined in dark. Source: Uncube

In the first phase the lightweight facade panels, designed by Jean Prouvé, were intended to be dismounted and re-arranged by two people with a screwdriver. They were finished in corten-steel. Unfortunately, they rusted out and leaked even before construction was completed, earning the building the nickname of "Die Rostlaube" or "Rusty Shed".

Full-scale mock-up of Foster's bronze facade panel, replacing the corten-steel originals.© Foster + Partners. Source: Uncube (visible by clicking through photos).

In his restoration, Foster replaced the corten steel with bronze panels that otherwise match the originals remarkably.

Candilis, Josic & Woods dissolved their partnership in 1968. The second phase was carried out by the local project architect, who remained true to the original concept, but replaced the corten-steel with aluminum. It was called "Die Silberlaube".

Foster library. Photo: Freie Universität

Foster also added a glass-domed library to the complex, somewhat in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller - Foster is a fervent fan and collector of both Fuller and Prouvé. The complex takes on the addition remarkably well - it could use a few more such couplings or plug-ins. But Foster's glass dome leaks when it rains.

Foster's Library breaks with the open carpet plan of the original. Photo:

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Alberto Campo Baeza: Body and Soul

All photos © Javier Callejas

Sports Pavilion
University of Francisco de Vitoria, Madrid
db - deutsche bauzeitung
April 2018, pages 24 - 31; cover


Alberto Campo Baeza describes his gymnasium, built for the Legionaries of Christ's Francisco de Vitoria University in Madrid, as a "container of light," and he has submitted every detail of its design to the realization of this idea.

Large planes of translucent glass, which make up the upper sections of two of its enclosing walls, facing northwest and northeast respectively, flood the interior with indirect skylight.

Campo Baeza has muted all possible visual distractions in the interior, and finished every surface in white, in order to cede protagonism to the play of light across them. They receive and scatter the light, converting it into a spatial presence as palpable as the air itself. When we visited the building on a cloudy winter day, the interior seemed brighter than outside, as Campo Baeza proudly pointed out. The space collected and concentrated the light in a way that nothing around it could match.

The general massing forms a striking duality, in which the gymnasium and the narrow slab of the classrooms rise to the same height from either end of a common base.

This singular massing recalls the relation between Campo Baeza's Caja de Granada bank headquarters in Granada (2001), another "container of light", and his adjacent  Museum for the Memory of Andalucía (2010), where the low base ends in a spectacular, extenuated vertical slab at one end, which rises to the height of the bank on the other side, creating a conceptual spatial containment between them, although the two buildings are actually misaligned. Here the compositional idea is more condensed and conclusively realized.

Drawings courtesy of Albeto Campo Baeza

If there was something of the formal extremism of Boullée in the Museum in Granada, Campo Baeza also displayed a skillful use of stripped-down Beaux-Arts spatial organization in the plan, bringing to mind as well the compositional strategies of Post Modern proto-minimalists such as Aldo Rossi. We find these strategies here as well.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Brick at Bankinter

Photo: DC

Rafael Moneo with Ramón Bescós, Bankinter bank headquarters, Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid, 1972-76

I am a brick fan, and look at these!

Machine-pressed brick, a technological throwback from the 19th century. I think it was Emilio Tuñón who told me years ago that they came from an old factory discovered somewhere in Valencia that still had one of the old resses running - I wonder if it was runninf on steam!

The press produces those sharp crisp edges and smooth faces. The bricks have "frogs" or indents on the top and bottom to receive the mortar, so they can fit tightly together and hardly show mortar at all on the facade. The bricks match those of the palacete that Moneo preserved on the site, although on the older building, with its heavy stone trim everywhere, there's not much brick in evidence.

Moneo here runs a thin line of tinted mortar into the horizontal joints, and leaves the vertical joints empty – the opposite of Frank Lloyd Wright at the Robie House in Chicago, where he rakes the horizontal lines deep to catch shadows, and fills the vertical joints flush to the face of the brick, and tinted the same color, which breaks the brickwork into continuous horizontal bands, like the overall composition of the house itself.

Francisco de Asis Cabrero and Rafael Aburto do something similar with the Roman brick of the National Trade Union Building (1949-56) on the Paseo del Prado in Madrid, one of the references for Moneo when he designed Bankinter.

Here Moneo shows off the thickness of the wall with those staggered jambs, like the window openings in a Romanesque apse, but then he adds those supper-modern and refined bronze lintels and sills -- like the thin concrete slabs that slice through the thick brick walls of his Roman Museum in Mérida.

Moneo used the same brick for the Atocha Train Station, with all the joints morterless, if I recall. I'll have to take another look at the Roman Museum. I remember being disappointed that the bricks of the arches weren't filed down into wedges calculated to match the circumference of the arch, as would have been the case in the United States in the 1880s, but that was perhaps too much to expect.

This is "dressed" brick, designed specifically for facades. It's not the brick you find when you take down the plaster in the kitchen of your old brownstone. It's a veneer that doesn't carry any structural load. In the 1970s, many of these beautiful dressed-brick facades were marred by sand-blasting and re-pointing in botched restorations. I'm not up on the techniques used today in restoring them, but I suspect that things have gotten better.

I hope to go back when the light is right (in the morning) to take a picture of the building as a whole, although it is rather impossible to get a good angle. It appears to be in pretty good shape, looking a little staid from today's perspective but still quite elegant. And so tiny! It is really crammed in there behind the old house, a very tight fit, like an overgrown garden addition.

Foto: Francesc Català.Roca, from Arquitecturas Bis 23/24, July-Sept. 1978, p. 16

This is the work that made Corrales and Molezun's Bankunión instantly out of date. It's Spain's version of the Post Modern, which Moneo practically invented. It's contextual and provocatively historical –those brick walls and bronze bas-reliefs in the upper spandrals, by Francisco López Hernández– without renouncing the modern.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Jefferson's University of Virginia, Charlottesville in winter

Peter Maverick, engraving of Jefferson's plan of the University of Virginia, 1826. From the University of Virginia Library, Digital Collections. Source: Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Fragments from an autumnal Vienna: the sentinel figures atop the cornice of the Museum of Natural History, near our hotel; figure of a saint at a local church; Fischer von Erlach's baroque library, embedded in the Hapsburg palace complex; apples in a market, for a bit of color.

Schloss Belvedere, Vienna and its tricky garden axis. Looks complete from above, but it is broken into three parterres at different levels, with fountains interrupting movement down its center. Realized by Dominique Girard, a pupil of Le Nôtre.

Otto Wager's Church at Steinhof.

Finally, red velvet and leopard-print rugs: the bar at the old Bristol Hotel, still purporting to be a 5-star establishment, located across the street from the Opera on the Ringstrasse.

I was surprised that so many of the classic Viennese cafés are tucked into hotels. They reminded me of mid-town Manhattan, circa 1950, with the tripartite wall sconces with little lampshades and the rugged floors and upholstered walls, cozy places for a cold winter night after the opera (Café Sacher, in the Hotel Sacher). Though I suppose the influence goes the other way. Admittedly I missed some other famous ones. But I'll stick with the grand old cafes of Italy, Spain and Portugal. Except for the pastries. (Below, Mary's picture of the café in the Hotel Sacher).

See my related post on the Karl Marx Hof.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Karl Marx Hof, Vienna

Karl Marx Hof, Vienna
Karl Ehn, 1927-30
Visited November 8, 2017

Beside the rhetorical arches, which seem a bit over-exposed at this point, the interior courtyards are impressive in their own right.

We did housing block studies like this at Columbia under Kenneth Frampton. His models were mainly Dutch, but the corner turns here bring it all back.

The complex is about a kilometer long and includes baths, a laundry, a kindergarten and a medical clinic, all inside the blocks facing intermediate streets that cross through them. The multi-arched section is only a single volume deep, with a large park on one side and rail and metro connections on the other. It is flanked by two long courtyard blocks, each spanning intermediate streets. The lot is irregular, so the volumes taper as the extend outwards in each direction. and the volumetric massing becomes simpler, less original but still very fine. Brick is used sparingly as accents in the window strips and around the openings into the blocks. The complex has been beautifully restored.

I imagined the setting to be much more gritty, but it is leafy and suburban, near the end of a streetcar line in a prosperous-looking neighborhood. I guess I was too much influenced by  "Night Porter" - it's where Dick Bogart's character supposedly lives, in a cramped flat. (The flats reportedly range from 30 to 60 square meters).

Photos: DC and Mary Dreyer

Source: Hilary French: Key Urban Housing of the Twentieth Century, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London, 2008

Far reaches of block, exterior view

Laundry and baths
Additional images and data can be found at the link below. Photos include pre-restoration views:
Tamás Perényi, Tamás Niczki, Zsófia Dankó, Boglárka Szentirmai
Multi-Apartment buildings
Department of Residential Buildings
Budapest University of Technology and Economics

 For more on my visit to Vienna, click here.