Saturday, November 22, 2014

You Have to Pay for the Public Life

Proposed Pier 55 Park, New York, by Thomas Heatherwick

"There’s a combination, it seems, of trees and water and fairytale stories told by a charming inventor, that persuades people to part with many millions – and allows conventional urban planning to be gleefully suspended."
Oliver Wainwright

The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright weighs in on Barry Diller's proposed US $130 million park and performance pier on the Hudson, designed by Thomas Heatherwick. It turns out that Heatherwick is behind another park on the water proposed for London, this time for a Garden Bridge across the Thames.

Proposed Garden Bridge, London, by Thomas Heatherwick

Oliver Wainwright
Thomas Heatherwick plans $170m hovering miracle island for New York
The Guardian
 Nov 18, 2014

London's garden bridge: the public park where groups and cyclists aren't welcome
The Guardian
 Nov 19, 2014

A more complete view on London from the BD Journal (registration required):
David Rogers
Garden Bridge says parties of 8 are 'protest risk'
BD Online
Nov 19, 2014

London's Garden Bridge is sponsored by a non-profit trust and will be built with public and private funds. On plans to restrict access for cyclists, protesters and large groups, Wainwright charges:
"Such a measure suggests that the garden bridge, as its critics have suspected, is not in fact a bridge – in the sense of being a public right of way across the river – but another privately managed tourist attraction, on which £60m of public money is to be lavished."
Wainwright points out the Disneyfied quality of both projects:
"It is another vision that could come straight from the set of Avatar – fecund flowerbeds erupting from mushroom-shaped columns, their canopies joining to support parkland above the water." 
Is this another step in the tacky Hollywoodization of public space, its commodification and conversion into entertainment and cheap fantasy? The next step up from the theme restaurants and clubs of the 1990s, such as those in New York designed by Broadway set designer John Rockwell? Though actually, peering through the fog of the atmospheric renderings, I don't think these places look all that bad.

Charles Moore famously said of the original Disneyland, "You have to pay for the public life". Public spaces have gotten better in New York with private involvement, as in Central Park. Though sometimes the tradeoffs are steep, as in Bryant Park. The alternative seems to be abandon and neglect. Or of course grass-roots community gardens, another form of privatization.

Maybe Diller and the Garden Bridge Trust are just following the example of Gordon Matta-Clark, carving new public spaces out of abandoned city piers, chain saw in hand.

Gordon Matta-Clark's "indoor water park", Day's End. Intervention on an abandoned New York pier, 1975. Source: Light Industry

Thursday, November 13, 2014


"To go underground is a frequent strategy for architects, planners and engineers seeking to minimize the impact of new facilities and infrastructures on the scarce open spaces of a city. But what usually happens to the trees?"
This month The Architectural Review carries my article on a neighborhood library in Barcelona by BCQ Architects, a local firm headed by David Baena and Toni Casamor.  I also published a different version of the same article last month in architektur.aktuell of Vienna. (The article from the Review should be available on the web to subscribers shortly; I'll update when it's up). 
"BCQ Architects ... folded the building into the retaining walls that separate a small raised public park from the surrounding neighborhood, and converting its roofs into planters that are large and deep enough to permit trees to grow to maturity....  The overall result is a building that blends into its surroundings, adding sectional complexity and interest to the encounter of the raised park with the street below it, through a series of planted piers set at different angles and levels, and alternating with sunken light wells dropping below grade."

I can't resist noting that both article titles are mine.

Taking Root
 Joan Maragall Library, Sant Gervasi, Barcelona, by BCQ Architects
The Architectural Review, Volume CCXXXVI, Issue 1413
November 2014, pages 68 - 7

Under the Trees
Joan Maragall Library
architektur.aktuell 414, September 2014, pages 62 - 73

Photos Courtesy of the architects. © Ariel Ramírez 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Baroque Space

The corridor as a Baroque paseo. Photos: DC

The architect Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra invited me last year to contribute an essay for a book on his Seville Congress Center, which has just been issued by the Madrid-based publishers La Fábrica. The assignment gave me an opportunity to explore some ideas about Baroque space in contemporary Spanish architecture that I have been mulling over for years - ever since one of my early essays on Madrid.

Since this is a book one may not find everywhere, I am permitting myself a more extensive quote from the first pages:

"Turning over in my mind the apparently amorphous, intuitively-shaped, and thoroughly contemporary spaces of the Seville Congress Center, walking through them again and again in my memory, I have come to the conclusion, although only in the form of a hypothesis, that the quality or principle that governs their organization is essentially Baroque. Not that I can be precisely certain what Baroque space might be. But what I mean is this: an architectural space conceived in terms of the processional, from the point of view of both the people moving through it and those in a position to observe them (positions that, in contemporary democratic space, are fluid and interchangeable), an architecture of movement and changing viewpoints, related also to Le Corbusier's "promenade architecturale", but interpreted with a particular austerity and elegance, and a particular conception of urban space, that I find elsewhere in Spain, and that I associate with the Baroque spaces of the Spanish Counter Reformation, and with certain painters of that period such as Velázquez and Zurbarán (an idea that Juan Daniel Fullanondo, for one, might not have found entirely preposterous)."
"This theory first occurred to me in one of the secondary spaces of Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra's design, on the first-floor of the ramped entry wing, in the corridor that gives access to a series of meeting rooms. In any other country, this corridor would most likely be utterly inconsequential, a space conceived solely in terms of its functional efficiency, without aesthetic pretensions, an anonymous space of transition designed as if the people who used it were senseless integers, considered only in terms of their quantity in movement, in order to determine the required capacity of the corridor and hence its width."

"In the Congress Palace, this corridor is very high in proportion, and bathed in indirect natural light from above. Instead of being characterized by the noisy incidents of purely functional space, it is notable precisely for its absence of event. The architect has stripped the space to its essential condition as a recorrido or paseo: a stretch of space that extends in a straight line for the purpose of allowing and directing the movement of people along it. That movement is given shape and measure by the regular rhythm of the structural beams that pass over the corridor, and the regular spacing of the doors to the meeting spaces on one side, with their projecting signage, just like an avenue lined with regularly-spaced trees. This rhythm is underlined by the uncluttered planes of the remaining surfaces, and the marked inflection of the space as a single-loaded corridor, with a long blank wall opposite the line of doorways. This wall is like the garden wall of a large estate along which such an avenue might extend (what comes to my mind is the brick rear wall of Madrid's Botanical Garden along the Avenue of Alfonso XII), a surface that receives and diffuses natural light, giving material presence to the very air the space contains, while modeling the beams in subtle shading as they regularly cross the space over our heads, as well as the people moving along the corridor ahead of us, or talking in a group around a doorway."

"This is certainly not an entirely Baroque concept – we can find it in the streets lined with columns of Roman cities in North Africa, in the neoclassical city, and even in the tree-lined country lanes and roads that, in the era before the automobile, could be found anywhere in the world. But the distillation of a common functional corridor to this elementary condition, that of a luminous space that is rhythmically marked for movement through it, does strike me as true to a long Spanish tradition dating to the Baroque. The very absence of event that characterizes its spatial materialization is paradoxically full of presence, as in the luminous but dark backgrounds of certain portraits by Velázquez or Zurbarán, in that peculiarly Spanish mixture of hard realism and other-worldliness."

"If this line of argument were to be supported solely by the example of a minor corridor it would be of little consequence. But as I studied the project I came to recognize many other processional spaces on a much grander scale...."

Intercambiando Miradas / Exchaning Glances 
Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra
Palacio de Congresos de Sevilla 
Seville Congress Center 
La Fábrica, Madrid 2014, unpaged
Spanish and English texts

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Photos DC
Still catching up on August publications: near the beginning of the month, the German weekly Bauwelt published my article on the Biology Faculty Building at the University of Alcalá by Héctor Fernández Elorza, boldly built of exposed cast concrete.

Faculty office

 "Though it would be incorrect to describe Elorza's work in any way as Scandinavian, the sense of drama and mystery suggested by the Biology Faculty building does seem to invoke that atmosphere of surreal symbolic reference suggested by some of Asplund's works. It also brings to mind the darker, mask-like architectural drawings of John Hejduk, as well as some of the Brutalist-period work of Marcel Breuer – a bit of existential angst brought out of the twilight and mists of northern Europe and into the unforgiving extremes of sun and shadow of the Spanish meseta."

Eine Maske für Labor
The Masked Laboratory
Faculty of Cellular and Genetic Biology, University of Alcalá, by Héctor Fernández Elorza
Bauwelt 29-30.14, August 8, 2014, pages 15 - 21, cover

Puttin' on the Ritz

Vinoteca Vegamar Selección
Photo © Diego Opazo

Architecture Record's annual interiors issue this month features a wine boutique in Valencia, Spain by architect Fran Silvestre and interior designer Andrés Alfaro Hofmann. I made a trip down to see it, and my story is posted here.
"...the prominence Silvestre gives to the visual impact of seemingly airbrushed, polished surfaces over other qualities such as texture or spatial richness reflect the aspirations of his clients, sharing with them a particular idea of glamour. In the case of Vegamar, Silvestre notes that the firm was previously known for a table wine, sold mainly to local restaurants, and their new outlet represents a bid to attract a more demanding clientele."
Silvestre and Alfaro Hofmann also designed a Record Houses house in Valenica, which I reviewd in the April 2013 issue. My blog entry for that article is here.

One of the fun things I did working on the piece was to look up the lyrics to the original Irving Berlin song. There are actually two different versions. The one I remember, as sung by Astaire, goes like this:

Have you seen the well to do
up on Lenox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air?

High hats and narrow collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime for a wonderful time

If you're blue, and you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where Harlem flits? Putting' on the Ritz
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits, putting' on the Ritz

That's where each and every lulu-belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin' elbows

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz

That might have been okay in the 1930s, but it turns out there is a PC version. I wonder when that came along. Did Berlin write it as well? It goes like this:

Have you seen the well-to-do,
up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
with their noses in the air
High hats and Arrowed collars,
white spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
for a wonderful time

...and so on. 

New rich or wannabees, all of 'em, and in Valencia too, having a blast.

Putting on the Ritz
Architectural Record
Record Interiors, September 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rust Belt Chic

© Hisao Suzuki

For their August issue, Architectural Record also sent me to review the Pierre Soulages Museum in Rodez, France, by RCR Architects. The link is here.

RCR (Ramón Vilalta, Carme Pigem and Rafael Aranda) is based in Olot, near the Pyrenees in Catalonia. This is their first museum, and perhaps their most prominent work to date, although they have been working, and publishing, for decades, mostly with houses and other small-scale projects in and around Olot. Their best-known project there is the restaurant Les Cols, which I wrote about in Record Interiors in 2003 (page 136).

From AR. © Pep Sau
I think their interest in thick steel plate comes from Richard Serra and Donald Judd, and an early stint in Japan has left its mark. But they have invented their own particular brand of minimalism, and always push that vision further.

The pictures so far don't really convey the experience of this work. Ramón is undertaking to take more, but the sequence of large independent white galleries embedded in a relatively open space of contrasting dark galleries, clad entirely in metal plate and with northern light, is hard to capture.

© Hisao Suzuki
Perhaps the plan gives a better idea.

From AR

The picture does convey something of the harmony between the architecture and Soulages' work. RCR are good dance partners, playing the perfect supporting role.

I was lucky enough to coincide in Rodex with my old friend Hisao Suzuki when he was taking these pictures, and we rode back together to Barcelona, crossing Foster's Milau Aqueduct on the way.
Fade to Black 
Architectural Record
August. 2014

For a more personal view of the Pierre Soulages Museum, I add some of my own photos. They are best for showing details and an idea of texture and the effects of reflected light on the metal surfaces.

Here for example is the entry canopy, seen from outside and in:

The entry to the restaurant was across this very Japanese reflecting pool, enclosed in a screen. The over-sized gravel is basalt:

Sidewalks are edged with a thick flange of steel plate:

The stair rails are composed of three solid tubular bars of steel fused together:

 Can you see that? It fits perfectly into the hand.

Window frames -actually working structurally as well- are formed by paired plates of 6mm steel separated by a reveal:

The all-metal galleries receive a full blast of northern light through screened windows with window seats between the deep flanges that separate each pane of glass:

From this space, the high, white galleries are alluring sanctuaries:

One small complaint: the architect-designed toilets. If you need a sign indicating where to flush, something is wrong. Flush button completely hidden when seat is up. Maybe there are some things architects should leave to the specialists:

Finally, it was hard to get a good general view of the building. Here's a distant approximation from the other side of the park, and from the rear: