Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ensamble Studio's POPLab Prototype in Brookline




Photos © Ensambl,e Studio


Spanish architects Débora Mesa and Antón García-Abril have built a prefab prototype as their Boston home. It's the subject of my latest article in the April-May issue of Mark magazine (Holland).

Here are some excerpts from the text (article not available online):

"The Cyclopean House is a live-work loft, built over a former garage in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the Spanish architects Débora Mesa and Antón García-Abril live with their three children. The house is also the first completed prototype for a novel system of prefabrication that the couple is developing at the POPLab, which they founded at MIT in 2013, and in their architectural practice known as Ensamble Studio."

"The key to the system is the use of large sections of expanded, high-density polystyrene foam, popularly known as Styrofoam, which is the core of prefab elements…. The architects shape the foam into beams with different profiles, including Is, Ls and Cs. They reinforce it with an exoskeleton of galvanized steel studs, and finish it with a double layer of 6mm cement board."

"The experiment is driven by their interest in developing an "ultra-light" prefab system that, "without adding mass, provides tectonic qualities of solidity and firmness," Antón explains."



"The galvanized steel framing on the interior reads in many ways like conventional wood trim, recalling Japanese paneled interiors, as Antón points out, or perhaps the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright…. These references are coherent with the essential concept of the prefab units, which use modern versions of the materials of traditional American balloon-frame construction."

"Antón considers their system a hybrid between American and European building concepts, between the balloon frame and the solid wall. "Compare houses by Richard Meier and Eduardo Souto de Moura," he says. "There's a difference in weight. European construction is about the continuum, solidity, firmitas. We've put together these two traditions, to try to get the best of both. Prefabricating, but not in little pieces. Light but not thin. Solid and thick, building walls, not frames." "



Case Studt in Prefab
Mark, April  - May 2017, p. 152 - 159

More pictures and plans:
Divisaire Journal, July 29, 2016



Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Coderch Tear-Down in Madrid?

Photo: Colegio Oficial de Arqutectos de Madrid (COAM) / El País

A story from last month's El País that I have been hearing echoes of:  the owners of one of the three works by José Antonio Coderch in Madrid have applied for a demolition permit: the Vallet de Goytisolo house of 1956 in Arturo Soria's Ciudad Lineal (Linear City).

Private houses from the 60s and 70s are in critical danger now, as they pass from original clients to new owners or heirs and require major renovations. Given changes in living programs and  high land values, the pressure to demolish is strong. The market is picking up again after years of paralysis. And preservation measures are way behind.

Architects raise the cry in favor of these works, but does anyone else really care? 

Architecture is valued among architects, and only among a very few, who are as rare and irrelevant to general society as butterfly collectors. And we want to tell people that they can't tear down that old house.

Coderch was one of the pioneers in reviving modern architecture under Franco, after the hiatus of the Civil War and the monumental national styles of the regime's early years.  The house looks like a gem.  Collectors in the US would be all over it. But no one collects contemporary art in Spain, not to mention contemporary architecture. You have to slip architecture in on the sly, as Alejandro de la Sota advocated – "Dar liebre por gato",  reversing the old saying of how to trick clients with the ingredients of a stew. It's one of those elegant, pithy expressions that you can't really translate. In De la Sota's version, the clients ask for cat meat and you serve them hare. But then they treat it like cat meat anyway.  And there you are, getting your architectural jollies at the clients' expense. And indifference.

Philip Johnson once said something rather similar: he never talked about design issues with the client. If his AT&T Tower on Madison Avenue had a Chippendale top, it was to let out hot air.

Anatxu Zabalbeascoa
"Amenaza de derribo para una obra madrileña de Coderch"
El País, March 17, 2017

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Aesthetic confusion in Denver


"Bad" architecture in Denver, according to Denver FUGLY. Via CityLab.

The FUGLY Movement

Citylab airs a complaint about new high-density housing in Denver. The city is booming but some hate the design of new construction.

Most of the examples put up for the horror show don't actually look all that bad to me. For one thing, they are overtly "modern". Oops! The self-styled "Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture" (CARTA) at Denver's school of architecture isn't happy about that. Some of the multi-family housing is even, believe it or not, nominally "Deconstructivist", imitating gimmicks from Peter Eisenman's IBA housing in Berlin. Wow! But yes, a mistake.

Left: "Decon" redux in Denver. Funky, yes, no? Denver FUGLY. Via CityLab.

In architecture, if not in economics, everything, and I mean everything, does indeed eventually trickle down.

Perhaps many of these projects do give modernism a bad name. But I think it's because they are so quickly thrown together. The problem is American development, not the particular architectural style employed. It's all about cheating the suckers with cheap lures and making a buck. Theme park glitz.

The accusers in Denver:
 'Every building going up is tan, brown, red or burnt red,' says Brad Evans, moderator of the Denver FUGLY Facebook page. 'That’s every color.' 
The developers' supposed defense, as critiqued by Christine Franck, Director of CARTA:
'Developers would say "this is what we have to do, this is what’s selling, this is what people want.' 
But look at what Evans likes:
 'My favorite building is probably the Michael Graves library, it feels like this institutional building but then it’s totally whimsical about it,' Evans says. 'And everybody hated that, when they first built it, everyone thought it was fugly.' ”
Yes, everyone hated it when it went up. Makes you think, maybe, yes, no?

Evans should just flash-forward himself 30 years, catch up with what's going on in architecture, and everything getting built now will look fine to him. Or almost.


Michael Graves, Denver Public Library (1995). Source: Archidaily, Estate of Michael Graves.


"Good" architecture in Denver as per CARTA (yawn). Swallow Hill Residences (2003) by Tryba Architects.

 I think a big part of the problem, as is pointed out in the article, is density. These are multi-unit buildings going up in neighborhoods formerly of single-family houses. I imagine that new developer single-family houses in the US are still in "traditional" styles. Do these "modern" apartment buildings respond to the new demographic of young urban dwellers across the country?

Amanda Pampuro 

CityLab (The Atlantic) 
March 14, 2017


Monday, March 13, 2017

Whither Architecture?


Elbephilharmonie by Herzog & De Meuron. Photo © Iwan Baan

I just got another disheartening headline from Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times – about parks in Chicago and Philadelphia – and remembered Alex Gorlin's recent Facebook comment that  writing about architecture is disappearing.

Gorlin was responding to Mark Lamster's observation that all the books that come across his desk now are about cities and urbanism.  Gorlin attributes this to the dominance of photos quickly consumed on web pages like Archidaily and Dezeen.

Could it be something more serious? I really think architecture is in a deep crisis, within itself and with the public.

It always was.

But then there was the romance of the icon-builders. The Elbephilarmonie is its last gasp.

For a long time, though, in places like Spain, China, Azerbaijan or Dubai, its been an embarrassment. The romance is over.  Just last year Helsinki turned down the chance to build another Guggenheim. It seems like a smart move.

On this latest Michael Kimmelman post: It's all very well and PC and much more important than la-de-da old architecture, but….


Mark Lamster's FB entry, March 7, 2017:
"Sign of the times: bookstore shelfspace that once went to architecture now goes to books about cities. i'm glad we're all thinking about urbanism now, but as an ex-architecture book editor i can't say i'm excited about this development, especially as so many of these "city" books are just repackagings of the same faddish conventional wisdom. it seems i get one or more in the mail every week. i find most of them are well intentioned but not particularly well grounded in history and naive. i also wonder if anyone is actually reading them."

Alexander Gorlin comments,. March 8, 2017:
"I think architecture has been reduced or distilled to images online - reading about it has shriveled to nothing - The NY Times and the New Yorker simply have withdrawn from writing about architecture - thank God for Dallas ! And the NYRB."

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Amanda Levete's MAAT in Lisbon



Architektur Aktuell has published my report on the addition to the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon (MAAT), designed by the London-based architect Amanda Levete (not available on line). Here are some excerpts from the article:

"Stretching out along a riverside pedestrian walk, the building is conceived as something like a ripple or a bump in a rug, in which the ground plane gradually rises and falls, climaxing over a grotto-like entry opening. The ramps and stairs on each side of this arch rise to the accessible roof, also slightly arched in two directions, with views over the river at its edge, and finished with a stepped amphitheater and greenscaping."

"The structure thus reads as a long, twisting ribbon along the river bank, clad in custom-designed tiles, which flares out horizontally at its central peak to shade the entry arch, and to reflect dancing river light from its underside, via skylights, into one of the building's underground galleries, which are grouped around the oval hall."

"With its ribbon-like, tile-clad forms, the MAAT is remarkably similar to another recent waterside building in Portugal, Luis Pedro Alves' Porto Cruise Ship Terminal, designed in 2005 and opened in 2015, which features long arms extending along a dock and coiling up into a drum-like central mass. Both designs constitute interesting and valid interpretations of the particular opportunities offered by a waterside site. Both aim to fuse building and landscape, creating contemporary public icons that function at the broad geographic scale of the horizon, establishing points of focus along a sweeping plane of vision that attract our far-off gaze."




Luis Pedro Alves, Porto Cruise Ship Terminal. Photo © Fernando Guerra

Despite its spectacular appearance, I did not come away from my visit without some "quibbles" about the design. The most notable:
  • "The architects describe the central vault as "a gently expressed arch," which may be true when seen from the water, but it can also suggest other readings. Visitors actually approach the building from the riverside walk, with its foreshortened views, in which the vault rears up much more dramatically, suggesting perhaps the open maw of a gigantic shark, or a breaking wave."

  • "Despite this elaborate choreography [around the entry], the archway fails to establish a real sense of connection between the outside world and the main interior spaces. Only the restaurant and shop directly overlook the water – although curatorial reasons may justify this decision."
  • "The access stairs and ramps to the roof on either side of the arch are unexpectedly steep, and feel crowded in by the adjacent buildings on either side; they would seem to want to stretch out more comfortably along the quay. Once up on the roof, the arching ground plane and the abrupt drop in elevation at the rear, all suggest that we are astride a building rather than strolling through a landscaped park as the architects seem to have intended. It's rather uncomfortable, like riding the back of a tortoise."

  • I was also not too convinced by the curving interior spaces, which the architects describe as intended to accommodate "the changing relationship between art and visitors, the growing importance of interaction and performance, and the emergence of a less didactic relationship between museum and public." I comment, "The kuntshalle's curves are not apt for conventional displays of paintings and other dusty stuff, for which the MAAT provides more conventional spaces on the power plant's premises." 

Oval Gallery. Photo © Hufton Crow


Kuntshalle for the MAAT Museum, Lisbon
By AL_A (Amanda Levete)
architektur.aktuell 443, January - February 2017, page 84 - 93