Friday, October 19, 2012

Prize Fever Meets Spain's Coastal Law

Abandoned Club Med, Cabo de Creus, from Erase una vez un club
More catching up:
A September story in El País reports the European Landscape Biennial's Prize going to the restoration to an "undeveloped" state of the Cabo de Creus on the Cosat Brava north of Barcelona, former site of a Club Med resort. The restoration was led  by Martí Franch and Ton Ardèvol.

You can't  completely erase development, and a natural environment is a mutable thing. The architects' sensitive handling of such questions seems to have contributed to their recognition.

Following the Ley de Costas or Coastal Law passed in 1988, the Spanish government has been reclaiming prime coastal frontage as public property, and has proceeded in many places to demolish existing constructions on public land, from summer mansions to beachfront snack shacks and entire vacation communities.

Built in 1961, the Club Med was an interesting artifact, as documented in the program Erase una vez un club on RTVE, Spain's public television. But the restoration is a big improvement.

The effect of the Coastal Law has been a bit brutal at times in its effort to fight the brutal over-development of Spain's coasts in the name of nature and the environment. To make matters worse, the current conservative government has put much of it on hold, giving beach house owners a 75-year moratorium.

The right of public over private interest seems basically correct in theory. But what's wrong with having a modest place to get a drink and a sandwich on the beach? And when well-designed, what's so bad about coastal development?  Older communities tend to grown fairly well into a landscape, or we get used to them, so why blow them away together with all the unlicensed recent encroachments? Hopefully, the new moratorium means that the current  government is ready to take on more of these nuances.

But let's go back to the European Landscape Prize. If you go the the Biennial's web site, you find that it is organized by the Catalan College of Architects in Barcelona, the local professional association. And the prize goes to a local project.

So why is it called European?

The Catalans have become accomplished at this kind of clever marketing.

Another grandly-titled award, the Mies van der Rohe Prize for European Architecture, was dreamed up in Barcelona to give Mies' rebuilt Barcelona Pavilion a useful function. Its web page boasts that "Candidates for the Award are put forward by a broad group of independent experts from all over Europe, as well as from the architects' associations that form part of the European Council of Architects and other European national architects' associations". The page also highlights the award's financial backing by the European Union, but the Union logo on the web page comes with this interesting disclaimer:

So is it European or what?

Of course the same chutzpah went into the making of the Nobel Prizes by another small and peripheral country. Not to mention the Pritzker or the Praemium Imperiale in the field of architecture.

But despite their efforts, I haven't seen these Barcelona-based awards getting the international attention they seek. Maybe the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus could teach them something. They could  try calling themselves the Biggest Biennial World Landscape Prize in the Universe. That should bring in the crowds.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

FAD Prizes Turn to Madrid

Matadero. Casa del Lector by Antón García-Abril. © Roland Halbe

Catching up on news, the winners of the 2012 FAD Prizes were announced this summer. And though based in Barcelona and traditionally anti-centric, the two most significant awards this year went to projects designed by multiple teams in Madrid.

The Prize for Architecture went to the conversion of the sprawling halls  of Madrid's early 20th century slaughterhouses, the Matadero, into a sprawling cultural center.

Madrid Rio. Bridge by Dominique Perrault. Photo: DC
 And the City and Landscape Prize went to the equally sprawling  Madrid Rio, a 10-kilometer park along the banks of the Manzanares River, passing directly in front of the Matadero. It was designed by a team lead by Ginés Garrido and including the firms Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, Rubio & Álvarez-Sala and West 8, with special interventions by Dominique Perrault (pedestrian bridge over the river) and others.

Like Madrid Rio, the Matadero project has is sponsored by the municipal government, which has conceived the complex as "a creativity support center." And it describes the rehab of the existing pavilions as a "field of experimentation for new architecture" (both quotes from the Matadero web page).

Spaces include:
  • Nave 16, dedicated to art and artists' studios, by the architects Alejandro Vírseda, Iñaqui Carnicero and Ignacio Vila Almazán.
  • The Casa del Lector or House of the Reader, operated by a private foundation and opening this month, by Antón García-Abril
  • The Cineteca by José María Churtichaga and Cayetana de la Quadra Salcedo
  •  Plaza Matadero and other outdoor spaces, by Ginés Garrido, Carlos Rubio y Fernando Porras
  • Escaravox, plaza shading devices, by Andrés Jaque
  • Nave de Múscia by María Langarita and Víctor Navarro
  • Entry Pavilion by Arturo Franco
  • Design Center by  José Antonio García Roldán
  • Naves del Español, run by the national Teatro Español and designed by theater director Mario Gas and stage designers Jean Guy Lecat and Francisco Fontanals, under the coordination of municipal architect Emilio Esteras
  • Home of the Ballet Nacional de España and the Compañía Nacional de Danza, rehabbed in the 1990s by Antonio Fernández Alba 
Escaravox shading devices by Andrés Jaque. Image: Andrés Jaque.
Nave de Música by María Langarita & Victor Navarro. Photo © Luis Diaz Diaz

Nave 16. Photo © Roland Halbe

Cineteca by Churtichaga & De la Quadra Salcedo

Nave de Musica, Plaza from Wikipedia by AlesKubr2

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Architecture and its Discontents

Some unnamed wise guys here in Spain have organized the Pretzel Prize to annually recognize the worst in architecture and urbanism. See their web page here, where you can vote for your choice among several finalists for 2012.

The forum also offers the opportunity to write-in crits of your favorite worst buildings. Very tempting.

But I must say the list of finalists is a disappointment. Easy targets, and brushing off any serious appreciation for experiment and flash -- the Revenge of the Philistines?

Sorry guys, a lot of your candidates for the dumps will be around a lot longer on the collective radar than your poor opinion of them (Frank Gehry's Strata Building at MIT, Jean Nouvel's Agbar Tower in Barcelona....).

Best of the page: It could be worse, a section with photos of hilarious details, such as the one shown here.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A New Look at Genius Loci

I've just received issue number 9 of the Russian journal Speech, with my interview with Álvaro Siza and my report on the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building at Columbia University in New York by Rafael Moneo and the Moneo Brock Studio.

The theme of the issue is Genius Loci, on which Siza had a lot to say, including this:

"AS: It also occurs to me that genius loci has to do with the culture of a country. Let me tell you something very curious about American cities, both Spanish and Portuguese, and the Portuguese cities in India and Macao.
Spanish colonial urbanism is based on the Philippine Codices (he sketches a grid plan). A fantastic code. The plaza, the dimensions of the lots, the typology, all articulated in the plan, which produces these marvelous cities of South America, which still work today following the same principle. The Spanish built on a high plain. Large areas that permitted great extensions and growth."

"In Portuguese cities, on the other hand, in Macao or Boa, and in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, Recife or Olinda, the topography is always very abrupt and irregular, and the cities adapt to the topography."

"For me, the principal reason for this difference is the following: when the Spanish arrived in America, they were a country of millions of people, and with enormous power. But in Portugal there were only three million Portuguese when they started exploring and civilizing Africa, Asia and Brazil. A very small country that goes out all over the world – there are clear explanations for this, but the first is that we are crazy."

"The Portuguese couldn't defend cities the size of the Spanish settlements. And so all the Portuguese cities are like fortifications. Nature promotes their defense."

"DC: And the Spanish colonial cities reproduce the Spanish meseta."

"AS: They are numbers and power."

Moneo's building, designed as a heavily-trussed bridge, 14 stories tall that spans the roof of a preexisting gymnasium, offers an interesting take on the genius loci of Manhattan as I describe it in my introduction: 

"But there is another, more intimate side to this native genius that one discovers inside the city, at street level. This character has been forged in the struggle to submit the geographic incidents of the island to the demands of mobility and density. It can be found in the underground concourses and elevated bridges of its transportation systems –structures of iron, concrete and steel exposed in all their gritty strength– and in the hard asphalt canyons of its endless avenues – spaces of incessant movement, cast in shadow by enormous towers and splattered with moving shards of reflected light. It can be found too in the city's artificial landscapes – the artificial deck of Park Avenue and its towers, built over the rail lines of Grand Central Station, or Central Park's molded hillocks and meandering roads, sculpted to contrast with the city's grid. The original terrain of the island has been leveled, mined, spanned, extended by landfills into its waterways and otherwise transformed."

Álvaro Siza
"There was something in this place that asked for this building here" 
Speech 09, 2012, pages 252 - 275 

The Bridge Building
 Speech 09, 2012, pages 116 - 129

Álvaro Siza photo, DC
Structural sketch of Columbia building, Ove Arup

Sorry, no web version available