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."
"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