Saturday, April 29, 2017

Postcard from New York: Calatrava's Path Station

All photos by DC

 Santiago Calatrava's work is scaleless, which is one of the reasons I generally dislike his projects for European cities. But it works well in the US, where everything else is scaleless too.

In fact, at the Ground Zero Memorial, it is the only intervention with a relatively human scale. Everything else soars up above your head or burrows under your feet. On the ground plane, you're left with a confusing mess of walks, plantings and low barriers, more confusing now while still under construction  – Libeskind's famous disappearing master plan?  Calatrava's fossilized wings become a focus point, the only visual reference within reasonable range, though they seem to be ambiguously oriented, their curving sides pointing towards I'm not sure where. In fact, the building shows what appears to be its backside to the Memorial Park (although there isn't actually a real facade, just another rear end on the other side). And it looks quite freaky when seen from the Wall Street canyons.   

In the Park, you don't even  sense the vast pits of the memorial fountains until you are on top of them, although they are stupendous in themselves. Looking over one of them, someone asked if there was another one. You'd never know. And the museum – was there a museum there? Though admittedly I was operating at less than full visual capacity.

Inside, Calatrava scores again. A clear, legible space. The white stone floor looks like an ice skating rink. As I have observed about the sandy walks and stone plazas of Spain, it’s a surface that enhances and ennobles people as they move across it, converting their progress into a choreography of presence. The secret: the ground plane is luminous and abstract, a real stage of public appearance. The only other space in New York that does something similar is the entry plaza to Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, which is raised above the surrounding streets, almost unfettered by barriers, so that it is the very air of the plaza that gives people that electric sense of being. Another European in America. The main hall at Grand Central Station has something of this expansive generosity, but in a more subdued, Beaux-Arts tone. And the populated lawns of Central Park in the summer. And Rockefeller Center. In all of these, something happens when view points are organized at varying elevations.

Another bit of European urbanity: the benches around the exterior edge of the hall, as in a Renaissance palace.

I don't think anyone has pointed out that the ribs of this hall evoke the vertical gothic ribs of Yamaski's original towers.  Despite their awkward refusal to touch ground on the white marble floor – instead, Calatrava tucks them under the mezzanine galleries in graceless little elbows, as if they were neon lighting tubes or radiator fins, bizarrely undercutting their structural reading. This isn't modern weightlessness, it's kitsch modern weightlessness. (There was something a little kitsch in Yamasaki's neo-gothic too, but no need to go into that now.)

More from my New York visit:
Billionaires' Row

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