14 May 2009

Pressed into a green mold: a LEED example

On a recent incursion to the Gulf of Mexico,we turned up unannounced to the opening of the new office headquarters of a local contractor. It was being billed as the first LEED Gold facility in the state built by and for a construction management firm. The credentials of the certification had not yet come in, but we were told they expected to exceed the points needed by a large margin. What had happened that we would get here, with the Green (LEED) stamp of approval, with the resulting building as innocuous and uninspiring as any building type in any suburban sprawl - whether in Florida or in "Kogai" (the suburban "newtowns" in Japan) ?

Guided tours of the facility were given by staff members with breast pins that read “Ask me about LEED”, sharing euphemistic metaphors, with visible enthusiasm, hitched to what was once a truly sustainable, environmentally sensitive design script.

The discourse offered was reinforced by by figures that would mean most to the lay person - the amount of water saved; the amount of energy bills reduced; the general good moral of the staff seen in longer hours worked, free from any VOC's in their new cubicles. Yet despite all the good intentions - and at no fault of their own in implementing them - the project was a tepid and stale example of what LEED brings us in terms of current building.

Institutionalized directives as LEED, BREEAM, HQE, tend to stifle the proactive and creative strategies that should be part of all design or built projects today. They should be the minimum to expect from any new or conversion project – the standard practice of the design field and the notably the reluctant building industry and not an expensive benchmark brand. With the inescapable proof of the hugely negative impact of new building on the world’s eco-system, not to mention the overused term global warming, the current format of green directives are not in an impetus for intuitive or proactive problem-solving.

It is deeply counterintuitive that our field has espoused so readily the point system/benchmark system, like formulas to design to, when in the most skillful hands the specific results are often mediocre.

What concerns us is when building performance is taken as a telic and fixed result, rather then an atelic process, on-going both in design and in the building’s assumed life-span (as in C2C, or Cradle-to-Cradle design, as theorized by Swiss architect William Stahela, a far more ambitious vision championed by William McDonough and the Swiss engineer Michael Braungart). The science and chemistry behind life-cycle and carbon neutral approaches are frequently factored into the best parametric design practices - Arup, Elioth, Transplan, B&G - using more tools for more ingenious results: CFD (computative fluid dynamics) or ASK (Artificial Sky visualization, radiance/illuminance and optimized natural daylighting studies) or more simply, Canadian Wells (Geo-thermal heat exchange) to name just a few.

The gulf coast headquarters is a telltale example of a meager ambition that coops the benchmark script of many green building today. Despite the very best of intentions, LEED and its equivalent, validate small steps (and miserable architectural results) or worse, stand-in for product placement. From the outside the industry, it would appear as if they are colluding with marketing strategies rather then fostering improved visionary design. Profit will be made by those least implicated in the end results.

Instead of efficient "Canadian Wells", here on the Gulf of Mexico, we get a building with no operable windows; no natural air dynamics of a stacked interior volume in a hot climate; interior, rather exterior sunshading; and slightly narrower asphalt parking with modicum of gray-water irrigated shrubbery; not to mention the absence of a coherent autonomous energy source (sun, wind, earth). The flashpoint, is that these credit failings are countered by creating a bike room; and this in a corporate industrial park on former marshlands, where it is commonly 90 degrees, reached on four lane highways where few would dare bike. The project still reaches gold.

The hopeful wish is that the current benchmark formats and their offshoots will evolve and eventually become obsolete and the next generation of engineers and architects will realize we have been looking in the wrong place to do good for global climate change.

This generation will have to tap a new mindset, not at the service of abstruse point equations, to bring about real carbon neutral environments in unforeseeable ways. Despite peer pressure to state the contrary, we are still far from creating such built projects, whether in the deserts of the Emirates by Foster, Snohetta or OMA - as widely and erroneously billed today - to soft infill projects here at home. The place to start is not only in the physical and engineering fields - or in nature itself - but in the arts, in social theory, from Archigram to Acconci, from Botanski to Badiou, from Rodney Graham to Grcic; Buckminster's late interviews and Olafur Eliasson's work may spark a sensitive architect to look in new directions. As may the more robust imagery of Archigram or SuperStudio. The confines of the current green rating system and the resulting design is ours to break. For the sake of the planet.

20 April 2009

1979-2009: From Group Material to Material Connexion (sic)

Since 1979 at the founding of Group Material - the artist collaborative based in New York - we have seen the practice of art installations as a medium of the artist slowly dissipate as a valid practice. At times chaotic, exhilarating or alternatively subversive, the "activist installations" as they were known have been forfeited for a deliberate gentrification of the gallery and museum space. As a consequence the art we see more and more of, at arms length from Felix Gonzales Torres early political art and what now fills this installation void today, is a combination of art as "personal disclosure"1 and art as "full disclosure" (as in narrative-based exhibits and retrospectives). History has shown us that the material of art can't be legislated into such limited boundaries. And yet the practice we see today seems to say otherwise. Fortunately there are refreshingly new(dis)courses being taken - and gallery formats - that fall outside this common dichotomy of private and public practice (from Magasin 3 in Stocklom to e-flux on the Lower East Side).

Material Connexion (sic)2 is a noted resource library for designers of all fields that display thousands of physical samples of innovative materials. The PhD-trained staff serve to jury a selective review of new materials to enter the library (few make it) and provide those interested with the background on a material's performance and sustainable attributes. The downside to this is that access to the resource library is highly controlled and on invitation only for a rather expensive individual or corporate membership. This format of grouping new and technologically advanced materials for the perusal of a very narrow segment of the community is a far cry from Group Materials' mandate for collective education and open social exchanges in their practice. This should come as no surprise: the late 70's utopia having since been sidelined for more practical agendas.

As designers, it is a slippery slope to raise issues of societal ethics with a client (how accessible their resources might be), so we used the design to address these as best we could. The offices opened earlier this spring in conjunction with ICFF. The working staff are more then contented with their new spaces, a wholly different organizational layout then they had anticipated. One example is the conference room at center of their 12,000sq.ft office, resolutely unplayful, which acts both as a closed space and a circulation link between the public and fee paying sectors. This was not asked for in the Material Connexion brief, but with our creative - and oppositional streak - we provided them with a less then neutral space where they least expected it.

Gonzales Torres art, once he left the confines of Group Material, forged an aesthetic that uniquely merged the personal discourse with social content. It is as if the apparent neutrality in his later art were an attempt to re-create the political commentary that was never able to effectively transcend the early installation work themselves. This was Gonzales Torres' predominant mode of artistic practice - and his best work - where the environment of the gallery embodied a a wide political statement veiled in the neutrality of the white-walled gallery.
The design for Material Connexion, and not the least importantly the client's final choices in the build-out, never met that ambition. We will have to try better next time.

1 On Felix Gonzales Torres, see Nancy Spector's fine piece in the Guggenheim Museum Catalog, 2007 and Lewis Kochur on Displaying the Marvelous, MIT Press, 2000. 2 Material Connexion, founded by George Belaryian, has branches in Seoul, Milan, Cologne and Bangkok.

14 April 2009

Transactional Space - or En - in a house for artist Doug Starn

The Guggenheim Museum's current exhibit Third Mind covers all art forms except architecture - even dance and written music are included, a rarefied experience in any exhibit. More exceptional, is not this absence, but the inclusion of such a wide range of artists, a feat of curatorial stamina but also of pure effort matching in costs what the curator Alexandra Munroe has brought in ideas.
Noted for her exhibits that looks at the "cross-currents" between Asian art - or reverse-influences as opposed to the standard text-book art chronologies - Munroe does much the same here at the Guggenheim demonstrating the importance of the East in an impressive culling of American Artists.

It would have well served this enterprise to touch on design - but perhaps the installation of the show within Frank Lloyd Wright's building was enough, taking up all 6 floors and the adjacent galleries to much effect.

What link might one find in Munroe's show and Wright beyond this short term exhibit, where architecture is all but absent? Not much and this is not the reason for this extended text. Yet I should mention our role in the design of 12 Japanese art exhibitions for Munroe during her tenure as director of the Japan Society (her projects included Zen Buddhist Art to Yoko Ono; Photography by Daido Moriyama to Takashi Murakami) and notably an exhibit that focused solely on Wright's work and his relationship with Japan (which included tampering and selling old scroll paintings). Munroe had also called upon us to be her critic in laying out The Third Mind exhibit, working along side her team to locate groupings of art reproductions on vintage models of Wright's spiraling galleries. To suggest including architecture, for whatever it is worth, would have overstepped our modest role on this show and added nothing. But more to the point, for this posting, what might Munroe, Wright and my small practice, have to do with the artist Doug Starn (of the twin brother duo, Mike & Doug Starn), who was considered for The Third Mind exhibit, but who's work falls largely after the cut-off year, of the exhibit's time-line (1890 to 1989), who is in the title of my text?

The linkage is this one: All of them share an affinity with the concept of "En" (in Japanese) - or Transactional Space - in much of their work, in our work for them, and/or the influences they have had on us.

Gunter Nitschke defines "En" as three distinct actions in Buddhist and Karmic traditions: a bridge between cause and effect; a bond between different individuals; and in architecture, the transition from inside to outside, or building to nature.

The Starns' work, seem to me to use the first definition of "En" as a device in the early and later stages of their projects, where the focus on highly specialized and intuitive process is key to their art: a bridge between two forms of art production; for Munroe, it would be safe to say, there are few people as predisposed as her to be fill the second denotation of "En": in social situations the effort to bond different individuals (e.g. en-musubi); for Wright (and for myself) it is the rather self-evident use of transitions in architecture - transactional space - from inside to outside, from private to public, or "En-gawa". It important to be clear, here, as Nitschke was: these definitions are not either/or conditions, but simultaneous and interdependent actions or experiences.

This is what makes the Starn's work visually elusive: there is the impression of ambivalence as to how the works are to be seen or experienced - as in their recent Bambu project at the Talix Factory in Beacon in the photo above; what makes Munroe's curatorial project's aesthetically and theoretically complex: sharing and opposing artistic practices rather then synthesizing them under one banner; what makes Wright's houses still worth visiting (as the few remaining projects by Antonin Raymond, one of this associates who later set-up a modernist practice in post-war Japan) and so approachable to the general public while remaining a right-of-passage to many architects: to me it is the consistent use of the en-gawa design approach in defining a buildings siting and relationship to it's ground. His structures are "neither simply independent of nor dependent upon, but are interdependent among each other, i.e. part of each other. GN". Wright, as Raymond, and as in the Starn's modest house expansion which we just completed, all share a feature a transactional space. This might be the layering effect of the exterior edges of a dwelling, functionally creating a "grey-zone" between inside and out. The "En" in architecture, is nothing more then an architectural device, sometimes as little as 60 centimeters deep that function as either a shield or frame to the outside, with various degrees of permeability. Able to reinforce spatial qualities of a building, depending on lighting and time of day, "En-gawa" is a key feature in most residential architecture in Japan, from the Machiya merchant housse of Kyoto, to the Sukiya Temples of the Edo Period; it is more an exception today, from Tadao Ando's early houses, to the modest Asama house by Atelier Bow-Wow.

The Starn house in Connecticut - a gut renovation and expansion of an existing Tudor styled clubhouse from the early 1900's - modestly resurrects the "En-gawa" approach, wrapping the main body of the building with a circumferential veranda with its own roof, and creating an ambiguity of "spatial belonging": the inside is pulled in, and not solely framed; the extended balcony lowered from view and the overhanging roof, draws one out visually into the garden. "It is as if you are floating on top of the ground".

The rest of the design, shares spatial layouts, materials and details with Japanese Sukiya buildings and our interpretation of them in a contemporary way, in this house as well as in a much early project we did for........ Alexandra Munroe. She was our first private client 10 years ago, and the Starn's our most recent.

Credit to the research and writings of Gunter Nitschke; the quotes are from his work, From Shinto to Ando, Academy Editions, 1993.

23 February 2009

For the Sake of the Environment: Anish Kapor, Anthony McCall and Industrial Design

In a recessionary / depressionary climate, with work load at an all-time low, we offered our services to a leading European kitchen fabricator to instigate a new product line. With no background in industrial or product design, we parlayed our experience in museum casework to tackle the project.

The directives were for us to come up with a new design direction for a high to mid-range kitchen with efficient design features and unitized configurations, coupled with low impact materials in fabrication and long-term life span of the product line.

At the outset we decided to repudiate some of the standard approachs to kitchen design, which we did not know much of anyway. As the design program developed, it seemed to get harder and harder to jettison them, as the old school thinking of modular design and "Modular" concern for proportion held up to more and more scrutiny. Eventually, we found alloying opposites would best serve the design - and even more, the end-user we had in mind.

What we saw as the sequestered formats of kitchen layouts, were merged with less defined edges to the design; where we saw too much of the robust and angular forms, that have become the industry norm, we countered with curvaceous lines. In this comparative design process, we became keenly aware of the complexity of the kitchen environment and that user-comfort and efficiency could not be sacrificed.
Once the kitchen design passed an early programming phase the Pennisula System, as we called it, was tested against the human body to produce scale analysis and to develop the increments of the design vocabulary. From this we developed a design based on convex and concave curves on the vertical axis to create the paneling forms and surfaces.

We preferred to stay away from the gimicry of double-curature forms that are epoused by most CAD operators, and seek a design based on the simple geometry of an intersecting line and a curve. The artist Anthony McCall's seminal solid-light film from 1974, "Line intersecting a Cone" and his more recent work "Doubling Back" 2003, served as an ideal confirmation of parametric design (not to mention visual and physical awe).
From McCall came the "tear-drop" forms of the upper glass cabinets. From the sculptor Anish Kapor, came the concave base cabinets, that respond to the curvature of the body, as well as efficiently responding to how we lean against forms, reach above, and arch ourselves. Both artists inform our approach to how forms and surfaces are viewed, defined by projected light and in the reflected weight of monolithic materials.

In a sense this design, viewed in a drawing section, is a projected image of the body and efficiently responds to our movement and posture. From a design perspective the inward curve has the added benefit of slightly off-setting the front faces of the cabinets, so that they are less susceptible from springing open by their release mechanisms. (The hands-off hardware, now offered on most high-end kitchens, provide a smooth (and stealth) assistance for all drawer openings, lift and door sliders).
For the free-standing wall cabinet, the design is in the concave surface itself, used vertically as opposed to the horizontal concave forms of the counter base that acknowledges, once again, the visual explorations of the Kapor's work. The very slight visual distortion, very minimal and highly atuned to materials used - both reflective and matt - is a constant source of wonder in his work. Used and transformed in our design, we reinforce the human form and physical experience in the home environment.
The cooking experience must be both a tactile, visual and sensory experience – which informs the materials we have proposed for the kitchen line. Behind a liquid-crytal wall unit -transparent or opaque at a touch - sealed to maintain energy and climate control is a wine storage unit, a dry storage, even possibly a portion of the refrigerator, that allows us to view a healthy diet of choices without opening the cabinet – for the sake of the environment.

07 February 2009

The Life and Death of Parametric Design

The apparent wizardry of much of the software available in the design and engineering fields is now widely understood to be the paragon of a certain design genius. Such practicing luminaries of these tools, and even great talent, as Zaha Hadid or Gage/Clemenceau, have served up such seductive images, that it is easy to forget that there was a time when this form of parametric design was almost impossible to deliver and very time consuming to produce.
Scaled drawings, individually punched-in attributes and modified geometries took days to number crunch and to visualize the resulting design. Then this would all start over, with a single modified parameter. In today’s case, it has become so easy to shift each and every parameter of a design, or a form, that the constraints in testing them are almost absent: in complete reversal of how parametric design first developed – think of the complex forms of the Sidney Opera House roofs by the late engineer Peter Rice – a step-by-step optimization of a form or a structure defined in two, then three coordinates, that is now possible by simply sliding a cursor any which way on a mouse pad.
But the apparent loss of constraints is not always liberating, not always good for art. The Nouveau Roman championed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Films by Jean-Luc Goddard, not to mention more contemporary artistic practices by Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Do Ho Suh, show us constraints that are voluntarily meshed with the practice itself and the work is stronger on account of it. This cannot be said for much of the hyper-dexterous forms that Maya and Rhino provide for designers when, if ever, they are built. Only in very deft hands – among them Hadid who has long proven her ground now, with such seductive works as the Alpine railway stations in Innsbruck and her bridge in Zarazoga; and Ben Van Berkel in his exceptional Mercedes Building in Stuttgart or more modestly his Changing Room at the Venice Biennale; or in Thom Mayne’s up-coming Cooper Union Building clad in a warping perforated skin – have we seen the promise of late blooming parametric design at its best. In less thoughtful or experienced practices, those that have jettisoned constraints for the pure seduction of form giving, we find ourselves wanting. In any case, many of these projects remain un-built. As practicing architects, but also as a citizens of our public spaces, we can only give an inchoate praise to these attempts and hope many of the finer or younger practices will come back to what the profession needs today, what our cities need and the public demands: parametric design that integrates the changing parameters not of whimsical forms, but of the complexities of life, energy and program. The software to respond to the needs of “just-in-time” building practice – efficient, low embedded energy and as green as possible - that steps beyond the stulifying apothegms of the blob design world as we know it, has not been created. And for good cause: it is found only in the unique, epistemic structure of the human mind, where all great parametric thought takes place.

Post Script: Drawing on our background working with engineer Henry Bardsely at RFR in Paris, founded by Peter Rice – the long time collaborator of Piano – I hold on to some of my earlier experiences in parametric design; on other aspects I have had to re-think their validity. Clearly time, materials and energy were at their least effective in the early years of optimized structural design, structural glass, fink structures, cable-net spans and such; But in the development of genuinely handsome and efficient projects that relied on novel approaches to enclosure, spanning material, bearing nodes, well, here standard practice physical models, silly-putty forms and wax castings came in handy and fine projects built as a result. I was fortunate to have had to pick-up, where Pete Rice had left off, for the detailed design stages and building of his last posthumous work for the glass structures of the MUDAM. The structural cast nodes on this project, and how they work as part of a two-way sparse truss with unique star-burst cable tie backs, and water-cooled shading screen, were developed in the old school of parametric design, and they have still yet to be matched 10 years later.

06 February 2009

Drawing is Thinking: Concept Sketches by I.M.Pei


These sketches are an unfurling of sequentially produced thoughts on paper for the Musée d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg (MUDAM), beginning in 1991 through 2000.

Over the course of a decade I worked closely with Pei on several designed museum projects and kept an active archive of each sketch he made from the first day of design meetings through site visits on the construction site. The MUDAM project was the longest spanning project in Pei’s practice – outdoing the JFK Library project which took 14 years to complete – on account of the inchoate government ministries involved.

I.M. Pei's almost ethical imperative to never show an incomplete project - an unrealized design or a work in progress, as he felt architecture must be judged as a physical experience - has largely kept all of his unbuilt designs, not to mention conceptual
sketches, unpublished.

These sketches, then, offer a rare opportunity to see his mind at work. They are a record less of the source of the completed design - the struggle with the arrow-head shape of the historical fortress on which the museum was built - but of the action of the architect's hand, exploring and resisting the imposed geometry of the site and his own design principles.

It offers a fresh look at the trials and errors, small puzzlings and geometric victories of the architect’s musings, which would later become the backbone of the completed building, opened to the public 16 years later, in 2007. Visit an earlier blog entry on the MUDAM project on this site, and visit the full collection of drawing on arcspace at http://www.arcspace.com/architects/freed/pei_sketches/pei_sketches.html.

To rebuke those that see an architect's "napkin sketches" as mere curiosities, look again.
Here we can see an experienced mind flirting with the lines and geometries that have marked much of his built work, done with the same wonderment and pleasure as that of a child: the personal markings of an inquiring mind.

27 January 2009

One Hundred Unbuilt Projects

Over a decade ago, the architectural magazine Kenchiku Bunka published an issue titled: The Unbuilt Jean Nouvel, 100 Projects. That title was the sole English used in the entire issue, and thus limited its distribution. I found it, strolling one evening in Ochanomizu, where most independent bookstores are found in Tokyo, as well as my favorite hotel: The Yamanoue or Hilltop Hotel. I brought it back to my Japanesque styled room - where Yukio Mishima rested and penned his own letters - and wondered how did Nouvel pen these many projects in so short a time?
I had, after all, spent a few years in his early studio on the Rue Lacuee - making ink drawing for a series of competitions, on average one per month. But 100 projects, that would take most architects a life-time. An extraordinary feat, even with Nouvel's legendary stamina, widely known in Paris of the late 80's, when the Bains Douches was in its heyday.
Nouvel's design studio near the Bastille, boasted a three story factory space and a badminton court at its center. It was shared with five of his previous partners, collaborating with three younger partners who he would quickly part from (or vice versa) and years before the three or four iterations of his firm and partnerships, which would bring him further into the 11th arrondissement of Paris and to settle on the practice, Architecture Jean Nouvel or AJN, with unnamed partners and financing. These iterations of his practice, left many collaborators aside, as well as his roots building innovative social housing and the deliberate antagonist practice he had started, aimed at exposing the weaknesses of the predominant post-modernism practice and the public entities that commissioned them. (For those who doubt this, it is worth recalling one of Nouvel's earliest projects - a modest suburban house - where he left all of the "edits" imposed on him from the building department in place, but patched up so as to make them that much more visible; and his later writings in Le Monde, to speak out for the social responsibility of the State, to preserve the site of the former Citroen factories, the island factory complex outside of central Paris, where the first labor movement in France began). And these iterations also left so many compelling projects Unbuilt. The images above show a few.
It is now this complex character, father of the Societe des Architects, a resistant movement against the predominant Order of Architects of the time, and other manifestos, that now brings us the inaccessible Mercer and the Chelsea Condo's at upwards of $2,500 a square foot; the same architect that twenty years ago was largely ignored in the States, even as he was the established star of the pre-IMA generation (Paris' Institute du Monde Arabe). Perhaps it is this dichotomy - the socialist and builder for the priveledged - that ferments his mind, his process, and allows him to continue to bring us stellar work. For he has clearly entered a new phase of his prolific design work, some exceptional buildings - from Lucerne to Copenhagen - that make his early experiments, his 100 Unbuilt Projects pale in comparison. And yet, each of his recent works, share many of the same preoccupations that we experimented with - and he wrote about late in the night, the evening before the projects were due - for innumerable competitions. It is these works that I recently look at again in the Kenchiku Bunka review, 130 pages dedicated to his unbuilt projects that I use to gage Nouvel's new designs. It is here that I still find some of my own early work as well; the ink pen lines collaged with film stills and printed dialogs from a Varda or Wenders movie. And it is here that I see his real voice coming through, the same voice that I carry with me today in my work that continues to influence a whole generation, whom he told: it is only the context that counts. We are architects of context. This design conceit, has now been jetisoned in his most recent projects, as Nouvel builds context-generationg structures. And we, fans and visitors alike, are better off on account of it.

08 January 2009

Kindergarten Chats

This year marks the 30th year I have held on to architect Louis Sullivan's book, Kindergarten Chats, acquired from Carnegie Mellon University, where I had just arrived fresh from Switzerland.

Since then, and after a peripatetic few decades living and working in France, Japan, and eventually New York where I settled down, a book idea has been nagging at me. It is only remotely connected to Sullivan's book, but perhaps would share his penchant for a cutting irony and unflappable criticism. He wrote prior to his most famed student and employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, had embarked on this own trajectory that retrospectively - if Sullivan had lived, of course - and emphatically became an antidote to his own thinking. That is to say, Sullivan would be proven wrong by FLW, and we are all the better or the wiser on account of it.
In regard to this book project - or shall we call it a Pamphlet, so it would fall into the reassuring self-referential criticism that only our profession continues to dabble in, while the other fields of art and design have wisely moved on to "production" both in the real and economic terms - it will try to pinpoint, as Sullivan did, our faulted propensity to believe in a star-system of architecture that continues to fall short on results. And this, through the modest and less-then-modest, short and sometimes long-term relationships that I had the good fortune experience with a certain number of name-architects. (This last sentence, is certainly the most accurate of the two above paragraphs and needs amplification: these encounters, were largely a result of a young architect looking for work with the most interesting designers around, in their earlier careers for the most part, for employment and decent compensation, and never for the later star-attraction for which others have since been drawn to them, self-fulfilling the very context of the star system that some - as I - actively participated in).
And who might I include in this inchoate praise of architects? As I am unable to produce an equivalent to Hans Ulrich's encyclopedic compilation of interviews, (now the preferred format, with noted cultural figures, for the means of producing a yet unsettled history of art and culture and ostensibly limited to the outsider's gaze on someone else's profession - in Ulrich's case eminent artists, curators and theorists) I can instead refuse the outsider position, and relate my own biographic trajectory and how it bumped into, quit haphazardly, architects with names you will all find familiar.
In my case then, a far distance from Ulrich's project of the "complete works", it will be limited - and this is the potential blasphemy of it - to the experiences within the profession and what seriously, or inconsequentially went wrong from 1990's to today. A few things went marvelously right, however, and even for a 20-year old, beginning early in the profession as I did, I was happy to be part of it. One knows of these key players now, who have given us large straights of cityscapes from Shanghai to Sheephead's Bay, from Shigaraki to St. Cloud, is that they are far less then the sum of their best works, and we need to keep our eyes on this fact. Architecture should not be the profession of the individual - the starchitect - as it has set out to become after Sullivan's demise, but of the public. Can we reclaim this? Must it be soley under the banners of sustainability, green design et al, where collaborative fields should work together over selling images? Yes, but there are also other routes to take, certainly.

The question that still needs answering is, who will be in this modest compilation? My former employers: Jean Nouvel (in his 40's and already in a red Ferrari); as was Rem Koolhaas, with a full head of hair, a recently opened office in Rotterdam with not more than a handful of staff; Dominique Perrault in his 30's still dabbling in OpArt, which we can still see in his monolithic later work; I.M.Pei in his gentler later years, a stalwart against the Philip Johnson crowd, thankfully, and always a pleasure to be around; Kazuo Sejima of SANAA, however, aloof, confounding and able to undo all of my 30 year apprenticeship of all that is Japanese; Renzo Piano, still the perfect gentleman but impeccably able to conceal his mild disdain for his rich patrons; and there are others, fragmentary overlaps, on specific projects: the great structural innovator Peter Rice; the artists-turned architects Diller + Scofidio; the perfectionists Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; the early green architect Alexandre Tombasiz; and others, Dominique Perrault, Dominique Lyon, Andy Sedgwick, Bertrand Bonnier - the later my mentor and a willful architect who was far too ethical to survive the profession intact (he now produces organic olive and lives in an off-the-grid solar house in Southern France).

Interior/Exterior, Living in Art

A current – early 2009 - exhibit at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg is worth checking out and dovetails nicely with a recent project of ours, though we are not in this exhibit. The title Interior/Exterior, Living in Art – From Romantic Interior Painting to the Home Design of the Future, promises an expansive agenda, yet the exhibit statement, sits well with our own modest attempt to live with art. Here on the right, our very own Marcel Wander’s computer handiwork, literal printed graphics (think Murakami) is juxtaposed with a Kormarin painting, intercalated drips of acrylic that blotch, beautifully, signs and forms we have troubled making out. Two very different approaches to large scale work that seem to disguise figure and ground – not unlike the work of the legendary Cy Twombly, minus his virtuosic brushwork.

But back to the Kunstmuseum, we quote the e-Flux review:
“This exhibition brings together two programmatic strands of the modernism debate as it relates to homes and living: on the one hand it focuses on "the interior as an inner view and a space for artistic reflection" and on the other it presents "home design concepts between the poles of art and design in the 20th and 21st centuries. The interior as an icon of modernism." Well, our interpretation of modernism in this project, is less generic Eames and more Japanesque-modernism from the Raymond School (see earlier blog on Antonin Raymond below), but we do adhere to the agenda of the exhibit: exploring “home design and interior decoration as an expression of our inner feelings and moods… the reflected, analyzed and staged interior as the external dimension of its inhabitants' inner worlds.”

e-Flux continues, “the second strand (of the exhibit) addresses the question of how we wish to (or how we should) live…it presents interior design solutions between the extremes of luxuriously furnished dens and utilitarian, box-like dwellings, and also considers the positive or negative influence our immediate surroundings can have on our lives.

The exhibition features work by the following artists, architects and designers, among others: Caspar David Friedrich, Henry van de Velde, Henri Matisse, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Zaha Hadid, Ronan und Erwan Bouroullec, Tobias Rehberger, Thomas Demand and Andrea Zittel.”

Our weekend cottage project pictured, falls in the realm of the “modest den” and includes works by Aoshima, Epstein, An Me Ly, Bacheler, Halley, against a backdrop of swaying trees.

More on trees (and snowflakes) later – from Eugene Atget to the Starn Brothers – on view in our office.


07 January 2009

Lords of the Atlas - a new museum project in Marrakesh

Since June 2008, we have been working on a feasibility study for a new museum to be created in the opulent palace of the last Pacha of Marrakech – the Dar al Bacha.

We were selected from a group of firms – we never knew whom other than a few were based in the UK – and signed up without hesitation. Tim has logged three trips and some 100 hours in the Palace – largely alone in the old Salon where Thami Al-Glaoui held court to Charlie Chaplin and Edith Piaf, as well as the various French dignitaries who shared Glaoui’s penchant for glamour, automobiles and Deco-Architecture and the continued presence of the occupying forces in his fiefdom (the Glaouis were known as the “Lords of the Atlas”, see Gavin Maxwell’s book of the same name). The last was his downfall, and following his death and that of the French Protectorate in 1956, the Palace has remained stripped and empty.

It is in this context, a nouveau-rich, over-rough architectural follie that combines spectacular Moroccan features and Western elements inspired from Parisian hotels along Avenue Montaigne - and a symbol largely reviled by the local souk owners that, cheek-by-jowl, that surround the Palace walls - that I have spent the large part of the last summer. Well not entirely, as there were other sites to visit in Marrakech, on my crash-courses into Islamic Architecture of the Magrehb and the robust castles of the Atlas tribes, where the House of Glaoui was based.

And then there was the time to learn about the life of the American art collector and philanthropist, Patti Cadby Birch, who had offered her eclectic collection of art to the King Mohammed VI, in exchange for a decent home in Marrakech. Patti’s disappearance at age 73, after 25 years in the country she loved, had left the museum project rudderless and found us in a unprepared position to make sense of her art, without her, and of the Palace also empty, though unfortunately still soaked with the image of the reviled Glaoui (the person never rehabilitated, as well as the monument he created).

On the art, Patti had stubbornly collected works from everywhere but Morocco, from regions and wide ranging time periods (from Pre-Columbia to African Art) that largely represented human forms – deities or odd amalgams of vessels and animalistic forms – to be displayed in a country where none of the above would have ever see the light of day (the Koran forbids imagery in houses of prayer and this directive has been mistakenly understood in the West to mean no human or animal images are found in any art production in Islamic countries – see the contrary examples in art from Persia and the Ottoman Caliphate – and this misunderstanding reinforced by the New York Times Best Seller, “My Name is Red” by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, most likely against his intentions).

So, we felt this juxtaposition, of Patti’s Art and Glaoui’s Palace, would serve a great dual exercise: show some needed human forms, preferably underdressed as in early Khmer sculpture or mildly erotic as in African works, to an unversed visitorship, while demonstrating the originality of Moroccan palace architecture, complete with its own Harem.

But the real theme of the project, and the core of our work, was far less prosaic: it entailed technical assessments of the buildings waterproofing (polished earth called Tadelakt), code compliance or lack of, for the plumbing and electrical supply (absent), security and intrusion control (also absent, which allowed for the magnificent singing birds to accompany my long stays in the empty rooms), defining the urgent consolidation of the building and new infrastructure needed to transform it into a quality public space.

Our approach, being both architects, versed in historic preservation and sustainable design, and exhibit/museum designers, was pretty much the reverse process that most consultants would take on – and for this reason largely more successful as understood by our Client, the trustees of Patti’s estate – to look first at who our visitor would be, then the collection, and working backwards define what was the best possible outcome in rehabilitating this Palace.

The design that came out of this work, through the feasibility study – offering two birds with one stone in very economic terms for this commissioned work – can be seen on our web site of museum projects.

We think we have efficiently resolved the dilemma that confounded previous design teams that labored over this project, Patti herself and the Ministry of Culture who propose to run it. With an enlightened Board, now running Patti’s Foundation, were are now working on making it a reality.

06 January 2009

"The lamp is the symbol of prolonged waiting..."

Save Dark Skies

We spend many of our weekends just North of Manhattan, in an area that remains - stubbornly and wisely - behind the times in implementing the bleak illumination that most of us have become accustomed to.

The connection between darkness and light is quite clear: the first increases sensitivity to the second. And this is what we felt, when we happened upon a small house, over a bubbling stream that we now use as our get-away from the lights of the City: the darkness, for lack of lighting, had a richness we had forgotten.
For the time being, our Dark Skies are still protected. But new development threatens it, despite our effort to buffer our views from adjacent light pollution by acquiring a large track of adjacent land and placing it into conservation. Even as we sheppard more land into a public land trust, with our neighbors, low cloud cover over the opposite side of the Hudson, would reflect so much indirect artificial light 15 miles away, that our dark skies were becoming illusive. Desperate measures are needed in desperate situations: we needed to save our dark skies. Dark surroundings and the moon reflected in the stream, were one of the few attributes we could attach to this weekend house, so it now became a matter of preserving our modest investment.
It was also an opportunity to make good on our word - to contribute to saving Dark Skies - where public awareness and resources are in short supply. Our day-jobs, designing glare-proof street lighting and low-energy buildings in urban settings, needed a more immediate pendant closer to home. We looked, then, to make our own suggestions to the local town trustees to improve night lighting, at the railroad crossing, on the waterfront - making modeling simulations and mock-ups to demonstrate how we could reduce visual glare and once again not only see the sky, but our nightscape.
With the simplest of terms on the subjective effects of dark-light contrast, luminance and luminance, on fine optics, low visible glare, on reducing harsh contrasts at the water's edge, safety by seeing one's surroundings in graduated shadows, on saving on money and maintenance, we got their ears.
We promised less energy dispensed per lumen distributed, and we would prove it with lighting diagrams. With the darkened mountain as its backdrop along the river's edge, the lighting would be only a suggested presence, we said, providing a uniform hallow of light on the ground, nothing reaching above our eye sight, no stray light to the sky. Gone would be the light source that attracts our eye in a sea of darkness.
The lighting we are now implementing on the waterfront, and on a nearby railroad bridge over the Hudson provides a new visual relief: our gaze can now see beyond the light source itself and unifies our perception of the landscape. It strikes a delicate balance between presence and absence: optically the nighttime lighting subverts its own presence. The sky is better on account of it.