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.