Monday, December 01, 2008

Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet by FAT

"It's not quite Psychedelic Brutalism, but it's aspiring to be something like that," says Sam Jacob of FAT, the London-based purveyor of Fashion, Architecture and Taste responsible for "The Villa", a new community centre on the outskirts of Rotterdam, which blends flamboyant civic ambition with prosaic budget reality. Deep in the industrial hinterland of the city's sprawling port, sandwiched in a reluctant buffer zone between the world's largest chemical plant and an ailing 1950s suburb, FAT has been working to develop a new civic hub. Party hall, conference centre and community cafe in one, the souped-up Wendy house sits in its own expansive grounds in a surreal interpretation of the Dutch heerlijkheid, or feudal manor, appropriated in cartoon style for the common good. "It's a stately home for the community," says Jacob, "but it's built out of tarmac and grass in the cheapest way possible." And it looks a bit like the lord of the manor went to Ikea on LSD.

The project is the largest and most visible part of the regeneration of the dull suburb of Hoogvliet, a failed modernist experiment in utopian New Town planning, now run-down, fractured, and racially divided. Over the past six years, the challenge of rethinking this moribund place has been choreographed by Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost of Crimson Architectural Historians, who came together with others to form WiMBY! ("Welcome into My Back Yard!") in a provocative take on the ingrained "NIMBY" attitude of the region's white, middle-class suburbanites.

"We have this strange, almost perverse, interest in conflict, in contradictions and in stories," says Vanstiphout. Fascinated by the successive mutations of Hoogvliet from a small fishing village to an industrial dormitory town, then from a white suburb to an immigrant melting pot, they were keen to promote the resulting patchwork of convoluted fragments as the town's main strength. "We were attracted to it because it had failed. If a New Town works, it's a one-liner, it's completely monocultural. But through its serial failure, Hoogvliet has become an incredibly rich place."

From the beginning, it was their ambition to reflect this heady mix of stories, of failed ambitions and frustrated dreams, in a brave new form of civic architecture. FAT caught the attention of WiMBY! in 2000 with its New Civic art project for King's Cross, an exploration of civic values for the new millennium, and its polemical exhibition Kill the Modernist Within, which trumpeted a revival of vernacular iconography. "FAT is all about narrative, and we wanted an architecture that tells a story, a kind of Bible for the poor," explains Vanstiphout. "The idea was to monumentalise our idea of Hoogvliet as a city that is interesting because of all its conflicting identities, forms and ideologies."

With this direction, FAT began a programme of cultural observation by drifting through the dilapidated streets of Hoogvliet in the mode of suburban flâneur - somewhere between Baudelaire's "botanist of the sidewalk" and Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch - looking into people's front gardens and analysing the artefacts of their domestic dreams. "We were trying to recognise the narratives of occupation, the layers of stuff that gets applied by people living there," says Jacob. "Somehow the project would have to be embedded in this kind of stuff."

Through this process, it attempted to distil an essence of Hoogvliet's hybrid urban condition and develop a visual language that would reflect the town's innate contradictions between pastoral and industrial, rural and urban, ambitious utopia and banal reality. "But we're not image consultants," Jacob argues. "We're more like Wordsworth, wandering down the hard shoulder of the motorway."

Early ideas for both the form and programme of the building were tested though a series of annual summer festivals, in which the town's innumerable disparate groups were brought together by WiMBY! in a collective mêlée of pony-rides and model boat demonstrations, reggae bands and ageing crooners, set against a FAT-designed stage set, a bright red plywood cut-out in their emerging style of abstracted Hoogvliet iconography. "The intention was that it would become a kind of social condenser, to counteract the distance that normally exists between these various groups," says Jacob. "It was also a means to promote and sell our architectural language to the public," their buy-in being essential for a project with such broad social ambition.

The resulting Villa and Heerlijkheid park are a distillation of the activities of successive festivals, providing a permanent home for the eccentric clubs and ephemeral cultural events of the town which lay dormant and hidden, tucked away in garages and classrooms, in neighbourhoods listed for demolition. "It was a process of looking for all the little clubs and foundations in Hoogvliet," explains Vanstiphout, "then bringing them together in a kind of parallel alternative urban centre, with its own cultural vitality."

As the climax of six years of exhaustive consultation, the building is bursting at the seams with rhetorical content. Essentially an industrial shed - the predominant local vernacular - the blue blockwork box is wrapped in a monumental super-graphic facade, depicting the story of Hoogvliet in an abstract collage. A rustic timber frieze envelops the upper storey in a tour de force of symbolism, where cut-out domestic rooftops merge into cartoon tree canopies, which in turn meld into vertical structures referenced from the port and refinery, and back into the monotonous strip-window world of the New Town, while a ridiculous riot of trees and clouds extruded in golden polyurethane trumpets the main entrance. It's a Venturian "decorated shed" taken to the extreme. "The sign has enveloped and grown all over the architecture," says Jacob, "like a mould obsessed with graphic design."

The interior is a much more prosaic, but equally coded, affair. Greeted by an exposed steel frame and bare blockwork, it is clear that much of the building's €2.4 million budget went on the facade, yet there is still acute attention to visual association. The stair is a cheap metal affair, but articulated with the sweeping ambition of a much grander civic building, while the steel cross-bracing of the walls recalls the mock-Tudor cladding of some of Hoogvliet's more aspirational residences. Exploiting the site's troubled context, a strategically placed double-height window allows the spectacular nighttime theatre of flames and flashing lights from the nearby refinery to provide a dramatic backdrop to parties. Open only for a few weeks, this flexible space has already hosted Antillean raves, Turkish and Moroccan weddings, a chamber orchestra and a circumcision party.

The inflated cartoon Villa sits within an equally stylised landscape of caricatures: an impossibly curvy comic book hill (built with surrounding toxic landfill) frames a new lake carved in the shape of the Netherlands, while rustic log benches with bright pink inserts dot the shore. An ecological kids' playground has already seen toddlers wrestling with wattle and daub, while plans for a pet cemetery were foiled by the Tree Knights, a militant group of arboreal activists, which has taken the site for its arboretum - just one of the many squabbles of the park's development. "We were dealing with a real community," recalls Vanstiphout, "in that they also hated each other."

The first of a series of "hobby huts" is in place, a miniature palace in yellow profiled steel and plywood, to house the model boat-building club. Soon to be joined by other bespoke huts with glamorous aspirations, the motley jumble will form a kind of miniature model urbanism, providing homes for Hoogvliet's weird and wonderful societies along the edge of the park.

Already embraced by a complete cross-section of the town's diverse demographic, there is hope that this whimsical intervention, driven through by a model of considered long-term consultation, will change the fortunes of this maligned New Town and help to welcome more people into its backyard.

Originally published in Icon, December 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Profile: STEALTH.unlimited

"We're from very different backgrounds,"says Serbian Ana Dzokic, who, with Dutch partner Marc Neelen, established STEALTH.unlimited in 2000 to work on projects across Belgrade and Rotterdam. "It's the schizophrenic situation between these two places that provides the framework for more or less everything we do," she adds.

Their work focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind informal urban culture, a fascination that began with a study of mid-1990s Belgrade, probing the logic behind its seemingly chaotic street-based economies. "If you go step by step and describe how things work, you understand there is some sort of system behind it, perhaps something we can learn from," says Dzokic.

After an extensive process of mapping and documentation, the team began to develop a piece of software to model the messy metabolism of street trade, illegal housing production and makeshift public transport - not to explain their findings, but to add rigour to their method. "When you're trying to translate an urban process into a computer environment, you have to be very clear about the parameters," says Neelen. "It forces you to be precise."

Less architects, more subversive catalysts for change, the formidable duo engages in projects with an explosive energy that attracts other collaborators and often turns the brief on its head - as its commission to "bring urban dynamics" to Rotterdam's Boijmans Museum demonstrated. "We proposed to clog the space completely," says Dzokic, "make it unusable." Filling the gallery with a dense grid of 2,000 vertical cardboard sheets, they then invited artists to inhabit the structure, forcing them to excavate space in a process of collective authorship.

"It was an intense and disturbing process for everyone," says Neelen. "If you want to keep the conventional pyramid hierarchy with curator, artist and visitor, you cannot invite these urban dynamics into the museum context. They learned that very quickly."

Originally published in Icon, November 2008

Venice Secret Garden by Gustafson Porter

A secret garden at the Venice Biennale can be found at the furthest corner of the sprawling Arsenale complex. Landscape design practice Gustafson Porter has created a treat for the few intrepid archi-tourists that make it through the endless installations that fill the former shipyard.

"I can't tell you what paradise looks like," laughs Kathyrn Gustafson, partner at the London-based practice, "but we've tried to provoke thoughts of what it could be."

Hidden behind a rusting tangle of industrial relics, beyond the crumbling fortified walls of the Arsenale is a conspicuously perfect vegetable garden. Sitting in what were the grounds of a Benedictine convent destroyed in the late 1800s, the project aims to resurrect the kitchen gardens that fed the nuns, while retaining a sense of the wild. It's a haven after the sensory overload of Biennale director Aaron Betsky's main exhibition.

You enter the first part of the garden, "Remember", through an old storeroom lined with the names of now-extinct animals and plants, before emerging through a polytunnel into "Nourishment", an impossibly abundant vegetable patch swelling with marrows, peppers and pumpkins, all grown off-site and timed to fruit in unison.

For the opening, the gardens were topped off by the pictured sculpture, an airy construction of white sheets and balloons. It was a whimsical touch that suggested Venetian baroque and the cherubs in Tiepolo paintings lugging random bits of cloth across the heavens.

"Landscape architecture is a greatly neglected subject from a curatorial point of view," says partner Neil Porter. As the first landscape installation in the biennale's 11-year history, the project marks an important watershed.

Originally published in Icon, November 2008

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Trumpf Campus Canteen by Barkow Leibinger

"We are not designing Prada boutiques. These are everyday office buildings, factories and canteens, not glamorous museum projects."

So says Frank Barkow, of Berlin-based practice Barkow Leibinger, which has been quietly transforming the campus of Trumpf - the world's leading developer of laser technology - into an award-winning showcase of industrial chic.

Walking through the site's labyrinth of subterranean corridors, whose impeccably poured concrete walls are punctuated with seductive photos of gleaming laser-cut components, it feels more like a Bond villain's lair than a business park on the outskirts of Stuttgart. Rising from the moodily lit tunnels into the soaring "laser hall", a huddle of excited visitors gather round the "TruLaser Tube 7000" in hushed reverence. I half expect to see Sean Connery strapped to a table.

"This is Frank's favourite machine," reveals Carsten Kraft, project architect of several buildings on the campus. "He's really into this tubey stuff." Barkow is currently experimenting with Trumpf's latest toy for a forthcoming installation at the Venice Biennale. "We're doing all these kind of weirdo research projects in the office," he explains. "Before, it was all in a vacuum, teaching at Harvard and the AA. But now we're getting a chance to fold our research into real projects for buildings and exhibitions." The office has recently restructured in a move towards further digital exploration, bringing students in to work on scripting and software development. "It's nice to break out of the European architectural competition ghetto," says Barkow. "It's kind of a dead-ender as an area to experiment."

The practice's latest buildings, including a faceted office block in Seoul (icon 045), are all compelling essays in the new doctrines of mass customisation and digital fabrication, of which Barkow and partner Regine Leibinger are avid promoters. The gatehouse to the Trumpf campus, completed last year, is constructed entirely of laser-cut components and sports an impossibly slender 20m cantilever roof. "We wanted to show off at the entrance," says Kraft. "It demonstrates the interaction between technology and architecture."

But this interaction is more than just deft formal showmanship. With the help of a wealthy and enlightened client, Barkow Leibinger is beginning to revive the slumbering German tradition of heroic industrial architecture. In ambition, there are echoes of the polemic ideals of the Deutscher Werkbund, as embodied in Peter Behrens' Turbine Factory for AEG or Walter Gropius' Fagus Works, both driven by a similarly amorous embrace of new technology. And there's a touch of their social idealism here too.

"It really requires a very different kind of patronage," says Barkow. As a family-owned "mittelstand" business, Trumpf exemplifies corporate social responsibility. Complete with a company choir and orchestra, there is a palpable feeling, when walking around the campus, that its employees are united in a Ruskinian vision of collective joy in their labour. "There's a powerful sense of identity and a very strong bind between the people working there," says Barkow. "In this context, I think architecture has a chance to have a much greater role in defining the workplace, including spaces for events and leisure like the canteen."

The "canteen" is what I've come to see. Hopes of a greasy fry-up in a Formica-clad workers' cafe quickly fade, as I am ushered past flat-screen panels displaying photos of the day's gourmet delicacies into what turns out to be a soaring cathedral to communal assembly, the latest and most radical addition to the Trumpf campus. Nestling in a hollow between existing office and training buildings, the grandeur of the space is barely legible from outside, sheltered by a vast leaf-shaped roof that overshoots the glazed facade, subtly canted to echo the contours of the surrounding landscape.

"Locating the building in an excavation effectively eliminates the foreground, making an introverted space independent from the other buildings on the campus," says Barkow of the conscious move to make a solitary freestanding pavilion for the site's social hub. Its pentagonal crystalline plan effectively evolved as a response to the skewed forms of the neighbouring administration centre, itself an attempt to distil something from the adjacent "weird wonky Eighties buildings". The resulting clash of polygonal geometries is surprisingly fitting, completing the loosely collaged urbanism of the campus and reflecting the local vernacular of industrial jumble.

The form of the roof came out of a series of workshops with virtuoso structural engineer Werner Sobek, whose interest in Italian engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi's early works prompted an investigation into long-span organic structures, supported with minimal means. Developing the leaf idea, a triangulated frame of steel veins supports an undulating honeycomb of densely packed glue-laminated timber cells, some penetrating the roof as skylights, others housing artificial lighting and acoustic baffles, the whole structure hovering effortlessly above diners on nine sets of slender slanting columns.

Lowering the main floor to the level of the tunnels has allowed the creation of an extra mezzanine dining area above the kitchen, accessed by two majestic pre-cast concrete stairways, whose skewed bearing creates a kind of proscenium arch over the serving area, setting the stage for culinary theatrics. Rising to the second level, the voluminous timber honeycomb looms closer, adding drama to this ancillary space that spills out through a zig-zagging facade onto an outdoor terrace.

At the lower level, the other three sides of the building face onto a steeply sloping landscape, a rather incongruous pastoral prospect planted with long grass and wild flowers, perhaps to convince workers they are sitting in an alpine meadow as they tuck into their wurst. "Only the cows and sheep are missing," jokes Kraft. And maybe some doorways. For, although Barkow describes this excavated pavilion as an amphitheatre, it seems perverse to surround the sunken crystalline box with an inaccessible hillside, an exaggerated "ha ha" - only we're on the wrong side of the joke. There is an entrance to the outside world, but one gets the impression that this would distract from the serious task at hand and the lure of the laser, reassuringly waiting at the end of the hermetically sealed tunnel.

With this building, the machine fetish so central to the world of Trumpf has finally trickled down into the architecture. "It took us a while to catch up with the technology," admits Barkow, "but now we're integrating these digital fabrication ambitions in a very fundamental way." A hymn to bespoke production, there are over 300 joints in the roof of the building alone, each carefully developed at the CNC workshops of Holzbau Amann by the same team currently charged with realising Shigeru Ban's ambitious undulations for the Centre Pompidou-Metz. "They don't care, as everything is digital," Barkow enthuses, clearly enamoured with the potential of mass customisation. "They run their cut runs, if it's 14 degrees or 70, it doesn't matter."

The polygonal tessellated aesthetic of this digital fervour infuses every element of the building, including some specially developed terracotta tiles, used on both inner and outer walls, whose fissured geometries belie the fact that they are actually handmade. Their glossy surface swells around the entrance from the tunnel in multiple shades of meadow, easing the troubling transition, while waves of deep indigo are used for the exterior, as though the building is emerging from the depths of a primordial soup.

Back inside, there are more quirky geometric details to peruse. "Our architecture doesn't end with the building," boasts Kraft, who leads me into the toilets to reveal their award-winning cubicle design of aluminium panels extruded in a similarly kinked profile to the building's eastern facade. In the dining hall, I notice that even the acoustic baffles are sporting a laser-cut honeycomb garb, and my head begins to get the same aching feeling as when watching a CGI film. When everything is digitally fabricated, it can all get a bit too much.

Barkow is adamant that, in working for Trumpf, the practice "destroyed the idea of corporate identity at the beginning", as is deftly demonstrated by the stylistic variety across the site. Yet I can't help thinking that this building is all a little too themed. Laudable for pushing the boundaries of digital production, it might take a few more goes before the novelty wears off and they can begin to deploy such thrilling techniques with the thoughtful and assured elegance of their other buildings on campus.

Originally published in Icon, October 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008

Venice Biennale 2008

‘Architecture must go beyond buildings because buildings are not enough.’ So proclaims Aaron Betsky, curator of the eleventh Venice Architecture Biennale. And, when charged with filling a sprawling 10,000 square metres of exhibition space, it seems like a fair comment. Boring old buildings just won’t quite suffice; damned as the outmoded ‘tombs of architecture’, they must be transcended at all costs.

Yet after traipsing through the 300-metre long morgue of the Arsenale’s Corderie, past a procession of one-liners from an ageing avant-garde, I was longing for a plan and section. Or at least an idea.

Betsky has filled Venice’s majestic old rope factory with a series of large commissions from a chosen group he has christened the ‘Masters of the Experiment’ - namely his old buddies Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Coop Himmelb(l)au, who, judging from what is on show, have developed little since he brought them together for MoMA’s seminal 1988 ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’ show. The bloated relics of this ancien régime are offset by a handful of installations by a younger wave of ‘interdisciplinary multimedia collectives’, apparently set on pushing the latest techniques of interactive exhibition design towards no real purpose.

In an attempt to apply some theoretical gravitas to the formal whimsies on show, each piece is accompanied by a talking-head manifesto, often reminiscent of stilted lonely-hearts videos, as architects stumble over invented terms in an effort to impress. Next to Zaha Hadid’s ‘Lotus’ (2008), a convoluted tangle of a bed, desk and shelving entwined in sinuous fibreglass tendrils, Patrik Schumacher, the mathematical brain behind Hadid’s voluptuous undulations, robotically espouses the joys of ‘Parametricism, the great new style after Modernism.’ Conceiving buildings as a closed system of connected parameters, essentially designing through spreadsheets, this hallowed doctrine miraculously seems to produce the same kinds of twisting organic forms as Art Nouveau did a century earlier, only without the assured elegance.

The sense of being in a second-rate time warp continues, with other resurrected forms such as the ‘Feedback Space’ by Viennese provocateurs Coop Himmelb(l)au, an enormous inflatable jellyfish with throbbing LED panels responding to the heartbeat of whoever enters. Based on their ‘Astro-balloon’ proposal from 1969, the technology has apparently only just become available to realize a space with, ‘no physical ground plan, but a psychic one,’ where ‘walls no longer exist [...] our heartbeat becomes space, our face is the façade.’ This was all quite compelling in the heady days of hallucinogenic sci-fi experimentation, when Archigram were plotting their floating, walking cities, and Superstudio were dreaming of continuous monuments, but now it lacks the original sense of political urgency and suggestive possibility. You can almost see the layer of dust.

But it’s not just the older masters who are trying to recapture a bygone age. Young Swiss architect Phillipe Rahm, whose work usually explores the hidden environmental aspects of humidity and temperature (sadly lacking here due to technical difficulties), has chosen to fill his space with hairy naked hippies lounging around playing the chimes. Only the joss sticks are missing from his quaint tableau.

Further along, Dutch mavericks MVRDV are back with another 1980s computer game-based urban design tool and an animation of their ‘Skycar City’, a banal rendering of sub-Blade Runner skyrise urbanism. This sits next to Gregg Lynn’s remarkably ugly furniture made of plastic toys cut and fused together with the aid of a robot. Presented as a heroic new way to recycle, the resulting objects look more like Jeff Koons squeezed something through a mangle.

Breaking out of Betsky’s interminable corridor of lazy throwbacks, I was still holding out some hope for the Giardini. Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, was less optimistic: ‘It’s never a happy walk,’ he told me, ‘just look at people’s faces.’ And he’s got a point. The opening few days of this overblown extravaganza are indeed filled with fatigued faces and disillusioned stares, a symptom of the realization that architects are generally incapable of conveying a message with clarity and simplicity. Wigley is resigned: ‘You have to accept that most of the exhibits are bad, and then be completely surprised by the few that are good.’

And there were a few pleasant surprises. Junya Ishigami brings his weightless willowy world to the Japanese pavilion, clearing everything out and employing a ten-strong team to cover the white walls with immaculate pencil drawings of his poetic proposals for buildings in gardens. In these imaginary scenarios of cities organised in forests, fields and lakes, the plants are drawn in as much, if not more, detail than the architecture, suggesting a more egalitarian relationship between buildings and their surroundings – a subtle conception of sustainable growth, without the windmills and composting toilets.

Grassroots architecture gets a brief look-in too, with William Menking’s US pavilion dedicated to positioning practice in the context of its broader social remit, showcasing the Rural Studio’s US$25,000 house project as well as Teddy Cruz’s studies of the cross-cultural territory at the US-Mexican border. His work also creeps into the gargantuan Italian Pavilion in a room dedicated to practices that have hijacked Betsky’s theme of ‘Architecture Beyond Building’ to look at the social and political forces beyond architecture. Alejandro Aravena’s compelling projects with Chilean communities are exemplary in redefining social housing as an investment not an expense, developing an adaptable prototype to engage the residents in adding value to their own homes.

Perhaps the most provocative work on show, and the best critique of the Arsenale’s debauched funfair of contemporary starchitecture, can be found in the Polish pavilion, curated by Grzegorz Piątek and Jarosław Trybuś, which speculates on the future lives of six high-profile new buildings in Poland through impeccably doctored large-format photos. In 2047, with the death of books, Warsaw University Library becomes a temple of commerce, an SOM tower is transformed into a vertical cemetery, while a curvaceous Foster office block is reconfigured as a panopticon prison. Even the pavilion itself has been transformed into a hotel as a critique on the Giardini’s vacant state for much of the year. But it’s a brave step. ‘International exhibitions are based on an outdated principle which obliges every country to feature its showcase accomplishments,’ argues Piątek - ‘we have created a perverse antithesis of national promotional activities abroad.’ And in their dark dystopian scenarios, in which the forces of cultural change inevitably supercede the sluggish mechanisms of architectural production, there is a challenge to Betsky and his cronies; that architects need look not beyond building, but beyond their own navels.

Originally published in Frieze, September 2008

NLA Sky Walk by Carmody Groarke

The NLA Sky Walk by Carmody Groarke zig-zagged its way through a little-known street behind the British Museum, weaving between picnicking families and medieval dancing workshops.

A kind of “anti-pavilion”, the 160m long ramp – built from a portable staging system and wrapped with black mesh fabric – divided the street into a series of spaces and provided elevated views on to the throngs of activity below.

“We wanted to heighten awareness of the street’s details by doing a simple move,” explains Andy Groarke. From enveloping a stately plane tree to carpeting the cycle lanes with turf, “it was an opportunity to see the space from a completely fresh perspective.”

Originally published in Icon, September 2008

Southwark Lido by EXYZT

“We brought the fog to London,”grins Alex Roemer of French architecture collective EXYZT, the mischievous guerrilla team who transformed a gritty corner of Southwark into a surreal urban bathing oasis for a week in July.

Complete with paddling pool, sauna and (rather optimistic) misting spray decks, the Southwark Lido, commissioned by the Architecture Foundation for the London Festival of Architecture, was built from scaffolding and sawn timber in the group’s signature “futuristic low-tech” style. “We want to make it look possible for anyone to do,” says Roemer. “You don’t need to be a specialist.”

As with EXYZT’s wildly successful French pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale, a tower soared up above the site – this time to the level of an adjacent viaduct to greet baffled commuters – while a series of white tensile plastic pods nestled below, housing technical equipment and a bar.

The ten-strong international team slept, washed and cooked on site for four weeks, becoming a regular feature of local life. “Living on site creates a special relationship with the community,” explains Sara Muzio, who led the project’s programme of collaboration with community groups. “We aimed to provide a local forum, an open space for people to come and run their regular activities.”

From after-school gardening workshops to a pensioners’ barbeque, the Lido played host to numerous events, becoming one of the most lively and socially engaged projects of the festival.

Originally published in Icon, September 2008

Spanish pavilion, Zaragoza Expo by Francisco Mangado

A forest of terracotta columns surrounds the Spanish Pavilion at the Zaragoza Expo. The work of Navarrese architect Francisco Mangado, the building is one of the few highlights of this overblown extravaganza, a sober counterpoint to the chaotic frenzy of forms jockeying for position in the site’s barren deserts of tarmac.

“This all came about when I was lying down on the back seat of my car,” recounts Mangado, “when I saw how the light from the setting sun shone over a dense, geometrical, vertical forest of poplar trees.”

The delicate austerity of this vast field of slender pillars creates a compelling haven of calm, drawing visitors across pools of water into the deep shaded area.

“It is a humble, simple material,” says Mangado, who runs workshops in the use of ceramics at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, “but it can become very attractive, beautiful even, when it is handled intelligently.”

The 750 columns support an impossibly thin roof studded with photovoltaic panels and water collectors. Down the road is Zaha Hadid’s Bridge Pavilion, the expo’s other highlight (icon 062).

Originally published in Icon, September 2008

Friday, August 01, 2008

Zaragoza bridge pavilion by Zaha Hadid

The curvaceous bowels of Zaha Hadid’s Bridge Pavilion swallow visitors as they arrive at Expo Zaragoza 2008. Seven thousand tonnes of steel writhe 270m across the River Ebro, splitting open at points to bare a ribbed snarl towards the Expo site beyond – a motley zoo of whimsical pavilions and street theatre on the theme of “Water for Life”.

The first covered bridge in Spain – and proudly boasting the country’s deepest pile foundations – this is a seminal project for Hadid. It’s the first built bridge in her ongoing preoccupation with long-span structures, and illustrates, in her own assured words, “the excellent symbiotic relationship we have with engineers.”

“The form comes from extruding several diamond-shaped sections along slightly curved paths, to create four distinct ‘pods’”, says project architect Manuela Gatto. “The collision and intersection of these trusses creates a series of dynamic transition spaces, while also providing bracing in order to reduce the size of the structure.”

An elegant steel lattice covers these pods, leading visitors through dark, narrow passages into airy light-flooded walkways, from the hush of sealed exhibition rooms to the lively throng of wide pedestrian decks. Yet this intended spatial fluidity is hampered by the exhibition’s imposition of a one-way system, blocking several routes and openings, forcing visitors to leave and re-enter in order to get to the upper levels.

While, internally, much of the structure is left beautifully exposed, the exterior is smothered with a skin of glass-reinforced concrete panels organised in dizzying op-art patterns – as though the bridge is uncomfortably squeezed into a pair of rather loud Spanish leggings. But, brashness aside, this is a virtuoso structure; it’s just a shame it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Originally published in Icon, August 2008

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta

A rogue iceberg has crashed into the eastern edge of Oslo’s harbour, trumpeting the brash arrival of waterfront regeneration. This €500 million stone behemoth, designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta, is home to the city’s new opera house, the first step in a plan to develop the city’s run-down Bjørvika docklands.

“It’s trying to be accessible to all kinds of people,” explains Kjetil Thorsen, founding partner of the practice. “You can walk all over the roof and even take your bike through the lobby.”

Rising at a precipitous 1:6 gradient from the fjord below, the 20,000sq m marble rooftop acts as a public carpet, intended to attract weekend picnickers, skateboarders and other thrill-seekers in search of extreme public space. “It’s not at all commercialised,” says Thorsen.

“The people own the ground.” Whether ageing opera-goers will brave the slopes is another matter – during a public preview, three visitors were injured and one broke their arm. “I think we have a different way of relating to more challenging grounds,” says Thorsen, confident that the Nordic mountaineering gene will prevail. “But I don’t know how our foreign guests will manage.”

The interior is a more sedate affair of undulating oak walls that engulf a conventional 1,400-seater, horse-shoe auditorium, as well as a 400-seater black-box theatre for more experimental productions. A full-time staff of 600 is housed in an aluminium-clad “factory” of rehearsal spaces, offices and workshops, which present a rather ordinary back-of-house facade to the east – turning its back on the very community it has invaded, as one local resident commented.

Originally published in Icon, June 2008

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Chanel Mobile Art Container by Zaha Hadid

On the roof of a car park in Hong Kong, in the shadow of Norman Foster’s HSBC building and IM Pei’s Bank of China, sits Chanel’s latest publicity ruse, the snake-like Mobile Art Container.

Designed by Zaha Hadid, the futuristic caravan is filled with work commissioned from 20 international contemporary artists, all charged with interpreting the brand’s famous quilted handbag.

“We started with the fundamental diagram of a museum: a continuous loop around a central courtyard,” explains project architect Thomas Vietzke. “We then deformed this, parametrically, to create a variety of dynamic internal conditions.” Designed with yacht-modelling software and digitally manufactured in hundreds of unique components, the 700sq m building will be dismantled and shipped around the world, stopping off in Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and London, to spread the gospel of the handbag.

“Through our architecture, we can give people a glimpse of another world,” claims Hadid. Drawn into a dizzying labyrinth of undulating fibreglass sinews, visitors are free to roam the opulent bowels of Chanel’s vision for “a dream world of luxury, in a universe of fashion” – a surreal realm of tattooed pigs and naked women writhing inside boxes.

“I want to be part of what’s happening,” Coco Chanel used to say, initiating several pre-war collaborations with such figures as Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. Karl Lagerfeld’s commissioning of Hadid and a roll-call of contemporary artists – from Yoko Ono and Nobuyoshi Araki to Wim Delvoye and Pierre et Gilles – attempts to continue this tradition. “For what this costs, we could have inundated the world with posters and ads, if it were a commercial operation,” he argues. “But it is a nobler project.”

Originally published in Icon, May 2008

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Profile: MAD

After training at Yale, Beijing-born Ma Yansong spent time in London honing his theatrical, formal tendencies with Zaha Hadid before returning to China to found MAD in 2004. His aim was to “embrace the advent of a new era” and begin constructing a brave new world of undulating surfaces and twisting towers.

MAD made waves in 2006 as the first Chinese office to win a major competition outside China with its 56-storey “Marilyn Monroe” tower for Mississauga, Canada. This was followed by several high-profile projects back home, including the mega-blob Erdos Museum in Inner Mongolia. “Maybe Chinese tradition is invention,” says Ma, “to change the old conventions, to do something bold and new.”

Although he clearly welcomes the commercial potentials of this new era, it is possible to read a critical political agenda beneath all the gloss. The compelling Beijing 2050 project, for example, reconfigures Tiananmen Square as a “People’s Park” with vast cultural facilities buried beneath a landscaped mountain, while the Central Business District receives a floating, multimedia business-leisure land, hovering ominously over CCTV and other imminent Western interventions.

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Profile: Work AC

“We think we’re funnier than OMA,” claims Dan Wood, who founded New York-based Work Architecture Company with partner Amale Andraos in 2002, after almost ten years leading projects in the Rotterdam office. “We use humour as much as possible,” says Andraos. “It makes the work more exciting, and it helps us to enter difficult situations.”

These range from the politically charged complexities of downtown Beirut to the whimsical aspirations of speculative culture parks in central China. The practice’s witty outlook is combined with an avidly analytical approach and broad urban agenda, applied with rigour to every project regardless of scale – from its Greenbelt City masterplan for Las Vegas to the psyche of the Manhattan dog, the subject of its first commission. “We did a lot of research into the life of the urban dog,” says Wood. “They have real problems, especially with their self-esteem” – an observation that led to Villa Pup, a state-of-the-art doghouse complete with treadmill and plasma screen simulators.

Decidedly more low-tech, and a product of the duo’s “eco-urbanism” studio at Princeton, is its recent winning proposal for the MoMA/PS1 summer stage. Public Farm is a dramatically tilted canopy of planted cardboard tubes, to be eagerly tended by a crack squad of urban farmers this summer.

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Profile: Alejandro Aravena

“There is no point in discussing social housing in architectural terms,” says Alejandro Aravena, the activist-architect behind Chilean “do tank” Elemental, a collaborative team of architects, transport engineers, builders and social workers that has been rethinking low-income mass housing since 2000.

“It’s a social and political problem, but we can use design to address these issues,” says Aravena. Elemental’s projects work within tight policy restrictions and with few resources. The idea is to provide a set of conditions that allow the building units to be adapted and increase in value over time, redefining social housing as an investment not an expense.

“I have the luxury of operating, and being trained, in the third world,” says Aravena. “I can afford to be primitive enough.” This sense of the primitive, of boiling a design down to its most relevant and irreducible essence, runs through the work of his private practice, including several widely acclaimed buildings for Santiago’s Universidad Católica. These works attempt to “move backwards rather than forwards”, reflecting the basic values of informal education.

Aravena, who has held visiting professorships at Harvard and the AA and is widely published, is currently applying his disciplined approach to a children’s education centre for Vitra, to sit snugly between Zaha and Siza in Weil-am-Rhein. “I’m trying to be cutting edge. It’s more like what architects are expected to do.”

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Ravensbrük visitor centre by Nikolaus Hirsch

“It’s not trying to be a monument,” says Nikolaus Hirsch of German practice Wandel Höfer Lorch + Hirsch’s visitor centre at Ravensbrük, north-east Germany. “There are enough historical monuments here already.”

The site was home to one of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camps – rows of detention blocks conceived on a vast urban scale. But it’s also a popular lakeside picnic spot for weekend tourists. “We had to address a diverse range of users and deal with constantly shifting functions,” says Hirsch.

The sober, tunnel-like building plays host to exhibitions and conferences, plus a cafe and bookshop. It will also function as a temporary home for other nearby facilities awaiting renovation. “This demanded a kind of fluid room which could be easily reconfigured,” says Hirsch. This problem was elegantly answered with large movable wooden furniture components – each housing a secondary function – that are used to segment the long space and provide definition, separating history from coffee.

The linear interior is framed by uninterrupted walls of sandblasted channel glass that, typical of Hirsch’s material alchemy, appear to be more substantial from the outside and only reveal interior details at night. “We wanted to make something that wasn’t massive but had a certain heaviness, and could float easily above the ground,” says Hirsch.

The truss structure spans 25m over a slope and is only supported at two points. “All the surrounding buildings are very solid and have a close relationship with the soil – which has a certain significance here,” says Hirsch. “So we wanted to touch it as lightly as possible.”

Originally published in Icon, April 2008