Thursday, October 01, 2009

Rotterdam Architecture Biennale 2009

The architecture biennale is a difficult creature. It is a form of escapism for a profession crushed by the banal weight of the daily grind, a glamorous respite from the unbearable lightness and prosaic reality of trying to make buildings. As an alluring chance for architects to dress up as artists and theorists, it has all too often become an excuse to descend into the realms of bad art and arcane posturing, as Aaron Betsky’s overblown homage to the ageing avant garde so painfully demonstrated in Venice last year.

Rotterdam’s take on the international exposition provides a refreshingly Calvinist foil to the Catholic extravagance of the Venetians. Still very young in its fourth year, it has so far leant towards urban and environmental issues, guided more by Dutch pragmatism than the starchitect’s egoism.

This year’s restrained jamboree, under the professorial leadership of Kees Christiaanse, is no exception. Taking the vague theme of Open City as its expansive umbrella title, the series of exhibitions is organised under the fuzzy, rather meaningless, headings of Refuge, Reciprocity, Community, Squat and Collective, a contrived taxonomy which seems to have baffled the sub-curators as much as it does the visitors.

Accompanied by a missable satellite show of whimsical utopian plans in Amsterdam, and a much more intelligible student exhibition in the docks across the river, the main show is housed in Rotterdam’s labyrinthine Netherlands Architecture Institute. The notoriously dysfunctional building complex has been masterfully reconfigured in a literal take on the Open City, a new entrance bridge punching a hole directly into the side of the main exhibition hall in a radical urban move. Unfortunately what awaits inside is less successful.

This first, vast hall — the grandly titled Forum — is less Roman marketplace than lacklustre school fair, its municipally carpet-tiled floor cluttered with islands of desks displaying unrelated offerings, from models of seminal “open” buildings, to some figure-ground studies of gated communities, and a banquet table expressing food as cultural identity. Perhaps most telling is Christiaanse’s own table. Piled high with a rampant mess of inspirations, its disjointed vitality is an apt metaphor for what is about to come.

Progressing through the building’s zones, you encounter a wildly varied series of projects, from compelling studies on the urban morphology of Palestinian refugee camps to cynical critiques of themed American suburbs. The fascinating specificities of each project — generally enough to sustain a whole exhibition each — are frustratingly flattened into an indigestible melee by the sheer volume of information on show and the lack of curatorial direction. With São Paolo slum analysis alongside illegal Addis Ababa dwellings, you leave with a confused, generic image of temporary-participatory-marginal-informality, a hazy moral tonic to soothe the architectural conscience.

Standing out from this impenetrable riot of escapist “sans frontières” architecture, is the more prosaic Rotterdam-centric zone Maakbarheid, or “makeability”, curated by Crimson Architectural Historians. Its pragmatic approach to the Biennale’s fluffy premise was to initiate some plausible urban projects to make Rotterdam more of an “Open City”, some actual “facts on the ground” to heal their fractured town in a strategic process of urban acupuncture.

Its section shows how the same urgent problems of relocation, segregation and infrastructural decay are actually on our doorstep, and offer some credible solutions for how to tackle these issues through informed sensitive intervention.

Lacking the exotic gloss of many of the Biennale’s projects, its heroic obsession with the institutionalised problems inherent in our planning systems is what we should really be getting excited about.

Originally published in BD, 9 October 2009

Celosia housing by MVRDV

Concrete doesn't usually shimmer. At least not in the way that it does across the walls of Celosia, MVRDV’s new social housing project in northern Madrid. In the afternoon sun, the effect of the polyurethane coating is blinding. The structure itself, five ranks of double-storey blocks that look like they should slide across the facade, could be a giant game of urban chequers.

It’s 40°C and I’ve just staggered up the side of a motorway, past barren swathes of manicured verge and block after endless block of forbidding, fenced-off brick apartment buildings. This is Sanchinarro, an anonymous Ballardian realm of big roads, roundabouts and introverted blocks, fortresses around swimming pools. It is one of a multitude of identical dormitory suburbs that are growing in concentric rings around Madrid, cloned ribbons devoid of urban aspiration.

“Architecture and urbanism are not really connected in Spain,” moans Jacob van Rijs, the pragmatic “VR” of MVRDV, whose new building in this soulless district is part of a city-wide programme of bringing in big-name architects – an eclectic bunch, from Foreign Office Architects to David Chipperfield, Thom Mayne to Peter Cook – to spice up public housing. For van Rijs, together with local architect and housing specialist Blanca Lleó, this is the second collaborative effort to reunite the disciplines by injecting radical urban thinking into the conventional courtyard block. “We wanted to reinvent this typology,” he explains. “So we flipped it and stretched it.”

In the experimental Dutch office’s characteristically literal approach, it has done exactly that. Its first attempt, the widely published Mirador building of 2005, which towers over the roundabout a few streets away, completely turned the block on to its side, creating a vertical stack of different “neighbourhoods”, each dressed in their own lurid garb, out of which was cut a huge five-storey hole, a “plaza in the sky”. A persuasive sound-bite and instant icon, perhaps, but a recipe for disaster. Residents I spoke to detest living there, clearly reluctant to let their children play on a tarmac strip 12 storeys up in the air, a desolate void that now remains locked and unused. Cladding-panel missiles apparently keep falling from the sky, making playing in the dust around the building’s base an equally perilous pursuit.

Designed at the same time as the Mirador, but sidelined by the municipality – too easily wooed by the novelty of its brazen sibling, the test-bed nature of which is now costing them in court – Celosia is an altogether different proposition. A comparatively sober stack of supersized building blocks, the structure’s formal clarity belies its varied internal planning and intelligent sensitivity to the needs of public housing. Demonstrating a leap of maturity, this stripped-back structure forgoes the flashy wow factor in favour of a considered response to how people might actually use that dreaded tool, which is so beloved of architects and urbanists alike, the “shared amenity space”.

The building’s 146 apartments are deftly arranged in a chequerboard series of 30 two-storey blocks interspersed with patios, each space shared by four or six units. The entry sequence is so designed to force you off the public stair and on to the patio to get to your front door. “We wanted to create mini neighbourhoods,” explains van Rijs. “People will pass by to get to their apartments and activate this space.” Unlike the Mirador’s agoraphobia-inducing mega-terrace, these spaces have been designed to a human scale and are actually showing signs of habitation. The first residents are only moving in this week, but already there are little gatherings of pot plants and deckchairs outside people’s flats, softening the overwhelming expanses of concrete and indicating the presence of a fledgling community. I can imagine the black-clothed grannies sitting out doing their crochet, while across the courtyard, next door’s kids torment a cat. It’s the plaza life of old Madrid, reconfigured in a vertical cellular lattice.

Clearly enjoying the role of benevolent social-engineer, the architects have contrived further stimuli for neighbourly interaction. Although these mini plazas are simple squares in the main, open for the use of everyone, some parts are intentionally ambiguous in their status. In places, the patio extends into an L-shape down the side of an apartment, suggesting a continuation of its private realm. These awkward spaces are the product of variations in the blocks’ internal layout, but their potential for conflict excites the young architect who shows me around. “We’re wondering if people might start to claim these bits and fence them off,” he says. “We’re hoping that it will lead to dialogue and negotiation as people begin to take ownership of these spaces.” His glee is palpable.

As we rise through the perforated levels of the building, it becomes clear that this designed-in potential for appropriation and modification is one of the scheme’s most compelling attributes. Stopping off at intermittent courtyards for views back to the city or out to the mountains, framed through the alternating grid of shared backyards, I notice there’s quite a bit of DIY action already underway. People even seem to be fixing in their own windows.

My assumption of further budget cuts (the build cost was a frugal €740/sq m – and it shows) is unfounded. Once again this activity is a sign of residents being encouraged to take ownership of their new homes – and an ingenious planning ploy. Most apartments have a loggia space at their entrance, a slim room with open windows along one side, which people are rapidly filling in with the unbounded zeal that only home improvement can summon. “Many people like to close off their balconies here. It’s hard to avoid,” says van Rijs. “So we tried to make it easy for them, in a way that would not harm the exterior.” In planning terms, this is a clever way of providing bigger apartments without exceeding the stingy space limits for public housing. But architecturally it is a brave move.

For the minimal, verging on downright Spartan, articulation of the carefully punctuated blocks is being slowly subject to a medley of eclectic additions. Current efforts range from cheap uPVC windows to bamboo screens, to rather more ominous metal security bars on the lower floors. Over time, the cold walls of this rather ascetic building are evolving into a collage of domestic difference. Unlike the Mirador, where neighbourhood identity was imposed through gaudy branding, here it will be a product of inhabitation and a signal of ownership. And it’s the rough-and-ready nature of the bare structure that allows, if not forces, this to happen.

While this utilitarian aesthetic was an inevitability of means, it also proudly displays one of the project’s key innovations. In the interests of speed and cost, the architects employed a new construction technique, borrowed from cheap mass housing in Colombia, whereby each apartment is poured in situ into an aluminium mould, all in one go. A series of five moulds make up three different modular configurations of one-, two- and three-bed apartments, the whole lot slotting together in a dextrous game of structural Tetris.

There were clear benefits to this technique – a whole apartment could be poured in a day – but it is difficult to say quite how far the provisional roughness of the building’s finish was intended. The workmanship looks shoddy. There is something intriguingly perverse about varnishing such a rugged finish: cracks, dollops and stains are now sealed behind a glossy coating, like a slice of geological strata forever encased behind glass. To the objective viewer, it’s a provocative move, challenging our material assumptions by raising the perceived value of cheap construction. But to the residents, judged alongside the neighbouring private acres of terracotta cladding, it surely smacks of cost-cutting and only serves to remind them of their unfortunate predicament.

Returning down to the central courtyard, I encounter a group of new residents who are adding life to the rather barren scene with their angry gesticulations. Against a backdrop of fledgling scrubby landscaping and bricked-up ground floor units – a brave attempt at activating the square, but one which I suspect will be long awaiting commercial tenants – they seem to be voicing their collective woes about the building, keen to show me its defects. “I come in through my front door, but I’m still outside,” proclaims one, pointing up to the open loggia in utter disbelief. “This is not the Spanish way.” It seems “the Spanish way” has been negated on other counts, as it emerges from several others that the open-plan fusion of kitchen and living room has also been a cause of much distress. Van Rijs is hazy about any process of consultation, explaining that the residents are chosen on a lottery once the block is complete. “If I had a choice,” a young mother tells me, “I would have gone for a more conventional building.”

As I leave the group to their grumbling, I begin to question my own attraction to the scheme as an elite perversion, a rarefied pleasure for those in the know and a fetish object for concrete idolaters. But while there are clearly many teething problems with the building, and it will take time for residents to get used to modern domestic novelties, it is not the architecture but the plan which is to blame. No one I speak to has moved to Sanchinarro out of choice, and this building represents a brave attempt to offer up a fragment for a new open model of housing, a way out of the fenced-off acres of introverted sprawl.

Originally published in Icon, October 2009

Dalston Mill by EXYZT

The smell of freshly baked bread wafts down Dalston Lane in east London, mingling with the area’s heady scent of kebab shops and cement dust – the aroma of a neighbourhood undergoing redevelopment.

It’s not coming from the local Turkish bakery, but from a scaffold tower that rises up to a supersized spinning wind vane. Referencing the vernacular of construction sites nearby, French architecture collective EXYZT has built this urban mill and bread oven as part of the Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican (until 18 October).

Entering via a timber tunnel, visitors are treated to a surreal oasis beneath the tower, where a wheatfield stretches out in a recreation of Agnes Denes’ 1982 installation on a two-acre landfill site in Manhattan.

“We have turned it into a productive public space for the community,” explains Nicolas Henninger of EXYZT.

An elaborate Heath Robinson mechanism connects the vast propeller, through cog and pulley wheels, to a diminutive domestic grain grinder. “We don’t know anything about making bread,” he grins, “but we have come here to learn.”

For three weeks, this derelict railway site has hosted a series of workshops covering subjects from cake decorating to African drumming.

Whereas Denes’ project ended by industrially harvesting over 1,000 lbs of grain, which was then planted across the globe, this version is local in its reach.

“Our Kurdish neighbour popped by, very excited,” says Henninger. “He said his mother knows how to harvest wheat.”

Originally published in Icon, October 2009

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dentists Surgery by UID Architects

A trip to the dentist has become something to look forward to for residents of Fukuyama, a town outside Hiroshima. It’s thanks to Keisuke Maeda of UID Architects, whose new clinic is more Zen retreat than sterile surgery.

Squeezed into a long narrow plot, the building’s cedar-clad plywood shell deftly envelops a dental clinic, beauty salon and the architect’s own office –the kind of surreal mixed-programme that can only happen in Japan.

“We tried to rethink the values associated with a mixed-tenancy building,” explains Maeda. “The challenge was to give as much value to the interior spaces as to the street frontage.”

Through a sequence of porous walls that progresses from the street to the back of the plot and inserting “a little forest” of trees in the building’s open core, Maeda has softened the transition between the interior and exterior. “We wanted physical distance to become ambiguous,” he explains, “creating an environment that would spread out in an organic manner.”

Like a multi-layered stage set, each space is separated by a slender plywood screen with seemingly random openings, positioned to ensure privacy while retaining a sense of the adjacent conditions. These varied apertures set up a subtle spatial rhythm as they open and tighten through the different strata of the building, allowing glimpses of neighbouring activities through occasional alignment, but direct views are moderated by the central band of foliage.

While waiting for the drill, you might just be distracted by a glimpse of the curvaceous sunken workspace in the office above, sculpted around the architect’s assistants, they have holes for miniature trees to poke through. “We always tried to break down the borders between the building and the garden,” says Maeda.

Originally published in Icon, September 2009

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Book review: Militant Modernism

‘A defence of Modernism against its own defenders’ trumpets the blurb to Owen Hatherley’s feisty new diatribe, Militant Modernism, which attempts to seize the movement from the hands of its complacent caretakers and reawaken its radical potential from the cosy annals of critical history.

Taking Brutalism – the 1960s’ architectural vernacular of his hometown Southampton – as a starting point, Hatherley sets out to reclaim Modernism as a counter-culture and essential part of the Leftist political programme. Defending it in four eclectic, sometimes esoteric, chapters against charges of brutality, totalitarianism, sexlessness and alienation, he takes us on a whirlwind journey from Vorticism through Soviet film theory to an analysis of Bertolt Brecht.

Hatherley is a prolific and entertaining blogger, his prose quick-witted and engaging. In translation to the printed page, however, his text becomes distractingly dense with references and footnotes, a frustrating substitute for hyperlinks and embedded videos. The perceived gravitas and permanence of print also seems to have led to rather anxious name-dropping: Hatherley’s text is now peppered by references to Jean-François Lyotard and Slavoj Žižek that slow his agile insight with the weight of its own erudition.

But his argument is genuinely passionate and amusingly infused with ardent soapbox rhetoric, as he doles out vociferous attacks on such ‘establishment’ figures as popular philosopher Alain de Botton who, as a purveyor of architectural truisms, is damned as encapsulating ‘all that is malign in British intellectual life’. In the same breath, he launches a tirade against the contemporary emergence of Modernism-redux for the gulf it fosters between itself and the everyday – a gulf that de Botton’s dissemination of what Hatherley terms ‘Ikea Modernism’ is, presumably, attempting to bridge.

In its vigour Hatherley’s critique makes for a compelling read, particularly his writing on architecture (his primary area of specialism) which offers up some fresh approaches. His comparison of London’s Barbican Centre with the despised Thamesmead estate, while class-based, elicits some persuasive truths about the influence of Brutalism, reading it as a continuum that still defines the essence of contemporary British art and music by ‘a certain crapness, a refusal of ease and slickness in favour of angularity and harshness’.

In its embrace of the fringe, Hatherley’s book gives a voice to those written out of the dominant history of Modernism. He favours the earthy realities of Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticism over the polished, published shards of Italian Futurism and shines a light on the forgotten, and surprisingly lyrical, built history of Soviet Constructivism in a challenge to the pervasive Western hegemony propagated by Philip Johnson’s ‘pinched, mean-spirited selection of white boxes’ for his 1932 ‘International Style’ exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Stopping short of offering a manifesto for action, neither is this book wholly a nostalgic dérive through the ruins of the past; lying somewhere between the two, Hatherley hints at compelling framework for how we might proceed.

Originally published in Frieze, June-August 2009

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Book review: 10x10/3

I never really warmed to the first 10x10. It appeared in 2000, a bloated almanac trumpeting the arrival of architecture as a newly glamorous enterprise. It would be the catalogue for a brave new era of Grand Designs and millennium projects, its holographic cover signalling the transformation of our discipline into the sexualised regenerative saviour of the new epoch.

The bane of groaning coffee tables, it was bigger, shinier and heavier than any book had ever been. It flung down the gauntlet in Phaidon’s size war with Taschen, opening the floodgates for a slew of ever more swollen volumes so vast they now have to come in their own plastic suitcases.

But its real problems were on the inside. That 100 architects’ work, arranged alphabetically with no editorial direction, would make an interesting read was a brave premise. Exacerbated by jarring layout and tiny reversed-out vertical captions running into the gutter, I quickly grew to resent it, and it has remained at the bottom of my teetering unread book pile ever since. To be fair, it provides a sturdy foundation, nobly shouldering the weight of all that’s wrong with the overblown, self-congratulatory world of published architecture.

So, nine years on, it was with some reluctance that I approached 10x10’s third incarnation. The format of asking 10 international critics to select their 10 favourite architects is still fraught with the same difficulties of regional promotion and limited networks, although this time around the selection is truly diverse, covering every continent and featuring new names for even the most hardened architourist.

The disciplinary make-up of the subjects is also much more varied. While many of the 400-plus pages are still devoted to nice offices making nice houses, there is a refreshing number of groups engaged in much bigger issues than the latest sparkling floor finish or faceted cladding panel.

Architectural theorists Keller Easterling and Eyal Weizman get a well-deserved look-in, thanks to Shumon Basar’s broad curatorial eye, although with only four pages of images and a short column each, the taster-menu format gives frustratingly little room to explore the compelling complexities of their studies, in which architecture confronts its political realities head on.

Joseph Grima, director of New York’s progressive Storefront Gallery, also widens the debate, bringing in such activist collectives as raumlaborberlin and socially engaged Estudio Teddy Cruz, whose collaborative work on informal housing at the US/Mexican border seeks to reinvent not the built artefact, but architectural practice itself.

To its credit, 10x10/3 also features much more coverage of actual built work than the previous volumes, whose impenetrable diagrams and quaint visualisations are replaced with lavishly reproduced photography and a useful selection of clear technical drawings. On a good solid table, or sturdy pair of knees, it is a pleasure to flick through, the lack of structure allowing for occasionally serendipitous discovery, snapping you out of a channel-hopping daze.

But, as with most of these glossy picture books, closer inspection is rarely rewarded. The majority of entries have the gushing tone of a press release, bestowing platitude upon platitude, of architects whose work “balances formal investigation and cultural meaning”, or is “a conversation between theoretical principles and the reality of the construction site”. Isn’t every project?

A dose of such reality might add to the next 10x10. The inclusion of 10 clients, 10 contractors or 10 planners would inject this exclusive and ultimately banal conversation between architect and critic with the excitingly messy realities of how these projects came to happen. Otherwise this is nothing more than a look-book catalogue of the current milieu. Perhaps this is a valid exercise in itself — but you can get that on the internet.

Originally published in BD, 31 July 2009

Monday, June 01, 2009

Valerio Olgiati

"This is not minimalism," declares Valerio Olgiati with a defiant stare, describing two white concrete cubes punctured with symmetrical windows.

It's his latest building, the Swiss National Park Visitors' Centre in Zernez, deep in the Alps. It is meticulously stripped of excess detail. Perhaps this brooding Swiss maestro doesn't like to be put in a box, despite designing them.

"From the outside it looks very boring. You think you can understand the building," he says. "Yet inside it is a labyrinth."

Such contradictions are common in Olgiati's buildings, which have shot to prominence over the past few years for their intensity and precision. Declared by Jacques Herzog to be the most important Swiss architect of his generation, Olgiati 
has gathered quite a following. His weighty monograph sold out within the first few months of publication, while his recent lecture at RIBA in London saw even the overspill room bursting at the seams. But what makes him so different from every other mountain recluse who pours high-spec concrete into spiritual platonic forms?

The week after his sell-out performance, I meet him in his studio in the remote Alpine town of Flims to find out. An unassuming timber structure raised on concrete pilotis above the site of his family's old barn, his subdued atelier houses half a dozen "collaborators", hushed in concentration at their white workstations. Before ascending to his lair, I am shown around by one of his deferential team, who leads me down a spiral stair to the brooding undercroft, a kind of architects' Batcave. Behind a remote-controlled shutter lurks his version of a superhero's bespoke machine - a whiter-than-white Porsche on which even the number plate's red Swiss flag has been whited out. His architectural philosophy is clearly a way of life.

"I consider every building as a single theory," he says, as we sit upstairs in the gloom of his black timber office, somehow avoiding the glare of the ski slopes outside. "The best situation would be if I had a concept and this designed the building itself, every aspect of it." He narrows his eyes in reverie, his Swiss-German tones reduced to a whisper. "This would be very nice."

Olgiati frequently renounces design. In his lectures, exhibitions and publications, there is a conspicuous absence of development work, each project presented as an effortlessly resolved fait accompli, devoid of the messy realities of client, programme and site. His is an architecture of immaculate conception.

Olgiati studied at ETH Zurich, where he developed an intensely holistic approach to architecture under Fabio Reinhardt and Miroslav Šik. After working in LA for several years, it seems he retreated back to his childhood idyll to escape the unbearable lightness of urban life. "When you're surrounded by the physical mass of these mountains, decisions are more simple, more direct," he says. "In this setting, we can operate in heavier dimensions." His environment clearly feeds an impulse to replicate something equally monumental in his own work. Yet his is not an architecture of primitive mass.

Ever in denial of explicit allusions, Olgiati nonetheless admits that the temple - the ultimate paradigm of a building dictated by its own set of rules - is a recurring, and suitably lofty, theme throughout his work. "In a temple, a society would always express its way of looking at the world, at the universe. It's where an order represents the view of life," says Olgiati. In every one of his buildings there is a temple trying to get out. Both his office and the visitors' centre at Zernez are set on majestically raised podiums. It is no accident of topography that you must step up to enter their hallowed precincts.

But for all his weighty ideals and enigmatic dogma, Olgiati has an appealing recognition that his ideas are ephemeral - 
if not quite fallible - and that his taste changes as quickly as the weather. "I do not believe in anything," he claims. "It's not a moral issue. If I were to do a building a week later it would be completely different."

At his acclaimed House for a Musician in the nearby village of Scharans (2007, icon 058), this fairytale of contradiction reaches its climax. Nestling incongruously in the clutter of steeply pitched weatherworn timber, it has a barn-like form (so shaped to meet local planning laws), yet is cast in the reddish-brown concrete of a kasbah, and turns out to contain a sequence of otherworldly temple-like spaces. I suggest these influences, but Olgiati dismisses them in favour of a more primal explanation. "By using the red concrete it has a more natural touch, it is wilder, like it has grown out of the earth," he says. "My white buildings, on the other hand, are more the product of a disciplined intellect."

At the Swiss National Park Visitors' Centre in Zernez, this intention is palpable. Entering the blank and forbidding monument at the foot of the mountains, we rise up, cross over and then descend through an identical series of spaces four times, yet remain bewildered as to where we have been inside this cubic Möbius strip. It is only on returning to the ground floor that I can begin to decode the plan: like the building's foundations, this connected open space reveals the layout of the levels above. The visitor is played with, a pawn in the architect's game. "I don't want people to understand my buildings at first glance," says Olgiati. "They must use their intellect."

Walking around his seminal school in Paspels (1998), there is more trickery. The apparent simplicity of the monolithic concrete box is belied by the shifting geometry of the floorplan. The walls are offset from one floor to the next, and none 
of them meet at right angles. This underlines the individual status of the classrooms, while reinforcing their interdependence as a complete structural system.

"I never want to make structures that are clear," he says, back in his atelier, looking down at the model for an office in Zurich with wayward columns that are more Alsop than Mies. "It may look like personal expressionism, but my intention is to make a rational organic whole. If you take an element away, you would break the building apart."

Olgiati's office exhibits little of the creative flotsam of most design studios, an absence explained by the way he begins every project. "I don't feel and I don't act like an artist," he says. "I don't find the production process so interesting. We sit down and start to talk. Sometimes we talk over several days, again and again. Nobody makes a sketch, it's just talking." Once the seed of an idea emerges from this intensely deep period of discussion, someone goes away and draws it up. Or so goes the seamless rhetoric - an accomplished, perhaps sincere, spiel that has helped to massage the alluring enigma around his work.

Yet, as attractively presented as it is, none of this dogma is particularly new. In his keen denial of artistic expression and insistence on an objectively systematic approach, there are heavy strains of early modernist ideals - so, too, in his ardent dismissal of architects' deference to context. In a bold claim for an increasingly passive and retreating profession, he is adamant that "architecture should be an action not a reaction. It should come only from itself." This polemical audacity, in particular his embargo on sketching, echoes Adolf Loos, who famously claimed in 1924 that he had no need whatsoever to draw his designs: "Good architecture can be written. One can write the Parthenon."

As we talk, it becomes clear that Olgiati's strongly constructed self-image has been driven by a need to rise out of the shadow of his father, himself a prominent architect, whose old house still looms over the atelier. But while his father's generation believed in the pursuit of an ultimate architectural truth, his own approach is, on the contrary, thoroughly post-modern. Beneath the monolithic austerity, which mistakenly leads his buildings to be classed with the likes of materials fetishist Peter Zumthor, there lies an endearingly lyrical sensibility and a desire to confuse.

"I am interested in a ‘wonderful realism'," Olgiati says, breaking into a contented smile as if he has finally cracked his own enigma. "A realism full of wonders, full of things that are not real. I find this contradiction very poetic."

The contradiction between his aesthetic currency and real life is a sticky point at the visitors' centre in Zernez. For what narrates as a work of genius in line drawing and photography translates, post-occupancy - now cluttered with the national park's lacklustre vision of stuffed deer and a steam-emitting dinosaur - as a grudgingly inflexible monolith, its spatial subtleties damned by the very programme it was intended to house.

"It's a completely wrong use of these spaces," says Olgiati, taking the exhibition design as a personal insult, in the tradition of many a maestro before him. "The exhibition should not touch the outside walls and the blinds should not be down. The architectural idea is completely destroyed."

And herein lies the rub. Olgiati's buildings are so finely tuned, so fastidiously composed in spatial equilibrium, that there is little tolerance for the inevitable shortfalls of everyday occupation. Conceived in an otherworldly realm, perhaps that is the only place they could truly live up to his demanding expectations.

Originally published in Icon, June 2009

Friday, May 01, 2009

Profile: The AOC

Architecture's answer to the Power Rangers, the Agents of Change is a practice of "architects, urbanists and cultural interpreters". True to the group's heroic name, its members lead double lives. Outside the office, Daisy Froud works to develop design training for local politicians, and Vincent Lacovara has infiltrated the planning department of Croydon council. Together with Geoff Shearcroft and Tom Coward, they also teach at London Metropolitan University.

"We can test our principles in other places and inform our practice in turn," explains Froud. The AOC's plural approach is founded in a deeply held belief that design should come out of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of the user, and so every project begins with an intense process of consultations and brief-building.

Very much in the FAT mould, the AOC uses play at every level, and has developed a series of games, "from programmatic Duplo for seven-year-olds, to a card game for planners, politicians and developers," says Froud, the positive aspect of competition resulting in several responsive school buildings and a number of thoughtful urban proposals.

Developed with 12 community groups across east London, their recent Lift theatre was an exemplar of engaging adaptable space, serving as performance venue, village hall and pleasure dome in one.

Originally published in Icon, May 2009

Profile: 2012

"The trick is to be as lazy as possible," explains Cesare Peeren of 2012 Architecten, clearly one of the most energetic practices around. "You have to listen to your materials; they dictate what is possible and ultimately generate the design."

This is no return to Ruskin's "truth to materials", but a purely pragmatic response to converting recycled waste products into building components, the essential basis of 2012's work - and an increasingly urgent alternative for us all.

Every project begins by creating a "harvest map" of all nearby waste streams, scoping out the available surplus materials around any given site. The design then grows out of the qualities of what they can get their hands on.
 A surfeit of redundant Audi 100 windscreens inspired a gently undulating shelving system for a shoe shop fit-out, while a truckload of washing machines led to the futuristic pod-like structure of the office's travelling studio.

They are now completing a house for an art dealer using the steel frame from a redundant textile machine, clad with timber reclaimed from cable reels. Even the mechanical elevator used during construction has been retained and incorporated as an internal lift.

"The next step is to start working backwards," says Peeren. "Manufacturers have to realise that their products will be reused for construction and will start designing them accordingly."

Originally published in Icon, May 2009

Profile: Christian Kerez

Christian Kerez represents the cautious new wave of Swiss architects who are gently challenging the status quo. Sidestepping the dogmatic material worship of Peter Zumthor and the grammatical rigour of Peter Märkli, Kerez has forged his own path, following the elegant possibilities of structure. His research-based practice begins with models, often on a vast scale. To convey the impact of his proposals to clients and the public, the sheer size of 1:10 - whether cast concrete or delicately welded steel frame - tends to get people's attention.

Kerez's insistence on realism comes from his days as an architectural photographer. Dismissing computer-generated renderings as painfully false, every move is worked out in physical form. His current structural experiment is a school in Leutschenbach, Switzerland, suspending six floors from an external frame of double-height trusses.

Originally published in Icon, May 2009

Profile: Supersudaca

As the SuperDutch wave reached its peak, nine Latin American students at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute formulated an alternative. "We wanted to raise awareness of the realities of our countries," says Felix Madrazo, "so we combined the Dutch idea of ‘super' with ‘sudaca', the derogatory word for a Latin American."

Back in their respective homes of Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Curaçao, Supersudaca now operates as a decentralised office, engaging in a broad spectrum of networked projects, from state-funded research initiatives to commercial buildings.

"You need to be in both networks," says Madrazo. "Social housing is important to us but we need to be in contact with the people who have money to make it happen." Their tactics of strategic alliance and satellite working are becoming a valuable model, allowing distributed, localised production.

The group made its name with Sudapan, a politically charged alternative to the European competition, Europan, focused on tackling the divisive urban developments along the Caribbean coast, where ailing tourist strip meets burgeoning pueblo. Now they are developing social housing schemes from South America to Spain.

Originally published in Icon, May 2009