Thursday, May 31, 2007

05.31.07: THE SILENCE OF EXCESS (memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe)

2,711 Stelae (Stelae is a greek term for a slab, or upright stone, often used as commemorative markers in ancient times)
Height: ranging from 0 to 4.7 meters
Width: .95 meters
Length: 2.38 meters
Each Stelae angle between .5 and 2 degrees
Size of field: 19,073 square meters, or about 4.7 acres!

6 Million Jewish people murdered during the holocaust.

In Eisenman’s Own Words…..

“We wanted a silent field – a deafening silence in the age of noise”

“Memory is not nostalgia. Our memorial in Berlin has little or no iconography, nothing symbolic, and it is this absence, like the silence of a psychiatrist, that will allow people to come to terms with their repressed feelings.”

“I wanted to make a distinction between the act of memory in the concentration camp and the act of memory in a memorial. The memorial at the concentration camp uses know symbols to allow one to assimilate the tragedy: you go to the camp, you feel badly, etc. The memorial attempts to keep this memory as an open question in the present, to present a spatial experience different from anything in an urban situation. It is foreign and alien. It analogizes the rupture in German history to this alien reupture in the city of Berlin. It is a rigid grid – reason gone mad. It’s warning against too much belief in reason and the system.

We wanted a surface like a field of wheat or corn that rolled and twisted with the wind. There are moments when you walk into a field of wheat and your fine at the edge, but once you really get in, you can become completely disoriented spatially.”

My analysis……

I have long admired memorials, as they have the capacity for symbolic meaning in architecture that few other programs can manage. This memorial is no different. It is a powerfully poetic and symbolic memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. First of all, how do you even begin to put form to the unimaginable that was the holocaust? It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the event that killed by some estimates nearly 6 million people. For me, the sheer scale of the memorial itself comes close to beginning to address this issue. While the 2,711 stelae have nothing to do numerically with the victims of the holocaust, the enormity of the almost 5 acre site begins to convey a sense of scale to the event. The site is the size of three football fields.

Another question raised by the memorial is that of memory. We are rapidly approaching a time where there will no longer be any firsthand memories of the holocaust, as fewer holocaust survivors are still living. What then is memory, for those of us who have no direct memory of this event? It could be argued that memory is an abstract idea anyway. It is perhaps fitting that the abstract nature of the memorial is in tune with the need for memory in the present. In the present, nuch of our collective memory has been passed down to us, something that we have learned.

For me, the lack of traditional memorial vocabulary, mainly its abstract nature, makes this memorial particularly powerful. My personal experience is probably very different that what others might experience and I think this is very appropriate, allowing each of us to come to terms with this event in our own way. Personally, the scale of the site resonated with me. I was also very moved by the tension within the memorial. It is both ordered and chaotic, static and dynamic, open and enclosed, comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Eisenman achieves this duality by relying on a strict grid order, and the subtly breaking from it. All of the markers have a slight tilt to them. The ground plane drops dramatically so that within about 50 feet you can go from overlooking the entire field to being lost within it. Seeing people disappear from sight, as well as briefly crossing at right angles, is particularly haunting. The stones themselves, made from a very smooth dark concrete, are also very poetic. They have very perfect, sharp edges which begged to be touched. Overall, I though the memorial was a very personal, moving experience. I really feel that the abstract nature of the composition lends to its success, by allowing each of us to have a slightly different interpretation and abstract memory with this place.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

05.28.07: ACTIVATORS

Marne School of Architecture

Disclaimer: I got in trouble for taking these photos, and had to promise, using my best fren-glish that they would not be published on a website…. So if anyone from Bernard Tschumi’s office is reading this, these photos are being used for educational purposes only……

For those of you UIUC alum, the organization of this school of architecture will look familiar to you. (no, not flag hall) The building is essentially three volumes of programmed spaced organized around a 25x100 meter un-programmed space in the center. In the center of the un-programmed space hangs the lecture halls, sort of symbolically the center of knowledge. Tschumi is interested in “event” and “motion”. An event is different than function in that events are unpredictable and cannot be planned for. Because of this, Tschumi sees the circulation paths as “activators” for “events”. When bodies in motion (people) collide, the potential for the event is realized. For Tschumi, events cannot be planned, but architecture can encourage them. At marne, events are encouraged in the “in-between” space through dynamic and expressive circulation routes.

The concept for this project is to put all of the program functions to the exterior, and force circulation through the un-programmed space in the center which becomes “a space for celebrations and balls, encounters and debates, projections and artist installations, the most serious symposia and avant-garde exhibitions. A social and cultural space, the central hall gathers together all of the circulation in the school. Whatever the level of attendance on any given day, one sees the constant movement of students, giving the hall liveliness and dynamism.” Of course, having the café in the center doesn’t hurt either!

Here are some more of Bernard Tschumi’s own words…….

On architecture…..

“The contemporary world is a dislocated space of constraints that may find few common denominators. Yet we should remember that there is no architecture without everyday life, movement, and action; and that it is the most dynamic aspects of their disjunctions that suggest a new definition of architecture” Bernard Tschumi, 1994

Specifically on the Marne School of Architecture, which he refers to as a “city of architecture”.....

“How an “in-between” space is activated by the motion of bodies in that space;
How programmed activities, when strategically located, can charge an un-programmed space (the in-between);
How architecture is about designing conditions, rather than conditioning designs;
How architecture is about identifying, and ultimately, releasing potentialities hidden in a site, a program, or their social context.
They could suggest the following equation: (motion x in-between)program=event.”
The following are some interesting questions that this project addresses:

“1.1 Conceiving of a new school of architecture located 30 minutes outside Paris raises two questions. The first has to do with the direction that architectural education will take in the next decades. The second has to do with the attraction that a school situated on the edge, the periphery, the margin of social, economic and cultural density of an urban center can have.

“1.2 Today, a triple revolution – informational, interdisciplinary, and ideological – is in the making. At Marne-la-Vallee, located a short distance from the heart of Paris, one is at the same electronic distance from London, Berlin, Tokyo, New York or Dehli. Now there is global architectural culture and information; the conditions alone are local.”

“1.5 Our project starts from the following thesis: there are building-generators of events. They are often condensers of the city. As much through their programs as through their spatial potential, they accelerate a cultural or social transformation that is already in progress.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

05.27.07: Quai Branly

(I am dating these when they were written. I will post them as internet access allows….)

Wow, what a building! The Musee du Quai Branly by Jean Nouvel is a difficult building to try to come to grips with, due to the fragmented and multifaceted nature of the architecture. As you can see in the photos that I have posted so far, the building has a number of different design languages and motifs happening simultaneously. While this makes for great photography (not a bad angle in the place), I have found it difficult to synthesize the project in my mind. I will try to organize my thoughts as best I can. Overall, this is a tremendously ambitious project, one that would probably not be possible to achieve in the US.

Nouvel’s concept for the building was that of a “sacred wood”. He set out to create a spiritual and poetic place where the architecture disappears and the individual is left to have a dialog with the collection. The concept is appropriately fitting for this museum, where most of the artwork is actually indigenous artifacts from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim. The collection also includes aboriginal artwork as well as artifacts from Native American cultures. Since most of the work on display has a religious or spiritual aspect within its own culture, the concept of a sacred place to commune with art seems appropriate for this building.

In much of Jean nouvel’s writings, he argues for an architecture of specificity. Nouvel feels that our global society has an effect of eroding context, and that architecture should re-discover the specificity of place, making each project unique to its situations. This project responds directly to its context in a number of ways.

The Adjacent Monument: In this project, similar to his Institute du Monde Arab, he slices a large gap into the building to acknowledge the alignment with the Eiffel tower beyond. One way this building addresses the specificity of place by its alignment with the Eiffel tower.

The Seine and the Quai: Another response to context is the subtle curve of the buildings, which mirrors the adjacent river. Nouvel also creates an entry glass screen, similar to his Fondation Cartier, which both reflects the trees and provides a needed sound break for the heavy automobile traffic on the Quai.

Adjacent Building Blocks: Nouvel responds to the adjacent Haussmann era building masses by cleverly aligning the massing of various program blocks within the museum. This allows the project to almost literally grow out of its environment in a very physical and direct way.

The Parisian Park Becomes the Sacred Wood: By raising main museum spaces up off the ground on pilotis, Nouvel invites the public to enter his sacred wood, a very well designed park like setting within the city. This park also allows for the pedestrian to cut through the museum complex without ever buying a ticket, a very nice way to make this complex part of the local fabric of the city. When the hundreds of trees in this park finally mature, Nouvel may very well get his wish that the building will disappear.

My favorite aspect of the museum are the various ways in which Nouvel deals with light. It seems that light, or the manipulation of light is a focus of many of the design aspects. Nouvel writes about being inspired by gothic cathedrals, and you can see here he understands that to really capture poetic light, you must first reduce the space to the absence of light. The interior of the museum is very dark, and has been a complaint of some of the visitors. The south façade features a sunscreen system that creates a magnificent and dramatic effect on the interior. The north façade is a glass wall which has an image of a forest screen printed on it. Light is dealt with on the interior in controlled and very dramatic ways, capturing a ray of light here and there to provide the poetic presence of space that Nouvel desires. Nouvel uses almost every technique imaginable to capture the presence of light. I am willing to overlook the lack of design unity in the façade because of the successful attempt to capture light through different aperatures. Overall, the manipulation of light creates a dramatic and successful interior where the artwork becomes the focus, within a spiritual and poetic setting.

The museum experience is quite successful, unfolding as if you are entering a sacred place for reflection. The first sequence of spaces occurs along a long ramp, which gets darker and narrower as you approach the main gallery. The main gallery space is organized along a river like circulation path which is finished in this very odd leather covered object which holds displays, benches and multi-media exhibits. Finally, the 30 plus cantilevered “gallery” boxes create unique and individual museum experienced on the inside that are quite successful. Overall, the museum sequence of spaces is very fitting and appropriate for the main objective, the art within.

Lessons Learned:
I am going to take away many things from this project which I feel are positive design lessons, including many successful light manipulation techniques, the importance of architecture that attempts to address as well as create place, the importance of architecture that seeks for poetry and spirituality, and the successful interior sequencing of dramatic spaces. The artifact display cases that Nouvel designed are also quite extraordinary. Most importantly, the ambitious set of ideas that shape this project are worth commending.

On the other hand, I feel that Nouvel falls a bit short of creating a building which “dematerializes” into a poetic environment. The architecture throughout is so bold, multifaceted and aggressive that it is impossible to ever truly escape it. Despite the low lighting and dramatic sequencing of spaces, the architecture still retains a bold and aggressive presence due to the fragmented and almost chaotic nature of the composition. I also feel like some of the finish materials seem cheap and unresolved, like the linoleum flooring on the interior. At some places within the museum, the articulation of the finishes seems to be almost a caricature of the cultures on display, dangerously Disney-esque I might say. While I really appreciate Nouvel’s attempt at creating an environment as poetic as “a simple woodland shelter”, I feel the images of forests screen printed to the glass are also a bit too literal for my tastes. I love the idea of light passing through a tree canopy, but I wish there was a more natural way to accomplish this.

Overall, this is a very ambitious project with many design lessons, but I feel as if the end result is less polished than some of his other work that I admire, and I am left feeling a bit unsatisfied with the result. I plan to spend the next rainy day back at the museum taking the audio tour. I feel that I need a better understanding of the artifacts on display to truly appreciate the building.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

05.25.07: Musee du quai Branly

Here are some of the concepts behind Jean Novel’s Musee du Quai Branley, in his own words…… (more of my analysis later)

“It is a museum built around a collection. Where everything is done to trigger the birth of the emotion carried by the main objective. Where everything is done at the same time to protect it from light and to capture that rare ray of sunshine that is indispensable for resonance, for the installation of spirituality”

“It is a unique and strange place. Poetic and Disturbing”

“But forget about the means… only the result matters: the material sometimes seems to disappear, we have the impression that the museum is a simple woodland shelter without walls. When dematerialization meets the expression of the signs it becomes selective. Here, illusion cradles the work of art.
It remains to invent the poetry of the situation: the transition is smooth: the Parisian garden becomes a sacred wood and the museum dissolves in its depths”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

05.22.07 Some new, Some old

As you may know, I studied architecture in Versailles, just outside of Paris, for one year in 1995-96. I have also been back to Paris several times since then, but is has been 8 years since I was here last. Some things have changed, some have not.

The New:
I was a bit surprised and sad to see a Starbucks on every corner (just about). I don’t know why this was a surprise to me. I guess that I associate Paris with the place that I developed my life-long addiction to coffee, and it saddens me to see coffee in Paris Americanized like everything else. For me, Paris is the quintessential café city, and it doesn’t need Starbucks. I am even sadder to report that I stopped at one for a chocolate donut this morning. … oops. It was a moment of weakness after an all night international flight.

The other obvious new thing in the past 8 years is the changes in technology. I have already sent emails, posted on my blog, and I made a cell phone call from the Pont des Arts to my wife back in suburban Chicago that was clear as a bell. Ironically, the connection cell connection from Paris 4000 miles away was far better than when I try to call home from the college that I work at just 22 miles from my house. The last time I was here it was a telephone card and a payphone….those days are happily gone.

The Old:
Paris still smells the same. It is hard to describe, but it is a uniquely Paris mixture of diesel fuel pollution, cigarette smoke, and a hint of urine. Strangely enough I love the smell of Paris.

I guess a number of other things make this still the same old Paris. There is still dog poop on the sidewalk, my favorite tourist trap…. the hordes of tourists are still here, and the city is as alive and vibrant as ever. The other thing that hasn’t changed is that Paris still has some of the best urban spaces in the world. As I walked around the city today, It felt great to revisit some of my old favorite places. It is good to be back in Paris!

05.21.07: Bienvenue a Paris

I arrived in Paris this morning, and after dropping my bag off at the hotel, I headed straight for Notre Dame de Paris. What better way to kick off this trip than to start with Our Lady of Paris. Notre Dame is as magnificent as ever, and this is the first time I have seen the entire front façade scaffold free.

It reminded me why is so important for architects to travel (not that I needed much reminding). It makes me think of a line from one of the books I have my second year design students read: “Traveling is to the architect what the academy is to the man of letters”. Notre Dame underscores this idea, because it is simple not possible to understand a gothic cathedral without experiencing it. I often talk about the gothic cathedral as a “vessel of Light”. But today I was reminded how dark these spaces actually are. It is not the quantity of light that makes the space of a gothic building special, rather the lack of light that creates the drama. These cavernous, dark spaces come to life with light transformed through stained glass. The scale of the cathedral, the verticality of the interior space, even the smell of the stone space cannot be fully appreciated without a firsthand experience. Travelling is indeed an integral part of the education of an Architect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

05.20.07: Wheels Up

Well, I am on my way. Getting out of town has been far more stressful than I had anticipated. Leaving for Europe for four weeks would have probably been stressful enough in and of its own right, but to further complicate things both my wife and daughter have been sick this week. Aside from being paranoid about getting sick myself, I have been continuously worried about my family as I depart for this month long journey. You would think that I haven’t done this before by how nervous I have been.

I am also a bit surprised how difficult it was to leave my 2 year old daughter. I keep telling myself that she will never remember any of this anyway, but it was difficult none the less.

Now that I am on my way, I am much more relaxed and ready to get going. As I passed by one of the many bookstore kiosks at the airport today, I noticed Italo Calvino’s “Invisible cities” prominently displayed. That book is a favorite of mine, and I have read it several times. I considered stopping to purchase it for a brief moment, until my rational side kicked in. I am currently carrying about 20 pounds of reading material for the trip. I think I have enough to read already, but I do enjoy Calvino’s imaginative and poetic prose. For those of you who haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. The story, as told by Marco Polo, is an assembly of imagined cities from Polo’s travels, or perhaps it is simple a description of Venice, told over and over again. I am considering this sighting as a good omen as I depart, and this classic travel tale will be in my mind as I begin this trip.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Traveling Fellowship

OK, I am a blog novice, and this is my first attempt at this kind of thing. Most of you know that I have been awarded a traveling fellowship from the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The fellowship will bring me to Europe for 4 weeks beginning the end of May. To provide some background information, my original fellowship proposal is copied below. Like all creative endeavors, I expect this study to evolve and define itself throughout the process. My goal for this Blog is to record and document this experience. Look for images, sketches and analysis to be posted here beginning at the end of May. Now all I need is a passport!

FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION: How ideas shape the process and product of architecture.

Theory vs. Practice
It is often argued that there exists a division in architecture between theory and practice. There are those that argue that these two ideas are inherently in conflict with one another. That an architect’s career is a choice between the market driven business economies of an architectural practice verses the academic / architect theorist as interpreter of cultural phenomena. What if this question is the wrong question to be asking? Instead of theory vs. practice, I am interested in the exploration of theory and practice. How do the theories and ideas that architects begin the design process with ultimately affect the final product? In other words, does theory reinforce practice?

I have long believed that architecture is at its best when it is an expression of ideas. For architecture to have a depth and presence required to evoke an experiential connection, I feel it is necessary for the designer to have a clear conceptual vision, and prioritize this vision throughout the design process. Another way to phrase this is to say that as designers we must be intentional. My understanding of the importance of concept in the design process was something that I initially developed during my time as a student at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign.

For the past three years, I have been teaching architectural design at a community college. I find myself repeatedly trying to convince students of the importance of developing clear and strong concepts in their work, continuing to preach the fundamentals that I myself was taught as a student. This proposal seeks to further develop and enrich my own personal understanding of the role that theory and concept play in the design process. Through an in-depth analysis of the work of several well known, conceptually driven architects, I seek to develop an understanding of the role ideas and concepts play in the design process, and ultimately impact the built environment. Does concept drive and prioritize the design process as I have so often argued?

It is relatively easy to trace the relationship between the ideas, or values of a culture, and the architecture that certain cultures produced. Architecture has always been a mirror though which to measure a society or culture, and as such often reflects the goals, values and aspirations of a particular time and place. Historically, ideas or design theories often governed entire architectural movements uninterrupted for hundreds of years at a time. In today’s fast paced, hyper-media society, there is no one governing design trend or theory. Instead, architects seem to each develop their own theories in an attempt to create an appropriate expression for our place and time.

What role do concepts and theories play in the design process in our mass-media, information latent, global society? What are the driving theoretical forces of our time? How do concepts impact the design process? And what role does theory play in the eventual outcome of the completed work? These questions will drive the basis of this study, with a goal that this study will ultimately yield some conclusions about the importance of concept or theory in architectural practice.

Fellowship Proposal
Several recent projects by influential and well know architects have been selected for this study. Each of the architects on this list is considered at the forefront of the profession. Most of the architects selected became well known for their theories and writings long before they built work. All have won numerous design awards and have been widely published. All have written and published extensively about the concepts and theories that drive their own work. Each architect will be individually examined through a combination of background research, and an in-depth, on-site analysis of a single work.

This research will trace the evolution of idea from the beginning of the project through completion of built form. Background research will serve as the baseline reference point. What are the theories and ideas that drive each architect’s body of work? These ideas and theories will then be cross examined against the built product. Does the built work benefit from the theoretical basis of its inception? I intend to initiate a correspondence with each architect and discuss the work personally with a design team member involved in the design process. The study will lead to an analysis of the role theory, concept, and process played in the construction of these five built projects.

Architects / Projects

Jean Nouvel: Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France 2006
Jean Nouvel’s latest work began with a vision of a “sacred wood.” Did this vision stand up to the realities of built form? How does this project relate historically to the design theories of Jean Nouvel’s work?

Bernard Tschumi: School of Architecture, Marne-la-Vallée, France 1999
There could not be a better building type for a theoretical discourse on architecture that an architecture school itself, and perhaps no better architect to analyze for theoretical substance than Bernard Tschumi. Tschumi has long been identified with his written work, from the Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture and Disjunction and most recently the Event-Cities series. Does his built work embody the theoretical substance of his writings?

Norman Foster: Free University Library, Berlin 2006
Of the architects selected, Norman Foster is perhaps less associated with architectural theory than the others. On the other hand, if there were to be only one theory for architecture today wouldn’t we want it to be sustainability? According to Metropolis Magazine, this is “Foster’s Greenest Building Ever.”

Peter Eisenman: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin 2004
There is perhaps no better opportunity for symbolic expression than in the design of a memorial, and Eisenmann has long been considered at the forefront of architectural thought. Is this memorial an embodiment of ideas ranging from his initial interest in grids through his association with Jaques Derrida and the Deconstruction Movement?

Peter Cook and Colin Fournier: Kunsthaus Graz 2004
Biomorphism, or just funky form? Is this biomorphic techno-museum a “vision of the future,” or is it the contemporary, built version of ideas begun in by Archigram in the 1960’s? Its visual similarity to the “Walking City” of 1964 is hard to escape.

Zaha Hadid: Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany, 2005
Long considered a paper architect, Zaha Hadid became well know for her competition entries and stunning graphic compositions. Do her theoretical beginnings reinforce her built work?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Stay tuned for posts from Europe beginning at the end of May.