Thursday, July 26, 2012

San Gimignano

One of the most anticipated destinations of this journey was San Gimignano, an iconic Tuscan hill town.  This walled medieval hill town is known for its impressive array of vertical towers that have survived since the middle ages.  These beautiful stone towers, haphazardly arranged, and bathed in Tuscan light, make San Gimignano the perfect place to explore, sketch and photograph. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stone Figures and Poised Pigeons

Today’s images are from the Piazza Navona in Rome, thanks to the well behaved pigeons.
As I mused about in the previous post, Rome is a city where the layers of history come alive.  It is a city where you can experience 2000 plus years of history simultaneously, but Rome is also very much a Baroque city, and the Piazza Navona is a fine example of this.

The focal point of the Piazza Navona is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) which celebrates the four great rivers of the known world in its time, the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate.  I am really drawn to this sculpture.  I just love the drama and theatricality of the figures, which of course is typical of the Baroque.  I also like the way the figures in the fountain seem to be addressing the adjacent cathedral façade.  Legend has it that the figures, designed by Bernini, are shielding their eyes in horror from the cathedral façade, designed by Borromini, Bernini’s arch-rival.  The reality is that the fountain was completed before the Façade, so who knows?  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

I addition to the very Baroque sculptures, the Piazza Navona is a fantastic urban space, albeit too touristy for its own good.

Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain

Shielding its eyes from the horror of the Borromini Facade.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fragments of Antiquity

Being in Rome, one becomes extremely aware of the depth of history that lies within this city.  The layers of time, one era stacked on top of the other, is noticeably palpable when visiting this city.  This is probably one of my favorite aspects of Rome, and it always reminds me that great cities are always an accumulation of histories and layers. 

Nowhere in Rome is this idea more evident that in the Roman Forum itself, where the detritus of the Roman Empire lies in a layered pile of fragments from antiquity.  Some of these photos contain more history in one image (hundreds of years) than we know as a nation here in the US.  I guess that is why Rome is known as the eternal city, a city where you can experience two and half thousand years of history simultaneously.

In addition to my fascination with layered cities, I think there is a fundamental beauty found in ruins.  There is something about these fragments of incomplete ancient structures that I find to be incredibly beautiful and poetic.  Perhaps it is the way our “memories” and imagination work together to recreate the missing whole.  Maybe the parts, or fragments of history, are greater that the whole when it comes to our experience of place. 

Imperial Forum

Colosseum column fragments

Roman Forum

Column fragment

Roman Forum

Flower with Corinthian Capital

Roman Forum

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Framed Views

I don’t really know why, but I am a sucker for capturing a “framed view”.  I love taking photographs of architecture framed by architecture, especially views famed by arches and windows.  These moments always seem to catch my attention and stop me in my tracks when I encounter them.  I will always double back to shoot a good framed view.  I know it is cliché, but I don’t care.

Here is a series of some of my favorite framed views from Florence, Tuscany and Rome.
Palazzo Medici, Florence

Colosseum, Rome

Courtyard at San Carlo alle Quatro Fontaine, Rome

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

Courtyard at Santa Croce, Florence

Duomo, Sienna

St. Peter's, Rome

St. Peter's (Framed and Reflected), Rome

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Photo of the Day: MAXXI Museum, Rome (Zaha Hadid, 2010)
One of the buildings I was most looking forward to seeing on this trip was Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome.The MAXXI museum was completed in 2010, after our previous class trip to Rome, so I was excited to see something new in Rome. I was also looking forward to comparing this structure to other Zaha Hadid buildings that I have studied, in particular the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, which I had the opportunity to research and visit on the UIUC Baker Fellowship in 2007. I was somewhat critical of the workmanship and construction quality at Phaeno, and I was interested to see if there were similar construction issues in Rome.

MAXXI has a number of common themes related to Zaha Hadid’s work, based on my past experiences:
Drawn-Out Circulation Spaces
The most obvious characteristic is her use of over-dramatic circulation spaces as a means to shape the architectural experience.As in many of her other works the circulation spaces at MAXXII take on a life of their own, and become focal point spaces within the experience.The circulation elements themselves, ramps and stairs, are often much longer or more dramatic than they need to be based on functional requirements, becoming over emphasized movement spaces that are about the experience of movement and light.Personally this is one of my favorite characteristics of Zaha Hadid’s work. Moving through the interior spaces she creates is quite a memorable and dynamic experience.

Overlapping and Intertwining (and Spatial Layering)

The floor plan at MAXXI, as seen in the concept sketch below, is a series of overlapping and intertwining lines. This is not just a 2 dimensional compositional technique, as these intertwining lines in plan are extruded to become intertwined spaces layered in section. The sense of overlapping and intertwined spaces is another common theme in Zaha Hadid’s work. In the MAXXI museum, as you move up and through the spaces, there is this sense of continuously interlocking spaces in section, where the boundary between one gallery and the next is defined by ramps and level changes, but lacks a clear spatial definition in the traditional sense. This blurring or intertwining of spatial boundaries creates a series of dynamic spaces at the MAXXI museum, whose experience is mediated by the dramatic circulations spaces that both define and connect the “individual” galleries.

For me the most interesting detail at the MAXXI museum is the linear skylight and baffles that light the galleries. These linear elements act to both diffuse light as well as create a visual connective ribbon in the overhead plane, which further blurs the spaces together into a continuous ribbon of space as envisioned in the early concept sketch. Maybe I am just a sucker for interesting light modulating details, or maybe it is because this detail reminds me of a warped Renzo piano ceiling - whatever the case may be, these continuous strips of light are fantastic.

Craft and Detail
As I mentioned before, I was disappointed with Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Center in Germany due to its noticeable poor workmanship. I was concerned at the time that perhaps Hadid’s ability to manipulate digital forms had outpaced the ability to have these forms be well built and finely crafted. For me, the importance of craft and detail cannot be overlooked even for the best of formal innovation, after all, architecture in my opinion is both a built art as well as a discipline of building science. The MAXXI museum, however, did not seem to have noticeable issues with craft and detail as I experienced in Germany. Is this because of a better skilled workforce, improved material decisions, formal constraint, or a more mature Hadid? I am not sure, but I suspect that it is a combination of all of these things.
One lingering question I have is related to the roll of innovation in Design. I generally believe that one important aspect of good design is innovation. As designers, we are always pushing boundaries, trying to invent places and spaces that have not yet existed. When we visited this building, several of my students remarked that the spaces almost gave them vertigo, making them feel physically a bit uncomfortable. I was asked if this was intention. Personally, I don’t think so. I think the spaces were intended to be dynamic and innovative. But the question remains, is there a danger in pushing too far towards being innovative? Can the desire to seek “new”and “innovative” unintentionally result in the creation of uncomfortable spaces? I didn’t necessarily feel this way about the spaces at MAXXI. I found the museum to be spatially dynamic and stimulating. But the question is still a good one, and a potential reminder not to be blinded as a designer simply by the new and innovative. I think it is important not to forget big picture, that design is about creating memorable and meaningful places, and perception varies depending on the individual.