05 November, 2009

Note from the Editor

I am new to this blog interface, so I'm trying to get the hang of properly arranging the images in relation to the text.  I hope that the texts are still legible.


04 November, 2009

Individuality Through Diversity: An Evaluation of the Work of Peter Zumthor

          Evaluating a particular work of the built environment is traditionally done using the three most basic forms of architectural drawing: the plan, the section, and the elevation.  For Peter Zumthor, however, architecture is seen and designed according to its atmospheric qualities, always of an emotional sensibility and rarely quantifiable.  According to the Swiss architect, atmosphere is the aesthetic quality par excellence which guides the design process by recreating the intensity of a mood found in memory.

          Zumthor was born in 1943 into a war torn Europe.  The son of a cabinet maker, he was given a first hand knowledge of building at a young age.  In the most primitive sense, when building cabinetry the carpenter is assigned the task of creating a container which suits the task at hand, logically accommodating a family of objects.  The carpenter’s functional merit can be measured by how well he creates the appropriate form in conjunction with the rationality of the relationships between sizes, placements, and uses.  Intimately linked with ergonomics and the human scale, cabinetry can also be seen in terms of the small details, which when assembled with a great deal of precision, compose a functioning whole.  In a sense, Zumthor has been an architect for his whole life.

           At the age of 25, Zumthor became an architect for the preservation of monuments in his own Graubunden, Switzerland.  This experience proves influential in his future designs as during this period he would have gained a more thorough knowledge of construction and would have constantly been exposed to aging materials.  One could argue that he would have become keenly aware of the stylistic and intercultural relationships between architectures, qualities which he consciously avoids.  Some have classified Zumthor as a functionalist on the grounds that without any other classifiable stylistic preference, the only consistent “theme” in his work is the way in which the buildings develop organically from their specific program on a concrete site.  I would like to propose that the “functionalism” is a byproduct of his past as a cabinet-maker and that his work is more of a certain “situationalism”, itself of a shapeless, colorless, yet purely atmospheric connotation.  Five of Zumthor’s buildings of different sizes and uses will be evaluated according to these criteria.

            The Saint Benedict Chapel of 1987-89 is one of Zumthor’s most compelling early works.  The building is situated perpendicular to the slope of an Alpine hill above the village of Sumvitg, Switzerland.  From below the erect form of the building appears like a spaceship firmly anchored to the ground, yet from above, the chapel seems to be sailing off into the valley beyond, an image not unlike that of Tolkien’s journey of the living to the eternal Gray Havens.  The red, shingle skin of the building is a local technique, yet the lower rows are not permitted to touch the ground and have quickly aged.  Here, one can observe what Zumthor had learned as a historical preservationist as he capitalizes on the intrinsic qualities of the material as it ages.  In this way, one is reminded of Kahn in his truth to materials.  This trait should also be compared to Zumthor’s Swiss contemporaries in Herzog and deMeuron, as they continue attempting to stretch materials to new limits.  Upon entering through a relatively minimal steel portal, one emerges into an introverted room, ideal for a place of communion and repose.  The plan of the chapel is like a leaf, an eye, a tear, a boat, a fish, or, though more abstract, an image of mother church.  The wooden framework evokes a certain security and composure while the grey, anthracite walls provide a softness and space to breathe.  At once, the building becomes both spatial evaporation and imprisonment.  Zumthor has mentioned his fascination with artists like Joseph Beuys and the Arte Povera, a movement which explored the possibilities between the combination of materials which by themselves carry no specific meaning, but when combined in a specific way are able to tell a story.  The dichotomy he presents here is effective in the same way.  The floorboards are the voice of the otherwise silent building, creaking with each step, contributing to the atmosphere of the place.

            Between the years of 1990-94, Zumthor was commissioned to make an addition to a small farm dating back to 1706.  This unique house is isolated on the north slope of another Alpine hill outside of Versam and called the Gugalun, which means to look at the moon.  In this project, Zumthor was charged with the task of conserving the valley side portion of the house and to add the modern comforts to the mountain side (Fig. 5).  The “concrete animal”, between the two masses, is the unifying element of the interior where all of the heat is held in one concrete mast.  The warm air is permitted to radiate throughout the home and the “animal” becomes the bathtub on the upper floor.  In the process of making the addition, he designs the intervention to engage in meaningful dialogue with its counterpart by knitting onto the existing structure and precisely illustrating the friction between the aged wood and the new (Fig. 6).  The distinct way in which the architectures embrace one another in this instance is an effective and inspiring modification.  In keeping the low ceilings, tiny windows, and narrow crookedness of the original spaces as atmospheric tools in the design, Zumthor closely monitors the whole into which the old and new would be absorbed.

            In 1993, Zumthor’s competition entry for the Topography of Terror in Berlin was awarded first prize.  Not far from Potsdamer Platz, the site was the headquarters of the Gestapo and the Schutzstaffel, the principal instruments of repression during the Nazi era.  The headquarters were bombed by the allies in 1945 and the ruins then ordered to be flattened following the surrender.   The foundations and a few structural columns of Zumthor’s proposal stood alone for almost a whole decade before the project was abandoned and all traces of its existence razed in 2004.  His response to the site was a wood “architectural envelope” nearly 240 meters long which would house exhibition space and a smaller cube showcasing the remaining ruins, similar to the way in which he addressed the Roman ruins in Chur in 1986.  The double framed walls of the envelope would have allowed a completely free floor plan and cross section within for the calculated placement of various inner units, a quality which has almost become synonymous with modern museum building and ever changing collections.  I suppose this concept was misunderstood by some, as part of the reason why the project was eventually abandoned was due to “the arbitrariness of its floor plan”, said Knut Newmann of the German government’s Culture Department.  The outer frame would have been glazed between each of the columns, thus from a distance the structure would have appeared as a monolith, but a view out would be available from everywhere in the building, keeping the surroundings always present.  Zumthor takes pride in leaving the entire structure completely unadorned, completely pure and honest, as if to try to single-handedly reverse the kharma of the site.  Critics have praised this building for its intentional visual subordinance to the more elaborate buildings of Potsdamer Platz, modestly marking the site as peculiar and truly unique.  To me, however, the design seems too timid, too afraid of taking any focus away from the intended exhibitions.  I feel that in museum design, an architect should make attempts to compliment the exhibitions, as Venturi did in the Sainsbury Wing in London.  Architects should not feel obligated to force the architecture to take the backseat in the affair between arts by painting all of the surfaces white or by leaving a completely blank slate to be forever contorted by the curators.    

            The Thermal Baths in Vals earned Zumthor much critical acclaim upon its completion in 1996.  The city is famous for the quality of the natural spring which is bottled and sold throughout the country.  In 1966, a German entrepreneur had built an international style hotel complex which was later purchased by the citizens with the goal to build a spa complex on the site.  The hotel relates to the shape of the mountain with an elegant, International Style curve, and in order to preserve the views from the hotel to the valley, the spa had nowhere to go but into the earth.  The entrance to the baths travels underground from the hotel complex, like getting deep into the earth’s crust.  Here, one can see Zumthor’s desire to design a building more in tune with the geology and topography of the place, not just the immediate surroundings.  Inside of this tunnel, the Valserwasser is first revealed as it drips from copper pipes, which pierce through the concrete wall.  The iron rich water stains the walls a rust colored, reddish-brown over time, like rediscovering the processes and laws of nature on site.  An imperceptible transition between indoors and outdoors occurs as one passes from the tunnel, to a quite cellular organization of rooms, into an intermediary dance of choice, and ultimately to the building’s face confronting the valley.  The plan of the structure is organized by fifteen independent “stones”, each with its own outcropping roof delineate archaic volumes which seduce the bather into a casual meandering through space unlike the Roman bath which is more explicit in directing the bather.  The cantilevered roofs are kept a crisp 8 cm from the adjoining stone thus admitting a sliver of light and relieving some of the monolithic weight of the highly polished, exposed concrete ceiling.  Le Corbusier picks up on this same atmospheric quality in his project for the pilgrimage cave to Mary Magdalene of 1948.  Both architects are able to ascertain that these fissures are the oldest memories of light in the underground world.  The structure of the building was poured and clad in a local stone and each row runs the length of the whole building at the same height.  Each row is a denominator of the 30 cm module, though, thus providing visual variety while still facilitating the refining of the stone and its application.  Again, though, one is reminded of Kahn in that the Thermal Baths are an architecture of the earth where glass becomes completely subordinate to masonry.  The primary material of the project, the water, draws sharp horizontals across the stone in a serene atmosphere, never challenging, inviting the bather to step softly into the pool, never to jump in.  The mountain water is actually first held in cisterns before being delivered to the bath, yet Zumthor skillfully hides the devices, making the water seem as though it is coming directly from the mountain at the different temperatures.  In this way, he brings the water, the stone, and the machine into perfect concert with one another in a building which shows its strength through its peacefulness, somehow simultaneously staging both a primitive and a modern encounter through the act of bathing.

     Zumthor’s art museum in Bregenz, Austria of 1990-97 again shows a radical departure from all previous projects.  Standing at the edge of Lake Constance, this public work is truly an exploitation of the essence of concrete and glass, the material which he had wanted to entirely exclude from the baths at Vals.  Here, the panes of etched glass on the membrane act as a lamp which both emits and absorbs light while reflecting the lake itself.  These ruffled feathers of 
glass embrace the volumes within without a firm contact, allowing the breeze off of the lake to permeate the membrane.  At once, the glass scales are a weather skin, a daylight modulator, a sun shade, and a thermal insulator as the atmosphere of the interior becomes light trapped within the glass skin.  The vertical, concrete planes give 
both texture and spatial composition to the spaces within, while also being functional.  Aside from their obvious structural role, they contain water pipes which help to mitigate the changing temperatures.  The placement of the velvety, vertical planes in cooperation with the opaque, glass membrane prevent the visitor from actually seeing outside while still providing an understanding of the environment of the exterior as the building absorbs daylight through the changing position of the sun.  The stair is located on the south side of the building where the natural light would be most prevalent year-round.  The section perhaps shows the spatial qualities best.  The concrete planes support five-sided concrete boxes separated from each other by a void.  From the ceiling, glass panels are hung which are illuminated by the natural light which permeates the membrane and is then diffused in the void.  The view inside of the void, which the visitor is unfortunately never afforded, reveals a certain Swiss-ness the likes of which are quite rare.  The precision in the connectivity is reminiscent of the Swiss Army Knife, the fine Swiss watches, or even a master carpenter’s cabinet.   
            I sometimes feel that contemporary architects have gone about explaining their buildings in entirely the wrong fashion.  Where many of these architects will elaborate on the rationality of the structure or the highly academic intentions of a particular building, Zumthor is not afraid to reveal what is the deep seeded passion behind the inspiration for the architecture he creates.  In his books Atmospheres and Thinking Architecture, he speaks to the reader in a very refreshing prose about the smells of his grandmother’s kitchen from the dark hallway where he would play, or about the beauty of a gardening tool.  It is even difficult to find publications with images of his work; as he is a firm believer that architecture is an experiential phenomenon that cannot be effectively conveyed through photographs.  The atmosphere that Zumthor seeks is most successfully found in complete seclusion, it seems to me.  The urban buildings that were analyzed here, as beautiful as they may be, are each rather inert slabs which help frame the city quite well, yet never hold a recognizable dialogue with the context.  These buildings are complete manifestations of the perfect vision in Zumthor’s mind, successful on their own terms, yet they make no gesture to the complex realities of the urban environment.  It will be interesting to see how Zumthor’s career will develop in the future and whether he will begin to discover, manipulate, and interpret the atmosphere of the city.

29 October, 2009

Anthropomorphics in Architecture, Part I: Portraiture

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, Vera Mukhina.  Soviet Pavilion, Boris Iofan.  Paris, 1937.

Architecture is a tool that, throughout its development over the past several millennia, is built for both utilitarian and figurative purposes.  The art of building came in stride with the development of agriculture, where man no longer wandered from place to place, but was able to envision and realize a place for himself.  Architecture has thus not only fulfilled its purely utilitarian function, but in a way, has defined the human experience through the bringing together of people in a civic, cultural, and political act.  For this reason, architecture has been extolled by those who build it.  So as Genesis says that "God made man in the image of himself", the creations of man, too, are often made in the image of mankind.  As the work of human hands, architecture is a way for man to come to grips with nature's infallible laws of life and death,  building in our own image to immortalize ourselves.

Building using the human form is, par excellence, the method in which a society may relate to a building empathetically; to visualize the lore, the heros, and the aspirations of the collective whole.  Generally, there are two methods of using the human body as a symbol in architecture: portraiture and abstraction.  In the instance of portraiture, I refer specifically to pieces of sculpture that are absolutely integral to the understanding of the architectural intention in a built work.  Each of these two methods is perfectly justifiable, yet both the decreasing number of artisans and increasing cost of fine art has contributed to the dilution of portraiture as, say, the Egyptians would have known it.  By analyzing the history of the two methods through to present day, one could study how reverence to heros, aspirations, and stories has evolved through the art of architecture.

We begin the critique of portraiture in Egypt at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, located just north of modern day Sudan, and fronting the west bank of the Nile.  Abu Simbel is the most magnificent of the six Nubian temples carved directly out of the hillside during the reign of Ramses II in the second half of the 13th Century BC.  The temple honors the Sun Gods Amun-Re and Re-Horakhte, and is also dedicated to Ramses himself, as the pharaoh was, too, deified.  The facade of the Great Temple, recalling the form of a pylon, is dominated by four colossal statues of Ramses II donning the pschent, each twenty meters high.  Between each of these statues stand statues of Nefertari and Queen Tuya, the mother of Ramesses, as well as the first two sons and first six daughters of the pharaoh.  In this way, Ramses immortalizes himself and his family by shaping the earth into a family portrait of sorts.  The images of Ramses II as the pharaoh of a united Upper and Lower Egypt, along with the sheer scale of the project, are symbols meant to intimidate the southern neighbors.  This is also most likely why the temple is sited in such a remote location.  Above the central portal is a relief of the pharaoh worshipping the sun god Ra-Harakhti and thus promoting a set of religious beliefs.  In one facade, in one glance, we are told a story about the period, the land, and the culture of the Egyptians.

The Greeks excelled in using the human form in both portraiture and abstraction.  Almost one thousand years after the construction of Abu Simbel, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was built in the Greek city of Akragas in Sicily.  The Doric temple was to be the largest of its kind, but was never completed.  Construction started in 480 BC following the victory of Akragas and Syracuse over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera.  The temple, measuring six bays by twelve bays, and at an enormous 56 meters by 113 meters, is peculiar in that the lower half of the intercolumniation is walled, while the upper half is left as void.  In these voids stand statues of Atlas, struggling to support the enormous weight of the entablature.  The statues, like the columns themselves (which will be discussed during the piece on Abstraction), emote an awesome, active force pushing upward rather than buckling under the enormous load, and thus embody the human qualities of Zeus.  Atlas is bound to the building, a servant to the Greek cause, and can also be seen in relation to the Carthaginian slave labour used to build the temple.

The Greeks use this same technique in the Erechteum, though in a much different way.  The caryatides, statues of Athena's maidens, delicately take a step into the axis between Hymettos and the sea.  They face the Parthenon and Athena herself.  The maidens seem to be bearing no weight whatsoever and the entablature above is just there.  These two works show how the Greeks viewed their gods, how their gods viewed each other, and how the gods viewed their creations; the Greeks.  Perhaps most inspiring of all the Greek portraitures is the relief (though really sculpted in the round) on the eastern pediment of the Parthenon.  The gods here turn from the sea, from where the great Battle of Salamis with the Persians took place, in fear that they might catch a glimpse of a human dying.

Even since the time of the Etruscans, the Italians have been instrumental in the promotion of the use of anthropomorphics in architecture, yet one of the most illustrative examples of portraiture is found on the Capitoline Hill.  The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at Michaelangelo's Campidoglio is really the first development in what would become the Baroque idea of space.  Though the statue was not intended by Michaelangelo, the act performed by Marcus Aurelius enhances the clarity of the architectural intention.  At a time when the Papacy became the seat of both religion and government, the focus of the city shifted from the Roman Forum towards the Vatican and San Pietro.  In accordance with this shift, the statue rides forward with his back to what is, in effect, old Rome, and rides toward the Campus Martius and New Rome.  The gesture he makes with his right hand exerts a force on the buildings, pushing the Palazzo Nuovo and Palazzo dei Conservatori slightly outwards and opening towards Rome's future.

Moving forward and into the modern age, one finds that the image of Lady Liberty is not only perhaps the first skyscraper in New York City, but one of the most iconic uses of portraiture in architectural history.  Though the body was sculpted by Bartholdi, in many ways the Statue of Liberty is, more than sculpture, a work of architecture.  The interior supports were designed by the engineer Eiffel, the copper cladding was chosen by Viollet-le-Duc, and the pedestal was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.  As Abu Simbel signifies an arrival into the land of a unified Egypt, the Statue of Liberty signifies an arrival to the land of freedom and liberty.  She steps forward, like the caryatides of the Erectheum, from the harbor towards the New World with a torch of enlightenment guiding the way.  From the base of the Statue of Liberty, where she stands atop shattered shackles, reads the inscription:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Her message is as clear as her gestures.  Once upon a time, she was the first thing one would see in the morning mist after weeks at sea; and although the world around her has changed in ways no one could predict, from the advent of the jet age removing her from the procession into America to the advancement of the skyscrapers which are now ten fold her once colossal size, the inspiration that she rouses has not lost any of its potency.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect of the Werkbund tradition, the Bauhaus, and later, the International Style, is one of only a few modern architects who was able to incorporate the human form into his designs.  As the machine aesthetic took over in the first twenty years of the 20th Century, the use of ornament in architecture was maligned.  The vilification of ornament (including portraiture) in modern architecture came with the texts of architects like Adolf Loos comparing the art of decoration to sexual deviation, demanding purity and restraint (which even he, at times, would ignore) as a reactionary force to the decadence of the Art Nouveau.  Another quarrel with portraiture was that the arts and crafts of yester-year were no longer expressive of the condition of the modern man; that the beauty inherent in the use of geometry and naked, machined materials was most satisfying; that architecture should be built according to the romantic view of industry shared by the younger generation of European poets and revolutionaries.  Satisfying though they may be, the works of the 1920's and the machine aesthetic distance themselves from being related to empathetically.  Rather, the associations drawn from the buildings of de Stijl, of the Bauhaus, of the Futurists, are more intellectual in nature.  In the German Pavilion for the 1929 World's Fair in Barcelona, and many of his buildings thereafter, Mies used a piece of sculpture to activate the space much like the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Piazza del Campidoglio.  In the German Pavilion, he creates a wonderful procession for the King and Queen of Spain, the scene never contained by four walls, but staged as a dance through what is, in effect, the temple of the International Style.  Mies understands that in the abstract world created only by intersecting, flat planes, that the human figure by Kolbe is necessary to define the architecture as environment and the sculpture as acting body.  It would have been impossible to consider placing a work by one of the abstract sculptors of the period in the reflecting pool because the 'constructivist' structure; minimal, flat, abstract; needs the classical figure gently pushing out and creating the space.  It is just enough to energize the building in Barcelona.  In other buildings of his, the figure is just enough to show the reality of a man in the modern world.  He is alone and free in unlimited space.

The most recent example of portraiture that I would like to talk about is a rare, contemporary use of vivid and literal human form; the Eberswalde Library of 2000 by Herzog and de Meuron, located just north of Berlin.  Known for their innovation in materiality, the pair expose materials to new treatments and juxtapositions to produce unprecedented building exteriors.  In the case of the Eberswalde Library, the entirety of the concrete and glass facade is silk-screened with acid to produce numerous images, selected from the newspaper in collaboration with photographer Thomas Ruff, which scroll across the elevation like a movie reel.  These two dimensional portraitures are unlike a painting hanging in a side chapel, and unlike a billboard plastered onto the surface of a building.  These images are made integral to the materiality of the building itself.  The image on the lowermost concrete panel is the same as that which is on the uppermost panel, but on the top 'reel', the image of German women lounging on a roof garden is double the scale.  In this way, we can see an appreciation for the vantage point of the pedestrian much in the same way that Michaelangelo had sculpted the head of Moses much larger than proportionally sensible.  Another of the images is that of a family happily gazing at a train set, indicative of the German fascination with the machine in the 1920's.  Yet another is of Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist famous worldwide for his studies in Latin America.  The most inspiring set of images are juxtaposed against one another just above the first ribbon window and are that of a pair of German men trying to pull a woman from the second story of a building in East Germany as she attempts to flee, and the image of the reunification celebration at the Brandenburg Gate.  These images, amongst others on the facade, cleverly turn the entire building into a readable frieze as if on a Greek temple, illustrating the pieces of history which form the foundations of the contemporary German academy.  The textured facade beckons to be touched, bringing these German youths closer to the places and ideals which shape them.  The building successfully defeats the modernist stigma by embracing both minimalism and ornament, by designing at once the concrete box and the pictorial facade, and by articulating an architecture of both space and surface.

I would like to conclude with a building by Karl Ehn in Vienna, roughly contemporary with the previously discussed German Pavilion.  After the first World War, as Austria had really lost everything other than Vienna and the mountainous region beyond, the people were fed up with the church and with the crown.  They consequently soon voted socialist and spent the state money on public housing.  Unlike the Germans, who placed their Siedlungen (literally, settlements) outside the city, the Austrians voted to put their housing blocks within the city.  Ehn's public housing project, outrageously titled Karl Marx Hof, is charged with political imagery. One can imagine how the words 'Karl Marx Hof', alone, would drive the right wing absolutely mad as they rode past on their streetcars or into the train station behind the seemingly mile-long complex.  And it is here, where in 1934, the right wing army attacked these houses to assassinate Svoboda and other political figures.  Commemorating this event, there is a plaque which reads:

When first in Europe stepped forward the working men of Austria on the 12 February 1934,
Courageously opposed to fascism, they fought for liberty, democracy and the republic.
Never forget the socialist riots. 

It was the rich against the poor.  As the most literal symbol of their solidarity, standing in front of Karl Marx Hof, is a statue of Spartacus, leader of the Roman slave uprising against the Roman Republic against a backdrop of the red fists, holding flagstaffs and marching down the street to the steady beat of a drum seen in the blip reminiscent of a heart monitor.  Combined, the portraiture and the abstracted symbols form an ultimate act of defiance that is second to none.

And it is the abstraction of the human form that I will talk about next time.