Sunday, September 21, 2008

Insanely Beautiful

Sometimes you see architecture works of such exquisite beauty that it makes you want to [insert one of the following]:

  1. cry
  2. give up this whole design thing in desperation
  3. stop blogging, grab a sketch pad, a chunk of soft lead, some museum board, glue, and an Exacto knife and commence the creation of your next masterpiece
  4. all of the above

El Croquis issues 139 and 140
This past week I have experienced these emotive outpourings and quasi-religious experiences on a near nightly basis as I have explored the two latest El Croquis. They are on the recent works of SANAA and Alvaro Siza, respectively, architects whom I have long admired (in the former individual works from Sejima, Nishizawa, and the SANAA collective are all represented). Thanks to the architecture book black market here in China I was able to obtain both of these inspirational titles at an extremely moderate price.
It is interesting to me that El Croquis would publish monographs on these three masters (and I do not use that term lightly) contiguously because somehow I have always put them in a similar class of architect, and not only because of their well-known affinities for monochromatic palettes. Although I must admit their ‘toute-en-blanche’ approach to swatch picking does make it rather easy to lump together. Rather it is because I feel their architecture all seem bourn from a particular place and culture, a particular time, and particular world views, thus leading to highly personal and idiosyncratic working methods and production; at the same time they are capable of transcending these particularities to achieve work that resonate universal ideas, moods, atmospheres, and a sense of timelessness. Not an easy task.
What I see in their work is something akin to a personal style except that I would rather term it a personal grammar. For, to me at least, their work has not devolved into the repetitive, monotonous, and in worse cases banal modes of production of other designers who are known for their ‘signatures.’ The idea of a personal grammar to me would connote a different strategy than a personal style. A personal grammar, developed over time, provides a designer with certain rules--guiding principals such as geometry, materials, and trajectories of exploration--but encourages invention and innovation within these rules.

Municipal Library in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, and the Museum for the Ibere Camargo Foundation in Brazil

To me it is amazing that Siza can steel produce works that feel fresh and inventive after all these years, and distinctly his own at the same time. Two recent projects that I am particularly struck by are the Municipal Library in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, and the Museum for the Ibere Camargo Foundation in Brazil. The former is structurally daring and ambiguous, but sensitive to site and context, and provides the familiar domestic quality of Siza’s best interiors. The latter is highly sculptural and related to Siza’s biggest inspirations—Wright and Le Corbusier—without feeling deriviative due to Siza’s idiosyncratic approach to geometry and form, and again his sensitivity to site. Both of these represent a more heroic approach to structure than his earlier work, an exciting recent development of his oeuvre.

What is most impressive about the work of Siza, Sejima, and Nishizawa is an attention to craft, detail, and above all beauty, which seem so out of place in today’s world of architecture. Each object, be it drawing, model, or building, is delicately crafted and questions the familiarity of common architectural elements and typologies.

Sejima’s plan drawings, for example, often look like diagrams at best or immature children’s drawings at worst: walls are represented by single lines, corners are misaligned, grids are distorted, and structure is notoriously absent from plans. Upon further study you begin to realize that those single lines are purposefully drawn: steel plates, frameless glass, single-sheets of plywood are substituted for the clumsiness of traditional walls; the corner misalignments are the result of perceptually driven decisions of countless models for particular spatial qualities; grids are distorted for programmatic or spatial reasons, never willful; and innovative structural solutions are engineered to minimize the disruption of her well-known spatial continuums.

In the end Sejima has the last laugh: what we thought to be crude drawings are actually accurate representations of structure, enclosure, and aperture collapsed into a single line. SANAA plays on our expectations of what things should be by constantly exploring the minimums and maximums of design.

SANAA, various projects, via El Croquis

Alvaro Siza, various projects, via El Croquis

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