Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Megastructure Definitions

As an appendix to the previous post I thought it would be interesting to add the remaining points of Wilcoxon's definition:

...not only a structure of great size by...also a structure which is frequently:
1 :: constructed of modular units;
2 :: capable of great or even 'unlimited' extension;
3 :: a structural framework into which smaller structural units (for example, rooms, houses, or small buildings of other sorts) can be built – or even plugged-in or clipped-on, having been prefabricated elsewhere;
4 :: a structural framework expected to have a useful life much longer than that of the smaller units which it might support.

Banham's introduction also features other definitions:
Kenzo Tange (1964)
"Mega-structure is a large frame in which all the functions of a city or part of a city are housed. It has been made possible by present day technology. In a sense it is a man-made feature of a landscape. It is like the great hill on which Italian towns were built."
Justus Dahindian
"Urban Structures for the future"

Archigram's Plug-In City, prototypical Megastructure, via archinect

Are we really ready for the "Bottom Up"?

On Bottom Up Design, Megastructures, and City Regeneration

A few weeks ago I was at a client meeting for the residential project I am currently working on and the conversation aimlessly wandered over to discuss the possibility that future residents might desire to construct various appendages and outcroppings on the exterior of our yet-to-be-realized building. The topic was generally met with a large amount of eye-rolling and grumbling and a discussion on whether or not we can avoid it and if not what strategies we can take to mitigate the potential damage this uncouth display of individuality and customization might reek upon our great edifice. The landscape architect wanted to make an equally damaging comparison so he said something to the effect of “if you let them do whatever you want it will end up looking like the Golden Mile complex—this slanting 60s behemoth where everyone built their own structure on the outside—it looks like a shanty town!” At this everyone simultaneously shuddered and silently exclaimed “NO! Not the Golden Mile!” Everyone that is, except me. I thought it sounded cool and I couldn’t wait to get to my desk and do a flickr search.
Golden Mile Complex - Singapore - via Jonolist on flickr
What I found, well, did not exactly live up to my expectation. I had expected something truly amazing from the description and everyone’s reaction. Something more akin to the favela’s of Sao Paolo. But it wasn’t so bad. Maybe this has something to do with Singapore and their low tolerance for unruliness. More than anything, it revealed to me that maybe architects aren’t as ready for bottom up design as I had thought.
Golden Mile Complex - Singapore - via Jonolist on flickr
Golden Mile is representative of that class of building demonized a few decades ago but quickly gaining wide acceptance once again—the Megastructure. Few megastructures were ever actually built. Singapore might be home to half of all the specimens we can still examine. Safdie built a megastructure in Singapore. Paul Rudolph did too. Even today we can think of Singapore as a safe haven for the megastructural thinkers of the world.

Moshe Safdie - Ardmore Habitat Condominimums - Singapore

Paul Rudolph - Colonnade - Singapore
Megastructures went so quickly out of fashion that as early as 1976 Banham was able to subtitle his historical opus on the subject “Urban Futures of the Recent Past” and refer to them throughout the book in the past tense. The Golden Mile complex was finished in 1973 so it barely made it in time. But its existence is currently under threat. It is slated to be demolished and redeveloped, and a Singaporean politician recently claimed that it is a ‘vertical slum’, a ‘terrible eyesore’, and a ‘national disgrace.’ Who knew that a perfect example of self-expression and democratic freedom epitomized in built form would be so vilified?

Megastructures paradoxically exhibit the limits of top-down and bottom-up design sensibilities simultaneously, represented by Banham’s introduction in which he includes the four-part definition of megastructure as laid-out by Ralph Wilcoxon:
Point 3 :: a structural framework into which smaller structural units (for example, rooms, houses, or small buildings of other sorts) can be built – or even plugged-in or clipped-on, having been prefabricated elsewhere;
Point 4 :: a structural framework expected to have a useful life much longer than that of the smaller units which it might support.
The structural framework can be seen as the top-down approach where as the infill can be thought of as the bottom-up approach—something that can change over time, take on a will of its own, and transcend the designer’s original conceptions.

Example of super structure - Golden Mile Complex - Singapore
Today designers love to talk about ideas such as bottom up, self-organized, open source, etc. But are we really ready for that? It seems that we are only willing to accept these ideas if they are set into motion by evolutionary algorithms composed by ourselves that we can willfully manipulate to generate an acceptable outcome it the computer. But we might not be so keen to allow an evolutionary process to take place on its own, in real time, completely out of our control. I think many of us are worried that the buildings we design will take on a life of their own and lose that picture perfect image that we see in our minds.

This conflicting view is portrayed very vividly in an interview with Siza in the recent Croquis (I should preface this by saying I’m a big fan of his). At one point in the interview Siza claims that he prefers for his buildings to transform over time, that “things are really always unfinished. There is never anything that you can say is really concluded…I regard every completed building as a first stone: the rest has to be done by history…starting with the first inhabitant.” Later he (perhaps unwittingly) contradicts himself when discussing the restoration of his social housing in Bouca: “…the cooperative members did not want to negotiate the restoration of certain elements to their original state, like the open terraces which were completely changed with new colours that detracted from the original project. I tried, but it was impossible, so I had to design new glazed enclosures to cover the terraces.” His respectful approach to the restoration of historical buildings (he says that “‘nothing is more beautiful than the ruins of beauty.’ That is why the scar of history is to a certain extent enriching”) he has trouble extending to the restoration of his own buildings.
Alvaro Siza - Bouca Social Housing - Bouca, Portugal via El Croquis
There are some designers who are accepting of change. Some friends of mine reminded me over the weekend of Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental project which has a few resonances with the concepts of megastructures ( structure + infill) but implemented on a much more modest, and some would claim humane, scale. His housing project not only permits change but encourages and enables it. Knowing that typically people who live in squatter settlements tend to build their homes opportunistically—upgrading and expanding the structure as their income allows it—Aravena’s project anticipates the future alterations by designing a flexible spatial and structural framework that accommodates expansion.

3 Images above: Elemental Chile Housing Project - Alejandro Aravena, via ArchRecord

To end I will quote Ma Qinyun from a speech he gave last year at the Shenzhen Biennale on the idea of urban regeneration:
How can we inherit perennially the judgment of the city? That is, how can we predict today, now many generations in the future will be happily living in this situation as we are today?...I don’t think the architect should create permanent memorials, whether for himself or for history. The architects should always think wisely…Here I think we should apply our agricultural wisdom to our high-rises buildings; they can be harvested time and again like wheat.

Stack City :: Ben Behin

Stack City, Ben Behin, via archinect
Archinect posts an interview with Ben Behin featuring some beautiful images of his amazing graduate thesis from the Harvard GSD which one the prize for best thesis this past spring.
The project, titled Stack City, is a proposal for a zero-carbon development in Ras al Khaimah in the UAE. It uses Jorg Schlaig's "solar chimney power generators" as a jumping off point for re-thinking the role of technology, nature, and utopia in contemporary urban development strategies.

Here are some choice quotes from the interview:

Behin: Here I would refer to Melvin Kranzberg's first law of technology: "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral." My intent in this project is neither to celebrate technology, nor to demonize it, but merely to point out that it underlies an emerging form of urbanism, and that it will ultimately be only what we make of it. Technology presents us with a series of choices, with both pitfalls and opportunities. To address them, we require not additional technology, but rather its integration with culture and politics. It is precisely here that I think architecture has a role to play; it can provoke discourse about the ethics which will shape the nature of technology in our future environments. The "machinistic" in Stack City is intended to provide such a provocation.
On the other hand, faced with the futility of a positive social/cultural/ecological project for architecture, giving up and regressing to an empty cynicism or retreating into formal and stylistic navel-gazing seems to get us nowhere. I think the answer is to find new ways of being earnest which are, perhaps, more nuanced, and difficult to pin down.
Specifically, as you pointed out in a previous discussion, cities are an accumulation of technological infrastructure which enables all the experiences we have in them. I think this is especially true in the "zero-carbon" urban developments that are being proposed today. By articulating this infrastructure as a zone that can itself be occupied, I hope to bring it into the open, and to exploit it architecturally and urbanistically through its relation with the other strata.

Stack City, Ben Behin, via archinect
You should go check out the interview for more great images and thoughts from Mr. Ben Behin.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beijing Design Events

For those of you in the BJ area I have started compiling a list of design related events on a sister blog called Bj.BLU.

There are some interesting events happening right now and coming up. The Beijing Biennale is starting up this weekend (the theme is Ecological City Building) and there are some affiliated openings and parties associated with it. Yesterday the 7th Beijing Pecha Kucha took place. I will write a little bit about it in an upcoming post.

IF you are in the Beijing area and know of cool design happenings please submit them to the Bj.BLU administrator.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

art progeny: Kapoor + GMC = Tunnel House

Anish Kapoor and Gordon Matta Clark (brought back from beyond?) have recently given birth to an artistic love child known as Tunnel House, by artists Dan Havel and Dean Ruck. This transfigured suburban home is now the coolest house on anyone's block. Architects everywhere, including myself, are jealous that they didn't come up with it first, as this is the most subversive act in housing history, or at least since Matta-Clark was chain sawing similar structures in half back in the early 70's. All architects could come up with was putting them up on stilts or making them out of glass.

Here is a description from 'art league press':
Havel and Ruck will create a large funnel-like vortex beginning from the west wall adjacent to Montrose Blvd. The exterior skin of the houses will be peeled off and used to create the narrowing spiral as it progresses eastward through the small central hallway connecting the two buildings and exiting through a small hole into an adjacent courtyard.

all pics via this site. the project was originally seen on io9 a couple of months back.

Friday, October 17, 2008

flotation devices - brazil

A collection of Brazil's floating architecture from flickr, mostly from this set.

Floating appears to be a characteristic work of not just Paolo Mendes de la Rocha's work but of virtually all of Brazil's modern masters. Oscar Neimeyer, Lina bo Bardi, Joao Battista Vilanova Artigas, Mendes de la Rocha, etc, all have this fascination with strong forms that hover, playing on alternating themes of heaviness and lightness. Even Siza, as I have previously pointed out, picks up this theme when he began working recently in Brazil and carries it back to Portugal with him. Concrete, the counter intuitive material of choice for this game of levity, is pushed to its extremes of plasticity, massivity, and lightness.

I wonder what is the reason for this common thread--is a formal game inherited from Corbusier and passed down through the generations? Has it something to do with Brazilian culture? Or, is it an act of political posturing--a giving up of the ground to the masses?

If you are interested in seeing more work of the Brazilian magicians I invite you to check out the Brazilian Modernism flickr set of 'weyerdk' who has a wonderful collection of photographs.

See Previous: flotation devices - mendes de la rocha

Thursday, October 16, 2008

flotation devices - Mendes da Rocha

Paulo Mendes da Rocha's buildings float, levitate, they are suspended between heaven and earth. Mendes da Rocha is the magician and his buildings the lady in that old famous magic trick. Why do they float. In the earlier projects they seem to float to open up the space around and under the buildings for public use. At the same time that they float the act as ruling devices--providing measure the topography of a place and calling attention to relationships between the landscape that previously did not exist. Particularly recently, as his most recent buildings and proposals have taken on a scale that allow Mendes da Rocha to operate at the scale of a vast territory.
Student Dormitory for Cagliari University, 2007
Conhecimento School Park, 2006, Santo Andre, Brazil
Technological City, Vigo University

Especially in three of his more recent projects: Conhecimento School Park, 2006, Santo Andre, Brazil; a project for a Student Dormitory for Cagliari University, 2007; and a masterplan for Technological City, Vigo University, 2004. In the last two this strategy of territorial connection is particularly outstanding. The dormitory hovers over two piers and connects the three water bodies that separate them. The masterplan consists of a series of long bridges that float over hills and ravines, connecting the campus buildings. Also in the rendering there are a number of empty structures that seem to create public spaces on the hillside and create framing devices for viewing the landscape. Of course this is just speculation on my part because there is little information on the particulars of the project.

Over on design boom there are two great interactions with Mendes da Rocha - an interview and a presentation by him at last year's FestArch. In a description of the Cagliari dormitory project Mendes da Rocha describes his intention of synthesizing a number of disparate elements in one gesture:

I felt obligated to make a reflection on the spacial characteristics of cagliari and the identity of sardinia in the universe. I thought I have to consider its primordial architecture and its ongoing transformation with 'naturalezza' (in a natural way). I had to consider the city's topographic specificity, its geomorphology, the original difficulty of human settlements, that big repository of all the intelligence and wisdom of architecture... here in cagliari I tried to embed two aspects in in my project: a 'spacial issue' and that of a 'point / counterpoint' position to america. in america's civilization (and in more or less all the occidental civilization and independent from the disaster of colonization...) the development is towards water. the direction has been from the coasts, the seaside, towards the inland. different to cagliari, which started from the inland, from the mountains developing towards the coast. in cagliari, you see all these monumental buildings, the ancient stone towers / the marvelous st. pancrazio with the elephant... I now synthesize the magnificent inventions that have given new opportunities to people: as building in stone and all this complex and difficult constructions in this specific geo-morphological landscape,developing towards the seaside.

He also mentions aerial photography as a relatively recent phenomena which allows this type of intervention to take place when he states "today there is the possibility for architects and engineers to work from maps but also by photos taken from satellites. this does not seem to young architecture students a novel thing, but when I was 30 or 40 and working as an architect, there was no such opportunity for me to base my work on. no aerial views of the landscape, the cities, the buildings..."

Now with Google earth we can conceptually link projects from around the globe which is an interesting concept--from the territorial perspective to the global perspective. It reminds me of a quote on of my professors made about all architects attempting to produce an idealized city out of their work--that their projects seen together as a whole can represent their own personal utopia. But more on that later.

For now, more de la Rocha buildings that float:
note: all images via Design Boom and Land + Living

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Business Practice

This article from the Wall Street Journal discusses how design-build architects such as Peter Gluck, Marmol Radziner, and Randy Brown are not feeling the economic pinch as much as traditional architects. In discussing the 'radical' nature of design-build for most architects, the article states that:
Some skeptics still believe the practice is unethical, saying it is a conflict of interest for designers to determine a building's budget. "In theory clients like it because it sort of simplifies their life. But they're paying with one less level of protection and oversight," says New York architect Richard Dattner. "There's either a conflict or an appearance of a conflict."

I wonder if this is not the way to expand the role of the architect and also provide financial safeguarding in the future: discover apparent conflicts in traditional architectural practice and exploit them.

further reading:
Architect as Developer

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Geo-Mimicry Update

Earth's exposed geology, originally uploaded by bldgblog.

Just an update on the earlier post on geo-mimicry:

If you are a flickr user I started a group called Geo-mimicry + Design in order to collect images of geo-mimicry projects and inspiration. If you are interested and have some cool images to contribute please do so!

I have been working on an idea for a full fledged GeoURBanism combining the ideas of geo-mimicry and the growing influence of geography on design and urbanism as exemplified by the New Geographies group at Harvard University, so look for that in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hangzhou Wrap Up

I hope you have enjoyed the pics from our recent trip to Hangzhou in the last couple of posts. To wrap it up, here is a random assortment of pictures which represent some of the interesting sites and sounds of Hangzhou and the surrounding cities we visited:
Driving into Hangzhou from the airport you are greeted by their nascent CBD and one of the many unknown icons beautifying Chinese city-scapes. Looks like someone else got to build the deathstar, sans boolean, before Rem did.
At Ling Yin temple, one of the most beautiful things we saw in Hangzhou, you can find hundreds of Buddhas carved into cliffs, caves, and grottoes that line the valley before heading uphill to the temples.
Coming out of the last temple at Ling Yin we were greeted by a gorgeous rainbow stretched across the sky, connecting two of the mountain peaks. Here is a shot of it on our way back down the slope.
Wuzhen and its Discontents: In Wuzhen we were greeted by a local resident inviting all the "invaders to get the &*(% out" of her town, which is apparently what the sign says in English. I have to say that I wholeheartedly empathize-the government has turned Wuzhen into a Disneyfied city of ghosts--the place feels incredible dead and overrun with tourists.
Later on we saw more icons, like the double inverted pyramid skyscraper in the background here.
In Suzhou we visited the beautiful Humble Administrator's Garden, which will celebrate its 500th birthday next year. This garden inspired both Wang Shu and IM Pei, architects of the buildings featured in the previous 3 posts.
And as always, we saw TONS of people everywhere we went.

If you like these please check out my flickr page for more pics from the trip and elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

CAA Phase 2 by Amateur Architecture Studio

Part 2 of 2

::text continued from previous post::
The campus has been written about in Domus China by Bert de Muynck, and other places, (see here for a good set of model shots and construction images) so I’ll just quickly point out what I find really interesting about it from my own visit:
i) Regionalism – Wang Shu & co. do fantastic work that is firmly rooted in the amazing history of architecture and landscape of the Hangzhou region and nearby Suzhou. Amateur Architects take this tradition of form, material, and relationship between building and landscape but make it contemporary—it does not reek of the pastiche of postmodernism.
ii) Architecture Promenade – Whether this is derived from the seamless circulation among building and landscape along zig-zag paths found in traditional Suzhou gardens or from the work of Le Corbusier I’m not sure but gathering from the material references to both I imagine you can not point your finger to one precedent very easily. Regardless, Wang Shu & Co. are able to take these references and transform them into something fresh—I would liken the experience of walking along the CAA’s many bridges, ramps, and corridors that slice through and connect each building, creating a seemingly endless amalgamation, to running countless laps deliriously through and around Corb’s Carpenter Center in Cambridge, MA.
iii) Sustainability – part of what AA have learned from the past is a way of making architecture that responds to climate—much of the buildings that I visited were open-air, using corridors and other circulation in creative ways as thermal buffers and shading devices (phase 1 uses more of the former while phase 2 uses more of the latter). Traditional elements such as operable screens also help. But one of the most interesting things is the campus’ use of recycled materials—according to the Domus article an estimated 7 million old tiles and bricks were recycled for phase 2 alone!! The resulting textures can be seen in the photos.
iv) Ecology – The buildings are sited in a way that reduces their footprint and subsequent damage to the campus nature reserve. In addition to that, much of the land around the buildings has been given over to agricultural use for local farmers. Water features and irrigation systems provide both water for the crops and also become beautiful systems of infrastructure in the landscape. This gives the project a much different atmosphere than the manicured lawns of the quadrangles of most campuses in the US—it feels more organic, productive, and raw. Additionally this creates an interesting overlap of students and farmers on the campus. Seeing this contrast along with the influence the campus has had on local business (better art supply shops and design bookstores have sprung up organically on the dirt streets just outside the campus than I have seen in the bustling metropolis of Beijing) makes you realize the new campus is having a positive (in my view) impact on the human ecology of Zhuangtang as well.

So that pretty much does it. If you want to visit the project yourself, just take the 308 bus from the east side of Hangzhou’s West Lake south away from the city center. Continue past the 6 Harmony Pagoda another 10-15 minutes and you will arrive directly at the front door of the campus.
See also: CAA Phase 1

Monday, October 6, 2008

CAA Phase 1 by Amateur Architecture Studio

Part 1 of 2

The night before I went to look at the China Academy of Art’s new campus in Zhuangtang near Hangzhou, China, I reflected on my personal memories of architectural pilgrimages and noted, with a little irony considering I maintain a blog about urbanism, that all of my favorite architecture experiences thus far in life have been in visiting buildings that are either in small towns or completely in the countryside. With the exception of a few notable structures the best personal reactions I have had to architecture have been buildings that have been off the beaten path, difficult to find, in countries whose native tongues I do not speak; therefore making the journey itself often as memorable as the building itself. These have included the Brion Cemetery by Scarpa, Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, Gropius’ house in Lincoln MA (an exception to the language barrier, but try getting a career disco studio lost in the woods trying to find this place and you will understand), and of course Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Ronchamp and La Tourette.
With these thoughts in my mind the next day I set off to visit the new Xianshang campus of the CAA, a relatively new campus designed and built in two phases by the architecture firm Amateur Architects, led by Wang Shu. And I have to say I was not let down—it was a wonderful campus, a beautiful place, and although I am reticent to place it fully in the ranks of those previously mentioned projects (it does owe some obvious debts to Corb’s work, which I will discuss), I think it is a very special project. I would venture to say it is an extra special project for today, as it exists on the periphery of architecture's standard modes of production while exploring themes firmly entrenched in the center of contemporary architecture debate--ecology and sustainability; culture, tradition, and history; urban-rural dichotomy, etc.
Oh, and thanks to the insane traffic caused by China’s national holiday, it took the two hour trip and 4 non air conditioned buses required to give it official pilgrimage status!
In the next post I will show images from Phase 2 and discuss the project more in depth.
Below is the location of the campus on Google maps:

View Larger Map

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Suzhou Museum

This past week I took a trip to Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Wuzhen in southern China. It was a great chance to see the city that Marco Polo called the most beautiful city in the world in the 13th Century. But, things have changed, and while the lakes, mountains, and gardens are as beautiful as ever, Hangzhou itself is not so great. Nevertheless, I did get a chance to see some interesting architecture which I will be sharing with you over a series of posts in the next few days.

To start, here is a slide show of I.M. Pei's Suzhou Museum in, you guessed it, Suzhou, which is in between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Suzhou is considered a water town, with canals and such, and known for its beautiful gardens, one of which will be celebrating it's 500 year birthday next year!
While not one of Pei's most exciting works, lacking the grandeur of the Louvre for example, it fits in quite well with the surrounding context of hutongs. This is achieved my submerging half of the museum's program below ground, meaning that half the galleries receive no natural light--probably a benefit knowing today's curatorial desires.
The project is quite humble and attempts to make reference to Suzhou's famous gardens, such as the Humble Administrator's Garden situated right next door, using characteristic Chinese features such as pagodas, courtyards, reflecting ponds, and a series of top lit pavilions connected by covered paths. These features are geometrically reconfigured, echoing the faceted forms of Pei's Hong Kong bank (the octagon being the shape of choice this time) and given the technical refinement and precision we typically associate with Pei.
One of the most interesting things about the museum is the relationship between the interior spaces and the courtyard. The courtyard has a variety of scales and materials--featuring a bamboo garden in one section and a larger open section with reflecting pond in another--so that alternating atmospheres of intimacy and collectivity emerge.