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City of Culture of Galicia, Spain : Peter Eisenman

March 12, 2017 Leave a comment

We went on an office trip to Berlin at the end of last year and I was talking recently to one of my work colleagues Ian, about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by the American architect Peter Eisenman. I said I hadn’t read much about Eisenman’s work  over the last few year’s and wondered how these big name architects survived on small projects…

Ian looked at me a bit funny, said what? and told me to look into Galicia’s City of Culture, a development on a scale so massive, that it could quite possibly be one of the largest building projects in Europe, that no one’s ever heard of… Which I suspect is something of an ongoing disappointment to the Citizens of Santiago de Compostella as they’ve had to watch as an unbelievably large number of Euros has been spent/ wasted trying to get it finished…


The complex is effectively a brand new city carved out of the top of a mountain in Southern Spain. Covering a total area of nearly 175 hectares, the project was to be a new home for a series of distinct cultural functions including a museum, a library, an archive facility, an arts center and a performing arts center.

The result of a 1999 competition, Eisenman’s winning idea was that the complex would appear as if it had always been there, buried below the surface, which though some unavoidable tectonic process, had erupted and heaved itself up from out of the ground.

Formally the layout was generated by overlaying part of the medieval street pattern of Santiago on to the top of the hill, which with the addition of some de rigueur Eisenman grid and fragmentation devices, helped to create an interesting, if somewhat rather spurious design concept.

The fiendishly complex nature of the proposals and the architects infamous penchant for minutely detailing every junction, resulted in a massive overspend, which with a final total cost in the region of €400m was more than 4 times the original budget.

Couple this with what now appears to be insanely over optimistic attendance figures (visitors to the beautiful UNESCO listed World Heritage site of Santiago, just do NOT seem to want to leave the Old Town) and what’s left is an empty folly to the vanity of its main protagonist, the premier at the time Manuel Fragan. A hubristic white elephant, or as The Guardian put it in a review when it first opened in 2011 “an anachronism at a time of austerity“.

So it came as no surprise to anyone when in 2013, after more than 10 years of building, and with Spain’s economic engine on the verge of collapse, that the project was permanently halted, leaving two of the six buildings unbuilt, and the future of the completed four, hanging precariously in the balance…. A perfect example of the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time..

I usually like to finish with an opinion, but for this post, I think I’m going to let these images speak for themselves… The scope and ideas behind this project are undoubtedly interesting, the materials are wonderful and the spaces created dynamic and exciting. But at the same time the scale over which all these aspects are being spread really should have set alarm bells ringing.

Yes as architects we need to push the envelope, offer clients more than they knew or thought they wanted, but we do ourselves no favors as a profession when things get as out of hand as they seem to have done here… When you read that almost every slab of the stone cladding and paving is unique in size and shape and had to be computer cut to ensure that it went into the one place on the whole project it could, you really do have to question whether the clients best interests where ever really taken seriously…

 

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Congress House :  An Overlooked Modernist Masterpiece…

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

p1140932Without doubt one London’s finest modern sculptural masterpieces is perversely, also one of the most difficult to find, hidden away as it is in a beautiful green mosaic tiled (originally Carrera marble) and glass enclosed courtyard at the heart of one of London’s least known modern architectural gems.

The sculpture is easily one of Jacob Epstein’s most powerful works: A mother stands cradling her dead son, staring forlornly up into the sky, the look of pain and anguish clearly etched upon her face. The building is Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC, a building conceived in 1945, but not completed until 1957, and the story of these two modern masterpieces makes for quite an interesting read.

Congress House on Great Russell Street, just opposite the British Museum, was the result of a 1948 open competition, one of the first and largest post-war architectural competitions to be organised, and at a time when the likelihood of such a large, totally new structure being completed were severely limited by the restrictions and rationing of building materials.

The brief for the project, developed by the TUC over a number of years, had to address two key objectives: Firstly it was to provide a fitting memorial to those Trade Union members who had laid down their lives during the two World Wars, and secondly it was to provide high quality conference, education and meeting room facilities suitable for the progressive aspirations of the Union.

With over 170 entries submitted, choosing an outright winner was always going to be a challenge. All entries were put on public display, and though it’s not clear if the public had a say in the final choice (unlikely I would suggest in 1948), the eventual winner was announced by the RIBA as the (still) little known 35 year old English architect, David Du Rieu Aberdeen.

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Du Rieu Aberdeen’s scheme had as its focus a large open courtyard surrounded on three sides by the offices, library and committee rooms that were key to the new building. The fourth side, against which the proposed memorial sculpture would stand, was the existing end wall of Sir Edwin Lutyens YWCA building, and which was protected by local building regulations.  The floor of the courtyard was finished in a large, hexagonal segmented glazed structure, which also formed the ceiling of the below ground conference center and allowed light to flood into the subterranean spaces. Wherever possible materials were sourced (and often donated) from other trade unions and overseas labour organisations and included marble, polished granite and cedar, all of which added to the quality of the building and kept the costs within budget.

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Getting the project started proved to be difficult. Narrow streets, height restrictions imposed by the historic nature of the site (previously a brewery and a warren of alleyways known as “The Rookery”), the protection afforded the adjacent Lutyens building and an understandably rather chaotic post war approach to redevelopment, resulted in a 5 year delay between Du Aberdeen’s appointment and works beginning on site. On the positive side, the delays did allow Du Rieu Aberdeen to work comprehensively through the scheme in detail, giving due consideration to all aspects of its design, especially key elements such as the feature main staircase, the glazed conference center roof and the composition of the external elevations.

The style of the building took its cues from a number of sources. The curving plan forms, pilotis (columns) and ribbon like exteriors of Le Corbusier’s modernism being the obvious one, but there are also hints of the more naturalistic interwar Scandinavian modernism of architects such as Gunnar Apsland and Alvo Aalto.

It’s no coincidence I might suggest, that the building shares similarities with the Royal Festival Hall, conceived as they were around the same time, 1947/48, and in a Post War atmosphere of optimism that allowed the younger members of the architectural profession opportunities to show what Modernism might begin to offer.

It is also undoubtedly true that the huge political will driving the success of the Festival of Britain, qresulted in the Royal Festival Hall being completed on time in 1951, i.e. some seven years before Congress House was officially opened, a success that arguably stole its limelight in the eyes of the public, forever relegating it to relative obscurity.

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Jacob Epstein’s commission for the memorial sculpture came around 1955, two years after construction on the building had finally begun and is a masterful display of carving. The composition is loosely based on Michelangelo’s extraordinary Pietà at St. Peters Basilica in Rome, and with a scale (it stands almost 6 meters high on its pedestal) that leaves you in awe of the memorials presence. Epstein’s ability to manipulate solid stone to express human emotion and fragility almost leaves you speechless, creating a a wholly fitting and moving tribute to the sacrifice of the Unionist soldiers of the two wars.

In acknowledgement of the success of the project, in 1959 the RIBA awarded Du Rieu Aberdeen its prestigious Bronze Medal London Architecture Award and in March 1988 the building received Grade II Listed status securing it and Epstein’s wonderful sculpture for future generations to enjoy, describing it in the Listing as “as one of the most important institutional buildings erected in London, and one of the most significant 1950s buildings in Britain”.

Well worth a visit next time Open House comes around….

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This post is an edited version of one that first appeared in issue 22 of The Shrieking Violet from 2014.

New Neighbours….

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading about the recently announced Santiago Calatrava designed centerpiece of the Greenwich peninsular development, now named somewhat prosaically as Peninsular Place…

The beautifully crafted image below shows not only the magnificence of the River Thames meandering its way peacefully along, but if you look carefully you can also see our little flat, just over the river at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs…

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And then if you look again at the Peninsular itself, you will see what looks like thousands and thousands of new homes, in fact 15,720 new homes. Now, I don’t consider myself to be a nimby, far from it. I’m an Architect after all, involved in some pretty large residential and mixed use development schemes across London. We need homes, we need tens of thousands of affordable new homes going forward (the general feeling is about 200 thousand by the year 2020) so developments like this are both exciting and necessary…

And yet, and yet…

Is the image below really what we think future residential ares of London should look like? My partner quite rightly points out that this could be Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Dubai… not saying that’s bad for them, but there’s not much that speaks of London about these rather ungainly shapes.. Calatrava is without doubt a gifted architect, but this to me looks very much misplaced, out of scale and borrowed from somewhere with an altogether different climate…

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And as for affordability, only 200 of the first phase of 800 new homes will be affordable, so whilst at 25% that’s an improvement on the average 10% that Boris managed, its still much lower than the 40% that good old Ken insisted on and the likely 60 to 70% that we really need if the upcoming generations are to have any hope of home ownership..

And then of course there’s the definition of affordability itself.. One beds over here on the Island are between £350K and £500K at the moment, and I can’t help but wonder how much similar homes will cost in 5 years time when they start to become available, probably not very affordable for your average Londoner…

Finally as you watch the video, try and image what the Jubilee Line will be like first thing on a Monday morning once its complete…

 

Laurent Kronental’s : Remember a Future

February 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Some rather evocative photos today taken by a young French photographer by the name of Laurent Kronental

They illustrate some of the large public housing schemes that went up in and around Paris between about 1960 and the mid 1980’s, showing them in the context of their current, mostly elderly residents.

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As an architecture student in the late 80s early 90’s, I remember some of these huge and bizarre “Grande Ensembles” being published. Even then, I got the distinct feeling that they were far more about form than function, style over substance, brought about by the architects desire to show off their paper thin, post modern credentials, than a drive to create human scale environments and sustainable communities (step forward Messers Bofill, Rossi and Botta…)

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In the accompanying text to these nameless, descriptionless images, Kronental suggests that as these anachronistic buildings age in parallel with their residents, their “wrinkled faces and cracked walls” convey a mix of resignation and expectation, of skepticism and confidence” and in so doing become living memories of their time, echoes of a younger generation that did not see itself age.

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I’m not sure about that, retrospective prose seems somehow misplaced in these gargantuan and ultimately misguided social experiments.

They certainly do make very arresting and interesting images though…

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Bill Mitchell’s Wool Secretariat mural receives Nationally Listed Status.

January 24, 2016 1 comment

The listing announced last week of 41 postwar outdoor public sculptures was not only excellent news for the arts in general, but also for my friend Bill Mitchell whose wonderful bas relief “The Story of Wool” was amongst the works deemed worthy of official protection…

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And quite right too. I first wrote about this amazing piece back in April 2011 noting at that time how little I could find out about it online, I wasn’t even certain it still existed…

Jump forward 5 years and as the word continues to spread not only about our phenomenally rich post war artistic heritage, but also about the oeuvre of Mr. Mitchell himself, the number of sites and references to his work seems to be increasing at an exponential rate, which is obviously welcome news indeed….

Located in Ilkley, West Yorkshire the new headquarters building for the International Wool Secretariat was designed by local architect Richard Collick and opened in 1968. Bill was commissioned to create a work to wrap around the lecture theater which Collick had placed over the main entrance. Taking the themes of wool and textiles as a starting point, Bill created what is undoubtedly one of his finest works, and certainly one of my most favourites.

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Rich in detail and imagination with his trademark, deeply recessed and figured surfaces, it was one of the first sculptures Bill made using bronze-faced glassfibre, a material he was involved in developing during the mid 60’s and which he also used to impressive effect on his entrance doors for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral completed the year before in 1967.

The large abstracted ram motifs to the front and the stylised microscopic cross sections of wool fibres on the side, are tied together by layers of patterning and texture that take their inspiration from the many forms that knitted wool can be transformed into.

So huge congratulations to Bill, as his work continues to get the recognition it so richly deserves. I for one am very pleased to see his name alongside those of Epstein, Moore and Hepworth, great and gifted artists whose work has quite rightly been recognised as worthy of preserving for the enjoyment of future generations.

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Two likes in one…

January 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Mr Bowie in the Scottish new town of Cumbernauld in 1976… Not sure why he was there… doesn’t really matter now I suppose.. probably just doing his usual thing of looking effortlessly cool without even trying…

RIP to both the man and the megastructure…

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The Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens: Entasis in Action…

November 15, 2015 Leave a comment

With this years Remembrance Service at The Cenotaph in central London being somewhat hijacked by the shamefully childish and pathetic (but sadly typical of the right wing press here in the UK) “how respectful was the bow” debacle, I thought it might be worth thinking about the actual monument itself, highlighting an aspect of its design of which you may not be aware…

Orighinal wood and plaster versionOriginally commissioned by the then prime minister David Lloyd George just two weeks before the London Victory Parade (or Peace Day Parade) planned for 19 July 1919, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ design was necessarily simple and quick. Famously taking only six hours from that initial meeting to acceptance of sketch proposals, the appointment of a suitable contractor followed within days, and a full size temporary timber and plaster structure was constructed in time for the event (see photo to the left).

It was the simplicity of the design, a 35ft (11m) high, unadorned stepped block with an empty tomb at it’s summit and wreaths and flags around the perimeter, that visitors found so moving. Everyone who saw the monument (and by all accounts that was millions over the summer months) was able to project their own feelings of loss and grief onto the clean, unadorned planes, resulting exactly a year later and after huge public pressure, in the unveiling of an exact replica in portland limestone…

Very few people however knew that this permanent version, was not in fact an exact replica. Lutyens had used the intervening months to refine his original ideas, and although not immediately visible to visitors, the principles of entasis were in full effect…

Drawing by Andrew CromptonEntasis is the “application of a convex curve to a surface for aesthetic purposes” which at The Cenotaph, results in no parallel verticals and no flat horizontals. The base in fact forms a small segment of an imaginary 900ft (275m) diameter sphere buried below Whitehall, whilst the sides of the monument taper inwards and upwards meeting at a point 1000ft (300m) above the street.

So why would Lutyens go to so much trouble? Firstly he was supposedly something of a Theosophist, that is someone who seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe in terms of both the human and the divine. One key tenet of this belief is that everything is part of an eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration.

The curved bands of the Cenotaph’s base form part of such a circle, one that not only embraces us all, but whose center is rooted deep in the earth. At the same time the extended vertices of the upper block high in the air, create a direct connection between heaven and the grave.

Note also that the upper mass of the cenotaph could be seen to resemble the hilt of a sword. Andrew Crompton (whose article here fired my initial interest and from where the above drawing is borrowed) suggests that lines from Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 poem “The Kings Pilgrimage” (written two years after The Cenotaph was unveiled and after Kipling’s tour of the Cemeteries of Northern France) comes closest to capturing this aspect of the design…

And the last land he found, it was fair and level ground

About a carven stone

And a stark Sword brooding on the bosom of the Cross

Where high and low are one

This sentiment also links into the idea that Lutyens may have been influenced by that most English of heroic tales, King Arthur, with echoes of a hilt referencing Arthur’s legendary sword Excalibur, whose magical powers and ownership came to define the rightful sovereignty of Britain. Looking at the photo below, there could be something in the sword iconography…

Or maybe it was more mundane than either of these two concepts. When asked to explain his use of entasis, Lutyens replied that it was for aesthetic reasons, explaining that “The difference is almost imperceptible yet sufficient to give (The Cenotaph) a sculpturesque quality and a life that cannot pertain to a rectangular block of stone”

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind as to whether one of this countries foremost and gifted architects was playing clever games or had deeper, more secret intentions….

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