Photos : Liem Than & Samuel Walusimbi
“Interventions in Memory: Exploring the Interstices of Music and Architecture” honored the 40th anniversary of Louis I. Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Academy Class of 1945 Library. Pianists Jung Mi Lee and Jon Sakata performed works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Cogan while Wentworth Institute of Technology architects John Stephen Ellis AIA, Bruce MacNelly, Rob Trumbour AIA, Ryan Schicker and Jared Steinmark, and members of Artforming designed a celebratory installation.
Bodies in Urban Spaces by Willi Dorner
Tree Hotel in Harads by Swedish Architects Tham & Videgard Arkitekter
And last but not least:
Should we be concerned about the current economic impasse, which has slowed, if not halted altogether many architectural projects nationwide? Are recent developments such as the government deficit, fraudulent business acts, skyrocketing gas prices, growing unemployment numbers and general unrest around the world affecting architecture in any way? Should the rise of tangential design/build fields such as Interior Design, Construction-Management, Facilities-Management and so on be a warning sign that architecture’s role in society is precarious? A recent article “Starchitect High” in the Metropolis magazine by Christopher Hawthome (1.) about a recently completed high school in Los Angeles by the Austrian architect Wolf Prix and his firm, Coop Himmelblau, offered something to think about pertaining the role of architecture in contemporary society.
The article itself is much about an unconventional experiment attempted by Mr. Hawthome to criticize newly built architecture through the eyes of the users rather than his own. Without dwelling much on the detailed account of positive and negative opinions voiced by the students and faculty about their school, it is rather important and quite relevant to look at the underlying issues of the blatant irresponsibility, superfluous and profligate usage of resources by the public school system of L.A, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the architect Wolf Prix and architecture patron Eli Broad that paint a disturbing picture for architecture.
The article reveals that in a dire attempt to improve the social and community problems of over crowding in the public high schools of L.A, the LAUSD had launched a 20 billion-construction campaign. This noble gesture had called upon a local architect firm AC Martin Partners to design and build the Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 within a reasonable budget, but an impertinent involvement by billionaire Eli Broad transformed the project and basically handed it over to Prix. Hawthome writes that, “ (Broad) thought (the school) needed a more prominent and headline- grabbing designer.” Thus a project that was estimated to cost about $30 million ended up costing roughly $230 million. That is about 8 times over the original estimated amount. Such profligacy is simply unnecessary and unacceptable. Especially in a delicate economy. What message does this send to future architects? Does it mean that only famous architects can design great buildings and should we then design to achieve social status as well or might we design because we care about the world we live in? What about the community? Does it suggest to them that it’s okay to spend recklessly? As if to say, if the big banks are doing it, and the architect is doing it, they can do it as well. It is here that we can see the influences of money widening the gap of an already frayed relationship between architects and the society that they tirelessly strive to build for. If architects do not design consciously, practically, functionally, creatively and also economically, how different are they from commercial developers who grapple for the same money, status and power with ulterior motives. By continuing to build iconographic and signature-esque architecture, architecture suggests that social, political and economical needs of society are in a way irrelevant.
Vincent P. Pecora (2.) states that, “For most of its history, architecture has been a profession dependent upon close ties to wealth and power, even in realizing its minor dreams… The elite citizen, the corporation (whether religious or commercial), and the state have generally been the architect’s patron.” It is true that the ‘elite citizen’ has historically funded most significant and known architecture. If you think of any building that is recognizable worldwide, you can certainly trace it to some wealth or privilege. So the L.A high school satisfies the norm rather than a deviant according to Pecora’s statement. Only a handful of buildings defy this position by involving the needs of entire communities like the new Cambridge Public Library by AnnBeha Architects which sought the residents(citizens) of the City of Cambridge to participate actively before building it. Due to compromises made about the historical value of the old library and present socio-economical factors facing the city, it took a little longer to complete. But effort was worth it. The Cambridge community enjoys this public center now more than ever because their input was valued and thus included in the overall design. I don’t think a developer would have cared this much.
As students pursuing architecture, we at times struggle with a certain question. To whom is our architecture answerable? That is who benefits from our designed spaces? Do we design and build buildings for ourselves, the patron (professor) or the general public? This question is strangely avoided or it is simply never talked about by architects in the real world. Conversations tend to revolve around forms, functions and aesthetics which is undeniably vital in architecture. But what about the people who are to use these buildings?
Could it be that the implicit bond with the elite citizen subconsciously holds back architects from asking and being part of social dialogue? Could acknowledging this problem be a way out of the economic impasse? Can architects be active participants in the social, political, and economic discourse?
2. As quoted by Vincent P. Pecora in his essay, ‘Towers of Babel’ in “A Social Criticism of Architecture – Out of Site” edited by Diane Ghirardo.
“Planning (architecture) has become so intensively a kind of game with form (image), that the reality of how a building is experienced has been overlooked… The artistic dimension of a work of art does not lie in the actual physical thing; it exists only in the consciousness of the person experiencing it. ” Juhani Pallasmaa (The Geometry Of Feeling)
When I walk around, watch television, listen to the radio, or read a magazine, I can’t help but notice the incessant fascination and admiration for ‘appearances’ in our culture. It seems that what is most important in contemporary society is the ‘image’ – One fleeting image after another. As a student, I am dissatisfied with the current situation of architecture, which tends to also espouse the ‘image’ above all else. This frustration has led me to ask, search for and try to understand architecture in a way that looks at architecture not only as a surface, but also for what it ought to be, an art form for humanity.
Image, whose meaning is synonymous with ‘appearance’, and is directly related to that of the word Form, can be investigated more closely. The etymology roots of the word ‘Image’ – artificial representation that looks like a person or thing, from the Latin word imaginem (nom. Imago), which literally means to copy or to imitate, is important when trying to understand the argument. If image is nothing but a mere imitation of a thing, and not the thing itself, it can be concluded that dependence on image alone is shallow, deficient and incomplete in terms of trying to understand the significance of architecture. A search for meaning in architecture needs to step away from an obsession of geometrically interesting forms, however sophisticated they maybe, and look at a holistic perspective that goes beyond architecture itself by also integrating the human experience.
A term known as ‘Architectural phenomenology’ becomes a viable instrument in trying to resist the hegemony of ‘image’ in the 21st century. In order to understand architectural phenomenology, first we have to be familiar with Phenomenology as it is – a broad philosophical movement, which emphasizes the study of conscious experience. In this context, we can say that the phenomenology of architecture must deliberately evoke a sense of awareness with how humans experience a building and gain a sense of belonging and meaning in the world. If architects move away from the fetishism of ‘image’ that is crippling the profession and focus more on the human factor of experience that embodies the senses of touch, smell, sound and taste, architecture could once again be the profession that positively shapes future generations.
Have you been to the Community Rowing Boathouse yet? If not, plan to visit on your next snow day. Whether you want to observe beautiful materiality, innovative structure, or witness the smooth interaction of visitors, I guarantee you will leave inspired.
The mission of Community Rowing Inc. is to be able to bring the sport of rowing to everyone. They organize teams, help boys and girls clubs, offer lessons, and rent out storage space for any member. Anmahian Winton Architects wanted to help CRI make rowing more available to everyone, not solely for an elite society. When looking at other boathouses along the Charles River, they do give off a vibe of exclusivity. They have a formal appearance with ornate textures and prominent ramps straight into the water. In wanting to keep the CRI boathouse open to the public, the architects opted to site the building off the water and keep an open path for people to run and walk along the bank. The shape of the building is also much different than the normal box structures seen along the Charles. They decided on a bent rectangle, which creates a long storage corridor for boats as well as allowing for continuous views along the river.
The architecture captures the action of rowing in many ways. Not only does the façade create fluid movement, but the building in relation to the docks (see site plan below), and the balconies in relation to the building mimic a boat with oars. There are two boathouses on the site, each with a unique program and material expression. The larger (Harry Parker Boathouse) houses the three to four person shells as well as offices, gyms, and multipurpose spaces. The wooden wrapped façade contains an operable louver wall system that bends open for air to filter and ventilate the boat storage. The smaller boathouse (Ruth W. Somerville Sculling Pavilion) is encased in glass, to directly inform viewers of the boating world. The open space in-between the structures allows for direct movement towards the water, as well as creating prep areas for the rowers.
When visiting, notice the efficiency throughout the site. This fluid movement along the façade also manifests itself in the actions of the people moving through the site. The open storage spaces as well as the orientation of the building to the water create a smooth circulation, where multiple teams as well as solo rowers and their boats are able to skillfully move around each other in a lively dance. Since the new boathouse opened, the number of members at CRI has doubled, and the land surrounding has become a popular park for the community. Anmahian Winton Architects accomplished not only a beautifully constructed work, but also designed an efficient space for recurring members as well as new visitors.
Humor in nature is some of the most enjoyable humor in the world. Stand up comedy is funny because the points being made are either true or are extreme opinions through the eyes of a cynicist. Humor in nature is funny because of just that, it is natural; it is a surprise in nature, it is an oxymoron of nature, or it may simply be a “trading places” of the natural and the civilized.
I witnessed a humorous occurrence in nature on my weekly trip to Blick Art Supply a few weeks ago. Right in front of the Emmanuel College library was this very unique squirrel attempting to transport an almost empty bottle of Silk milk up a tree. At times he was trying to transport it, but at other times he was attempting to force his head into the bottle to consume the remains. I had found myself in an encounter with what seemed to be a civilized squirrel.
The joke was on myself the following morning when I was instructed to create a nest out of weaved wire in my elective class titled Geomatter. I found myself “trading places” with Silk the Squirrel, taking part in the last reason why humor in nature is quite hilarious. I laughed to myself at the thought, turning some heads, but the experience of trading places with the squirrel was worth the humility.
After seeing Silk the Squirrel fight to transport this bottle of milk I started to wonder why this squirrel might desire such a thing. Did he wish to replenish himself with a small amount of Calcium, or did he wish to grind the bottle into tiny pieces to be used for insulation in his nest? The second option seemed more likely, not only because I was thinking like an architect, but because that little amount of milk remaining would not be nutritionally sufficient and I would like to believe that squirrels have the amount of brain power to make the same conclusion. This experience of watching Silk the Squirrel possibly strategizing how to construct his nest struck me in a kind of far-out way. As children we were taught about how different animals construct their shelters, and how intelligent they are to know how to do so, but I never thought of this construction as architecture. If my thought was true, and Silk the Squirrel was using a very commercial item to create a better insulated home, architecture exists in nature. Since nature in social experience exists in man-made architecture, Silk the Squirrel and I are once again, “trading places.”
Reading Italo Calvino is an exercise in personal imagination and understanding. Calvino, with his delicately placed words and punctuation, provide only a single puzzle piece, and yet at the same time outline an entire world of puzzles. His words are, much like the only two characters in this book, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, everything and nothing at once.
Despite having no predilection towards architecture specifically, many of Calvino’s writings deal primarily with architecture, or the philosophical implications of architecture and urban design on the individual. This particular book, Invisible Cities, can be said to be about the experience of the city – and yet it is about no real city. He outlines a total of 55 different imaginary cities (all with Italian women’s names) throughout the course of the book, all supposedly a grand reference to Venice. So, it is about a specific city. But, it is not at the same time.
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” 11
Ok, let’s get a little more concrete here for a second, because I don’t even know what I’m writing about anymore. In the novel, a fictional Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit at the Khan’s expansive (yet ambiguous) palace, and Polo regales him with stories of fantastic cities spread all over the world in a strange sort of alternate history. Polo did in fact have a real book where he described many cities he ventured through (The Travels of Marco Polo), and he did in fact meet Kublai Khan. In the book, every city gets about 1-3 pages worth of description. He does not linger too long in any one place, as that would defeat the purpose. The short descriptions lend the book an almost break-neck pace, speeding through many abstract cities at once, seemingly just dropping in for a couple seconds. Laced in between these fantastical descriptions of fictionalized cities, there are breaks where the reader is returned to Polo and the Khan, usually going over some unifying aspects of the tales we have just heard. It is said in the novel, interestingly, that the two do not speak the same language, and that Polo is simply arranging artifacts taken from the various cities in order to describe them. Calvino is constantly rewriting the rules as we’re reading them, showing us something and then immediately proving it can’t exist in the same sentence. He plays with reality, bending and twisting meaning to try and get us to see something we wouldn’t normally see.
“Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled model of every splendor, compared to which the city’s present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars. … Each new Clarice, compact as a living body with its smells and its breath, shows off, like a gem, what remains of the ancient Clarices, fragmentary and dead. There is no knowing when the Corinthian capitals stood on the top of their columns: only one of them is remembered, since for many years, in a chicken run, it supported the basket where the hens laid their eggs, and from there it was moved to the Museum of Capitals, in line with other specimens of the collection. The order of the eras’ succession has been lost; that a first Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are no proofs to support it. The capitals could have been in the chicken runs before they were in the temples, the marble urns could have been planted with basil before they were filled with dead bones. Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.” 106-8
Calvino uses this abstract method of storytelling to extract something from everyday life that we wouldn’t normally encounter. He is showing us (not JUST architects) that life in a city can be more than just working in office towers, living in clustered row houses, sitting on public transportation or walking through smoggy streets. There is an invisible element of human interaction and understanding that pervades every second of city life. People (not just architects and urbanists) have been trying to decode exactly what it is about living in cities that makes it so special for centuries. Everyone has their own way of describing the city they live in, and usually it makes little to no sense to someone else not from that city. And how could it – everyone has unique experiences, sightings and interactions that could make them fall in love with or turn their back on a city forever. With Invisible Cities, Calvino is hinting at all of these things. As I read it, my first instinct was to visualize these ridiculous cities like sci-fi features – enormous glittering towers and domes, canals and waterfalls, majestic avenues and mysterious alleyways. It all sounded so fanciful – just an artists mind wandering. But every so often I would read something that would sound familiar in some way. In a thematic way, I found myself suddenly drawing a picture in my head a lot more similar to the real city I DO live in. Calvino finds ways of embedding simple principles of city living into otherworldly tales that can both inspire imagination and also remind us of how we live in reality, and hopefully make us question why we do the things we do.
“Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.” 149
Recently at WIT, a group of third-year architecture students collaborated in an effort to tackle the big question facing most architects today; “why do we make architecture?” The group, led by Renee Michelson focused most of their short documentary film the common paradox of designers: sleeplessness and lack of hygiene. With a wide range of responses, the team successfully probed students for rAW answers, coming from deep within their academic minds. Some of the students’ questions are seemingly pessimistic but with just reason. This film has a meaningful ending, and is only a small glimpse into what architecture students at Wentworth are going through in their daily routine. Please enjoy the below link.
From Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. I’ll be writing about this book more soon:
“Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on it’s own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.
Marco, meanwhile, continued reporting his journey, but the emperor was no longer listening.
Kublai interrupted him: “From now on, I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have conceived them. I shall begin by asking you about a city of stairs, exposed to the sirocco, on a half-moon bay. Now I shall list some of the wonders it contains: a glass tank high as a cathedral so people can follow the swimming and flying of the swallow fish and draw auguries from them; a palm tree which plays the harp with its fronds in the wind; a square with a horseshoe marble table around it, a marble tablecloth, set with foods and beverages also of marble.”
“Sire, your mind has been wandering. This is precisely the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me.”
“You know it? Where is it? What is its name?”
“It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I was describing it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
“I have neither desires nor fears,” the Khan declared, “and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance.”
“Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
“Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.”