In Brazil last month I re-visited MASP (the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo) and was delighted to see that the permanent collection of paintings has been re-hung to restore the original intentions of its architect, Lina Bo Bardi. The collection- probably the richest in Latin America, with paintings by many European masters including Botticelli and Titian, Van Gogh and Picasso, as well as Brazilian artists- is presented in a unique way. The vast open space of the top floor of the museum is filled, not with panels or walls, but with a forest of paintings that appear to float, thanks to the clear panels, set in concrete bases, that hold each work. The visitor wanders through them, with no set order or didactic direction, so each can be seen as an object in its own right. There's a particular concentration that becomes possible, and odd, personal connections can be made while meandering through the gallery.
It's very much a modernist idea- presenting the painting as a painting, a material object, irrespective of what it may represent. But in a way typical of Bo Bardi, it's also playful, and as well as the high seriousness which may befit great works of art, seeing the curious conjunction of visitor and artwork is also part of the rich experience that she has generated. All credit to the Museum for re-creating this singular vision.
The Greek architect Dimitris Pikionis was one of those most concerned with a very particular direction that architecture would take in the years after World War II- that of re-engaging with a specificity of place and a specificity of materials. The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson might have been expressing similar issues at the same time, however much their work appears quite different. They were to refer to him later as one of the 'silent architects', whose quiet and self-effacing work belied great originality and significance.
The restoration of the St Dimitris Loumbardiaris church on Philopappou Hill in Athens is part of a far larger project in which Pikionis reshaped the park landscape of the adjacent Acropolis as well as Philopappou. As a way-station in passing through this extensive and intensely historically loaded site it provides a paradoxical contrast to the great and idealised forms of Classical perfection on the opposite hill. A gentle and welcoming place, a modest alternative to the Parthenon as an architectural model: the carefully designed paving made throughout the site subtly structures the visitor's experience, as well as resembling the forms of abstract art.
His design for the church also creates adjacent terraces and a pavilion, using the simplest of means with timber contrasting with stone. As well as feeling somehow Japanese, these spaces provide a vivid making of meaningful place in a way reminiscent of other modern architects, while using timber frame and thatch. Overall, these make for places that are human and timeless, created just sixty years ago when an international Modernism was in full flood elsewhere.
The first post for a long time- after a long trip to Brazil and an even longer period before that, busy with researching and completing a new book- more later !
Oscar Niemeyer had the longest career of any modern architect, starting to build in his native Brazil in the 1930s and still at work internationally at the time of his death in 2012. Best known, perhaps, for his work in the new city of Brasilia which was the big idea of President Kubitschek, the Congress, Law Courts, Cathedral and many more public buildings were built in the early 1960s. But perhaps his most original work was done earlier, also for Kubitschek who was then Belo Horizonte’s mayor, in the new garden suburb of Pampulha. A church, casino, dance pavilion and yacht club were completed in 1943, each representing an idea that would be followed through and extended in his later work.The much-published church of St Francisco is formed of undulating parabolic concrete shells, one end wall a pictorial tiled panel and open glazing at the other.
The complex form of the Casino, later an art gallery, includes many of the formal devices such as ramps, piloti-defined volumes and spatial dynamics that were ultimately derived from Le Corbusier but which Niemeyer developed and made his own.
The small Casa do Baile or house of dance is, on the other hand, dominated by the form of a serpentine concrete slab or marquise, open on its lakeside site: a simple but spatially complex building that makes me consider it a tropical Barcelona Pavilion. Niemeyer’s work at Pampulha exhibits most clearly the role of architecture as an artistic practice, in clear contradiction to the moral and social imperatives of most of his contemporaries in modern architecture.
Many people have already written their recollections of Zaha Hadid who sadly died last week. My main memories of her are from the Architectural Association in the later 70s and 80s, before she really built anything and long before she became a world- celebrated architect. The AA at that time was a small and very intense world of its own, inhabiting three houses in Bedford Square, but with little relationship to the London architectural world outside. Instead, in a way rare in London at that time, it was genuinely international- with staff as well as students from all over the world, finding a home there as Zaha did herself. It might sound odd that it seemed like a kind of family rather than a School of Architecture, its relationships were intense and very particular: and this was what I think Zaha valued and participated in fully. She was a striking, beguiling and utterly stylish figure, along with being a strong and individual voice, and her successes when they came were the School's successes, supported all the way by the AA Chairman, Alvin Boyarsky.
Her work was exhibited in the AA several times: the drawings of the apartment conversion in Eaton Place filled the 18th century saloon of the Members' Room in 1982, and also won the top RIBA project award that year. The paintings representing that space are exhilarating and clearly show an architectural and spatial sense like no other, that many buildings over the later decades would show.
As part of my recent USA trip I stopped off in New Haven, mainly to see one of Louis Kahn's best known buildings, the Yale University Art Gallery. Completed in 1953, it was the first to demonstrate his key architectural distinction between 'servant' and 'served' space. In other words Kahn aimed to create large uninterrupted volumes for occupation and use, in this case galleries for art, with staircases and other servicing elements distinguished by their place in the geometrically ordered plan but given their own distinct architectural treatment.
The ceiling, emphasising the building's continuity of space, is a repetitive triangular grid derived structurally from the space frame, but heavy where the space frame is light. Kahn's aim here is to give a timeless, quasi-monumental quality to the building, which remains impressive but is less startling than it would have appeared in the 1950s, in contrast to the work of Mies and perhaps a complement to the contemporary work of Le Corbusier.
It also relates to the more general concerns about materiality in the 1950s , widely known as Brutalism. The use of shuttered concrete, unclad brick and block work were unprecedented at that time for a public building in the USA and this material quality is still startling but architecturally effective.
I have recently returned from the USA, where I gave a lecture at MIT on the architectural photographer Eric de Mare, accompanying an exhibition currently showing (until April 8) in the Wolk Gallery in the MIT main building on Massachusetts Avenue. Nearby was some highly interesting modern architecture both at Harvard and MIT- Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center, Frank Gehry's Stata Center, and the highspot- seen on a day with sunshine and deep snow- Eero Saarinen's MIT Chapel completed in 1955 and which I scarcely knew.
Saarinen is not much discussed now, but was one of the leading architects in the USA in the 1950s, having emigrated from his native Finland to the USA as a teenager in 1923. It's clear he brought something of a Scandinavian sensibility with him- the undulating walls of rough brickwork for one thing- and the overall effect of this small windowless space is powerful and dramatic, with light coming down to the altar through the cascading sculpture of Harry Bertoia. There's something space-age about it too- and this reflects the preoccupations seen in his best-known works, the terminal at JFK Airport originally built for TWA and the great parabolic arch at St Louis.
Last week saw the In Place of Architecture Symposium at Nottingham Trent University. organised by Andy Lock and Fiona Maclaren- accompanying an exhibition (still on at the University's Bonington Gallery) of the work of a number of artist-photographers working with the theme. Several of them, including Peter Ainsworth, Guy Moreton and Esther Johnson presented their work at the Symposium, and one of the highlights was the work of Emily Richardson- her film of the modernist house of H. T. Cadbury-Brown- empty, abandoned, taken over by time, is an elegaic piece of power and subtlety. This very worthwhile event was hopefully the first of a series of explorations on the theme of artists working with architecture as their material.
I was asked to give the Keynote speech, which was titled Image and Counter-Image: architecture and its narratives: it dealt with the dominant narrative of photographing architectural form, and counterpointed that with some alternative readings of architecture and its imaging. Nigel Henderson's work, as ever, went down very well. And an extended discussion of the photography of the Barcelona Pavilion was enlivened by the image of Carolyn Butterworth licking the Pavilion, a critique of architecture and its photography on several levels.
There's a lot of recent architecture in Japan that has been highly interesting to those in the West- and the idea that Japan had developed its own version of Modernism has been around since (at least) Kenzo Tange's work in the 1960s. While the combination of a sense of the austerity and compositional clarity of Japanese traditional architecture has been seen as a forerunner of modernist concerns for a much longer period- Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius were both suitably inspired, and wrote on the subject.
The work of Tadao Ando can be seen extensively in Japan, particularly in the area of Kansai around his home city of Osaka. His work is often described, not least by him, as translating a Japanese sense of space, or perhaps more accurately a Japanese existentialism, into modern materiality and abstract geometry. Certain smaller projects, such as the Lotus Temple on Awaji Island, are highly inventive in their design and very powerful in their effect. Others, such as the nearby Yumebutai development and park, seem to be a repetition of themes he's done better elsewhere.
Kengo Kuma, even though he is also well known and has also worked in Europe, is not necessarily as well regarded. But the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, set in a garden-oasis in the fashionable district of Aoyama, is delightful. It seems to be a less ponderous version, literally and figuratively, of a current interpretation of Japanese-ness, simple and understated, connecting with that tradition quite directly.
I have just returned from a first trip to Japan, a trip full of architecture as well as much else- and this will form the basis for several blog posts. This first post puts together two buildings 'made' in London, but built in Japan. The Nagakin Capsule tower was designed by Kisho Kurokawa and finished in 1972: it provided the most minimal of dwelling standards in its capsule flats, and now stands derelict in an area of Tokyo full of new development. In clear emulation of Archigram projects done a decade earlier- Peter Cook's Plug-In City would have consisted of such prefabricated pods suspended from a service network, as Kurokawa's building does. But even closer is Warren Chalk's design for a Capsule Tower, done in 1965. However influential Archigram's work was, this is among the closest realisations of its principles- and now soon to disappear.
The second building originating in conversations in London is Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama Port Terminal building, completed in 2002. Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, then young and untried, won the competition to build this major piece of urban infrastructure in 1995: then tutors at the Architectural Association in London, they had both worked for OMA. Heralded as both a new urban type- a cruise ship terminal interwoven with a public space, an extension of nearby parks- it also represented a new architectural vocabulary of form, an unparalelled urban topography.
As Zaera-Polo has written: 'the project is generated from a circulation diagram that aspires to eliminate the linear structure characteristic of piers, and the directionality of the circulation.' In other words, a complex and flowing spatial model is adopted, changing direction and level, and enabled by the use of folded steel plates and concrete girders that minimise vertical support. Space seems to drift and fold, an exciting but not disorienting experience: some have said that the built project is disappointing compared to the radical nature of the spaces as drawn. While the project perhaps promised magic, the building does realise a powerful and effective new kind of architecturally determined public space.