Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beinahe Nichts With a Twist

Eduardo Souto de Moura
Burgo Tower, Porto

architektur.aktuell (Vienna), November 2008, pages 58 - 69
© 1998 David Cohn & architektur.aktuell
All rights reserved

While it might seem that little new could be wrung from the well-worn theme of the minimalist Miesian skyscraper, in his Burgo office tower in Portugal's northern city of Porto, Eduardo Souto de Moura gives the formula a surprising twist. Souto's design, intended as a prototype applicable to other sites, is so formally precise and perverse in its rhetorical expression of the structural cage that we could call it Mannerist. He uses the Miesian formal apparatus of applied facade columns and beams to create a precise though misleading visual reading of the construction, transforming the tower into a masked, reticent prism.

The building is sited in a prime area of new development on the Avenida da Boavista, which stretches from the center of the city to the ocean. The project was designed in 1998, but construction did not begin until 2004, and the building opened early this year. Souto de Moura was thus confronted with a context still in the making, in an area where the continuous street wall of the city around Rem Koolhaas' Casa da Música Concert hall, located a few blocks to the east, breaks down into isolated towers amid the verdant hills above the Douro River.

The uncertain site conditions may help explain the powerful way in which Souto's project marks its territory and defines its autonomy from its surroundings – although these traits are common to most of his buildings, as exemplified by his court houses, which address the street like well-finished shipping containers (see The Court House Revisited). The 17-story tower, 70 meters high, is set on a platform over two levels of parking. Souto deploys a low building containing offices and ground-floor retail space to screen the eastern, developed side of the plaza. The tower stands back from the avenue to establish a distant, Miesian formality of address between them, with the side-effect, surely intentional, of hiding the building behind existing and future constructions. It is further protected at street level by a colorful, monumental plaza sculpture by artist Angelo de Sousa.

The design task was complicated by the fact that the tower faces Boavista from the south, meaning that its main facade is in shadow most of the day. This helps justify the radical differentiation of the tower's facades –another characteristic of Souto's work– which gives rise to its perverse transformation of Miesian form. The north and south facades are of glass, deeply set for shading within a structural cage of granite-finished columns and false aluminum beams (composed with thick plates of projecting flanges), while the east and west facades are largely finished in granite panels to block low eastern and western sunlight, with slots of horizontal glass that are positioned at the same level as the horizontal "beams" of the glass facades. These aluminum elements are deployed three to a floor, masking the scale of the tower.

The granite-faced columns on the glass facades can be misleadingly read in visual terms as the ends of continuous granite walls, like the east and west facades, traversing the volume from north to south, while the thin glazed voids of the east and west facades are interrupted by short aluminum beams covering the columns, as if these too traversed the building from east to west. The effect in three dimensions is as if the building were built like a house of cards, a stack of north-south granite walls separated by east-west aluminum beams. Taking this vision a step further, the building can be read as a variation on Souto's "shipping container" rowhouses with their glazed garden ends and solid side walls, but here stacked vertically like true containers.

Entry to the tower is oblique and secretive rather than frontal: on the western elevation, a section of the granite wall hinges open to reveal the entry door within (most visitors enter in any case from the garage). The hierarchy of the facades also reflects the interior distribution, with the office spaces oriented to the north and south, in two sections of approximately 300 m2 each – the building has a total of 12.000 m2 of rentable space.  The model floor features office furniture that Souto designed for the project, and that will be produced by the Portuguese firm Julcar Mobiliário Integrado. Desks, tables and storage units defining work areas are made of fiberboard panels with veneers of matte-finished aluminum. Together with the discrete seating and suspended ceiling uplights for indirect lighting, fabricated by Osvaldo Matos, the furniture is straightforward and contemporary, like the desks and boxes of Donald Judd.

Geometric precision is another of Souto's obsessions, as in the affinity he establishes between the square structural bay of the facades (3.5 x 3.5 m), divided horizontally into thirds, with the plan of the tower's typical floors, another square divided into thirds by the two areas of offices and the technical core. Other squares are found in the plans of the plaza, the two elevator cores, the area rugs of the lobby seating, etc.

In the low horizontal building Souto plays another curious formal game, using closely-set vertical mullions to transform it into a "continuous horizontal band" in his words, and detailing the end walls like section cuts, with protruding elements of unframed glass, granite "floor slabs" and aluminum carpentry, as if he had cut the structure from an infinite ribbon  – a transposition of the conceptual, vertical infinity of the tower in the horizontal dimension.

While Álvaro Siza's local buildings portray him as the gentlemanly master of effects of reflected light and playful spatial distortion, Souto de Moura reaffirms himself with this tower as a reclusive perfectionist, establishing an island of absolute, calming order amid the unplanned chaos, the disordered, overgrown garden of Porto's urbanized suburbs.

Photoa by DC

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Luminous Edge

Holl, Jefferson and Palladian America
Addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City
Steven Holl Architects

Tectónica 26, 2008, pages 26 - 43, cover

© David Cohn, Tectónica

In his design for the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, Steven Hall has given a new twist to the old problem of how to enlarge a building that, due to its force and integrity, doesn't easily lend itself to enlargement. The museum's imposing original home, a neo-classical temple sculpted out of Indiana limestone, was built between 1927 and 1933 by local architects Wight & Wight, disciples of McKim, Mead & White. The powerful axes of symmetry of its north and south facades project their dominion over the site, an estate previously occupied by the mansion of the museum's principal benefactor, William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915), the owner of The Kansas City Star newspaper.

In contrast to other museum additions that attempt to discretely enlarge the original building, such as London's National Gallery by Venturi Scott Brown, or where the original is overwhelmed and engulfed within a completely new reconfiguration of the institution –the case of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, remodeled in the 1970s by Roche & Dinkeloo Architects, or the recently transformed MoMA—Hall has opted to explore the approach taken by I. M. Pei with his additions to Washington's National Gallery and the Louvre in Paris, where he used the strategy of an underground connection to create a new object –or in this case, a new series of objects—that stands independently of the original building and relates to it through a dialogue of contrasts.
© Roland Halbe

But while Pei developed his designs using triangular geometries that were equivalent, in their precision and elegance, to the academic language of their partners in this dance of contrasts, Holl experiments with broken, intuitive forms that place his design at the formal vanguard of contemporary architectural practice. And while the underground sections of Pei's projects are clearly secondary, and are understood as a limited, functional strategy despite their brilliant use of skylights, in Holl's design, the theme of its partial burial is the key to its conceptual and experiential development. For Holl, "The addition is not an object. We have created a new paradigm, fusing landscape and architecture."

Holl broke with the bases of the 1999 competition to arrive at his solution. While other participants sought to enlarge the original building on its northern elevation, in front of the entry façade, as called for in the brief, Holl proposed a more discrete and respectful site, along the eastern edge of the museum grounds, where he scattered five pavilions or irregular glass lenses across the lawn. The lenses descend in a broken line, like transparent, luminous rocks, across the grounds of the sculpture park that extends from the southern façade.

Natural light pours through these lenses into the new underground galleries, which Holl has organized following a route of gently descending ramps, interrupted by subtle changes in direction and points of rest with views over the landscape and towards Wight and Wight's sober Ionic portico. The disjuncture between the changes in level inside the addition and the changing ground plane above them has a disorienting effect that Holl has compared to the floating, disconnected vistas of traditional oriental landscape paintings (Asian art is one of the museum's strong points). Outside, pathways run between the pavilions to reach corners populated with sculptures, and run across the buried galleries' roofs of earth and grass.

The general layout of Holl's design has a certain relation to the Palladian tradition in North America. On various 17th century colonial plantations, secondary elements –the kitchen, smoke house, or domestic slave quarters, for example—are placed on either side of the main axis of the house on its garden side, following a strict geometric order, and defining an outdoor domestic sphere. One example is Thomas Jefferson's house in Monticello, where two semi-buried galleries define the artificial plane of the garden, and end in two small pavilions that frame the view from the main house towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, which still marked the frontier of colonial settlement in Jefferson's time. Like Jefferson, Holl has organized the glass lenses like a secondary, semi-buried extension of the central building, except that he keeps them away from its powerful central axis of symmetry, so as to organize the route through them in a dramatically different way.

Monticello. Image culled from

The success of the project depends entirely on Holl's handling of the glass lenses and how they treat natural light, two problems that Holl and his team have placed at the center of their investigations. Their concept is to use the lenses to materialize natural light, using this light to mold the interior spaces. The lenses' translucent walls "gather, diffuse and refract light," they remark in the architect's brief. In the daytime, they appear dematerialized, "like blocks of ice," and at night they illuminate the grounds of the museum like enormous lanterns.

The lenses mark a new point of evolution in the development of glass walls, leaving behind the preoccupation of High Tech architecture with the dematerialization of the convention glass curtain wall. Behind Holl's project we find a fascination for abstract, luminous surfaces that would seem to be derived from the domination of the computer screen in contemporary life – the photos showing people staring fixedly and at close range at the surfaces of the lenses are revealing in this regard. In contrast to High Tech's cult of transparency, where the goal of liberating and extending the gaze beyond intermediate barriers was sought, we find ourselves here before the hypnotic effect of luminosity, which converts the building itself into the object of a fixed, absent gaze, and where the relation between inside and outside is less promiscuous and more limited. In the interior spaces, the luminous walls take on a secondary role to the play of light and space. Here Holl returns to the long, tortuous circulation patterns of the Kiasma, a project influenced by Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. Here in Kansas, however, these routes unfold with greater tranquility. The alternation between the exterior views and the glass lenses creates a rhythmic spatial choreography that finds its culmination in the Noguchi courtyard.

In his brief, Holl offers a list of the points of dialogue between the original building and his design, between "the stone and the feather", contrasting the density, opacity and hermetic quality of the first with the lightness, transparency and openness to dialogue with its surroundings of the second. To this list we might add the contrast between the formulaic monumentality of the original building and a more personal and intuitive vision, marked by sensorial intensity and spatial compression. Like Jefferson in Monticello, Wight & Wight's Nelson-Atkins is the design of pioneers, imposing a new order on an existing landscape and with this act erasing its past. Holl's building belongs to a later moment in the development of the North American urban landscape. The apparently virgin territory of the past has become a complex weave of gestures and intentions superimposed over the topography, a palimpsest with many historical layers where, in Holl's interpretation, only a small margin remains free in which one may add a personal, poetic commentary. Nevertheless, from this same position, Holl has managed to reorient our reading of the existing landscape, converting the edge into the new center, dislocated and fragmented, of the contemporary gaze.

Translated from the Spanish by DC
Photos © Andy Ryan, courtesy Steven Holl Architects, unless noted
Plans: Steven Holl Architects