Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Personal Achievement Department

Photo DC
 The Architectural Review has listed my article Gaudi's Sacred Monster as one of their top five stories of 2012.

This critique of the ongoing construction on Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona appeared in their July issue.

I published a blog post on the story on August 6; Gaudí or Not Gaudí.

Now that I think of it, the photo does look like the building is popping a cork in time for the holidays. Or is it that steam from the ears of the subjects of my review?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Alan Colquhoun 1921 - 2012

BD Online reports today the death of British architect and critic Alan Colquhoun at the age of 91 (free registration required).

While known in the US mainly as a critic -he taught at Princeton in the 1970's and published in Oppositions- in Britain he is also known for his architecture, as Owen Hatherley recounted in the same magazine last November:
"As a historian and theorist of architecture, Colquhoun’s rigorous and often harsh, pessimistic writing put him closer to the neo-Marxist history of Manfredo Tafuri than the alternately guilt-ridden or coldly technocratic literature of British post-modernism."
"As an architect ... Colquhoun was behind some of the most interesting housing in post-war Britain, favouring an austere idiom equally hostile to the picturesque, tamed modernism of the Festival of Britain as it was to the concrete gymnastics of much Brutalism."
All this means he tilted horns with the New Brutalists, Reynar Banham, Rogers, Foster, and his pet peeves, Buckminster Fuller and the Pompidou Center. In the United States, Hatherley maintains,
"It could be argued that the neo-avant-garde formalism of Eisenman and the New York Five, and their pessimistic assessment of any possibility of “political” architecture, owed much to Colquhoun."
And in his last book, a history of modern architecture, Hatherley reports,
"....Colquhoun wrote a final, darkly funny attack on the Fun Palaces and New Babylons of the 1968 generation, seeing the end result as little more than “boredom and claustrophobia”. And looking at much 21st century architecture, who could disagree?"
 Not much fun is he, not much fun at all.

December 21, 2012
DD Online has now published testimonials to Colquhoun by several colleagues, as well as  Kenneth Frampton's tribute , which puts into sharper focus his work as an architect and thinker than the comments cited above.

My favorite testimonial is by Robert Maxwell, former Dean of the Princeton architectural department and another expat Brit in the States, who first met Colquhoun "in 1946 when we were both in the Bengal Sappers and Miners, at Roorkee, India."

His report includes these gems:
"Alan enjoyed a large bungalow with high clerestory windows, and my memory is of us lying on camp beds a few inches off the ground listening to Mozart’s piano quartet while a grave old gentleman called a punkah-wallah pulled a hanging sail to and fro to make a draught."
"At Rookee, after dinner in the mess we would lie on low wooden chairs waiting for sunset. As soon as the sun went down a beautiful fragrance from the flowering shrubs wafted over us, renewing our hopes for tomorrow. But by then Colquhoun had already left."
Frampton praises Colquhoun's work and nuanced thinking, but nevertheless ruefully notes his rough spots:
"Considerate, gracious and gallant, Alan as a lifelong bachelor was a romantic who remained categorically anti-romantic. He was unfailingly an outspoken critic who did not suffer fools gladly, which no doubt accounts for our occasional exchanges as to merits and demerits of regionalism, critical or otherwise."
No folks, I am not making this up, this is not a Monty Python skit: Colquhoun knew very well how not to have a good time.

In the sharper focus department, Frampton is worth quoting at length:
"Trained in Edinburgh and the AA, Alan would remain as removed from the technocratic euphoria of Banham and the British hi-tech movement, as from the neo-vernacular Swedish welfare state style adopted by the left-wing architects of the LCC ([London County Council]. Within this line-up his affinities lay with his Corbusian colleagues at the LCC, as we may judge from his contribution to what was then a typical LCC unité duplex block, completed in the London borough of Hackney around 1958."

"Influenced by the Warburg generation of Germanic émigré intellectuals, by Gombrich, Cassirer, Wittkower et al, Alan was committed to continuing the rational humanism of the pre-war Modern Movement, to which the early work of Colquhoun and Miller bears ample testament; above all their Stratford Secondary School in the East End of London of 1962 and the chemistry laboratories that they designed and realized for the Royal Holloway College, Egham in 1970."

"Alan’s subsequent involvement with the School of Architecture, Princeton University at the end of the 60’s brought him into contact with Tomas Maldonado who, along with the Spanish aesthetician Tomas Llorens exiled in Portsmouth, would have introduced him to the Neo-Marxist thought of the Frankfurt School with which his writing was subtly infused throughout the remainder of his career."
Note the link to Tomás Llorens: the point man it would seem for Rafael Moneo's entry into the Oppositions circle; the two were colleagues at the Barcelona journal Arquitectura Bis.

Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change
Oppositions Books, 1981.

Modernity and the Classical Tradition: Architectural Essays 1980-1987
The MIT Press, 1991. Spanish edition available.

Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism
 Black Dog Publishing, 2008.

Modern Architecture (Oxford History of Art)
Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Available in Spanish as:
 La arquitectura moderna: Una historia desapasionada
 Gustavo GIli, 2005

Oase 87 - Alan Colquhoun. Architect, Historian, Critic
Articles by Tom Avermaete, Kenneth Frampton, Francoise Fromonot, Christoph Grafe, Owen Hatherley, Christian Kieckens
 NAI, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Taking on Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1947. Photo: Ben Richards
From Wikipedia

From the Archives
Especially revived for my friends of the Temenos Association at the Madrid School of Architecture, I've republished Exegesis, an essay I wrote in 1992 for an exhibition by my compañera de vida, Amelia Moreno and our good friend Rosa Gimeno.

For those working on the TGA or General Theory of Architecture and other adventures it will look like baby steps, but it was the first time I started to think seriously for myself about the problems and limits of logic and the structures of alternate ways of thinking.

I was annoyed at the time by people in the arts with a pseudo-scientific discourse and decided to outgun them with Wittgenstein, the presocratics and the rest, "for fun" and "so there," so please don't take the serious tone of the text or its resounding pronouncements too seriously. The pseudos were suitably impressed and no one else has called me on it for the simple reason that no one has seen it since.

The first lines:
 "The world is all that is the case," says Ludwig Wittgenstein in the first line of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. What then is "All that is not the case?"

Exhibition catalog text
Amelia Moreno - Rosa Gimeno
School of Applied Arts, Ávila, Spain
May 1992

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

FRPO in Design Vanguard

Pablo Oriol, left; Fernando Rodríguerz, right. Photo: DC on MO House roof
The annual Design Vanguard issue of Architectural Record, dedicated to a 10 young firms worldwide, includes my article on the Madrid firm FRPO (Fernando Rodríguez and Pablo Oriol). Full text and pictures can be found here.
"Their [design] process often involves breaking the building program into its basic elements, which they then weave back together in surprising ways....  The method can produce very compact designs, such as the OS House on the coast of Cantabria, Spain (2005; with Marco González), or ones that spread like an amoeba between the trees (MO House, Madrid, 2012)."

MO House.Photo © Miguel De Guzmán, from the article

Access and Services Building, City of Justice, Madrid. Photo © Federico López 
SO House. Photo © José Hevia

Design Vanguard:
FRPO (Rodríguez & Oriol Architecture)
Architectural Record, December 2012

Friday, November 30, 2012

No Bull

Canteen. Image courtesy of the architects

The cover story in December's Architectural Review (London) features my article on the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid's Matadero Cultural Center by Langarita Navarro Architects. The project is one of four winners in the Review's annual AR+D Awards for Emerging Architecture.
"María Langarita summarises, ‘Buildings are like ships that travel in time, with certain technologies from the past, and you decide if you are going to send those technologies again into the future or not.’  In the case of the Matadero, their project promises to quietly disappear, like the village of a nomadic tribe in the underbrush, while sending the naves onward towards a more durable reincarnation."
Red Bull Music Academy
Matadero Cultural Center, Madrid, by Langarita Navarro Architects
The Architectural Review, December 2012, page 46, cover

Hidden corner of the Academy. Photo by DC

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Call for Entries

The editors of Architectural Record announce the 2013 Record Houses awards program. Entry is open to any architect registered in the U.S. or abroad. Of particular interest are projects that incorporate innovation in program, building technology, materials, and form. Projects must be built and inhabited. They may be new construction or renovated and adaptive reuse projects. Entries must be approved by client for publication and if selected, be available for a visit by a writer.
Deadline is January 4, 2013.
For more info and to enter, click here.

The editors of Architectural Record are currently inviting submissions for the 2013 ARCHITECTURAL RECORD GOOD DESIGN IS GOOD BUSINESS awards program.
Deadline is February 15, 2013.
For more info and to enter, click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Crisis Casualties: Foreclosed Homeowners

Anti-eviction march in Bilbao this weekend, from El País.  © Luis Tejido (EFE)

News and Opinion
Amid Spain's economic woes, the drama of mortgage foreclosures has captured public and political attention recently.

Since the crisis started, some 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes for defaulting on mortgages, according to estimates.  The rate is about 3% of all outstanding home debt -- not an alarming number in economic terms, but staggering in human cost.

Protest movements to halt evictions have been growing, and leftist parties such as Izquerida Unida have for years been calling for major reforms in the harsh eviction laws, which strongly favor banks  over homeowners.

This fall, the protesters received the support of an association of judges, who demanded that the government take action. Judges  aren't supposed to be in the business of recommending legislation,  but they have assumed a degree of moral responsibility and authority before the public that Spain's politicians have largely lost. 

Several dramatic suicides by people caught up in evictions attracted the attention of the press (middle class people, who can mobilize public concern to a degree that the merely poor and working class seldom do), and the government was forced to consider the question with some urgency, although the measures they've announced amount to very little.

In Spain, companies are prohibited from cutting off your water or electricity for failure to pay their bills -- these utilities are considered essential to the right to life and dignity and so forth. But a bank can throw you out of your house for default, even though the right to decent housing is written into the Spanish constitution.

What is more, the subjects of foreclosure have no voice in eviction hearings. And the seizure of the property in question does not necessarily satisfy the debt with the bank. The value of the property is officially appraised and whatever is not covered by its value, including accumulating interest, remains as a debt on the shoulders of the evicted former homeowner.  And banks routinely manipulate appraisals downwards in their benefit, according to newspaper articles on the issue.

Families in Spain had few alternatives to high mortgages with floating interest rates in the years of the boom. The rental market here is very limited, while speculation sent home prices soaring.. In an article on November 11, for example, The New York Times reported on one foreclosure victim, a construction worker who paid US $ 320,000 --a staggering sum here-- for a basement apartment in the working class neighborhood of Carabanchel, and lost it to foreclosure three years after he lost his job.

Despite the pressure, the conservative government has done very little to alleviate the predicament of  families facing foreclosure -- in part, according to El País, due to counter-pressures from banks and Brussels, worried about Spain's general credibility.

The government proposes to pass a two-year moratorium on foreclosures for only a small percent of victims who must meet a number of conditions in terms of income, family size and other factors to qualify as "the most vulnerable" to "social exclusion".  Interest on their debt will continue to accrue during the moratorium. And the government has promised to set up a fund of apartments to rent at subsidized prices to evicted families, drawing on Spain's stock of vacant units, although such a government program will probably take years to get going.

What I don't understand is why so much is mobilized to rescue banks, and nothing for the victims of their manipulations. Conservative politicians talk about foreclosure victims in moral terms, as welchers on a business deal  --private property always seems to be the most sacred right for conservatives-- but balk at holding banks to the same moral standard.

Wouldn't it be more logical if some of the money sunk into bailing out banks was used to lower mortgage debt and payments for foreclosure victims too? The same money would end up in the banks anyway. Spain' stock of vacant apartments, vagrants and squatters would not continue to grow, and a lot of human suffering would be avoided.

But to enact something so simple and logical, so full of common sense and humanity, would probably take nothing short of a revolution.

Other basic measures should be enacted:
  • Fixed interest rate for life of mortgage.
  • The house as sole guarantee for the loan.
And the market should consider:
  • Conversion of empty units to rentals facilitating long-term occupancy.
  • Sale of empty units at real present market value. Banks and owners still resist serious markdowns (except when they are taking over foreclosed properties).
In the NY Times story, the construction worker in Carabanchel won a temporary reprieve from his  bank after protesters, outnumbering the police on the scene:
"By the end of the morning, bank and court officials had agreed to postpone Mr. Hernández’s eviction for six weeks. He still faces a debt of more than $330,000, more than he paid for the apartment. In Spain, mortgage holders are personally liable for the full amount of their mortgages. Then penalty interest charges and tens of thousands of dollars in court fees are added at foreclosure. Bankruptcy is no answer, either — mortgage debt is excluded."
El Pais has a web page dedicated to their ongoing coverage of this issue, which can be found here.

Link here to the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca  or Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages, the popular movement leading opposition to evictions.

A story in El País on November 24th traces the links between the anti-eviction movement and the 15-M movement:
La lucha antidesahucios, el primer logro del 15-M

Add to these victories against evictions the demonstrations that forced Madrid's regional government to go back on its plan to convert La Princesa, the noted research hospital, into a geriatrics facility (a plan also criticized by professional associations). And the adventure towards Catalan autonomy sponsored by regional president Artur Más was also inspired by a massive pro-separatist demonstration in Barcelona on September 11th. As in the years of the transition to democracy or the mass protests against Basque terrorism, well-organized public demonstrations are proving again to be a powerful tool for shaping policy in the Spanish democracy.

Is this necessarily positive? Or does it point as well to a fragile rigidity in Spain's democratic institutions, unable to adequately respond to crises, and to the weakness of its politicians, lacking in leadership and vision? As in Catalan separatism, the impulses of the mob are not always so hot. But so far, in their level of civic awareness and active solidarity, popular movements and voters are way ahead of Spain's political class.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Antón García-Abril: Fun with Precast Concrete

© Roland Halbe. Used wit permisssion

This week, Bauwelt (Berlin) runs my article on the House of the Reader in Madrid's Matadero Cultural Center by Antón García-Abril, where he adapts three of the early 20th century industrial sheds of the old municipal slaughterhouses for a center dedicated to fomenting reading  (sorry, no web version).  

"Where's the challenge in a simple renovation project? Characteristically, García-Abril found that challenge not so much in the design as in the process of its construction, introducing eleven precast concrete catwalks, U-shaped in section, into the existing structures, each 13 meters long and weighing 52 tons, without knocking down a single wall. "

"Go to Youtube and look up Building the Reader's House, and you will find a time-lapse video, set to the mechanical music of a popular Madrid organ-grinder tune, of workers sliding the precast elements one by one through the masonry window openings of the existing structure. The fit is as tight as a greased drill shaft going into an oil well, and is comically hard-core." 

"It matters little that the final product of this sleigh-of-hand seems tame in comparison.... "

Bauwelt 43
November 9, 2012
Pages 28 - 32; cover

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lebbeus Woods 1940 - 2012

Here's Steven Holl's tribute to Leb Woods in the Architecture and Design Blog of The Guardian, which brings together many other testimonies. Remember Pamphlet Architecture? Together with John Hejduk, Woods was a singular figure from a singular time:

"I met Lebbeus in February 1977. I arrived at Leb's small loft in TriBeCa to find him standing bent over an enormous black and white drawing of a Piranese-like urban vision. His cigarette had a long grey ash that was about to drop as he greeted me briefly and turned to show me the amazing drawing."

"Lebbeus and I began to meet every couple of weeks at a diner that served "all-you-can-eat-for-a-dollar" bean soup. Our ongoing philosophical discussions led to our sharing reviews in the design studios we were teaching.

"In 1977, I began work on a project titled Bronx Gymnasium-Bridge that would become the first issue of
Pamphlet Architecture. Lebbeus made the third issue with the project Einstein's Tomb. It was an amazing vision for a tomb about Albert Einstein – a strange architecture that would travel on a beam of light around the Earth. Today, I imagine that tomb is occupied by the spirit of Lebbeus."

"The freedom of spirit in architecture that Lebbeus Woods embodied carried a rare idealism. Lebbeus had very passionate beliefs and a deep philosophical commitment to architecture. His designs were politically charged fields of reality that he created."

Photo above from Dezeen

Berlin Free-Zone 3-2, 1990. From a 2008 NYTimes article by Nicolai Ouroussoff
Addendum 12.30.12
See Michael Kimmelman's tribute to Woods in the year-end New York Times Magazine.

Gae Aulenti 1927-2012

Benedetta Tagliabue, a Milan native, wrote a personal tribute to Aulenti in El País last Saturday (in Spanish).
"Aulenti had to chose between art (her true passion) and architecture. The second option finally won out, after seeing the ruins of Italian cities a hundred times in the postwar years. "I still hate ruins," she acknowledged not long ago."

Spaniards Abroad: Donaire in Ramallah

The Seville-based architect Juan Pedro Donaire has won an international competition to build a cultural center for the A. M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, on the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is based. Two of the finalists were also Spanish firms, and the third was from London. The building includes galleries for the Foundation's art collection, a library and spaces for cultural events.
El País, 10.28.12

Spaniards Abroad: AV62 in Kabul

Victoria Garriga and Toño Foraster of the Barcelona firm AV62 have won an international competition  to build the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Second place went to the Madrid studio of Emilio Tuñón, out of a total of 70 entries from 43 countries. Garriga and Foraster have  pioneered in working in the Middle East, where they previously won a competition to rebuild a Baghdad neighborhood. The architects cite the Mosque of Córdoba as one of the inspirations for the project. After a quick glance, it would also seem to owe something to Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The full story in the English edition of El País can be found here.

Hermitage Franchise Planned for Barcelona

Taking a break from his campaign to secure re-election and sponsor a referendum for Catalonia's independence from Spain, Catalan President Artur Mas was in Moscow last week to close negotiations for a branch of the Hermitage Museum in Barcelona.

The museum will occupy an expanded industrial building in the port, near Ricardo Bofill's Hotel W. The project is designed by architect Ujo Pallarés, who is also the principal in the private firm that will finance and run the museum, according to El País.  The details of the agreement signed in Moscow have not been made public.

Above, rendering from El País of the proposed musem.

The story in El País:

Mas y Mascarell viajan a Moscú para cerrar la llegada del Hermitage
Un Hermitage con muelle propio

Friday, October 19, 2012

Prize Fever Meets Spain's Coastal Law

Abandoned Club Med, Cabo de Creus, from Erase una vez un club
More catching up:
A September story in El País reports the European Landscape Biennial's Prize going to the restoration to an "undeveloped" state of the Cabo de Creus on the Cosat Brava north of Barcelona, former site of a Club Med resort. The restoration was led  by Martí Franch and Ton Ardèvol.

You can't  completely erase development, and a natural environment is a mutable thing. The architects' sensitive handling of such questions seems to have contributed to their recognition.

Following the Ley de Costas or Coastal Law passed in 1988, the Spanish government has been reclaiming prime coastal frontage as public property, and has proceeded in many places to demolish existing constructions on public land, from summer mansions to beachfront snack shacks and entire vacation communities.

Built in 1961, the Club Med was an interesting artifact, as documented in the program Erase una vez un club on RTVE, Spain's public television. But the restoration is a big improvement.

The effect of the Coastal Law has been a bit brutal at times in its effort to fight the brutal over-development of Spain's coasts in the name of nature and the environment. To make matters worse, the current conservative government has put much of it on hold, giving beach house owners a 75-year moratorium.

The right of public over private interest seems basically correct in theory. But what's wrong with having a modest place to get a drink and a sandwich on the beach? And when well-designed, what's so bad about coastal development?  Older communities tend to grown fairly well into a landscape, or we get used to them, so why blow them away together with all the unlicensed recent encroachments? Hopefully, the new moratorium means that the current  government is ready to take on more of these nuances.

But let's go back to the European Landscape Prize. If you go the the Biennial's web site, you find that it is organized by the Catalan College of Architects in Barcelona, the local professional association. And the prize goes to a local project.

So why is it called European?

The Catalans have become accomplished at this kind of clever marketing.

Another grandly-titled award, the Mies van der Rohe Prize for European Architecture, was dreamed up in Barcelona to give Mies' rebuilt Barcelona Pavilion a useful function. Its web page boasts that "Candidates for the Award are put forward by a broad group of independent experts from all over Europe, as well as from the architects' associations that form part of the European Council of Architects and other European national architects' associations". The page also highlights the award's financial backing by the European Union, but the Union logo on the web page comes with this interesting disclaimer:

So is it European or what?

Of course the same chutzpah went into the making of the Nobel Prizes by another small and peripheral country. Not to mention the Pritzker or the Praemium Imperiale in the field of architecture.

But despite their efforts, I haven't seen these Barcelona-based awards getting the international attention they seek. Maybe the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus could teach them something. They could  try calling themselves the Biggest Biennial World Landscape Prize in the Universe. That should bring in the crowds.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

FAD Prizes Turn to Madrid

Matadero. Casa del Lector by Antón García-Abril. © Roland Halbe

Catching up on news, the winners of the 2012 FAD Prizes were announced this summer. And though based in Barcelona and traditionally anti-centric, the two most significant awards this year went to projects designed by multiple teams in Madrid.

The Prize for Architecture went to the conversion of the sprawling halls  of Madrid's early 20th century slaughterhouses, the Matadero, into a sprawling cultural center.

Madrid Rio. Bridge by Dominique Perrault. Photo: DC
 And the City and Landscape Prize went to the equally sprawling  Madrid Rio, a 10-kilometer park along the banks of the Manzanares River, passing directly in front of the Matadero. It was designed by a team lead by Ginés Garrido and including the firms Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, Rubio & Álvarez-Sala and West 8, with special interventions by Dominique Perrault (pedestrian bridge over the river) and others.

Like Madrid Rio, the Matadero project has is sponsored by the municipal government, which has conceived the complex as "a creativity support center." And it describes the rehab of the existing pavilions as a "field of experimentation for new architecture" (both quotes from the Matadero web page).

Spaces include:
  • Nave 16, dedicated to art and artists' studios, by the architects Alejandro Vírseda, Iñaqui Carnicero and Ignacio Vila Almazán.
  • The Casa del Lector or House of the Reader, operated by a private foundation and opening this month, by Antón García-Abril
  • The Cineteca by José María Churtichaga and Cayetana de la Quadra Salcedo
  •  Plaza Matadero and other outdoor spaces, by Ginés Garrido, Carlos Rubio y Fernando Porras
  • Escaravox, plaza shading devices, by Andrés Jaque
  • Nave de Múscia by María Langarita and Víctor Navarro
  • Entry Pavilion by Arturo Franco
  • Design Center by  José Antonio García Roldán
  • Naves del Español, run by the national Teatro Español and designed by theater director Mario Gas and stage designers Jean Guy Lecat and Francisco Fontanals, under the coordination of municipal architect Emilio Esteras
  • Home of the Ballet Nacional de España and the Compañía Nacional de Danza, rehabbed in the 1990s by Antonio Fernández Alba 
Escaravox shading devices by Andrés Jaque. Image: Andrés Jaque.
Nave de Música by María Langarita & Victor Navarro. Photo © Luis Diaz Diaz

Nave 16. Photo © Roland Halbe

Cineteca by Churtichaga & De la Quadra Salcedo

Nave de Musica, Plaza from Wikipedia by AlesKubr2