Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Shifting Shorelines #1: St. Magnus-the Martyr

A. London Bridge (dating from 1973) B. Location of London Bridge prior to 1831 C. Monument. St. Magnus' is in blue.

While in Tokyo, Douglas Adams once remarked to his guide that a particular temple had weathered remarkably well since its construction several centuries earlier. The guide replied that this was not at all the case, and that it had been burnt down twice in the last century alone. Its significance as a state monument therefore involved its complete reconstruction. Adams started to mediate that the Western obsession with the temporal continuation of materials is only an impediment to actually seeing the building. This perpetuation of a building’s soul, or spirit, irrespective of its physical form, he implies, is not common in occidental thinking. Oh, but Douglas, it is.

Take St. Magnus-the-Martyr, a church at the north end of London Bridge. First built in 276 – the discovery of a Roman wooden pylon near the site indicates that it was constructed outside the Roman river defences (designed to prevent flooding). That is, the church was either on, and probably sometimes in, the river. It was enlarged in 1234 (a satisfyingly sequential year) in stone, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Wren.

For several centuries it marked one end of London Bridge, (whose famous 20 arches supported numerous houses, fortifications and even a church) and marked the limit of naval traffic – the upper reach of London Pool. After Wren it actually sat on the bridge, its vestry on the fourth floor open to travellers (the type of elevated urban structure that would, much later, inform the design of the Barbican).

But throughout its history it was always St. Magnus-the-Martyr. The physical distinction of the buildings is evident – but the spirit remained. With sacred architecture we recognise the fact that the meaning of the place comes from powers unbounded by time or space. We are less convinced of the ontological value of offices, retail, even our own homes.

But there is an added complication with St. Magnus: the church was attached to the bridge, bordering the ancient path used by the invading legions (advancing onto their own epochal Heart of Darkness). Thus the genius loci of St. Magnus’ is a maritime river spirit. Now the Old London Bridge is gone, demolished. Even the 19th century replacement has been sold, dismantled, and reassembled in the Arizona desert. The new bridge is 50m from the church. The vestry hangs up in the air, strangely isolated. A child that has climbed up a countertop and is suddenly unsure how to get down. The bells, which were scrapped about the same time the bridge was moved, have been replaced, but are now silent.

A worker beating the lead roof had left the tower door open, and deafened by the organ did not hear me sneak up to the vestry and then take a picture of the bellroom.

The river bank, too, has moved, 200m from church – the distance across the Thames is today about half what it was in the C17th. What sort of effect has this had on the conception of the place, and can we even say that the church is today in the same place as it was in centuries past? Find out more in part 2, with a shocking (and controversial) conclusion in part 3.

Coming Soon… Part #2: New York, New York.

St. Magnus-the-Martyr, dwarfed by the modern office blocks, as seen from Monument. Arrow indicates present London Bridge, vestry located at about half of the tower’s height.

Friday, 24 July 2009


2001: the spacemen descending into the moon pit, monolith at its centre.

Sticking on the 2001 and moon theme:

Last year, when I was living in Paris, I went to the annual Monumenta exhibit that is held at the Grand Palais – possibly the largest enclosed space I have ever been in. In fact, the space is so big that almost anything you put in it looks out of scale. Some artists, like Anselm Keifer, don’t even try to create installations that confront the space, but treat it almost like a warehouse, allowing them to collect together projects that would normally be impossible to exhibit alongside each other.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Floyd journeys by Pan Am spaceplane to the moon, where he examines a colossal pit dug into the surface: an archeological digging that has exposed the black monolith. Everything about the scene is designed to imply that the monolith has been there for eons, awaiting a new millennium people.

Serra's installation had a similar effect on me, in fact my first thought was that this light glass and iron structure had been built around the monoliths. There was an implication also of weightlessness - while easily twenty metres high, the slabs of corten (that slowly rusted over the course of the exhibit, exposing the finger and handprints of the visitors) were only 10cm thick, and none of them completely touched the concrete floor. At least one corner was raised, giving the impression that they were floating elements tethered loosely to the ground. As I watched the shadows of the dome play across the metal, I thought about how Serra had masterfully reversed the chronological order of the palace and its exhibit; typical of his incredible power over material and space.

Monumenta by Richard Serra, at the Grand Palais in 2008.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

lebbeus woods

Sleep-deprived, I had a bit of a rant about a Steven Holl project over at Lebbeus Woods' blog, and to my surprise Lebbeus posted it- thanks Lebbeus.


HAL advises Dave to take a stress pill.

What with it being 40 years since the Eagle landed, it got me thinking about mankind's great leap, and I was a bit inspired by an a456 post on moments in space (it is in the nature of blogs to be inter-referential, their own little closed-circuit system of recurring information).

What is the geo-political future of the moon? With China, Japan, Europe, America (not to mention private enterprises) all setting their sites on the moon by 2020, how will the moon be divided in the future?

Will maps be drawn by country, like the Antarctic, or by corporate interest (that is, will lunar cartography be essentially socialist or capitalist)? Will we see frontiers established, border outposts and lunar passport checks, incoming earthlings forced to pass by some great lunar Ellis Island? Or will it be a free-for-all, anyone setting up anywhere and doing anything? What resources are there on the moon anyway? Surely nothing like the amazing lodes of gold that H.G. Wells predicted, guarded over by an agrarian society of moon cow herders called the Selenites– a fragile blue people that shatter when hit by the force of an earth man.

But in time surely the explorers will have children, Lunians, and a new race will sprout up. Will they be able to ever return to the planet of their species, or will the simple fact of their birth on the moon make them forever tied to the barren rock– prisoners of their own chance? Will they repel their earth ancestors, and establish a Lunar Republic, or will it be the opposite, with Lunar Reservations, the type of desolate poverty and mutation of Total Recall?

Final word, the
Arecibo Observatory (the level Cradle from Goldeneye- man what a goddamn hard level, like when you have to drop down and shoot Trevelyn off the little platform, or fall to your death), well its in financial trouble, and the guys at SETI are trying to scrape up some funding- have a look and help them out...

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

studio crit #1: Guggenheim Hermitage Vilnius

image via deezeen

Why is it that in studio one's own architectural projects are always received so critically by peers and professors (well, at least, mine always are) - while professionals that produce work of dubious quality seem to be praised. Why is it that famous architects are not shot down like students?

From time to time I will be taking architect's projects and pretending I am their tutor, and it seemed an easy choice to select everybody's favourite punching bag- Zaha. The facility of this exercise is self-evident: the wave of universal admiration for Zaha has passed, and the tide of the Digital Formalists has turned. It is really too late to be criticising Hadid, she has, I believe, already fallen from the forefront of contemporary architectural discussion. Nonetheless, I was particularly struck by the accompanying text to her project for the Guggenheim Hermitage museum in Vilnius.

"The building appears like a mystical object floating above the extensive artificial landscape strip, seemingly defying gravity by exposing dramatic undercuts towards the surrounding entrance plazas. Large activated green fields flow around the museums sculptural mass, underlining its enigmatic presence with curvilinear lines echoing the elongated contours of the building. Contrasting with the vertical business district skyline it is a manifestation of Vilnius’ new cultural significance.

In the interior a canyon like air space allows for architecturally refined communication and circulation spaces mirroring the Fluxus spirit of informality and vivacity surrounding art. Through manipulations of the ground at the riverfront, towards the park and the bridge, different levels are made accessible. An intensification of public life at the river is our aim. The positioning of the building on the riverbanks, respectively the cities edge, creates a strong sense of place within Vilnius. The exterior spaces are modulated landscape formations creating several imprints or plinths upon which various activities and performances can take place."

My. A moment's pause. I suppose my first question would be, what is an ‘activated green field’? Are these irregular triangles of grass ‘activated fields’? because they look a lot like grass roofs. Presumably retail. Notice there are no people walking on them. They are not portrayed as inhabited spaces, and since they subsequently belong to the order of having (we own them, or consume them by viewing them) and not the order of being (by which we experience them in the act of existing amongst them), how can they be ‘activated’?

I could continue, but I think we all know where I am going with this. High Distinction (A) for presentation (although I would be interested to know Zaha's precise relationship to the drawings- I can't help but think of Milli Vanilli) but a Credit plus (C+) for attention to landscape- and who the hell is writing their press releases?

I was watching a film by Chris Marker the other day (of La Jetee fame) called Sans Soleil, wiki says of the film:
"Sans Soleil is a meditation on the nature of human memory and the inability to recall the context and nuances of memory and as a result, how the perception of personal and global histories are affected."
One of the really poignent remarks was about Japanese poetry. In Western poetry all nouns are modulated by adjectives- but the beauty of Japanese poetry is that the nouns are never modulated, 'rock', 'rope', 'boat', 'chrysanthemum', 'mountain' - they appeal to the infinte, to the thing itself, and not to some adjectival simulacrum.

Early C20- "Shinto priests crossing a courtyard of the Meiji Temple in Tokyo. Snow is falling on the pine-trees and the cloisters and on their paper umbrellas."

Monday, 20 July 2009

start at the end

I was interviewed for the AA the other day, and at the end of the meeting a member of the panel asked me if I had any questions. ‘I read Kuma’s Anti-Object recently’ I said, ‘and I found the introduction by Brett Steele very interesting. Given his, and the AA’s, role at the forefront of the digital revolution in architecture, his support for an architecture that is, if anything, adigital, seems quite a striking change of position. Is this symptomatic of the change in contemporary thinking? What do you think is the future of the digital revolution, and more specifically, what will be the future role of the AA in this field?’ None of the three replied, then after a few seconds a man who I sensed was least impressed by my presentation said: ‘the revolution is over.’

This reminded me of something I read in Log magazine recently, (run by Cynthia Davidson, Eisenman’s wife). Mario Carpo writes: “In the early 90’s, the digital revolution in architecture had no clearly identified course of history to call into question: in true post-modernist fashion it had no preset destination - no target, as it were, and almost no end in mind. Indeed, 15 years later, some may reasonably claim that as the digital turn had nowhere to go, it went nowhere.”

Yeah, alright, fair enough, I dislike the vocabulary of digital architecture as much as the next person. The projects mostly resemble neo-baroque fretwork, objects of unnecessary complexity just plonked down wherever their site might be (with no thought to landscape, to human scale, to the modality of perception), and then these architects claim to not have produced architecture at all, but programmable elements that in themselves are generic, but which can be adapted to the hyper-specific conditions of program. It makes me ill.
However, I hardly think its fair to search out a scapegoat in these times of global financial crisis. I first noticed this bitter approach when Zaha was balled out by one and all at the Barbican in April. Her style of digital architecture epitomises the fundamental ethos of Modernism: that we produce architecture we are technologically capable of, and not morally responsible for.

Does this perhaps mean that the Modern era is done with? Probably not. But the aim of this blog is, at the end of the digital revolution, to propose new directions for the profession. This does not mean abandonning digital techniques, but it does mean carefully examining the ontological legitimacy of what we produce. Or, if you prefer, asking again ‘why do we make architecture?’.

l'architecture d'aujourd'hui

My one-time boss and long-time idol Jean Nouvel is relaunching the French magazine "l'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui" (Today's Architecture). I was amazed by how little information can be found on the web, in either English or French, given the significance of the magazine – it doesn't even have a wikipedia page. Founded in 1930 by Andre Bloc it ran until 2007, when it hit financial difficulties. It was a magazine instrumental in the dissemination of Modernism, particularly as a mouthpiece for Corbu and his cronies in the post-war rush to build the least functional suburbs in the world. Nouvel cites it as one of the ways he first heard about Claude Parent, his mentor [Parent worked extensively with Paul Virilio, and his fascination with bunker architecture can be seen in projects like the Eglise Saint Bernadette. I am still trying to find a copy of their 'Architecture of the Oblique', which has been out of print for some time.] Other participants in the relaunch include Shigeru Ban, Gehry, Winy Maas and Philippe Starck. Definitely worth keeping an eye out.
A video for Francophones.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

exploding plastic inevitable

This video made me think of Warhol's EPI, and his Electric Circus club, Fabrizio Fiumi, allatonceness, and superarchitecture. In short, everything that spoke to me about super-position of images onto the real, ambiguity of space, disintegration of matter, etc. We conceive of the relationship between space and time in a bizzare manner- where cardinal space is permanent and time is in flux. This is why we associate, say, the photograph of a Leningrad street in 1941 with the same street today, because even though time has passed we state that it is the same location (the same point, place, reference- in terms of long/lat, elevation, etc). In reality, no space is static, and everything is relative, so from micro-second to micro-second all certainty of place is non-existent. The past is non-extant. I am reminded of a Borges fable, the tale of the people of an imaginary planet. There space is not conceived as having duration in time, take:
"The hypothetical case of nine men who on nine successive nights experience a sharp pain. Would it not be absurd, they asked, to pretend that the men had suffered one and the same pain?"
The continuation of a similar pain in the same location over nine nights is coincidental, and not evidence that it is the same pain. The same would be true of an object: a coin seen in a room by nine men over nine successive nights is, materially, equally non-continuous. Further, to claim that a lost coin on monday and a found coin on friday (that bears the traces of having spent several days in the rain) are the same coin is nothing more than the 'association of ideas'. Classic Borges. This is why the spirit of place is non-continuous in time, but exists only for the moment it is experienced. Try returning to any childhood holiday site and see if the essence of the locale remains...

When we realise that our association of time with space is ridiculous we will understand physicality anew. We will construct suburbs of concrete cubes and project, like the castle, whatever form or atmosphere we care onto their facades. We will have broken the solidity of middle-class suburbia and exploded into an era of physical uncertainty. 'Precise location' will mean nothing, GPS will be the only means of navigation, and Occidental society will drift as nomads through a shape-shifting, dancing, urban forest of light and matter.

Unrelated, news from Austin, Texas. Everyone's favourite cinema-restaurant (you sit in rows, but before each row is a bench and order slip), the Alamo Drafthouse, has added to their celluloid passions the International Air Sex Championships, think Air Guitar, but mostly naked.

death of the 20th century

"'The travel agency you tried to attack, I assume there's a larger target – Chelsea Marina?'
'Far larger.' Relaxed again, Dexter raised his hands. 'One of the biggest of all. The 20th Century.'
'I thought it was over.'
'It lingers on. It shapes everything we do, the way we think. There's scarcely a good thing you can say for it. Genocidal wars, half the world destitute, the other half sleepwalking through its own brain-death. We bought its trashy dreams and now we can't wake up."
Millennium People
J.G. Ballard

sannaa @ the serpentine

Saturday: SANNAA's new pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery. The architects statement: ‘The pavilion is floating aluminium, drifting freely between the trees like smoke. The reflective canopy undulates across the site, expanding the park and sky. Its appearance changes according to the weather, allowing it to melt into the surroundings. It works as a field of activity with no walls, allowing views to extend uninterrupted across the park and encouraging access from all sides. It is a sheltered extension of the park where people can read, relax and enjoy lovely summer days.’ Praise: A really well designed pavilion, reminiscent of the principles Kuma expounds. Criticism: The faults lay not in the design, but the execution of the pavilion, and as a visitor I was very aware of the limitations that the project had imposed upon the architects' dream- the realities of construction (I am using the press release as reference to their intent). The groundplane was almost without undulation, and set in a brutal concrete, which exaggerated, not blurred, the pavilion's boundaries (as oposed to a grass floor, which would bring the surroundings into the space). The forest had been downsized to several indoor plants in terracotta pots, which gave the pavilion a kind of kitch feel. Finally, (though no fault of the architects) the connection with the park was broken by the ubiquitous wrought iron fence, which the English feel so passionately about (they are very much a people of mine and thine). Final thoughts: nonetheless, a beautiful element almost bobbing in its landscape, miles lighter than Rem's balloon. Also, this wallpaper* video is worth a look- I like SANNAA's response, but the other goons leave me cold.

Friday, 17 July 2009

nouvelle vague

I was fourteen when the Towers came down, and the long twin shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan essentially defined my development of global awareness. It is an event I refer to frequently when attempting to describe the nature of the new millennial zeitgeist, and while it is a subject that has gone out of vogue in recent years (perhaps as a result of the spectacular conspiracy theories that surround that tragedy, with varying degrees of plausability) it remains unequivocally the real marker of the new millennium. If epochs are less defined by periods of time than by events, then the bookend to the era that began with September 11 would be the sub-prime lending collapse, and the subsequent Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

The crash really signifies the end of the decade, and what we are experiencing now is the slack water between tides – the dead calm of reflection. Particularly within architecture there is a feeling of bitterness, a recognition that the good times are over, and they were largely squandered. There is a desire to seperate, in all senses, from the past. The scorned lover destroying correspondance, the defeated army burning bridges in its wake. There is a searching for a new architecture. But it is somehow more profound than this; it is not simply a search to redefine themselves, but above all to define a new zeitgeist. That is, the will is essentially positive.

I am not interested in the ungainly shapes and non-existent scales of the Digital Formalists – I feel the greatest failing of Modernism is that we do because we can, and not because we should (even this question is enough to brand one a Luddite, or at least retrospective). I am not interested in architecture as an activity of object-making. I am completely fascinated by architecture as a legitimate tool of social change.