My city

All I want for Christmas is for my city to have…

  • A high-density, diverse and vital city centre.
  • Medium-density suburb hubs containing key residential services such as doctors, newsagents, post offices, supermarkets and pharmacies.
  • Variety in property sizing and street layout providing diversity in occupational possibilities.
  • A comprehensive public transport system that is less than a 5 minute walk from everywhere and, with less than a 3 minute wait, will take me anywhere.
  • Streets dedicated to foot and bicycle traffic with underground, high-speed private transport arterials that bypass the city.
  • Underground parking, leaving streets free of cars.
  • Even, non-slip and pothole-free street surfaces.
  • Lots of green at every scale, including large parks, smaller reserves, street trees and grass between tram tracks.
  • A stormwater system that keeps the streets dry.
  • Regularly located, legible street signage.
  • Photovoltaic panels on, and water collection from, every roof.
  • High-speed wireless internet everywhere.
  • Well-serviced waste and recycling bins along all major streets.
  • Facilities to support significant cultural and sporting events.

And, contrary to the current political position…

  • No suburban sprawl.

Dr Chau Chak Wing building: site-responsive?

What is it?

Frank Gehry‘s first building in Australia, the Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney, revealed last week and discussed in an IndesignLive post viewable here. IndesignLive makes some peculiar comments about the design ideas behind the building: “The east-facing façade will be made of a buff-coloured brick reminiscent of Sydney sandstone, reflecting Sydney’s heritage architecture” and, “The west-facing façade will feature large shards of glass to fracture and reflect the surrounding architecture.”

What do we think?

We are somewhat bemused by the discussion of context in the IndesignLive post. Since when does Frank Gehry of all people create architecture that “seeks to incorporate and interact with its surroundings”, particularly considering this building looks so much like all of his other recent work?

Coming upon the Dr Chau Chak Wing building, the Guggenheim Museum or the Walt Disney Concert Hall, we are hardly going to recognise these projects as reflecting the nuances of their place – it doesn’t matter whether we’re in Sydney, Bilbao or Los Angeles, we have entered the nation of Gehry – a curvilinear country of crumpled, contorted volumes with repetitive, block-like windows whose embassies are spread across the globe.

Indeed, we argue that Gehry is the godfather of all contemporary starchitecture that forgoes context in favour of formal experimentation. Like him, none of the international architects currently enjoying stratospheric fame for such work ever truly engage with context or place. And how could they? Zaha Hadid’s telephone rings in London or Santiago Calatrava’s rings in Zurich and the person on the other end of the line is Italian or American or Portuguese. Hadid may never have even heard of Cincinnati, but what do the clients care? They know all about the transformation of Bilbao and they want in.

Thus the cycle is self-sustaining, both architects and clients working together to produce buildings that owe allegiance to foreign individuals rather than local place. We’re not sure what we think of this process yet – Calatrava’s work is sublime after all – but we do prefer that the force of globalisation be kept from overwhelming even the making of architecture, surely the most place-dependent of all arts.

The burden of Italian cities

What do we think?

Having now spent a considerable time living in and travelling around Italy, we have been able to observe an unsettling pattern amongst Italian cities. Their centres are, without doubt, amongst the most beautiful and humane in the world. Even Milan, normally understood to be the ugly cousin of knockout cities like Rome and Florence, has a distinguished elegance that makes it a pleasure to inhabit. Yet travel more than a few kilometres away from the centre and every single Italian city rapidly degenerates into peripheries that are poorly planned, have few amenities, comprise oversized, undistinguished apartment blocks and employ a depressing sameness in every direction.

While it is true that Italian cities are not alone in suffering from this peripheral degeneration, there are many European cities that don’t. Oslo, for instance, has a charming centre whose periphery is gradually taken over by parkland and forest. Or there’s London, whose old suburbs offer the most civilised and sought after real-estate in the city.

What did we learn?

The divide between Italy’s beautiful centres and ugly peripheries can, in large part, be attributed to the post-war economic boom. From the late 1950s to early 1970s, Italy hosted massive internal migration from the south to the north as workers looked to cities like Milan, Turin and Genoa for employment. With the populations of these cities swelling by hundreds of thousands, the urgency of new housing was met without planning or design.

But we think there is another, more deeply-ingrained reason. We think that Italy is burdened with a great weight, perhaps more so than any country in the world, that affects every facet of contemporary society, from planning to architecture to government to employment. This weight is its past. How can we, the collective Italian people say, possibly measure up to ancient Rome or the Renaissance? It is better that we don’t, that we leave the centres for what they are and move contritely to the suburbs.

In our opinion, this is a paradigm that constricts Italy’s present creativity and will lobotomise its future – it is no coincidence that the contributions Italy makes to modern architecture pale into insignficance alongside neighbours such as Spain, France and Switzerland. We say: enough with the self-defeating attitude and get on with the business of living.

Bernini’s David

What is it?

A sculpture of David by the Italian Baroque sculptor, architect and painter, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was produced between 1623 – 24, whilst Bernini was in his mid-twenties. It is currently located at the Borghese Museum in Rome, along with three of Bernini’s other similarly extraordinary works.

What do we think?

In contrast to Michelangelo’s earlier David, which depicts him prior to his battle with Goliath, with sling draped over his shoulder and body relaxed, Bernini chose to capture David at the moment of extreme action. His brow is furrowed with concentration, sling stretched to its limit, body twisted and ready to release the fated stone.

As only Bernini knew how, David’s body is unmistakably one of a simple farmer, well muscled though somehow still frail: we can almost see the calluses on his fingers from working the fields. His furrowed brow speaks of determination but also self-doubt, the fierce concentration on his face clear as he pushes away these doubts and focusses on the seemingly impossible task at hand. And his body, twisted back to stretch out the sling, is on the verge of athletic explosion.

It can be argued that the differences in Michelangelo’s and Bernini’s Davids can be attributed to the contrast between the Renaissance focus on classical stasis and the Baroque interest in dynamic movement. But we feel that the quality depicted in Bernini’s statue is more personal – here is a work that does not celebrate the godliness of David but his humanity.

MAXXI Museum

What is it?

The MAXXI National Museum of Art from the 21st Century is a recently completed and much lauded project by Zaha Hadid in Rome. So far, it has won the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize and, just last month, the 2010 World Architecture Festival World Building of the Year award, both prestigious and well-contested accolades.

What do we think?

The relationship architectural photography has to architecture is a complex one, never more so than in our information-saturated epoch. Digital photographic media, coupled with an ever-growing number of international awards programs, competitions and architectural websites, provide vast diffusion of the world’s best buildings. It no longer matters that Australia is so geographically isolated, we simply open up, log on or browse and we have these buildings at our fingertips.

Or do we? A photo is not the real thing, after all, merely a two-dimensional representation of space, structure, time and light. During our recent travels, this is a fact we have discovered to be not only true but a powerful indication of the fundamental quality of a building.

We have visited Bilbao, Lisbon, Barcelona and Tokyo and seen work by Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog + de Meuron and Toyo Ito. We have discovered that Calatrava and Ito produce sublime architecture that, despite prior knowledge, still manages to surprise and excite. And we have discovered that Gehry and Herzog + De Meuron produce work that generally looks better on the page than it is in the flesh, surely the most condemning praise one can offer an architect.

So what of the MAXXI Museum – into which category does it fall?

Aerial photos of the museum reveal a complex series of forms sliding along and around the existing building on site, which together with elaborately striated roof planes emphasises the movement of visitors and the general public around and through the site. Yet from ground level, none of this dynamism is apparent. Almost every part of the building visible from surrounding streets is blank concrete, generating a surprisingly static and unwelcoming urban response.

The top floor, cantilevering over the entry courtyard, proffers the only view into and out of the exhibition spaces by way of full height glazing to its end wall. Hadid has indicated in no uncertain terms, through form, programme and detailing, that this is an important window. But what is its purpose? Sure it looks out over Rome, but not from a great height and hardly across a breathtaking view – there is not a Pantheon, Colosseum or Trevi Fountain in sight. The view is intimate, at a height that is level with surrounding buildings – pleasant but hardly equal to the expectation with which the armature of the architecture has filled us. It’s a curious anticlimax that feels like it was designed to please whilst inside someone’s 3D modelling software, with only a weak acknowledgement of its context.

The rest of the museum proves to be equally underwhelming. This is not a beautifully detailed project: plasterboard is left strangely unfinished in parts, with sloppy paintwork and exposed stopping bead channels; the pale concrete floor was a poor choice, with prodigious scuffing after barely more then 6 months of use; and the black-painted steel stairs, its programmatic heart, have handrails with mismatched steelwork and, worst of all, translucent white panelling to their soffits that display a bewildering quantity of dirt and grime collected from visitors’ shoes through the open grating treads.

What did we learn?

Dare we say that we feel somewhat cheated? Hadid is celebrated as an architect with an excellent understanding of urbanism and the role a building plays in the wider city context. Yet urbanism does not happen from the air, especially not in Rome, where buildings are generally betwen 5 and 8 storeys. So why does the MAXXI Museum present a blank face to the world?

Why also is the existing building on site, around which the new structure so elaborately wraps, closed to the street? Approaching the site from Via Guido Reni, we were momentarily confused – did we come on a day when the museum was shut? It is understandable that Hadid sought to establish a new entry for the museum, but why then go to so much effort to have the new flank and embellish the old?

Perhaps it is our fault, simply a case of unreasonably high expectations. We have after all known about this project for years, have read about it across every media format and most recently watched as the judges at the World Architecture Festival drooled over it.

Or then again, perhaps our expectations were justified – Zaha Hadid is one of the most famous architects in the world, has won almost every prize there is to win, and works exclusively on high profile projects with what we can only imagine are stratospheric budgets. This should have been an extraordinary building. Thus it is even more disappointing to discover that it is primarily an indulgent exercise in form making.

The MAXXI Museum looks nice in photos, but fails to insipire in the flesh.

Uncle Neaw, Pilar, Rirkrit, Then Me

Philippe Parreno has two installations running concurrently in London this December, one of which is “Uncle Neaw, Pilar, Rirkrit, Then Me” installed at the lovely Pilar Corrias gallery in Oxford Circus.

The gallery entrance is visually arresting in its simplicity. A glass fronted foyer is completely bare save for the white walls and a flickering overhead light. It really sets it apart from neighbouring establishments. On entering the foyer through a glass door, a second door set into the back of the foyer silently opens, akin to a portal, allowing you into the gallery space proper. What a brilliant way to invite the viewer into a tranquil sanctuary within busy inner London.

The first installation “Uncle Neaw” is a video of an old man, presumably his uncle, set in a jungle. The only visible portion of the man is his head. He is continually restless, moving this way and that, chewing thoughtfully, scratching at something, but always he comes back to the centre of the frame and stares down the barrel of the lens right at you. There is something disconcerting about the scenario as you begin to develop an interaction with this fictitious onscreen character. Its the constant staring at your, how no matter what he is distracted by momentarily his gaze will always come back to meet yours. Is he judging you? Are you judging him?

The second installation held downstairs is a collection of slideshows. I was only able to stay for “Pilar” which unsurprisingly is about the gallery itself. The series starts with a woman in a park (possibly Hyde Park) holding a blackboard with the words “I receive a call from a curator asking for funding for an artists exhibition” and it continues with the message changing each frame to tell the story. Frankly, I found it difficult to maintain interest with this. The photography style was very much “here’s a snapshot” and several were well executed using the natural lighting afforded by the late afternoon sun but the series plodded along too slowly, really the slides needed to be cycled quicker.

As far as exhibitions go, if you have a spare thirty minutes then by all means drop by but I wouldn’t be in a huge rush to make it. Personally, although I wasn’t blown away by the work, there was just enough there for me to want to see Parreno’s other installation at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens.

Composite photography

What is it?

First introduced to us via a Coolboom newsletter, they are collages assembled from found photographs by American artist, Jim Kazanjian, creating mesmerising black and white worlds from pieces of the everyday.

What do we think?

Kazanjian favours deserts, cemetaries, marshland and earthquake-damaged freeways as the settings for his work. Combined with crumbling houses, abandoned shrines and ramshackle cities, his imagery evokes eerie sentiments of placelessness and decay. Yet the compositions are so powefully bizarre that it is impossible to miss the beauty of a shack rising from a rubbish heap or an Adams Family-type mansion falling into a gaping hole in the ground.

Through his skill in front of a computer screen, Kazanjian is able to submerge his interventions beneath entirely convincing compositions. No matter how hard we look, the seams between his objects remain hidden and we are left simply to ponder: what is this place and how has it come to be?