La Sagrada Familia

What is it?

Extraordinary cathedral in the centre of Barcelona by Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudí (1852 – 1926), who dedicated the last years of his life to its design and construction. Work on the project continued after his death, but was halted during the Spanish Civil War and for many years after. It resumed again in the 50s and is still underway, the new works as close as possible to Gaudí’s original designs, despite many of the drawings and models having been lost to fire during the war.

Sophisticated computer-modelling techniques are now used to determine the shapes of Gaudí’s complex curvilinear forms, including by the SIAL group at RMIT. At times, the team are required to base their modelling on as little as a grainy black and white photo of a scale model, the only remaining documentation left of any kind.

Current predictions for completion of construction are sketchy at best, though range from 20 to 50 years.

What do we think?

We have visited La Sagrada Familia twice, once in 2009 and again late last year. Despite familiar signs of construction both within and without the building – scaffolding, cranes, workmen and the occasional high-volume power tool in action – on both occasions we were no less than awed by this singular creation. The cathedral’s external form, with its grouping of cone-shaped spires reaching high into the sky, dominates the surrounding urban fabric. Its facades are impressive, embellished with images of nature and the Christian story, repeated motifs in Gaudí’s work. It is impossible to miss the building from any approach.

However, Gaudí’s true genius lies in the interior of the church, in particular in the logic of its structure. Columns rise up towards the roof, branching and branching again, at each point growing more slender and delicate. The surfaces of the columns twist along their length, morphing from a smooth circular cross-section to a many-pointed star. Gaudí drew inspiration from natural forms but did not mimic them, instead squeezing them through the sieve of creation and abstracting them into unique, spectacular entities.

Employing the art of the ruled surface to build complex curvilinear forms through simple techniques, there are no ninety degree angles in La Sagrada Familia. The interior is an organic wonderland in every direction – coloured light trickles in through its many stained-glass windows, dappling the nave of the church as though we are traversing an ancient forest with trees so tall and old that they have petrified to stone and metal.

What did we learn?

While we dutifully visited Gaudí’s other works around Barcelona, we were glad we did so before visiting La Sagrada Familia – while they are certainly interesting, they pale in comparison to the cathedral’s extraordinary vision. Only with it was Gaudí given free reign to fully explore the boundless potential of his visionary structural ideas, its scale and full-block site alleviating the usual constraints of planning and context.

But what of lessons for the contemporary architect? They are certainly not lessons in form – Gaudí’s work is unrepeatable. His vision was so singular that it can and should never develop into a common way of building. More relevant is his approach: his impassioned drive to create something new has proven so successful with La Sagrada Familia that 130 years after its inception, we found ourselves amazed by it despite being jostled by hundreds of other gawking visitors and despite it being still under construction.

We can only imagine how powerful a building it will be once complete.

Most liveable cities index

What is it?

Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) compiles an index of 140 cities around the world, ranking their relative liveability according to 30 indicators distributed across 5 broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure.

This year, Vancouver remains in the top spot, with a score of 98 out of a maximum possible 100. In 2nd spot, up from 3rd last year, is our very own Melbourne, with a score of 97.5. The two cities are equal across stability, healthcare and education categories, differing only in infrastructure (Melbourne outranks Vancouver by 3.6 points) and culture and environment (Vancouver outranks Melbourne by 4.9 points).

The top ten look like this:

  1. Vancouver, Canada – 98.0
  2. Melbourne, Australia – 97.5
  3. Vienna, Austria – 97.4
  4. Toronto, Canada – 97.2
  5. Calgary, Canada – 96.6
  6. Helsinki, Finland – 96.2
  7. Sydney, Australia – 96.1
  8. Perth, Australia – 95.9
  9. Adelaide, Australia – 95.9
  10. Auckland, New Zealand – 95.7

A summary of the report is downloadable, here.

What do we think?

It is clear that the index places great importance on basic living criteria, noting this in the report’s introduction and assigning high value to assessed issues like: safety from crime; availability of over-the-counter medicines; access to social freedoms; access to private education; and quality of energy and water provision. According to the EIU, a liveable city gets all the basics right, perhaps to leave room for it develop all the character, nuance and richness that make a great city.

We think Melbourne is a great city.

It has all the basics: an easy (if occasionally unpredictable) climate; a dynamic and mobile workforce; great parks; high quality restaurants, bars and clubs; world-class sporting and cultural events throughout the year; accomplished schools, universities and hospitals; fantastic galleries; low levels of pollution and crime.

It is also a city of great character, one barely glimpsed upon first impression but revealed during lengthy acquaintance. Its cultural diversity establishes a complex, multitudinous voice. Its production of architecture, fine art, theatres, literature and film inspires. Its populace is generally friendly, open-minded and interested in new experiences. Most importantly, Melbourne offers plenty of great places to enjoy a slow Sunday-morning breakfast with friends.

Santiago Calatrava

Who is he?

Santiago Calatrava is a spanish engineer-turned-architect famous for his expressive, dramatically curving structural compositions. He has completed projects all over the world – our recent travels have brought us to some of those across Spain, Portugal, France and Italy.

The projects shown here via photograph include the Oriente Train Station in Lisbon, the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, and the Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias in Valencia.

What do we think?

As discussed in a previous post on Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, here, we have discovered that Calatrava’s work is better in the flesh than it is on the page – an important yet rare quality in the works of architects of his international standing.

His structures are complex and extraordinary, so unlike the buildings of our daily experience that upon arrival – and for a long time thereafter – we stare at them as if seeing columns and arches and trusses for the first time. As we pace the length of a train platform or bridge or car park, our eyes thirstily drink in their elegance, mesmerised by the interplay between elements, their continuously shifting formal relationships.

Inside or, given the openness of his most exciting transport projects, at least within the general boundaries of Calatrava’s works is where we discover the locus of his creative energies. Columns, arches and trusses are words perhaps too categorical for the structural elements he employs – columns sweep up from their elaborate anchors, splitting, fanning out and re-combining as they stretch out across the roof of a space, twisting and reshaping to become gently-curving beams that span 50m or more before retracing the steps of their metamorphosis back down to the ground.

Calatrava is a master of concrete and steel. He uses them with deftness and certainty, confident in the structural opportunities they possess but also cognisant of their limitations – how far he can push them, how best to shape them to express their inherent strengths. In this way, he achieves both vast sophistication and modest simplicity in every project: whilst there is no doubt that his works must cost a fortune to document and build, and that the structures he employs are at least 1 part expression to 1 part function, it is clear that his interest lies in the reduction of a building to its essence, the peeling back of the layers of program, skin and material down to the fundamental core of a building, its skeleton.

Mile high tower in Jeddah

(The Burj Khalifa, Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building)

What is it?

Seen in an article on The Age online yesterday, here, the proposed 1.6km tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is set to surpass the Burj Khalifa by almost 800m. Designed by Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), the tower recently received planning approval and was unveiled by members of the Saudi royal family last week. It will contain hotels, offices, apartments and a shopping centre – all up, 3.53 million square metres of space with a construction budget of a cool AU$28.5 billion.

Strangely, World Architecture News posted an article a week ago, here, quoting the director of public relations at AS+GG, Kevin Nance. Nance denied that the practice is working on the project and asserted that the consortium behind it have not yet named an architect.

What do we think?

We are not sure what to make of the conflicting reports surrounding this project, but regardless of whether or not it is real, we remain unimpressed by the long-running race to build  the tallest tower in the world. The Burj Khalifa, also designed by AS+GG, was completed in early 2010 – assuming a documentation and construction period for the Kingdom Tower of 4 years, it will have held the title for a mere 5 years. Surely $28.5 billion is a lot to invest in what is surely doomed to be yet another short-lived claim to tallest tower in the world?

Sucker Punch

What is it?

New film by Zack Snyder, expressionist director of 300 and Watchmen. The cast is headed by australian actresses Emily Browning and Abbie Cornish.

The plot is simple, at times even 1-dimensional, however this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Tarantino’s excellent Kill Bill is driven by little more than a desire for revenge, Sucker Punch is fuelled by one for escape. Snyder interweaves a number of mesmerising worlds – insane asylum, brothel and war zone amongst them – in which dangers lurk around every corner and from which the five central characters – Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber – seek to escape.

What do we think?

A plot, significant character development, or even lively dialogue, are missing yet surprisingly unnecessary in this film. Snyder has fashioned his characters into simple archetypes – golden and unwavering heroine; creepy psychiatrist; dark and greasily evil enemy – and is content to leave their complexities unexplored.

Far more important to this film are the worlds the characters inhabit: here is where the meaning of this film can be found and here is where Snyder shines.

A nestled matryoshka doll of paintings, each world is an exercise in exquisite form and exacting technique. The asylum is soulless and sinister, complete with peeling wallpaper and dirty tiles; the brothel is a riot of burlesque colour and detail; war-torn Paris is populated by destructive clockwork automata, a devastated landscape on the verge of crumbling to dust. All are impeccably fashioned, vivid and intense. Colours are at times subdued, at others super-saturated; the soundtrack maintains a rhythmic, urgent beat; camera angles are dramatic, impossibly sequenced as only CGI can achieve… All are facets of Snyder’s ephemeral, fantastical and above all, masterful composition.

The only lost opportunity of the film is the relationship between worlds: very much like the matryoshka, there are no surprises here – each world nestled snugly within the minutiae of the last. The audience quickly learns its rhythms, settles with ease into the expected transitions between worlds. To our mind, the film would have benefitted from a more interwoven relationship between them, perhaps a spiralling escalation of fantasy or a nuanced blurring of boundaries.

This is no “mind-bending vision of reality”, rather a leisurely stroll through a gallery of powerful yet strangely partitioned contemporary art. A painting stretched across 110 minutes of celluloid canvass: 3.5 stars.

The value of a university education

I have recently started teaching structures and construction to first year architecture and engineering students at the University of Melbourne. As an architect who graduated from the same university 5 years ago, and to whom first year structures is just a distant memory, it probably comes as no surprise that in order to teach the class I have to re-learn the formulae with which to calculate moments in beams, buckling in columns and directional forces in trusses.

The opposite is true too: as a graduate, I had only minimal appreciation of how a building is put together, how to drain a roof or build a stud wall. I knew nothing of town planning or building regulations and, despite being handy with AutoCAD, could barely put together a set of building documents. All this I learnt through practice, the trial by fire of running a project by myself and dealing with the inevitable consequences of my mistakes.

This got me to thinking: if the things we learn at university (and cram into our brains for end-of-semester exams) are so easily forgotten, and hardly necessary to practice as a responsible architect anyway, and the things we don’t learn are in fact important to practice as an architect, what is the value of a university education?

I think the value of university lies not in formulae, nor in historical names and dates, not even in techniques of construction. Part of it comes from understanding first principles – the basic way a beam supports load for instance, what Modernism was, or how a roof stays up – but there is something even more fundamental: the value of a university education is in learning a way of thought.

My architecture education taught me a way of looking at the world, of appreciating the natural and built environments, of being sensitive to how we engage with objects and other people. It didn’t matter in the end that I graduated without knowing precisely how to detail a building, this I learnt on the job. What is important is that my eyes were opened to the many different paradigms that exist in the world, to the preciousness of the natural environment, to the nuanced arts and sciences of making.

Transport security or scarcity?

What is it?

The Victorian State Government has recently confirmed it will make good on its pre-election promise of introducing 940 security guards to metropolitan railway stations around Melbourne over the next three years. The guards will be trained in a similar (through controversially less intensive) way to police, given the power to search and arrest suspicious individuals, and armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Speaking on ABC Radio to Jon Faine this morning, Deputy Premier Peter Ryan asserted the guards will help the government achieve its aim to “do everything in its power to make Melbourne’s  public transport network safe”.

What do we think?

Deputy Premier Ryan hopes the security guards will stop violence getting out of hand at train stations and, somewhat naively, that their presence will even prevent such behaviour. Yet again, the State Government is taking a bandaid approach to an arterial bleed, addressing the symptoms rather than their underlying cause.

In our opinion, violence, abuse and prolific tagging occurs within the public transport network because it is poorly run and maintained. These aggressive actions are the visible half of deep-seated disrespect for the network, and would not occur were it reliably run, brightly lit and, most importantly, well patronised. Indeed, we are reminded of the elevated train network in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, clean and full of passengers when Bruce Wayne is a boy and Gotham City is righteous, then fallen into a neglected state of disrepair when he is a man, returned from his self-enforced exile to cure the city of its evil.

Does the freshly minted State Government really wish to do everything in its power to make Melbourne’s public transport network safe? If so, it would do well to ditch the rent-a-cops and aim for a truly heroic outcome: make the network one of which Melburnians can be proud.