Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Tugendhat City

Rome, January 11, 2015

Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno is undoubtedly one of the canonical masterpieces of Modern Architecture. A casual view from the street however, surprises the visitor with a rather unassuming, almost underwhelming one-story blank volume. To reach the main areas of the house one has to climb down to the level below, where the most extraordinary sequence of spaces unfolds, with its grid of cross-shaped chrome columns, honey-colored Moroccan onyx partition, semicircular Makassar ebony enclosure and floor-to-ceiling plate glass envelope.

Mies’s project not only took advantage of the slope of the building plot in a brilliant and unconventional way--placing the bedrooms at street level and the living areas below--but also managed to align the house in relation to the city at large. Before one turns left to enter the house, there is a break in the volume facing the street, leaving a covered gap that frames a layered view Brno, as if painting a picture of the city’s history: the tree canopy of the Luzanky Park (1786) in the foreground, the buildings of Brno’s Ringstrasse (1860s) beyond, the skyline of the historic urban core further back, culminating with Spilberk Castle (began in the 13th century) on top of the hill in the background.

Both Greta (née Löw-Beers) and Fritz Tugendhat came from German-speaking Jewish families of wealthy industrialists in Brno. For centuries a provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire, Brno became into a city of the newly formed (and short lived) democratic republic of Czechoslovakia after WWI. It may not be too much of a stretch to argue that in their house, Mies gave the Tugendhats a way to look a their social and historic place in the fluid culture of their city and their time.  

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Urbanism in Purgatory (Piazza Rucellai in Florence)

Rome, November 26, 2014

Some open spaces in the city are voids left by the structures around them. Others are figural spaces defined by the surrounding buildings. But there are some urban spaces that seem to fall outside of these alternatives. That seems to be the case of Piazza Rucellai, a small triangular open space in the historic center of Florence.

Piazza Rucellai is defined primarily by Palazzo Rucellai, the canonical building designed by Leon Battista Alberti, one of the preeminent architects and theoreticians of the Renaissance. At Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti's job involved the unification of a number of existing houses into a singular scheme, with a central courtyard and a rigorously composed classical façade. It also included a three-bay open loggia across the street, Via della Vigna Nuova, and perpendicular to the palazzo. This most unusual positioning of the two structures defines a 90-degree angle carving a deeper space in front of the palazzo. And certainly the new façade required quite a bit more perspective than what the width of the street could provide. Then, the buildings along another street coming at an acute angle--curiously named Via del Purgatorio--provide the hypotenuse completing the triangular space.

I must confess that I particularly like these kinds of design operations, as they 1) define open space with geometric precision, 2) maintain the discrete entity of the buildings, and 3) engage the whole thing within the fabric of the city. All done in a most unaffected way, almost as if it were easy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Roma: The Orientation of Maps

Rome, September 20, 2014

Giambattista Nolli oriented his celebrated 1748 map of Rome with north up, a modern, carefully chosen cartographic convention, one that we still use today. It has the Tiber running more or less vertically towards the left side of the plate, the bulk of the city in the center, and the Vatican on the top-left corner.

Nolli owed greatly to a 1551 map by Leonardo Bufalini. But Bufalini had oriented his map with east up, following an earlier convention dating to the Middle Ages (see note.) In this map, the Tiber runs horizontally on the bottom half of the image, with the Vatican on the bottom-left corner. Among the 19 plats of his "Pianta Grande di Roma", Nolli actually included a reproduction of Bufalini’s plan, redrawn and reoriented with north up.

In 1774 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published his “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzo” with north down. Why? Piranesi had worked with Nolli in the 1748 publication--the “Piccola Pianta” is signed “Piranesi e Nolli incisero”--so he is quite deliberate in choosing a different orientation. One possible explanation is that he was going back to an experiential reading of the map, following the pilgrimage route from the north, entering the city through Porta del Popolo at the bottom of the drawing and proceeding up.

Note: for a more general discussion of the orientation of maps see an earlier blog entry:

(With thanks to old and new friends, Nick De Pace, Ezio Genovesi and Allan Ceen, for their guidance as I begin to to learn about Rome and its maps.)