Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little Urbanism?

Berlin, March 31, 2013

How is urban design different from architecture?  Well, it shouldn't be too complicated, the later has to do with buildings and the former with cities.  Or you could say that what matters is size, that urban design deals with much larger stuff than architecture.  Fair enough.  But what if we wanted to define urbanism by some distinct attitude towards design?  That, for example, it has to do with the construction of the collective, in both physical and cultural terms?  Then, not only the subject (buildings or cities) wouldn't matter, but even size wouldn't matter (!)

Let's try this notion on something really small, like Gropius's M√§rzgefallenen Memorial in Weimar.  Built in 1922 and destroyed by the Nazis in 1936 (see note) history books present it through on or two images that privilege the expressionist monumentality of its western end shaped like a lightning bolt (Gropius's competition motto was "Lightning bolt from the bottom of the grave".)

Yet, the memorial is a lot more than that.  As the mass of concrete unfolds--literally, develops through folds cast in concrete--it first establishes an edge in the landscape, then wraps around a small gathering space to finally rise up as memorial that, in turn, becomes marker for the cemetery at large.  Is it architecture or sculpture?  Or landscape?  While we debate those possibilities, I'd like to argue that despite its small dimensions--the whole thing is no more than ten meters in each direction--the memorial is conceived in urbanistic terms.  Yes, right?  The construction of the collective.  Almost as if it were a miniature of, or a model for an urban square.

By the way, it's interesting to note that at the time both Gropius and Mies (the later in his 1926 monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg) use common materials--concrete and brick respectively--for memorials, very different from the more traditional choice of noble materials like stone, bronze, etc.  Definitely a radical attitude (... but what would have Loos said?)

April 1 Postscript: sorry, I just read that Gropius initially wanted to build the memorial in sandstone, but ended un with concrete due to cost constrains.  Oh well, there goes that theory...  In any case, sandstone or concrete, this is an interesting example of--how would you call it?--rhetorical tectonics, where an operation in one material, like folding paper, is translated into another material with very different properties.

(Note: Gropius's memorial was reconstructed right after the war and it's quite an amazing thing to visit.)

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