Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sert's Urban Compendium

Cambridge, August 28, 2013

Many years ago my old friend Tony Diaz told me about a lecture he heard in the 60s by the then young Manfredo Tafuri, in which the historian argued that all of Palladio's buildings and projects in the Veneto were part of a large interconnected scheme.

Years later when I came to Cambridge and began to look at Josep Lluis Sert's buildings for Harvard, I had the sense that there was a similar idea at work.  Between 1958 and 1973 Sert's office designed three major buildings for the university: Holyoke Center (1958-65,) Peabody Terrace (1962-64) and the Science Center (1973.)  Almost as in a catalog, each building addressed a different program and a different urban situation, presenting a distinct canonical scheme for each project: office slabs in the city, housing towers along the river and academic "mat" on the campus.

Holyoke Center houses the central administration of the university at the heart of one of the main public spaces in Cambridge, Harvard Square; its massing is defined mid-rise rectangular office slabs in an H-shaped configuration, with a two-story open pedestrian arcade running north south towards the river.  Peabody Terrace is a residential complex for married students along the Charles River; it is composed of three 22-story towers and a series of lower volumes articulating rectangular courts.  The Science Center is an academic building that includes lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices and a library; located at the center of the campus as a hinge between the Old Yard and the North Campus, the project was conceived as a "mat building" with different volumes attached to a pair of intersecting top-lighted street-corridors.

In spite of their programmatic and volumetric specificities, all three buildings share a similar architectural language, a kit of parts really, of concrete loadbearing structure and a variety of infill prefabricated panels, frames and shading devices.

You can extend the catalog with two other smaller buildings designed by Sert earlier on, the convent-like Center for the Study of World Religions (1958-60) and Sert's own courtyard house on Francis Street (1957-58.)  And at the risk of stretching the argument, you could even include a building for which Sert acted as deus ex machina: Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center (1961-64,) as...--what?-- as the cherry on top of the cake.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Urban Bestiary (4)

Cambridge, August 27, 2013

Perhaps no mythical beast associated with a city, at least in the western canon, is more famous than the Lupa at the center of Rome's foundational myth.

The legend puts the abandoned infant twins Romulus and Remus at the Tiber, that carries them to to the base of the Palatine Hill where they are suckled and cared for by a she-wolf.  The story is well known: the twins grow up as shepherds, learn about their divine origin and decide to found a city along the river.  Romulus chooses the Palatine Hill, Remus the Aventine Hill, they fight, Remus is killed and Romulus founds Rome, naming the new city after himself (modern historians, of course, put the relation between the names the other way around.)

The she-wolf with the infant twins became an emblematic figure inextricably linked to Rome.  One of the best known representations of the legend, the Lupa Capitolina has a story of its own.  The figures of Romulus and Remus were added to the sculpture of the wolf in the Renaissance.  As for the wolf, it was thought to be of Etruscan origin, dating back to the 5th century BC, but turned out to be a Medieval casting.

By the way, when you look at the topography of the area, don't you think that Romulus choice--the Palatine, smack at the center of Rome's seven hills--was a much better place for the foundation of the city?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Urban Bestiary (3)

New York, August 16, 2013

One would associate dragons, griffins and other mythical beasts to antiquity or the middle ages, not  to the modern city.  But I am, coming to New York and suddenly it flashed through my mind: King Kong.

Fittingly, the year is 1933 and King Kong appears in a movie rather than in an illuminated manuscript.  Otherwise it has all the traits of the legendary tale, from the beast, a giant prehistoric ape, all the way to the blond Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as the sacrificial maiden.  Kong's origin is remote and obscure: the jungles of a lost island in the Indonesian archipelago.  He is brought to another, very different island, Manhattan, to be displayed on Broadway as a form of entertainment.  The plot includes a number of elements associated with new technologies, such as the flashbulbs that startle the beast and the airplanes from where he's shot at the end.  But more than anything else, the confrontation is between the giant animal and the great metropolis, culminating in the scene atop of the skyscraper (construction of the Empire State Building had just been completed in 1931) where finally the heroine is rescued and the city is safe again.  If not the story of a mythical foundation, at least a tale of rebirth, an affirmation of modernity against the threat of the unknown.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Urban Bestiary (2)

Becket, August 14, 2013

When Buono da Malamocco and Andrea "Rustico" da Torcello left Alexandria for Venice with the purloined remains of Saint Mark in 827, they brought with them all the iconographic paraphernalia associated with the evangelist, including, of course the lion, that, in turn, came to represent the city.

There is a whole language associated with the winged lion of Venice--paws on land or on water, wings spread or wrapped around its head ("leone in moleca",) book open or closed, sword drawn or the ground, with or without halo--representing different aspects of St. Mark's story, as well as a variety of circumstances connected to the Venice Republic, "La Serenissima", its forms of government and its territory.

Interestingly enough, neither the winged lion nor St. Mark were the first emblematic figures of Venice.  The canonical view of the Venetian lagoon from St. Mark's Piazzetta is framed by two columns.  The one of the left has the famous winged lion on top, but the other one is crowned by a figure of St. Theodore, the patron saint of Venice before arrival of St. Mark's remains.  And with St. Theodore comes his dragon, here represented by a beast looking more like a crocodile. 

(Talk about branding and rebranding!)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Urban Bestiary (1)

Becket, August 13, 2013

Sometimes it's not that easy to establish the foundational origins of cities.  The historical record is often sketchy or even contested.  But many cities have developed mythical origins that are as interesting as the actual facts, if not more.

Take for example the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia.  In the middle of a small square in the center of town stands the statue of Berhard von Spanheim, the Medieval duke who moved the settlement to its present location and is considered the founder of the city.  But walk just a few steps to the adjacent main square and you'll be in front of a much larger monument, a Renaissance fountain with the figures of Hercules and a dragon.  It depicts the 13th century tale of brave men that slew the "Lindwurm"--a winged dragon that lived at the edge of the nearby lake on a steady diet of local virgins--after luring him with a bull chained to a fortress tower.

I'm always curious to learn how tales like this originate, the actual history of the legend.  Some versions of the story make the "Lindwurm" responsible for the flooding of the area, so it may be related to the actual land works involved in the settlement of Klagenfurt.  In any case, the story of the winged dragon became the source of a very real iconography for the city and, in turn, a focal image for its main urban space.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1929)

Becket, August 12, 2013

The 1929 competition for the redesign of Alexanderplatz in Berlin finally gave Mies the chance to bring together at a truly urban scale the ideas about city and architecture that he had developed for most of the decade.

Unlike Pariser Platz or Leipziger Platz that were conceived as figural spaces, Alexanderplatz evolved as a large void in the city.  And since the later part of the 19th century it had become a major traffic hub, with layers of transportation piling up at different levels.  As planning director of Berlin, Martin Wagner developed a traffic scheme based on 100-meter circle that entrants to the 1929 competition had to incorporate in their proposals.

While the massing in all the other entries followed one way or another the geometry of the circle, Mies chose to deploy a series of discrete buildings that are deliberately independent, if not indifferent to the circle.  Instead, the volumes align with the neighboring streets and present frontal elevations to main space of the square.  In the renderings, all the volumes appear as glass buildings similar to the ones in the proposals for the Adam Department Store in Berlin and the Stuttgart bank of the previous year.  Most of them are eight stories, except for a slender 17-story rectangular block that establishes something like a focus for the square (this taller block would have been located roughly where Behrens's Alexanderhaus is.)  Some of the volumes are irregular in shape to complete the urban fabric while others--like the seven almost identical blocks to the south--are shaped with precise regularity.

It has been said that Mies's project anticipated the Plattenbau schemes of the DDR, but I think it's exactly the opposite, as the urbanism of Mies's Alexanderplatz is not denying but building upon the scale and structure of the existing city.

(By the way, this is the last of the "Mies and the City" series, at least for now.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1928)

Becket, August 11, 2013

"May I say in all frankness that in my opinion a building has nothing to do with taste..."  (Mies van der Rohe to the client of the Adam Department Store Competition, 1928)

In 1928 Mies completed two competition entries for office buildings, one for the Adam Department Store in Berlin and the other for a bank in Stuttgart.  Taken together, the two projects can be seen as crystallization (no pun intended) of the ideas that he began to develop earlier that decade (in both the glass highrises of 1921 and 22 and the concrete office building of 23.)

These proposals present a definitive position towards the city.  They are both regular prismatic masses about eight stories tall with a continuos glass fa├žade.  The street level is receded, revealing the structure and creating a gallery on the access floor.  The upper levels appear to be translucent and reflective, articulating mostly the horizontal banding of the floors.  Although the floor-to-floor height is lower than in the neighboring older buildings, the overall mass in Mies's projects is a little taller, indicating an indifference towards the cornice line, if not a preference for varying heights along the street.  This may explain the height differences in the projects themselves, a one-story terrace extending about half the facade in Berlin and a lower volume where the building turns the corner in Stuttgart.

Even when it comes to representation Mies has settled on a deliberate choice, using what by now are his customary photomontages on street-level views, rendering the projects as insertions within the existing fabric of the city.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mies and the City (in 1926)

Becket, August 9, 2013

In 1925 Mies van der Rohe was appointed by the Deutsche Werkbund as the director of a housing exhibition in Stuttgart, the Weissenhof Siedlung.  Even if the site--a hilly plot of land on the northern outskirts of the city--was not particularly urban and the program of the exhibition focused on the individual dwelling, the project gave Mies the opportunity to develop a sort of a proto-urban site plan.

The scheme had to accommodate housing prototypes to be designed by almost twenty different architects, an international cast of characters that included emerging figures such as Le Corbusier, Hans Scharoun and Mart Stam, as well as members of the older generation like Peter Behrens and Hans Poelzig.  In the site plan Mies articulates a series of terraced bands that absorb the particularities of the individual projects, most of them one or two stories.  At the top, he places a much longer four-story block that serves as a backdrop for the overall project.

Needless to say that Mies reserves the design of the larger block for himself.  But against the formal inflections of the other prototypes, his is the most restrained, a series of horizontal ribbons running the length of the uninflected volume.  When you see it in the context of the nearby buildings of steep pitched roofs and punched windows, it appears as if Mies were drawing a line of reference, a datum, a "degree zero" for the project.