Tag Archives: architecture

Welcome to Parliament! Bachelors Can Only Wear Brown Shoes Every Other Tuesday

Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace and clock tower Big Ben. Photo by: Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Charlotte Higgins‘ new story on the structural decay in the Palace of Westminster, seat of Britain’s Parliament, is a fascinating look at the Old Guard’s attempt to physically hold on to the vestiges of power. The building is crumbling and requires billions of dollars in repairs — and ideally, it would be empty during the multi-year process. But what changes politically when Parliament is removed to a more modern, inclusive space from one steeped in this kind of history?

Travelling around this strange land is a fraught business. One is constantly committing mysterious, minor infractions. It is like being in a country where the language is comprehensible, but the codes of behaviour are opaque. From the Central Lobby, for example, four corridors radiate. There is no sign to tell you that you cannot take the one that leads to the House of Commons: but if you accidentally stray there, you will get an imperious ticking-off from one of the Palace doorkeepers (59 are employed by the Commons, and 23 by the Lords). There have been doorkeepers here since the 14th century: dressed in white tie, they control the movements of others with punctilious energy. I was reprimanded for loitering “on the blue carpet” in the Prince’s Chamber, and for speaking in the Royal Robing Room, which is sometimes allowed and sometimes not. Doorkeepers are also sources of gossip, wit and speculative histories of the palace. One I met suggested disapprovingly that “Comrade Corbyn” would soon be selling off Pugin’s wildly over-the-top royal throne in the House of Lords “if he has his way”. Another told me that lions depicted on the floor of a certain corridor “have their eyes shut so they can’t look up the ladies’ skirts”. Floors, as it happens, are important: green carpets mean you are in the part of the building owned by the Commons; red carpets mean the Lords.

Notices pinned everywhere contribute extra layers of admonition and exhortation. There’s a staircase that may be used only by MPs; a lift that cannot be used if the Lords are in division – that is, voting by walking into separate lobbies. The yeoman usher, described on parliament’s website as “the deputy to the gentleman usher of the black rod”, has a parking space reserved exclusively for his bicycle; a sign says so. In one courtyard there is even a sign advising parliamentarians what to do if they come across a grounded juvenile peregrine, which is try to throw a cardboard box over it. (A pair of the falcons nests on the roof.) The Lords, naturally, specialises in arcane forms of movement control. “Wives of peers’ eldest sons,” reads one notice, “and married daughters of peers and peeresses in their own right, before taking a place in the peers’ married daughters’ box, are requested to leave their names with the doorkeeper at the brass gates.” A different set of rules, needless to say, governs the movement of peers’ unmarried daughters.

Read the story

Unreal Estate: A Reading List About Our Shifting Vision of Home

Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).

There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).

The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.

Read more…

Architecture and Religious Bias: A California Case Study

In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap. Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.

But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.

Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”

Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.

Read the story

Building In the Shadow of Our Own Destruction

"A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin," by Joseph Gandy, 1789 (Sir John Soane Museum)

Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes (3,060 words)

 

In the opening pages of Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald describes the Antwerp nocturama, a zoo enclosure of simulated darkness designed to allow visitors to watch nocturnal animals in their natural environment. Sebald finds himself fixated on a raccoon compulsively washing a piece of apple, an animal whose work goes “far beyond any reasonable thoroughness,” he writes, as though this “would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived.” In the same way, perhaps, I’ve been reading Sebald compulsively for the past few months, as though through this act I might find the means to escape the unreal, topsy-turvy world of this grim winter.

Sebald is often called a Holocaust writer—all his major works deal with the Nazi genocide, some more explicitly than others. But his writing is often more concerned with a crisis in European modernity, one that can be traced back as far back as the Napoleonic Wars—a crisis in which the Holocaust was a horrifying, but nearly inevitable by-product. No historical tragedy arrives, ex nihilo, like Athena from her father’s forehead. Rather, Sebald traces and patterns that are laid out decades, perhaps centuries in advance, often in plain sight. They ostentatiously draw attention to themselves, though we have no desire to recognize them. Rather than focus on cartoonish depictions of Nazism as some anomalous evil, Sebald looked for the ways that fascism grew from the innocuous and banal aspects of European culture—from textile manufacturing, to psychotherapy, to architecture.

It was in architecture that Sebald saw the most telling indicators of the inevitability of the camps, often in the most unlikely of places. In Austerlitz, Sebald’s narrator meets up with the novel’s eponymous protagonist in Brussels’ Palace of Justice, reputed to be the largest courthouse in the world. Built in the 1880s, the Palace is a massive accumulation of stone organized haphazardly, such that many of its corridors and stairways lead nowhere. Sebald sees a paranoid logic in such a building, meant as an awe-inspiring monument to justice,  yet containing a lawless rabbit warren of hallways—a belief that marble and brick can forestall death itself. There was an anxious psychosis in the late-nineteenth century that led to greater and greater structures, each trying to outdo the last, further exacerbating a death drive. “At the most,” Jacques Austerlitz tells the narrator about this palace, “we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

The Palais de Justice in Brussels, Belgium was begin in 1866 and finished nearly twenty years later. It is said that Hitler admired it as one of his favorite structures, but during the liberation of Brussels, retreating German troops set it on fire, heavily damaging the building. (Wikimedia Commons)

Read more…

The House Where You Live Forever

Photo courtesy of Alan Prohm.

Amelia Schonbek | Longreads and The Awl | August 2016 | 28 minutes (7,065 words)

This story was co-published with The Awl and funded by Longreads Members.

 

On a bright afternoon in October 2013, Madeline Gins walked into the office of her architecture practice, in an unrestored loft building on the edge of SoHo, slightly out of breath. Before she arrived, the space—a large open room occupying the fourth floor of the building—had been so still that it was almost possible to forget about the two architects staring into computer screens near the back windows. Gins entered, and the atmosphere began to buzz.

“Is Joke here?” she called out, referring to her project manager — a Dutch architect named Johanna Post — by her nickname (pronounced yo-ka). Post had stepped out, but another colleague informed Gins that she would return before their next meeting. Gins exhaled and nodded. She and the small staff of architects who work in her office, called the Reversible Destiny Foundation, had been in a state of heightened urgency for months. They were rushing to complete a new project, commissioned by the high-fashion store Dover Street Market, which would soon open a location in a Beaux-Arts building in Manhattan’s East 30s. The facade would remain unchanged, but the interior would become a mish-mash, combining the work of a number of different artists and architects. Gins would build a large covered stairway connecting the building’s open-plan third floor to the mezzanine above. But Dover Street had given Gins far less space to work with than she initially thought she would have; her team was scrambling to make sure the project would both live up to her standards and be able to fit.

Assured that preparations for the meeting were under control, Gins walked over to a large table near the front of the room, stacked high with books and papers. In the center, a heavy glass orb sat on top of a slender vase; next to it was a fish tank filled with neon bouncy balls. The wall nearby was plastered with renderings of a project called the Reversible Destiny Healing Fun House. From a distance, it looked like a cluster of spheres and tubes, painted in red, pink, yellow, and blue. The interior view showed that these structures were hollowed out, and that together they formed the walls of the building, surrounding a big open room filled with mountainous, rammed-earth terrain. “Here, feel this,” Gins said as she sat down at the table, tossing me a piece of fluffy yellow stuff. “It’s natural sponge.” It had been a couple weeks since I’d first met Gins, and I asked her how she’d been. “Ummm.” She thought for a moment. “I’ve been everything.”

Gins, in her early seventies, gave the impression of a child trying to impersonate her grandmother: her blonde hair was fastened in pigtails, and her small frame was draped in too-big clothes in shades of deep red. Her face was clear-eyed and rosy, even as wrinkles rippled across her cheeks. She exhaled again. “You know, I have huge responsibilities,” she continued. “Pressing ones.” Most architects generally want to design comfortable, visually interesting buildings for their clients. Gins found that aspiration boring. Instead, her goal was to build spaces that would keep people from dying.

According to Gins’s elaborate theory of Reversible Destiny, developed over the course of a forty-five-year collaboration with her husband and artistic partner, Shusaku Arakawa, death may not in fact be inevitable. People are lulled into believing it is because they focus only on what has come before — the “thus-far obligatory downhill course of life,” according to Gins. Their brightly colored, disorienting dreamworlds, which look more like surrealist playgrounds than traditional buildings, are intended to jolt people out of their normal routines and force them to move through life differently. If people are unable to fall back on their physical and mental habits, Gins and Arakawa said, they will be open to new ideas, including the possibility that they can lengthen their lives and, eventually, resist death entirely. Read more…

The ‘Stunt’ That Helped Pass a Barrier-Breaking Law

In 1990, a group of activists and legislators fighting for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gathered on the steps of the Capitol to make a statement. Writing for Curbed about the act’s 1990 passage and its impacts over the last quarter century, Patrick Sisson details how the group dramatized the difficulties faced by people with disabilities using the 82 stone steps that lead to the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.:

On March 12, the Capitol Crawl, organized by ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), gathered a crowd of hundreds of chanting supporters at the entrance of the country’s legislature. They watched 60 activists drop their canes or leave their wheelchairs and pull themselves up each of those steps. Dozens strained at the task, as friends and family offered them water and encouragement. Cameras focused on eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had cerebral palsy. She made her way up, hands-to-knees. At one point, she told the dozens of reporters focused on her that “I’ll take all night if I have to!”

***

The “stunt,” as a handful of annoyed senators called it, proved to be an important turning point in the battle for the ADA. But more importantly, it dramatized the difficulties that the built environment poses for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Wright, who herself was blind, wanted others to see how much design can change a person’s everyday actions and level of independence, and how poor design can create a form of what she called “second-class citizenship.”

Read the story

The 1960s Rediscovery of Antoni Gaudí

Today, Antoni Gaudí is unquestionably perceived as an architectural giant—seven of his works are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and after an unlikely decades-long campaign for sainthood the legendary architect could be beatified in 2016—but interestingly, this wasn’t always the case. Martin Filler explored the Spanish Catalan architect’s legacy in a piece for the New York Review of Books. According to  Filler, Gaudí languished in critical limbo for three decades after his 1926 death. It wasn’t until the 1960s that popular opinion began to shift:

Although the Expressionists and Surrealists had esteemed Gaudí as a fellow visionary, popular attitudes began to change dramatically in the 1960s, a decade of worldwide social and cultural ferment that made Gaudí’s work speak to a young generation alert to imaginative and expressive qualities long dismissed as pathologically bizarre, especially in architecture. Indeed, there is something almost psychedelic in his freewheeling aesthetic, characterized by distorted forms, propulsive patterns, kaleidoscopic colors, and quirky materials. The rediscovery of Art Nouveau during the 1960s carried Gaudí along with other newfound fin de siècle heroes of the burgeoning counterculture, including Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Read the story

How Would You Design a Memorial for World War III?

Architect Maya Lin was a senior at Yale when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In a 2000 essay for the New York Review of Books—which she began writing around the memorial’s completion in fall 1982 and then put aside for nearly two decades—she reflects on how she came to enter in the competition, and the concepts behind her design. After seeing a notice announcing a competition for a Vietnam veterans memorial, Lin’s funereal architecture seminar decided to adopt the design idea as their class’s final project. In the excerpt below, she delves into the class’s previous assignment:

At that point, not much was known about the actual competition, so for the first half of the assignment we were left without concrete directions for what “they” were looking for or even who “they” were. Instead, we had to determine for ourselves what a Vietnam memorial should be. Since a previous project had been to design a memorial for World War III, I had already begun to ask the simple questions: What exactly is a memorial? What should it do?

My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.

Read the story

The Brothers Behind the California Bungalow

Charles Greene (left) and Henry Greene. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Although they had no way of knowing it, the Hartwigs had bought a remnant of the Cora C. Hollister House, a Craftsman-style bungalow built in 1904 by Charles and Henry Greene, two of Southern California’s most admired and transformational residential architects. “In their 20 years of practice,” wrote the late Greene & Greene historian Randell L. Makinson, “they established an American architecture so fresh that it spread from Pasadena to all of Southern California and then over the entire country as the ‘California Bungalow’ style.” Artists in the truest sense of the word, the brothers created whole environments—livable spaces that harmonized with their surroundings. In the early 20th century, Greene & Greene had a thriving practice in Southern California, designing landmark Arts & Crafts residences like the Gamble and Blacker houses in Pasadena, the town in which their firm was based.

Steve Vaught writing in Los Angeles Magazine. Vaught’s piece follows the the unlikely journey of Greene & Greene’s Cora C. Hollister House, which was erected on Hollywood soil in 1904 and later made its way to the ranchlands of western Canada.

The California bungalow—a residential architectural style that took the country by storm in the early years of the twentieth century and remained popular until 1939—was simple in design. Form followed function, structural elements were exposed, and outdoor living was emphasized.  “Greene & Greene more or less invented the California Bungalow as a distinctive style,” according to Leon Whiteson of the Los Angeles Times

Read the story