Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Nordica Africa

Curator Nina Berre, Director of Architecture at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, explored the role of émigré architects sent from Scandinavia to modernize independent sub-Saharan Africa in research disseminated for the first time in the Nordic Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Biennale Venice

The liberation of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia in the 1960s coincided with the founding of state development aid in the Nordic countries, where there was widespread belief that the social democratic model could be exported, translated and used for nation building, modernization and welfare in Africa. The leaders of the new African states wanted partners without a murky colonial past, and established solid bonds with the Nordic countries, built on a mutual belief in progress. During a few intense years in the 60s and 70s, Nordic architects contributed to the rapid process of modernization in this part of Africa.

These young architects found themselves in the field between building freedom and finding freedom, one a valuable nation-building through city planning, infrastructure and industry the other emerged between Nordic aid and African nation building. Reminded of Jonathan Hill’s thesis on Sverre Fehn in which Hill argues, ‘Accommodating trees and rain, transforming Venetian light into Nordic light, the Nordic Pavilion expands the dialogue between architecture and nature’. There is a sense the Modern Scandinavians exported a sense of freedom and optimism in exporting Nordic light visible in many projects such as the Kenya Fisheries Department by architect Karl Henrik Nostvik.


Walking into the first Antarctica Pavilion in the 14th International Architecture Biennale Venice, waterproof flight cases display models of visionary Antarctic projects many considering the challenge of designing for an environment that is still so new and uninhabited. For a Curator Nadim Samman writing about towards the Antarctica Biennale says, ‘no ring for it on the Olympic flag and no pavilion in the Giardini. The only continent without a biennale. Has its art history been written? It is only a matter of time’[1]. Writer Gabrielle Walker calls Antarctica, ‘the living metaphor’ where, ‘the continent lacks most of the normal ways that we interact in human societies. There is no need for money; everyone wears the same clothes and has the same kind of lodging’[2]. So Samman’s question about the role of art practice and by association the role of the architect is relevant, as concepts of home are not obvious, yet each of the exhibits are some type of dwelling, where as Shane McCorristine states, ‘homeliness was performed through winter rituals of comfort-eating and snugness. It was by these means that physical spaces of inhabitation were transformed into homes – that is filled with narratives, memories.’ For McCorristine, Cape Evans site of the last Christmas Feast of Robert F Scott in 1911 on his fateful last expedition is, ‘by virtue of Scott’s uncanny absence / presence, has become the primal Antarctic home’, as the, ‘signs of absent inhabitants have been preserved and this has transformed the hut into a site of pilgrimage and commemoration – becoming a symbol of Antarctic homeliness, but not somewhere one can live’[3]

[1] Samman, N. “Antarctopia” (Ocean Fund Projects AVC Charity Foundation 2014)

[2] Walker, G. “Antarctica An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent” (Bloomsbury 2012)

[3] McCorristine, S. “What Shall We Call it?: Performing Home in Antarctica” (Ocean Fund Projects AVC Charity Foundation 2014)

Empowerment of Aesthetics

The contribution of landscape culture to art and science is writ large in the Danish Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Biennale Venice, where a blend of artificial natures – bark on walls, pine needle floors aesthetics contrast with technocratic papers covering Danish Building Law, Housing Law, Planning Law and the Danish Environmental act. The Danish Pavilion charged with both Koolhaas’s ‘Absorbing Modernity’ and Denmark in the year 2050 both looks at Modernist legacies for overwhelming factual information, legislation and scientific data and the need for a more complimentary future vision that curator Stig Andersson, ‘can open up yet again the missing dimension of aesthetics as an important aspect when we make our decisions’. For Andersson , Director of Landscape Practice SLA based in Copenhagen, ‘aesthetics and rationality are actually two radically different paths to knowledge and recognition. One way, the aesthetic, is empirical knowledge and experience through sensory experiences. The other way is common sense, the deductive practice in which conclusions are logically obtained,’ citing the Golden Age (1800 -1850) where the two views were interwoven in one culture. In this way they mimic the United Kingdom where the term ‘culture’ also referred to farmland, where cultivation of the land enabled a person to become cultured and the eighteenth century estate was also understood as a key moment when nature and culture were interdependent in meanings of the term ‘landscape’.

Fundamentals of Rem Koolhaas

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on ‘The End of History’ is widely credited with sealing the fate of the ‘historical thinking’, stripping the veneer off of any ideological alternative to liberal capitalism and crashing the meta-narratives of the 20th century into self-reflective panic. When Rem Koolhaas, the doyen of ‘S,M,L and XL’, was appointed curator of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, in his 70th year, one sensed a similar wave rising in ‘architectural thinking’. Presented as a choral research on architecture, ‘Fundamentals’ the title of this year’s Biennale by Koolhaas, Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, looked at architectures past, present and future. Firstly asking the national pavilions to explore the historic impact of the last 100 years of modernism in ‘Absorbing Modernity’. The present day is canonised in fifteen booklets on ‘Elements of Architecture’ that dominate the Central Pavilion as well, charting the impact of 20th century industrialisation on the built environment, where now escalators, lifts and toilets dictate the way architecture is programmed.

Architectural futures is tackled in the Monditalia where Italy is the empathetic host for testing and consuming culture, witnessed in 82 films and 41 architectural projects with space for first time participations from the world of  Dance, Music, Theatre and Cinema. For this Biennale the image of the architect and products of their sole endeavours – the ‘masterpiece’, is secondary, in place shared collaborations dominate, either technical, social or ideological such as neo advent-garde groups Superstudio, founded in Florence in 1966 whose ‘The Secret Life of the Continuous Movement’, shown at the 1978 Biennale, advanced towards symbolic representations of architecture where, “Architecture exists in time as salt exists in water”, where the only possible architecture, then is our own life.

It seems that to popularise architecture Koolhaas feels the need for the architect to disappear which has been a reoccurring theme in his oeuvre. As Bart Verschaffel states in, ‘The Survival Ethics of Rem Koolhaas’ on receiving the Rotterdam-Maaskant Prize in 1986, ‘it is a remarkable feeling, but I am not an I. Throughout my career I have only written the word ‘I’ once, and that was in the sentence “I am a ghost writer”. A ghostwriter is someone who does not appear on stage himself, but remains in the background and speaks in the name of someone else’. This statement is unexpected and perhaps even sounds suspect from someone who has grown into on the most famous and mediagenic architecture stars. Yet in that same 1986 speech, he heralded this ‘stardom’ as ‘a strategy’: ‘The mythology of the architect begs a reconstruction plan.’[1]

In the opening Biennale week debating, ‘5000 years of architecture and technology, what next?’, with CEO and inventor Tony Fidall of Nest Thermostats, Koolhaas, reflected on digital technologies desire to commodify architecture as well as predict and better human behavior. “I drive an old car and it frequently breaks down. Then I am asked to rent a new car that predicts my new speed and makes me behave better and be a better driver, almost all the aspirational words we use now include ‘better ‘ ‘more responsible’. what about transgression?” By referring to ‘In praise of shadows’ by Junichirō Tanizaki comparing Japanese homes to those in Europe, where in “household implements: we prefer colours compounded by darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight”[2] Koolhaas asks, “why deny these challenging qualities that also hold beauty?” and are now needed to break the current global homogeneity perpetrated by digital technology.

Reflecting on the merits of the Nest Thermostat, Koolhaas posits ‘Well I have mixed feelings, I admire the intelligence and the use as a tool to be frugal and responsible but also a fundamental reluctance on my part to see architecture turned into products, and the relentless commercialization of architectural elements”. In response to Fidall’s assumpation that, “what you do will last for centuries – what I do ages quicker within the year”, Koolhaas reveals, “the exhibition on the one hand shows the huge decrease in flexibility of materials, but in terms of appearance we are in the same world of accelerated ageing” where, “confidence has crumbled, the permanence of architecture is a pathetic fiction now, even if buildings last 25 or 30 years it is a miracle”.

For Koolhaas, the Biennale is a mirror on his thinking and desire to challenge the popular myths, perpetrated by the modernist narrative of the architect maestro, the sole author of a permanent architecture, fortified by manifestos and classical references to ancien regime. Koolhaas shows us that what was a ‘gift’ for one generation is now a ‘given’ for another – a set change, no more than part of a performance. Famously credited with stating, ‘it’s not me, it’s made by OMA’ Koolhaas’s design approach, recently unpacked by Albena Yaneva in ‘An Ethnography of Design’ states, ‘Just as it is impossible to understand Rembrandt’s work without understanding the aspects of his studio practice along with his specific handling of paint, the theoretical treatment of his models and his relationship with the market, it is impossible to understand Koolhaas’s work without considering his design practice.’[3] Yaneva uncannily describes the Koolhaas contribution where architecture lies; ‘The entire OMA design work revolves around life as it is staged in the office; in model making, in the travels of the model, in studio events and situations of reuse. There, the architects are performers and spectators and architecture becomes part of the performance that we view’.[4]

[1] Verschaffel, B. The Survival Ethics of Rem Koolhaas: The First Houses by OMA. (NAi Publishers 2003)
[2] Tanizaki, J. In Praise of Shadows. p.46 (Japan Quarterly 1954)
[3] Yaneva, A. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design. (010 Rotterdam 2009)
[4] ibid p. 102

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Pioneering Community Design in Proof of Concept

The phrase ‘Pop-up’ does little justice to work that grounds latest project thinking in a social and ethical design programme turning complexity, often a limiter, into bold communal ideas reviving shared spaces. Yet ‘pop-up’ is one of a handful of phrases now commonly used to describe a pedagogic programme in which students test design in the built environment. Others include ‘Live Project’, ‘Proof of Concept’, ‘Architectural Research Unit’ and ‘Community Build’.

Few know Birmingham School of Architecture was the first to coin the phrase ‘Live Project’ in the 1950s as a means to establish new pedagogic methods in response to rebuilding post-war Britain. Between April 1956 and October 1965, 5th year students designed many projects that encompassed nearly every aspect of architectural design including a pathology laboratory, housing estates of 27 houses and five garages, club-houses, nurses home, theatres, health centres and a technical college. A commendable effort and one that was very much in tune with the times where the architect was the agent of change, yet not necessarily in control of project briefs that were often issued as directives from external clients and rarely led by student cohorts to conduct proof of concept tests.

Fast forward 50 years and the rise in ethical and social design combined with access to the latest digital fabrication technologies has seen a step change in the transformative powers of architects laying claim to new emerging practice in which the immediacy of building offered by digital tools is fundamental to securing the future role of the architect. As highlighted by Professor Bob Sheil (2012), we are at an ‘event horizon’ in which new digital tools extend creative processes offering greater collaboration and more reflection, fine tuning and testing before delivery of the best possible design.

‘Live Projects’ establish both a technical question and a social answer that for Samuel Mockbee (2002) of Rural Studio is when ‘I tell my students it’s got to be warm, dry and noble’ . Only when we have demonstrated that both exist in a proof of concept can we then start using the word pop-up in the context of citywide initiatives in which whole neighbourhoods could be built and established at speeds unimagined before with new uses to rehabilitate landscapes and cities emerging from conflict, environmental disaster and economic decay.

Communities need designers more than ever and latest tranche of Live Projects, from The Royal College of Art, sit in the emerging architecture methodologies for evidencing ways of valuing architecture: Health and Ageing; Neighbourhood Cohesion; as well as Identity, Belonging and Heritage . Today’s designers seek to investigate why and how the place of shelter [the home] has become a place that increasingly isolates the inhabitant from shared activity within the immediate and wider community. We have observed a condition within post-war European housing estates whereby the rigid imposition of defined spaces for defined activity has reduced, rather than enhanced the opportunity for community that develops through shared and visible activity. A familiar housing legacy in what was once a ‘gift’ for one generation has become a ‘given’ for another, further exasperated by lack of opportunities to evolve and mirror latest social and economic topics whereby home owners now hold equity and have a stake, though not necessarily a voice, in long term sustainable community visions.

An increase in isolation from communal activity creates a condition whereby living becomes less affordable; products have to be made by others and consumed in an environment that requires travel, performance and creativity becomes the preserve of those with learned skills and occurs within institutions that are the preserve of cultural, social and economic elites.

As the isolation [physical, economic, social, educational, experiential, environmental, cultural, spiritual etc.] increases, affordability decreases and the experience of living becomes trapped within the mundane. Affordability is now a catalyst for design, for architect Jean-Phillippe Vassal (2010) ‘what is interesting about cost-effectiveness (maybe this wasn't so true ten, fifteen years ago) is that it creates the means to make extraordinary things happen. Among others it enables this magician to make something very simple, very natural and obvious, simply, naturally and with a kind of obviousness’

Similarly, the elements of architecture whose modern origins lie in Le Corbusier’s ‘Dom-ino House’ (1914-15), now in it’s 100th year, are ripe for reinvention, coming under the critical gaze of Rem Koolhaas (2014) , Director of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition Venice, ‘Under near-microscopic attention, the apparently mundane elements of architecture are revealed as unstable compounds of cultural preferences, forgotten symbolism, technological advances, mutations spawned by intensifying global exchange, climatic considerations, fluctuating thresholds of comfort, mythical desires, political calculations, regulatory requirements, neoliberal economics, new digital regimes, and, somewhere in the mix, the ideas of the architect’. A rallying cry to all architects to seize the opportunities that exist, find ways to use technology, rehabilitate society and extend architect authorship, transform the value of materials and socialise technical competence. A parallel already founded in other design disciplines such as the Maker Library Network (2014) , in which designers studios become communal workshops that for Sennett (2013) , ‘In the ancient world in both China and Greece, the workshop appeared as the most important institution anchoring civic life,’.

Similarly we recall Live Projects founded the establishment of the Government School of Design, fuelled by need to improve the education of designers, which, it was assumed, would in turn improve the output of British industry before being given Royal Charter in 1896 and becoming the Royal College of Art. Norman Potter (1969) teaching in its Department of Interior Design wrote ‘What is a designer: Education and Practice’, saying,’ Every school should have its own design office in which teaching staff are kept creatively active for a part of their (paid) teaching time, and in which students can work – in effect – as an apprentice, during a part of their design course. This is a very fast and practical way of learning.'

For Potter, design theory and practice were social, yet the word community was in its infancy, and rarely used before 1940. According to Stefan Muthesius (1993) , in Tower Block, its wide appeal arose out of the welfare state housing boom of the 1950s. ‘What seemed certain was a close relationship between 'community' and high density.’ Pop-up projects share these social qualities where production itself has been socialized blending last vestiges of utopian welfare state with manufactured, affordable aesthetic, what Reyner Banham (1955) in ‘Industrial Design and Popular Art’ referred to as, ‘design-as-popular-symbolism is in the pattern of the market as the crystallization of popular dreams and desire.’

Now Maker Architects, such as ‘We Made That’, ‘The Decorators’, ‘Assemble’ reflect this returning to community design as well as a desire to continue a way of working established whilst studying furthering proof of concept research, that for Carmody Groarke, recent RCA Design Tutors, find new ways of culturally valuing architecture: ‘Whether temporary invention or permanent building, our work is concerned with how architecture can record cultural value in the meaning of its making, facilitate engagement and provoke an active discourse about how (and for what reasons) our built environment is made.’


Sheil, B. Manufacturing the Bespoke. (Wiley 2012)

Oppenheimer, O & Hursley, T. Rural Studio: Samual Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. (Princeton Architectural Press 2002)

Home Improvements. Housing Research in Practice. (RIBA 2014)

Ruby, I. Lacaton Vassal. (Editorial Gustavo Gili 2007)

Sennett, R. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation . (Penguin 2013)

Potter, N. What is a designer: education and practice. (Studio Vista 1969)

Glendinning. M & Muthesius, S. Tower Block, Modern Public Housing in England Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press 1993)

Banham, R, Industrial Design and Popular Art 1960 (1/5) Industrial Magazine

Carmody, K & Groarke, A. Seven Years. (Carmody Groarke 2013)