[In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Guangzhou.]
Guangzhou, perhaps more than any other city, represents the diversity of urban form present in China’s post-colonial cities. From the well-preserved Old Town, the colonial Shamian Island, to the “hanging gardens” of Guangzhou’s elevated highways (which soften the brutal infrastructure of the city, and provide shade for informal businesses below) and the lifeless modernism of Futian, Guangzhou is nothing if not a collection of diverse urban ideas, a kind of living museum of urbanism.
As mentioned earlier, most of my free time recently has been devoted to the planning of a two-week architecture tour along the east China coast (and up to Beijing). What started as a Facebook-status “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” has turned into a full-fledged study-abroad program, with support and funding from the Ohio State University, and a staff of 6 pulling together building research, writing essays on urbanism, tweaking the schedule, and booking hotels, charter buses, and train tickets.
CHINA ARCHITECTURE TOUR: December 6 – 22, 2011 two week whirlwind tour of traditional, colonial, and contemporary architecture in China!
This coming December I will be organizing an architectural tour up the East China Coast, hitting all major cities from Hong Kong to Shanghai, then traveling north to Beijing. This will be an intense, whirlwind tour – over ten cities in just 16 days – but we will see a HUGE amount; it will be an incredible experience, (and one that would be impossible to organize on your own). (The trip is open to anyone, but preference will be given to practicing architects and architecture students. The trip will be associated with the Ohio State University, and the program fee will count for AIA continuing education credit, and be tax-deductible).
In addition to the trip, we will be writing and constructing a guidebook to the architecture of the east China coast. This will include detailed building information, map locations, and a collection of essays on architecture and urbanism in China, a collaborative project by participants on the trip. As far as I know there is no trip like this, and no guidebook like this available at present.
This trip is coming up very soon, and space it limited, so please email me – Evan Chakroff (email@example.com) with any questions, to see the detailed schedule, or to arrange payment and confirmation. The program fee will be around $1600 USD, which includes all ground transportation, hotels, admission fees, and some group meals. This does not include your transportation to Hong Kong, or from Beijing, or visa fees….)
This is going to be great. Let me know if you’re interested, A.S.A.P.
SHENZHEN (Including 2011 Hong Kong – Shenzhen Architecture Bienale)
The architecture of Shanghai did not develop along any set linear trajectory: it is a city “unstuck in time.” Beautiful French chateaus mimic styles from centuries earlier. Victorian villas stand side-by-side with international style modernism and art deco apartment towers. The Oriental Pearl – built in the 1990s – could have been an Expo centerpiece in the late 1950s (or a comic rocketship design in the ‘30s). Continue reading →
An English village in the Shanghai suburbs, Thames Town is an anachronistic novelty and an amusing example of the absurd experimental urbanism of modern China.
In a sense, Shanghai has always been a testing ground for experimental urbanism.
In the years following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the lands outside of the walled Chinese city were ceded to foreign powers, and the British, French, and Americans were free to sculpt the sands of the Yangtze delta into idealized forms based on their own European urban models.
Shanghai’s rapid growth in the late 1800s left little time for macro-scale urban planning, but the haphazard streets of the former concessions do retain certain features of the European planning principles of the time, best evinced by the broad, tree-lined avenues of the French concession: echoes of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s urban plan for Paris.
In more recent years, the rapid development of Pudong has followed somewhat outdated Modernist planning principles, allowing automobile traffic to dominate the landscape, concentrating housing and businesses in ever-taller towers, set in questionable “parks.” Pudong as a whole could be seen as a variation of Le Corbusier’s unnerving “Plan Voisin” of 1925. The multi-level separation of pedestrian and automobile traffic (for example, at Lujiazui) could reasonably be compared to Otto Wagner’s proposals for Vienna in the late 1890s, or to Antonio Sant’Elia’s La Citta Nuova of 1914. These modernist proposals have largely fallen out of favor in western planning, and the Pudong experiment shows why – the immense highways and anonymous apartment towers of the district lack the bustling street life that most consider essential for a vibrant, livable city.
Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” (1898) vs Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” (2001)
Shanghai’s urban planners seem to recognize this now, and current plans for the city’s expansion fall more in line with current European and American models. In particular, the recent “One City, Nine Towns” initiative seems to draw equally from New Urbanist town plans (favoring pedestrian-scale urban centers) and Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden Cities” proposal of 1898, in which he suggested a multi-nodal approach to urban development, with concentrated urban cores connected by public transportation lines, and surrounded by unspoiled natural parks and agricultural zones.
The Shanghai “Nine Towns” plan can be seen as a development of this model, but with the additional (and frankly quite odd) stipulation of a specific architectural style for each of the new towns: Italian (Pujiang, Pudong District), German (Anting, Jiading District), Swedish/Scandinavian (Luodian, Baoshan District), Dutch (Gaoqiao, Pudong District), American/Canadian (Fengjing, Jinshan District), Spanish (Fengcheng, Fengxian District), Traditional Chinese (Zhujiajiao, Qingpu District), English, and finally the Ecological Town (Lingang, Nanhui District), intended as a model for future development.
The nine towns have been built to various levels of completion: some have been canceled or put on hold, some are in progress, and several (Thames Town included) are finished. The towns vary in their adherence to their national themes, but Thames Town (Songjiang, Songjiang District) is perhaps the one that took the challenge most literally, and a stroll through this fake English village makes an engaging substitute for a scroll through Wikipedia’s English Architecture article.
The town center is laid out on a medieval street plan, the blocks sheathed in fake-Tudor, complete with decorative half-timbering and stucco infill, punctuated by the occasional neo-Classical façade. The dense streets of the center are alleviated by a large “village green” terminated by a church in late Romanesque/early Gothic style, the thin concrete “stones” of the façade already disintegrating at the edges, revealing the concrete structure behind. Nonetheless, the church (which may or may not be consecrated or operational) makes an ideal backdrop for wedding photographs, apparently a thriving business.
Near the village green is a quayside area with faux-industrial buildings and a scattering of “high tech” landmarks, similar in style to the early work of (Sir) Norman Foster. Further out, towards Thames Town’s artificial lake, lies another large public square circled with light-postmodern structures reminiscent of (Sir) James Stirling’s late style, and finally a half-dome restaurant no doubt inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s work in geodesics. Surrounding and radiating out from the town center are a series of suburban blocks, with villas in a similarly eccentric range of “English” styles, before the town merges with endless rows of anonymous high-rise apartments beyond.
Though blatantly inauthentic, there is some value to the urban planning strategy engaged here: with no surefire way to generate the kind of vibrant city that grows organically over centuries, copying seems to be as valid an approach as any, and this puts the architects of Thames Town in the same league as architecture’s biggest names. Rem Koolhaas’ proposal for Waterfront City, Dubai, for example, is no more than a collage of New York City blocks and Venetian canals, punctuated by a few key OMA-designed landmarks, and if we are willing to give Thames Town some respect, we can place its design in context with an architectural academic tradition that goes back nearly thirty years to Colin Rowe & Fred Koetter’s seminal “Collage City,” in which the authors argued against grand utopian visions in favor of a heterogeneous, multivalent approach to planning.
In the end, Thames Town may be called a failure, due to the poor quality of construction, the numerous “investment” apartments sitting empty, and the lack of commercial activity indicated by dozens of shuttered, vacant storefronts. I believe the low occupancy here can be ascribed to one major factor: the lack of decent transportation connections.
In Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, the network nodes of a multi-center ecological metropolis were tied together into a whole by public transportation links, and it was not expected that any one node could survive autonomously. Thames Town is severely disconnected from the center of Shanghai, requiring a car, a circuitous bus journey, or a long trip on the metro and a short taxi ride to reach. With better transportation connections, I’m convinced Thames Town could grow into a thriving subcenter of Shanghai’s rapidly developing western suburbs. Unfortunately, at present it remains an anachronistic novelty, although an amusing one, well worth seeking out for a taste of the absurd experimental urbanism of modern China.
Thames Town can be reached by Metro Line 9. Get off at Songjiang New Town and take a Taxi to “?????” (tài wù shì xi?o zhèn) (Map)
Though threatened with eviction, the residents of Shanghai’s most authentic arts community continue their work, and the dimly-lit corridors and decaying walls of this former electronics factory are imbued with a palpable sense of creativity and artistic freedom.
Architecture alone does not make a city. One also must consider the real, human communities that develop, thrive, and eventually (inevitably?) decline and vanish from within those walls. Some of Shanghai’s most compelling spaces are thus not especially great in terms of architectural design, but are fascinating when considered as fragments of an urban experience that is constantly redefined – over time, yes, as entire blocks are leveled and rebuilt in what seems like mere days – but also spatially, as the experience wandering block-to-block in the city can transport you across continents and through decades as you pass by French villas, elevated highways, post-war factories, or down the narrow alleyways of the old city.
It’s this rich variety that makes Shanghai so compelling an urban study, and so it is a tragedy when any of these blocks that make Shanghai unique are threatened by forces beyond their control.
Initially, one may mistake the Weihai Lu 696 artists community for a government-sanctioned “creative cluster,” like M50, Red Town (Shanghai Sculpture Space), Tianzifang, or Beijing’s 798 Arts District. These complexes represent an urban planning strategy that aims to increase tourism, encourage investment, and above all present Shanghai to visitors and locals alike as a forward-thinking, progressive, arts-friendly environment. These spaces are quite compelling, and do provide a great alternative for businesses seeking unique office space (in the cases of M50 and RedTown), and have become tourist destinations for their unique spatial configuration, one-of-a-kind souvenirs, and overpriced imported beer (in Tianzifang). What these creative clusters lack, however, is the real sense of danger, experimentation, and freedom that is still present at artist communities such as Weihai Lu, not to mention the lower rents that allow working artists to afford studio space in the center of the city.
The old complex, alternatively described as a former electronics factory or opium storage facility, is the home to over 20 working studios and a handful of Chinese and international galleries. The walls of the dark corridors are etched with graffiti and the tile floors are chipped and stained, but this is exactly the type of space that artists need to fuel their creative impulses. The haphazard and probably illegal additions (and demolitions) indicate that this is a space that is used extensively, and it would be a huge loss for the artistic life of the city were it to be renovated and reopened as a pale imitation of itself.
I was lucky enough to meet with Jim Zhou, artist and associate professor at Fudan university, whose oil paintings of crumbling stone archways and rusted staircases seem to indicate a fascination with the vanishing, underground Shanghai of which Weihai Lu is a part. He offered me a cup of Nescafe instant coffee, and explained that the artists in the Weihai 696 complex will literally have nowhere to turn if they are evicted. The rents at M50, for instance, are too high for most artists, which has led to an exodus of working artists as high-end galleries and cafes took their place. There is no space in the center of the city comparable to Weihai Lu in terms of affordable rent and established community. Studio spaces far out in Pudong are available, but are unlikely to attract visitors, and lack the established network of artists and gallery owners that is Weihai Lu’s primary appeal.
Zhou was kind enough to take me through several galleries and studios in the complex, including Houhou Art, where Zhang Ping has two floors connected by a small mezzanine, where she can work in her studio space above, and exhibit work by herself and others below, a rare and productive configuration, only possible in this kind of space, where the decaying walls are imbued with a palbable sense of creativity and artistic freedom.
For the time being, Weihai Lu remains intact, and a half-day spent wandering the dimly lit corridors is a great way to see some of Shanghai’s most intriguing contemporary art. The community is planning an open house sometime in the near future, and they are hoping to gather signatures and testimonials to take to the government in an appeal to save this vibrant artistic community. If you’ve visited, and appreciate this unique Shanghai landmark, please send your thoughts (in English or Mandarin) to Jim Zhou (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jiang Xueman (email@example.com) , and watch out for further news and events.
Every year, Harbin hosts the international Ice & Snow Festival, where ice sculptors (and snow sculptors…. and ice architects?) gather to create whole cities from frozen water. The festival lasts until the temperature rises, when the constructions fall apart as they melt.
It’s fascinating to think that the architectural potential of some materials has gone unrealized, limited by the Earth’s typically-narrow temperature range. Why have architects ignored water as a building material? I remember reading an article about space exploration, potential water sources on Mars, etc. Could the first Martin explorers build bases of ice-block? Will the first extraterrestrial buildings resemble igloos, built from ice extracted from the martian soil? Who is researching interstellar architecture?
Alternatively, what materials will become more or less viable in a globally-warmed world? Are concrete and steel still appropriate materials for a tropical globe? Or one with extreme fluctuations in temperature? What are the alternatives?
Does the Harbin ice festival imply a potential for seasonal architecture? Appropriately warm structures erected each fall and disassembled each spring in an endless cycle. Could this be a model for sustainability? Architecture changes form with the seasons, contracting in winter, expanding in summer, the shape of a building responding to the seasons?
Is the ice festival a Buddhist mantra written in water? A metaphor for cycles of life and death?
From the Pudong observation decks, Shanghai seems an endless city of anonymous towers, relentless development, and little respect for historical structures or districts. I cringe when I see block-after-block of shikumentorn apart to make way for highrise apartments and office towers, though I realize most locals would gladly trade these dilapidated dwellings for ‘houses in the sky‘ in modern apartment blocks.
It’s not all bulldozers here. Successful redevelopment projects such as Xintiandi have proven that there is economic value in historic structures, so some developers are thinking twice before calling in the teams with sledgehammers. There are a number of excellent restoration/adaptive reuse projects around the city, but one of the most striking is “1933″ – a complex of restaurants, offices, and event space in a restored slaughterhouse.
Imaginatively named “1933″ after the year of its construction, the renovated structure reopened a few years ago, but remains relatively deserted unless there’s an event, making for great photo opportunities in the labyrinthine spaces of the former abattoir. Though details on it’s construction are scarce, its location in the former International Settlement and vague references to a “British master architect” assure us that the design was an occidental import.
If I remember my Sigfried Giddeon correctly, slaughterhouses in the US and Britain were largely mechanized by the 1930s, but the design here seems almost pre-industrial: like many agricultural structures, its form is inseparable from its function.
The building is composed of two parts: an inner circular tower and an outer rectangular ring. The cattle would proceed upward through the outer ring via ramps connecting the various levels, stopping in large feed halls while awaiting their fate. Upon reaching the top, they would cross the bridges to the inner core, then proceed downward (aided by gravity) while they were systematically eviscerated.
In the restoration, the feed halls and staff offices were converted to restaurants, shops and offices, while the workshop tower was left open for art exhibitions and events. Luckily, very little of the concrete structure was changed, and the soaring aerial bridges – straight from Piranesi’s Carceri- are a big draw for photographers.
For me, the aesthetic beauty of the former slaughterhouse is easily matched by the architectural innovations that streamlined the process of getting meat to market.
In slaughterhouses, ramps were purely functional elements, but if we trace their development through the architecture of the 20th century, we find that these simple inclined surfaces became increasingly theoretically-loaded.
Ambitious students of architecture know that Le Corbusier’s famous inclines have their origin in the slaughterhouses designed by the architect circa 1918. Ramps would appear frequently in Le Corbusier’s work, most notably in Villa Savoye (1928), where the incline is deployed in the service of the promenade architecturale.
[Le Corbusier - Abattoir Frigorifique de Garchizy, 1918]
Le Corbusier composed the house as a sequence of spaces and views, a cinematic technique that would never fall out of fashion. By allowing an uninterrupted ascent through the villa, the architect extended the democratic space of the free plan (and free facade) into three dimensions, allowed the ground plane to extend throughout the dwelling, and anticipated by 70 years the smooth non-Euclidian spaces made accessible to architects through 3D modeling and animation software. But while most recent projects have favored open, continuous spaces for all, the Villa Savoye and the Abattoirs have clear distinctions the different modes of circulation.
In the Shanghai slaughterhouse, there were separate routes for workers and cattle. The inclined path through the outer ring was solely for livestock; workers would circulate vertically via narrow staircases scattered throughout the complex (This separation is no longer so evident as all temporary barriers have been removed, and the ramp is now the preferred circulation path for ambulant photographers). Similarly, the circulation in Corbusier’s Villa Savoye operates on two hierarchical levels – the open, visible promenade, and the enclosed vertical stairs. In 1933, these separate paths are subdivided further: each aerial bridge is a different width, to sort cattle by size.
So, the circulation diagram of the slaughterhouse is fairly complex, and to me represents a possible model for contemporary urban design and architecture.
Since arriving in China, I’ve noticed that there are a great number of private, gated communities – isolated blocks within the city characterized primarily by long blank walls pierced mid-block by guarded entry gates. While these complexes can be appealing for residents, they contribute nothing to the urban vitality of the neighborhood. If buildings can represent cultural attitudes, I’d say these structures demonstrate a desire for security, hierarchies of access, and the need for communal (as distinct from public) space.
In a way, these apartment blocks are an evolution of shikumen, the predominant housing type in Shanghai from the late 1800s until the 1960s or 70s. (A great, exhaustive thesis on shikumen housing was written by McGill graduate student Qian Guan back in 1996. Available here and well-worth a read if you have the time.)
In essence, shikumen blocks consist of a ring of commercial space surrounding a dense residential core which is organized into lanes and alleyways, connected to the main commercial streets via a small number of narrow gateways. The organization of a shikumen block establishes a hierarchy of space from public to communal to private that (almost) removes the need for security guards and checkpoints: when you pass through a gateway into an alleys it’s clear that you have crossed a threshold. The communal sinks and toilets are one clue, but the primary distinction is thegeometry: the scale of the urban space indicates that you have entered a more private zone.
I hope to examine shikumen housing in more detail in a later post, but for the moment I’m content to ruminate on the fact that the geometry of an urban block can preform the same type of “sorting” operation as the cow-size bridges at 1933: architecture as control-mechanism, shape as security.
Ultimately, I think an analysis of the abattoir and of Shanghai housing blocks can be a first step towards a new urban design methodology that respects the desire for security and differentiated access, but allows for greater civic life at the boundaries. In my previous post on Hong Kong, I suggested that a multi-level “thick”/”woven” urbanism may be a valid area of research in the coming years, as architects and urbanists will be faced with a rapidly increasing population and limited land on which to build. With the simultaneous pressures of unprecedented urban density, increased fear of terrorism, and a common desire for private and communal space, the differentiated circulation paths of the abattoir may prove a fruitful area of study…….
Location：No.611, Liyang Road, Hongkou Distract, Shanghai
Year of Completion：1933
Master Builder：Shanghai Yuhongji Building And Construction Company
Building area: about：31,700 sqm
Yesterday I went back over to Pudong, and finally went up the Jin Mao tower, the second-tallest building in Shanghai after the World Financial Center next door…. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, but I’d put it high on the list of Best Buildings in Shanghai. Though it is absurdly tall, the proportions seem right: compared to its taller neighbor it seems downright elegant. While most of the guidebooks (and wikipedia) will tell you the form is based loosely on traditional Chinese pagodas, to me it has more in common with the art-deco skyscrapers of New York, a resonance that seems contextual after a day wandering past the historical concession-era architecture past The Bund. I think this mix is what makes it a compelling work of architecture – like Shanghai itself, it’s a blend of local and international influence.
“Cloud 9″ is the bar/restaurant on the 87th floor. Free to visit, and a well-mixed cocktail will set you back less than the ticket to the tourist-clogged observation deck.
I had heard that Hong Kong was a “vertical” city, that its hilly terrain & vertiginous skyscrapers conspired to erase (or at least conceal) the horizontal extent of the metropolis; that limited land area had driven the agglomeration upward (rather than outward) and even the buses aspired to multiple stories… It’s certainly an appealing image, this bustling center of commerce reaching for the stars.
While the sheer number of high rises cannot be denied, in my experience the city is not defined by its top floors or elevator shafts, but by the first few levels above and below ground, by the complex woven circulation network that occupies this thickened ground plane and allows the city to function.
Unlike any city I’ve visited or studied, life in Hong Kong occurs on multiple levels. Pedestrian overpasses span the roads, connecting to mall entrances at the second or third floor, highways coil upward between towers before shooting off towards the hills, funicular railways and world-record escalators compete for tourists, and metro stations span multiple blocks, defining a new underground geography only tangentially related to the streets above.
Every block is a microcosm of the city, with retail, housing, offices and public spaces packed in a dense volume. Big box stores that would normally require acres of parking, dedicated loading docks, and garish, unavoidable architectural branding have carved spaces for themselves below tower complexes that contain hotels, luxury malls, noodle shops, clinics, and subway stations. I found an IKEA in my basement. Its signage competes with the Starbucks next door.
Hong Kong is a city folded in on itself. Each block connects to every other — by street-level connections, but also by underground passages, skyways, and subway stations that act like portals, transporting travelers at speeds unimaginable in the knotty, optimized inefficiency of the streets above.
Long before Hong Kong had developed to this level of complexity, architect and urbanist Otto Wagner proposed a series of urban improvements for Vienna that foreshadow the complexities of this modern metropolis. A few Secessionist subway stations were built, but it is Wagner’s elaboration of the street that I find most intriguing. Wagner proposed separating automobile and pedestrian traffic onto two levels, allowing urban life to continue more or less as it had pre-industrialization, but inserting a high-speed network for cars below. (c. 1894-1902)
These studies were carried to a logical (yet insane) conclusion by the speed-obsessed Futurists, most notably by Antonio Sant’Elia (who had studied under Wagner in Vienna), in the beautiful renderings of his Citta Nuova series of 1914. Here, highway networks, rail lines, power plants took precedence: pedestrians are nowhere to be found, possibly taking cover in the elevated walkways, or in unseen subterranean passages. Less arresting, but more humane is the work of another Wagner disciple, Josef Plecnik, who put the multi-level city into practice in his hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia, creating a lovely bi-level waterfront promenade, shielding pedestrians and diners on the lower levels from automobile traffic above (1930s).
As Hong Kong continued to develop, so did architectural theory, and examples of “thick” cities can be found in the work of Le Corbusier (Carpenter Center), Team X, Archigram, Paul Rudolph, and many others associated with the 60s and 70s Brutalist movement. Though many of these projects were conceptual proposals, and some major built projects were spectacular failures, some small successes kept the idea alive. With population growth and urban density a perennial concern, architects continued to study how “thick cities” could be planned.
["Future New York" c. 1910, from Delirious New York, credited to R. Rummel]
In Delirious New York (1978) Rem Koolhaas emphasizes the potential of the skyscraper to engender multiple programmatic potentials, existing simultaneously on a single block, through vertical stacking and access by lift. He purposefully denies any possible connection between or across blocks — or even between floors — to make an point: that the development of the elevator and the New York City gridiron have enabled new possibilities for architects, though yet unrealized. In the subsequent 30 years of architectural production, Koolhaas and OMA have explored these possibilities, and though in the book he conceives of each block as a self-contained unit, in practice, he does quite the opposite.
In his Jussieu Library proposal of 1992, Koolhaas cuts and folds the stack of floor plates, allowing distant views across and between levels, and creating a continuous space that spirals up through the stacks, (a concept that would reappear in simplified form in OMA’s Seattle Central Library), a conscious rejection of the “Manhattanism” he had identified in Delirious New York.
The Jussieu Library proposal is intriguing not only for its rejection of typical flat floor plates, but for its lack of a facade. This could be a small section of an endless urban space, a thick city connected by tilted planes and escalators.
In this project, Koolhaas seems to be channeling Paul Virilio, whose function oblique diagram contains a powerful political message: that embedded within the flat floors and vertical walls of traditional architecture are the unchallenged power structures and hierarchies of the status quo. For architecture to be truly revolutionary, these ‘structural’ elements must be rethought. The diagram suggests that the form of architecture and the built environment can encourage or discourage different types of movement, different levels of dependence or independence, and ultimately different political acts.
So, if Koolhaas’ straw-man “Manhattanism” can be subverted and (productively) destroyed, could an examination of the structure of Hong Kong inspire new forms of architecture and urban development?
The difficulty lies in Hong Kong’s complexity. New York, for all its nuances, can still be reduced to a clear, two-dimensional diagram for the purposes of architectural speculation, whereas Hong Kong requires (at least) three dimensions.
If we could take a plaster cast of Hong Kong’s subways, overpasses, and surface roads, we would have something like a 3D Nolli Map, or a Sol LeWitt sculpture, crushed during shipping, but that would still not indicate the complexities of security access, temporal shifts (such as Lan Kwai Fong, a busy street by day, pedestrian nightlife hub by night), or the rapidly changing cityscape that characterizes Hong Kong, China, and much of Asia.
Ultimately, I wonder how the study of this city could be useful for future architectural proposals, or urban-scale schemes. I’ll have to think about it. Until then…….
I descended into Shanghai through thick brown air. My first view of China was this undifferentiated haze, the color of spent cigarette filters. The plane made its approach, but the scene never changed until the wheels hit and I found myself at Pudong airport, some miles outside of the city. The second impression was better: a thoroughly modern airport, connected to the metro by Maglev train. Reaching a top speed of 430 km/hour (270 miles per hour), and leaning into turns, the train, like much in this modern city, is as much about propaganda as efficiency: it drops passengers at the end of a subway line – another 20 minutes to reach the center of the city.
Feet on the ground, my first impressions of Shanghai were mixed. Everything here is in-process. Every block is either under-construction or being demolished. 90-year old “shikumen” lane houses succumb to the wrecking ball (or, more likely, a team with sledgehammers) with little fanfare. It seems that respect for the recent past is rare, and potential jewels of the historic urban landscape are demolished without a thought — or worse, rebuilt as high-end commercialized simulacra, clearly out of reach of their earlier inhabitants.
At least as these old buildings are torn down, we’re afforded cut-away views of their structure…. I’ve seen some inhabitants dutifully hanging laundry from their half-destroyed homes….
These “shikumen” blocks are often replaced with endless fields of identical towers… but no one really seems to mind. If the past must be jettisoned to fuel the future, so be it. In the end these are only different modes of being, and Shanghai is a city in transition…
For anyone following… I have quite a backlog of blog-able photos/theories/experiences from my Italian adventure, but next week I’ll be moving to Shanghai for a new job, and I imagine I’ll be keeping pretty busy for a while.
If you’re following the blog, expect (demand!) some future posts on Rome (particularly the state of preservation/ruination in the city), the surrounding area (Umbrian/Tuscan hill towns), more travelogue from my Central Europe trip, and finally some inital impressions of Shanghai and Beijing.
In lieu of a follow-up post on the complexities of the architectural game in Basel, which I hope to write on in depth later, here’s an essay I wrote earlier this year for a seminar led by Rob Livsey at the Knowlton School of Architecture. I published this earlier, on my Archinect School Blog, but hey, I’m not wasting any trees here, so here it is again, inline with the Basel photos in case anyone’s actually reading this thing regularly. A great deal of this essay re-appeared in my ‘exit review’ last June, the final assignment of the KSA M.Arch program.
Herzog & de Meuron – Schaulager / Laurenz Foundation – 2003 – Basel, Switzerland
“Wenn Kunst nicht gesehen wird, lebt Sie nicht.
Wenn Kunst nicht gehütet wird, verfällt Sie.”
“If art is not seen, it is dead.
If art is not conserved, it decays.”
In these two short statements from the website of the Laurenz Foundation and Emanuel Hoffman Collection, we find the architectural ambition of the Schaulager, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed art space on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland. Tackling the two seemingly opposed programmatic requirements of storage and exhibition, the architects found opportunity to develop a scheme driven by duality. Inspired by its unique location in the Basel metropolitan agglomeration, and marked by both grand gestures and subtle details, they have created a space that deals equally with the infinite and the intimate. Through the subtle manipulation of forms and perspectival tricks, they have created a work of architecture that forces visitors to appreciate the multiple scales at which artworks and architecture can operate. I believe their ambition is to reveal these scales as a continuous gradient, creating a space where the duality between conservation and presentation becomes ambiguous, where contemporary art is no longer constrained to the narrow confines of the gallery, but can expand to envelop the city itself.
The Schaulager is located on the edge of Munchenstein, a suburb of Basel, about 20 minutes away by public transportation. The building is set back from Emil Frey Strasse, a street that delineates an urban-scale division between a residential zone and an industrial area. The massing of the Schaulager reflects this directly.
Two volumes are placed on site: a large, apparently orthogonal box sits to the west, finding its place among large industrial sheds and parking structures, while a small gatehouse finds affinity with the gable-roofed residences to the east. The placement of these volumes seems appropriate, and should indicate at once that the architects recognize the different urban scales that come into conflict at the site.
This massing strategy should be evident to even the casual visitor, but the apparent dichotomy is called into question as you prepare to enter the building. Approaching the building by car, you park in a lot set back from the Schaulager by a large field of grass. A fence surrounds this field, denying a direct approach: you must walk around the perimeter. The distant view from beyond the fenced-off lawn makes the building look small, as if a folly in the landscape.
From here the facade is flat and blank, a uniform field of color, but as you approach, the building seems to grow, (or are you shrinking?) and the texture of the facade is slowly revealed. The brown earth tones of the facade seems to suggest that the building has emerged from the ground through some tectonic process. The asphalt sidewalk is dotted with small rocks, apparently the same stones used in the exposed aggregate of this concrete facade. As you turn the corner, the sidewalk path brings you closer to the building, which now looms high above you.
From this corner, you turn towards the gatehouse, a small structure guarding the entry and providing termination to the perimeter fence. Clad in the same material as the main building, the gatehouse can be read as a piece removed from the the larger volume, and shrunken. The gatehouse walls are not parallel with those of the entry facade, and this angle throws the plaza out of equilibrium, as if the entire complex was succumbing to a compressive force. The inward tilt of the gatehouse walls establishes a false perspective, and the small structure seems to fluctuate wildly in scale, depending on your viewpoint, a technique the architects have used in the past, as in the housing block at their St. Jakob Park stadium.
As you pass through the gatehouse into the entry plaza, the massive white walls of the facade block your peripheral vision. Punctuated only by two large LED screens, the composition evokes artwork hung on a drywall gallery partition, blown up to the scale of the city. To retain the continuity of this gallery wall, the band of windows below has been tinted a dark gray, and the details are kept to a minimum. The contrast between this black band and the stark white above clearly establishes the entry plaza as an interior gallery space, reinforced by the conspicuous absence of embedded pebbles in the asphalt underfoot. The plaza is tilted downward, and this band of windows could be mistaken for a shadow or gap below below the gallery wall. To enter, you scurry through the gap.
Initial studies showed the Schaulager as an overscale gallery wall, with every piece of the collection arrayed on its expansive surface. While the entry facade is a vestige of those early models, the technical requirements of art storage and conservation could not be met by such an audacious scheme. We can recall how Herzog & de Meuron mobilized “stacking” as an aesthetic indicator of storage in the facade of their Ricola Building in Laufen, and they’ve done the same at the Schaulager as a larger scale. As you enter, and look up into the full-height atrium, the identical stacked floor plates resemble nothing so much as the shelves of a tall bookcase. The visiting public is never treated to a direct visual connection with any of the upper floors, so this stack remains an image, a representation of the art stored beyond. From here, the typical visitor can only see the ceilings of the levels above, and the lighting, consistent with the gallery levels, draws equivalence between storage and exhibition.
The upper levels, and the ground floor galleries consist of orthogonal arrangements drywall partitions, but the lower level is more ambitious. Adjacent to the grand stair to the lower level, a short gallery space compresses down to nearly nothing, taking the ceiling along with it.
Two permanent installations punctuate the architecture’s playful manipulation of scale. A work by Robert Gober takes up one large room. Drawn on the architectural plans, Gober’s complicated piece consists of four sewer grates. Three are roughly one-to-one, but the central one is grossly overscale, and pinned down by a statue of the Virgin Mary pierced through the gut by a corrugated plastic pipe. The two flanking grates are contained in suitcases, as if the expansive infrastructure of sewage flow could be packed up for travel. A piece by Katharina Fritsch is perhaps simpler, but no less impressive. Fritsch’s installation consists of a circle of large rats, tremendously overscale, reinforcing and concluding the series of scalar shifts that have affected the visitor.
Returning to the ground floor, in the cafe we find a ceiling treatment that is reminiscent of both the concrete facade texture, as if it has been scaled up and thickened. The downlights in the cafe ceiling could be enlarged pebbles from the concrete facade. The scale and texture of the cafe ceiling extends to the apertures of the exterior windows, whose jagged edges suggest a distant landscape of rolling hills and unite the oversize scale of the cafe ceiling with the material of the concrete facade. This texture is present yet again, at a different scale, in the metal mesh of the doors at the gatehouse and loading dock.
The jagged strip windows wrap around the corners of the building, enhancing the impression that the mass of the building is homogeneous, and what few openings exist are have been chipped away. The window cuts are the only place where the thickness of the concrete facade is revealed, and revealed to be massive.
The heavy visual impact of the exposed-aggregate concrete represents permanence, and the thermal barrier of the concrete creates the stable environmental conditions ideal for the preservation and conservation of art. The permanence of the facility is reinforced by its surrounding fence. The bases are large, wide and apparently weighted, as if mobile, removable at any moment, but several bolted connections and poles embedded in concrete reveal the truth. Though necessary for security, the fence is detailed in a way that makes it read as temporary, which makes the Schaulager itself seem more permanent by contrast. This must reassure Robert Gober, whose stairs and plumbing are drawn on the plans, as if the architecture is necessary for the art to survive.
In contrast, the white walls of the entry facade are revealed to be thin, ethereal, and temporary. Apparently hung from above, the white entry facade hovers over the atrium space with no support from below. The constantly changing images on the LED screens reinforce the temporality of this facade. As a gallery wall, it may be reconfigured, repainted, destroyed, and recreated, constantly changing to meet the needs of ever-evolving contemporary art. It seems appropriate that the material choices for the Schaulager should represent the two seemingly opposed programmatic requirements of exhibition and storage.
Finally, the Schaulager must be read as an urban anchor. Located far from the historic city center, the Schaulager is on the border between a declining industrial zone slated for redevelopment and a residential community. The Schaulager is located in an area known as Dreispitz, and Herzog & de Meuron have done a preliminary masterplan that may reveal some intentions behind the Schaulager. Intended to develop as a suburban cultural zone, Dreispitz is to be redeveloped with galleries, shops, and residential complexes, and current plans show the Schaulager mirrored along its rear facade to engage this future development. Though currently located on a kind of frontier, the architects envision the Schaulager as a new center for this cultural enclave on the outskirts of Basel, doubling itself to reinvigorate the fading industrial landscape.
So, while I still plan on finishing the KSA Vienna series…. I was working on this tonight, and thought it would make an interesting post. I’m in the process (ahem…. starting the process…) of revising my portfolio and resume, and gradually starting to look for that next job after my current internship is concluded. I’m not entirely sure when this will be happening, since my engagement in Rome is somewhat open-ended. Nonetheless, tonight I decided to finally go back to one of my old projects and revise a few images I’ve never been happy with.
Above, you see tonight’s work. Below, the same(-ish) view, that’s been going out with every copy of my portfolio for the past two years.
I’m actually surprised that I let this slide for so long. This dismal image, on a February backdrop, was the opening page to this project… In final reviews that quarter, Mack Scogin said this looked like “Soviet public housing” — and yet, I never reworked the image.
So, a brief update… my ambitious plan to post carefully-curated images and insightful commentary for every city visited during the Knowlton School of Architecture Vienna ’09 study-abroad adventure has gradually fallen apart, leaving you with the simple photo-blog seen above (below?). I chalk this up to the fact that I’ve actually started working, so I have less time to devote to this kind of thing. That said, I do plan on finishing, if only as an excuse to go through my photos and pick out the best ones. In the next few weeks I hope to wrap up the KSA trip, and move on to my brief stay in London, and then on to Rome, at which point I hope to dive back into analysis… but until then, I hope the photos can speak for themselves. (As always, all can be found on Flickr.)