Hong Kong: City of Malls

Hong Kong is a vertical city, an exemplar of three-dimensional urbanism, and a manifestation of economic forces constrained only by topography. The physical limitations of Hong Kong island combine with a seemingly endless influx of capital to create a city unlike any other, where skyscrapers reach ever-higher, and where the public space of the city extends vertically, forming a porous, expanded ground with unprecedented connectivity between blocks and buildings. The fascinating network of public space in the city proves incredibly challenging to analysis, and provides little framework for designers: the city seems to deny existing typologies while simultaneously generating new ones, providing an inadvertent model for the hyper-dense cities of the future.

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12 Cities / 16 Days

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.

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Place-holder: Ningbo Historic Museum

[Wang Shu / Amateur Architecture Studio’s Ningbo Historical Museum, Ningbo, China, 2009. Photos © Evan Chakroff ] [Ed. Note 27 Feb 2012: Congratulations to Wang Shu & Amateur Architecture on the Pritzker Prize Win! Those of you who have found this page via archinect, google, or flickr, please consider subscribing (rss). On this blog I try to bring a critical eye to new (and old) architecture in China (and elsewhere). I hope you’ll find something of interest.]


A few months ago, I took a weekend trip from Shanghai down to Ningbo. The recently completed Hangzhou Bay Bridge (briefly the longest on earth, before it was surpassed by another, elsewhere in China) cuts the travel time down to 2.5 hours (even faster than the new high-speed rail, which connects Shanghai and Ningbo via Hangzhou). I’m constantly amazed by the infrastructure here, which turns the entire Yangtse delta into a huge, networked agglomeration, each city (Ningbo, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing) merely a node of this increasingly interconnected organism. It gives me hope, too, than while development speeds ahead in Shanghai, the old-China charms of Suzhou and the natural beauty of Hangzhou won’t be lost in a sea of towers. Continue reading

Voyage to the Orient!

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 (evanchakroff@gmail.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.

Rough itinerary:

SHENZHEN (Including 2011 Hong Kong – Shenzhen Architecture Bienale)

City of the Infinite Present

[This, and following images: Jianyeli, Shanghai]

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

About Face

[The Bund]

In a recent, fragmented history of Shanghai, Jeffery Wasserstrom suggests that Shanghai is, in its current incarnation, a city of facades, of appearances, and above all of exhibition. This goes beyond the recent World Expo, which could be seen as a momentary acceleration and intensification of long-running threads of exhibitionism that run through the city’s history.

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Shape of the City: Shanghai

(note: this was post 10 of 10 of a series on Shanghaisquared.com)





The plane descends through smog the color of cigarette smoke, coasting over low-slung industrial sheds in a brownfield landscape sliced by highways and dirty canals. Distant cranes hover above endless rows of towers, fading in the haze as the tarmac heaves up to meet the landing gear. The gleaming terminal fades into your subconscious as you follow the bilingual signage to your destination.

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Suzhou’s outstanding gardens, unique architecture, and distinctly Chinese urban organization stand in stark contrast to the Western-influenced chaos of Shanghai.

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Though China is becoming well known as the home of startling, ambitious new architecture, the sweeping forms and epic scale of China’s new icons of modernity often appear only after extensive periods of relocation and demolition, and in many ways tastefully-preserved blocks are more impressive than new constructions, given the careful study and rehabilitation required to rejuvenate old buildings, as opposed to simply demolishing them and building anew.

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Yuyuan Garden is an intricate interlocking of architecture and landscape, an excellent Ming-era garden best experienced as a multi-layered sequence in space.

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Hierarchy of Space

More than glittering Lujiazui or the facades of The Bund, Shanghai’s shikumen lanes remain the best representation of the myriad influences in this multi-cultural metropolis.

No series on Shanghai’s architecture and urbanism would be complete without some mention of “Shikumen” housing. Even casual tourists will have no doubt seen Xintiandi mentioned in guidebooks and on websites, and while the overpriced tourist haven does give a glimpse of Shanghai’s most unique urban typology, it would be a mistake to consider the successful “lifestyle center” an authentic representation of the form. Luckily, an intact, well-maintained, residential shikumen block is not far away: a stroll from Cité Bourgogne to Tianzifang to Xintiandi makes for a pleasant afternoon walk, loosely structured by the past, present, and future of Shanghai’s “lilong” housing stock.

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Weihai 696

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.

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Written on Water

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?

No answers here. But it certainly was “cool.”

More Photos on Flickr.

Post title: Keats/Chang.

Into the Abattoir

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 shikumen torn 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.

4814122809_d929ee8d8a_o 4814123063_86325035f3_o[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 the geometry: 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…….


More of my photos on 1933 Shanghai on Flickr.

The development’s official website: http://www.1933shanghai.com


Here is a diagrammatic plan of 1933:

And here is a short post from Core77 on Temple Grandin‘s slaughterhouse designs.

UPDATE (April 4, 2013):

Many thanks to Bert de Muynck of movingcities.org for a bit more info:

Location:No.611, Liyang Road, Hongkou Distract, Shanghai
Year of Completion:1933
Architect:Balfours, UK
Master Builder:Shanghai Yuhongji Building And Construction Company
Building area: about:31,700 sqm
Structure:Reinforced concrete


1933 Plans

[Plans – source (in Chinese)]
Architectural promenade

Jin Mao Tower (SOM, 1998)

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.

More photos on Flickr.

Thick City (or: The Escalator Theorem)

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…….


[More photos from Hong Kong, in my Flickr Set.] [note to readers on Facebook – if the images don’t show, try evanchakroff.com]

Phase Change

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…

A Brief Note.

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.

At least, here’s hoping.

Acqua Alta

I’ve long been interested in the concept of ‘resilience’ and its potential in architecture. Generally, resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to respond to shock. In physics, the term refers to the elastic properties of a material, and the degree to which that material may return to its initial state. In business and politics, resilience refers to the ability of an organization to respond to unexpected events, to rebound and thrive after failure, or to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. In architecture, I believe resilience may be a better, smarter model for development than facile ’sustainability,’ as the goal of ’sustainability’ is the maintenance of the status quo, whereas ‘resilience’ assumes change – unexpected, sometimes catastrophic change. In ‘resilient design’ we assume the worst, and prepare for it. The title of this blog refers to a design methodology where systems are pushed past their breaking point – but recover quickly and are stronger for it.

I’m still working out this concept, but I think there’s potential for wide-ranging research on the topic of resilience, and I believe it can be applied across scales – from the nanoscale interactions between particles in the latest material research, to the design and construction of structures to withstand natural disasters or terrorist attacks, even to urban, regional, and global scales. How can cities can be designed to be resilient? In the case of Venice, to be continuously operational, even when inundated by floods?

Acqua Alta” is the occasional Venetian flood, recorded throughout history but now occurring with increasing frequency due to man made interventions in the structure and hydrology of the Venetian lagoon. Historically, the Acqua Alta phenomenon was caused by geographic and celestial factors reinforcing one another (outlined well by Wikipedia), but the construction of a railroad and automobile bridge, and the dredging of a shipping channel and a large industrial port have amplified the effect. The Italian government is working on a large-scale engineering project to control the flow of water in and out of the lagoon (the modestly-titled MOSE project, explained well by this slow-loading page from National Geographic), which – if successful – will save Venice from the recurring floods (but not, we assume, sea level rise or the continued sinking of the Venetian islands – 23cm in the last century).

While the causes and potential solutions of Acqua Alta are fascinating, what interests me most is the way Venice deals with it today, under current conditions. The official website of the Commune of Venezia is a great resource for tourists and locals, assuring all that “Even in high water events Venice is a city suitable for normal living,” and providing water level forecasts, maps of the temporary walkways, and even an online route-planner for Acqua Alta.

The emphasis on the continuing functionality of the city may seem odd to tourists, who may see these recurring floods as a natural disaster, and the temporary paths as a quick-fix. However, these temporary pathways represent nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of the topology of the city, the design of which depends not only on the severity of the flood, but on the locations of major destinations in the city, and the desire for this primarily-tourist-driven economy to continue operations under these conditions. This temporary map represents The Resilient City.

Rather than waiting for magic nanobots to repair the Venetian foundations, or adopting a purposefully cynical approach simply to raise awareness, ‘resilient’ designers should embrace current situations rather than mourning the past, and find immediate, effective solutions rather than holding out for perfect ones.

Under Construction: Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI

Last weekend, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum in Rome opened to the public. This two-day “architecture preview” proved so popular that museum administrators had to extend the event to a second weekend, and I was quick enough to reserve a ticket for round two.

For the past week, the architecture blogosphere (twitterverse?) has been flooded with critiques of the building, each blogger/journalist/theorist trying desperately to put the MAXXI in context. Nicolai Ouroussoff casts Zaha Hadid as a modern-day Bernini – bonding with an “ecstatic” Pope over caffè – making plans to transform the Eternal City (for the better). Aaron Betsky (channeling Mark Wigley) sees the work as an “instant ruin,” the “spatial magnificence” of the empty galleries providing as good a lesson to would-be architects as the fragmentary remains of antiquity. Rowan Moore (of The Architects Journal UK) attempts to place the MAXXI in Hadid’s oeuvre.

While none of these authors make definitive statements about the eventual impact of the project, there is a palpable sense of conclusion in their writing, mirroring the completion of the MAXXI’s signature building. The long-awaited opening seemed to be a signal to journalists: the incisive reviews (with their decisive conclusions) poured forth like celebrity obituaries after a beloved actor’s demise.

I believe it’s too soon to assess (or predict) the impact of this (undeniably-important) piece of architecture. After all, the building is not yet complete, and we must wait until spring for a proper exhibition. I’ll no doubt return to the MAXXI at some point (both physically and theoretically), but for now I’ll leave you with some fragmentary thoughts – and photos – from today’s opening.

1. On Hadid’s Oeuvre

The competition for the MAXXI was announced in 1998, after Hadid had completed the Vitra Fire Station (1994) and the CAC (1998). Formally, this does seem to have a lot in common with these early projects, and little in common with the latest proposals that veer towards more complex geometries. Some have suggested that this is due to a shift in her design process from hand-drawing (and painting) to digital modeling, and I think the clarity of the design reflects this. The form seems to evolve primarily in plan, with the curved gallery bands referencing the local infrastructure, deflecting around existing buildings, and shifting vertically when needed. The relative simplicity of the design is more appealing to me than the “parametricism” Hadid’s partner (and MAXXI’s lead designer) Patrik Schumacher now advocates. It will be interesting to see the public reaction to MAXXI: will the expected enthusiasm (coupled with economic constraints) cause Hadid to revisit her earlier work?

[Plans from Aaron Betsky’s blog post. Probably copyright MAXXI]

[Google Maps, Showing MAXXI under construction]

2. On Context

Hadid has said that the MAXXI should act more as a “field” than an “object” (lifting lines, no doubt, from Stan Allen, Rosalind Krauss, etc), indicating that the MAXXI should embody an “urban” condition, tied to the surrounding city. This is simply not the case. Until last weekend, of course, the MAXXI complex was hidden behind construction fencing, physically and visually disconnected from the surrounding area. Today – though ostensibly open to the public – the campus is just as secluded, surrounded by a permanent security fence. The curves of the gallery walls seem to explicitly reference the nearby streets, but automated gates apparently open only for installations, and access to the MAXXI campus is allowed only through the main entrance.

Ignoring the lack of connection to the immediate urban conditions, one could say that the MAXXI is contextual – when context is considered as an international condition; as (in the words of Jeff Kipnis) a “metropolitan field.” The curves of the gallery walls mimic the local infrastructure, but this local condition is regional, national, continental, and global. The concrete structure of Hadid’s LF1 in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany doesn’t only resemble the typical highway overpass in southern Germany – it resembles the typical highway overpass everywhere: the infrastructural city is a global condition, and the MAXXI references and contributes to this conception of urbanity, without regard to its immediate surroundings.

3. On Bilbao

The MAXXI competition was organized shortly after the completion of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. It may have been to soon to tell if the “Bilbao Effect” would work for Rome, but the potential for a spectacular project by a world-renowned architect to regenerate cultural interest (and economic activity) in the city must not have gone unnoticed. Though I don’t know the politics, I think Rome must have felt a tinge of jealousy as 90s/00s “starchitecture” largely bypassed the Eternal City, and the completion of the MAXXI does feel a bit late, at such an ostentatious construction seems to belong to an era before last year’s financial collapse.

4. On “Instant Ruins”

Formally, aesthetically, visually, experientially, the MAXXI is a tour-de-force. The Piranesi references are all well-deserved. It’s an amazing space, and successful on a pure, visceral, sculptural level, regardless of functionality. In this regard, Betsky and Wigley are right: it could remain empty forever, standing vacant as an example of what architects and artists are capable, a contemporary counterpoint to the Baths of Caracalla, or Hadrian’s Villa, or the Colosseum. If today’s event was any indication, people are more than willing to wander around the space, taking photo after photo, their glazed expressions no different from the tourists in the Forum. They pre-registered in advance for the privilege. Does the MAXXI need a collection? Why not market it as a modern ruin? Charge admission for the building itself. Who needs art?

5. On Function

Obviously, we need art. As an art museum, the MAXXI has to function. We’ll see the system of hanging partitions next spring when the first exhibition opens, but it seems to me that the galleries have spaces that are varied enough to provide appropriate viewing environments for (perhaps) every type of art… while the continuous gallery spaces may seem too dynamic for traditional shows, I believe the continuity of the gallery space will ultimately prove beneficial. The spaces Hadid provides are varied, but the main gallery spaces are restrained. There seems to be ample room for traditional curation, but endless opportunity for more ambitious exhibition design.


It’s a complex building, a complex political, social, and cultural climate, and – perhaps most presciently – a complex issue for architecture journalism. I feel it’s impossible to give a proper summation of the project at this point in time – as it’s still incomplete – but we can all hope that the successful realization of this project will lead to a careful re-evaluation of Zaha Hadid’s early work and an amplification of the discourse of contemporary art and architecture in modern Rome.

Until then, I’ll consider the MAXXI – and my opinions – to be “under construction.”


-More of my photos on Flickr.

Poste Italiane

The Fascist era in Rome (1922-1943) was characterized by massive civic projects. From the draining of the Pontine Marshes to the construction of new roads in the historical center, Mussolini’s government brought massive changes to the character of the city. These urban projects reveal an oddly contradictory attitude toward history: on one hand respectful (the excavation of the Forum); on the other, dismissive (the re-burial of three quarters of the Forum for the construction of Via dei Fori Imeriali).

We’ve seen this attitude expressed stylistically through the strange synthesis of neoclassicism and modernism at EUR, but the post offices constructed in 1933 represent an earlier step toward that synthetic style, where classic elements may be present, but are not monumental.

The Poste Italiane on Via Marmorata [Map], by architects Mario de Renzi and Adalberto Libera (1933), is a composition of classically-proportioned volumes, stripped of ornament.  It’s worthwhile to note that architect Adalberto Libera  participated in the Weissenhofsiedlung Exhibition in Stuttgart (1927) at the request of Mies van der Rohe, an indication that these Italian modernists were not as disconnected from the international scene as it may sometimes seem. In this post office, there is clear evidence of international influence.

The abstracted colonnade provides a pedestrian pathway set back from the busy street, and establishes the entry piazza as a public space. Though is could be read as a classical element, it is clearly present for functional reasons. Libera & de Renzi’s post office is a good example of an synthetic style that has not yet been co-opted by monumental/rhetorical neo-classicism.

The post office at Piazza Bologna [Map], by architects Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fagiolo (1933), is more difficult to place in the narrative. The building is an oblong bar, whose curved facade deflects to emphasize the adjacent piazza. The sinuous line of the plan reveals a Baroque sensibility not often seem in Italian modernism, but with precedents dating at least to the early renaissance (the curved facade of Palazzo Massimo comes to mind), and reappearing even today (in the curves of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, for instance)

Angiolo Mazzoni was one of the most prolific Italian architects of the 1920s and 1930s, and his biography should show the competing influence of classical precedent and contemporary international culture. His Ostia Post Office (1934) [Map] should demonstrate the potential of a style drawn equally from both.

As the chief architect for the Ministry of Communication and for the State Railway from the early 1930s until the war, Mazzoni designed many post offices, train stations and other public buildings, aided by close family ties to Mussolini’s fascist regime.

He earned his architecture degree from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna (around 1919), where the instructors were heavily influenced by Wagner and the Vienna Secession. This is evident, especially if you compare his work to Sant’Elia: the tower here could have been taken straight from La Citta Nuova. Mazzoni was involved with the Futurists for long enough to co-author the “Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” with Marinetti in 1934, but by this time he was already building prolifically, and developing his own unique, if eclectic, style.

His work was incredibly varied, ranging from neo-classical (such as the flanking buildings at Rome’s Termini station), to vernacular-Italianate (La Spezia post office), to streamline modern (the Sabaudia Post Office, luckily undergoing restoration). The Ostia post office, however, is an incredibly interesting synthesis.

The  fountain with circular colonnade here has a clear classical precedent in Hadrian’s Villa, but also shows some modernist influences. Notice the lack of capitols on these ‘piloti’, the portal windows, and the unadorned light fixtures: ornament through functionality. Materially, everything is rendered in Roman brick and travertine, though the architect makes some interesting moves with those materials, like the detail on these columns (brickwork that could be his own invention, perhaps under influence from the Amsterdam School?).

The more I look at Italian architecture from this period, the more I’m fascinated by the ways the architects mobilize historical forms and materials, and the ways that modernism is filtered through the lens of Roman history. It often leads to incredibly interesting work. Though this use (and abuse) of history is conspicuously absent from some recent projects in Rome (Meier’s Jubilee Church, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI), in others (such as Renzo Piano’s Auditorium) the recognition that historically-charged materials and referential forms can be used in the service of architecture leads to work that is contextual yet contemporary, where the incredible burden of history is seen as a blessing, not a curse.

EUR & La Sapienza

Most travel guides will, briefly, mention the EUR district to the south of Rome. An exemplary collection of Fascist-modernism, the guides suggest that curious tourists take a few hours to wander down the wide boulevards, and experience the contrast between this area and the ancient Roman streets of the city center.

The EUR district was designed as a campus for the Esposizione Universal Romana 1942, located towards the south of the city as part of an attempt to reconnect Rome with the sea (through its port at Ostia). Taken together with new towns built on the drained Pontine Marshes, the EUR district is evidence of a larger plan by Mussolini’s Fascist regime to modernize and reclaim the underutilized lands to the south of the city. Though some of this plan was carried out in the 1930s (as evidenced by the construction of towns such as Latina and Sabaudia), EUR had to wait for completion until after World War II. Stylistically it represents the culmination of Italian fascist-modernism.

Laid out on a cardo & decumanus (a rational urban planning technique used for ancient Roman military camps and colonies), and constructed in travertine and brick (a conscious material choice intended to echo the grandeur of Ancient Rome) the EUR district is almost oppressively grand. The massive scale of the complex is intimidating to anyone on foot: on the few occasions I’ve visited the major axes have been devoid of life. The typically Roman water fountains are conspicuously absent – especially noticeable on a hot August day. Though there is some relief to be found on the tree-lined side streets, it is clear that this district was not designed for pedestrians, a fact reinforced by the ample parking – another contrast with the historic center.

Architecturally, the EUR district is a great example of late-stage fascist-era Italian modernism. Even if completed after the War, the unique synthesis of modernism and neo-classicism perfectly reflects the policies of Mussolini’s regime. There is a conscious effort to strip the buildings of unnecessary ornamentation and to place an emphasis on basic platonic forms. These rational principles from the modern movement are augmented by stylistic reference to ancient Roman architecture, a theme that appears again and again in the work of Italian architects from the 1900s to present day. Here in the EUR district, the major landmarks all make reference to classical precedents. The “Square Colosseum” (the Palazzo della Civilita Italica by architects G. Guerrini, E.B. La Padula, and M. Romano) is of course the most obvious example, and the other major public buildings all feature colonnades, at various levels of abstraction.

The EUR district was designed primarily by architect and urban planner Marcello Piacentini, who was director of the magazine Architettura and a key figure in the Fascist regime. By the time of the EUR design, his style had clearly been codified and adopted by the architects given these landmark commissions, but a few years earlier in the masterplan for the Università di Roma – La Sapienza (1935), he seems to have given the young group of invited architects much more freedom.

Piacentini’s own design for the main building at La Sapienza represents the same principles seen later at EUR, but here the scale is much more manageable. As a university campus, it embraces housing and public space in a way that EUR perhaps could not, but the result is a pleasant, human-scaled, and pedestrian friendly campus. While not in the heart of the city, it is close to Termini station, and a much quicker visit for architecturally-inclined tourists.

It is especially interesting to look at the work of other architects on campus. The curved facade of the Faculty of Chemistry (by architect Pietro Aschieri), is a near-Baroque interpretation of the monumental entry to Piacentini’s main building. Painted in a vernacular burnt sienna, and detailed with rationalist handrails and window details, the building is a playful and eclectic mix of the vernacular, the rational, and the neoclassical that would not be tolerated a few short years later.

Other buildings range from the severe to the downright odd. The Institute of Minerology and Geology (an early work by Giovanni Michelucci, architect of the incredible Chiesa dell’Autostrada del Sole outside of Florence) is surprisingly restrained….


… while the Institute of Mathematics (architect Gio Ponti) is composed of clashing forms that somehow manage to define a classical entrance….

… and the Institute of Physics (by Giuseppe Pagano) best represents the synthetic style of the campus as a whole, with its clear geometric forms rendered in brick and travertine, augmented by details (such as the entry overhang) that owe a debt to streamline modernism.

In conclusion (and to extend the conceit that this blog could possibly be used as a travel guide) for visitors to Rome seeking a little modernism with their antiquities, I can definitely recommend either EUR or La Sapienza for a quick visit, and preferably both as I believe the subtle differences in style are fascinating.

EUR can be reached on the Metro: Line B to EUR Magliana, EUR Palasport, or EUR Fermi depending on what you want to see first. Be sure to print a map ahead of time or take a guidebook, as this is off the typical tourist track. [Map]

La Sapienza is just a short walk from Termini station. [Map]

Pike Loop

For the past month, a robotic arm has been building a brick wall in New York City. Call it Building-technology-as-performance-art… While the technique is admittedly pretty amazing, the technical feasibility of such a thing should not be surprising. The architects Gramazio & Kohler have gotten a lot of press for similar, albeit smaller scale, installations, and seem to have been perfecting the technology through their research at ETH Zurich for years.

One of the earliest projects to leave the workshop was this winery in Switzerland, whose undulating brick facade is constructed of panels fabricated off-site, and attached to the structural concrete frame like a standard curtain wall. Here, the technique is used to produce a pixelated 2D image of grapes (well, spheres) using bricks as the pixels…

While the photographs are compelling, it’s clear that this comes nowhere near realizing the potential of this technology. The panel size is limited, I imagine, by both the reach of the robot arm in the laboratory, and by the width of the flatbed trucks used to transport the panels. In the end, the facade remains flat.

By the time of the 2008 Venice Biennale,  The technique seemed much improved, though I imagine this piece was still constructed in sections and assembled later on site (though I may be wrong). Either way, the double curvature of the wall is impressive, especially when one considers that it was built brick-by-brick.

This is an important distinction. Throughout history, brick was a load-bearing material. Of course many buildings are still constructed in masonry, but typically concrete blocks do the heavy load-bearing, and bricks are used as a facade treatment and rainscreen.

In fact, it is very rare to find contemporary architecture that uses brick as a structural system (it may not even be allowed by code). Architects, of course, are aware of this, and while some detail their brick facades so it appears structural, others recognize the conceit, and reveal it through their details.

Frank Gehry’s Vontz Center for Molecular Studies (University of Cincinnati) is a distorted riot of deformed brick boxes. Rather than attempting to disguise the connections between the prefabricated brick panels, the architect celebrates them, using the metal surrounds to reveal the underlying structural grid, and present the brickwork as the skin treatment that it is.

While Gehry’s work seems to reveal a clear attitude towards brick, other – ‘hipper’ – firms seem unwilling to concede brick’s role as a facade treatment and facade treatment only, attempting to portray the material as the monolithic, structural mass it was in the past….

The concept renderings of SHoP‘s 290 Mulberry St show a subtle, undulating surface, but the final result is a jagged, triangulated grid of panels. The panels really could be any material, and here the use of brick is merely a shallow contextual nod to the neighborhood’s dominant materiality.

Pike Loop is so interesting as a project because it embraces the individual brick in a way that most contemporary architecture does not. Using the orthogonal module to construct complex curvilinear forms is a true step forward from the use of pixels to construct a two dimensional image (as in the earlier winery project) and the use of a mobile robot to truly automate the process is nothing short of amazing, giving architects the ability to build these undulating walls as easily as they program their CNC mills (well, maybe).

However, it’s important to note that this technology is not quite ready to replicate the work of, say, Eladio Dieste, since it still lacks one crucial component of brick construction: mortar. While the glue that binds these bricks together may be adequate for a temporary installation, and the open lattice of brickwork may produce beautiful shadows, the lack of this critical bonding agent means that the undulating screen of brick will remain a screen, and should not be mistaken for a weatherproof wall. One benefit of traditional brick construction is that the brick and mortar chemically bond to become one monolithic structure. The mortar joints serve not only to keep the bricks in place, but if properly constructed, their geometry repels water and ensures a long life for the wall. I’m curious to see if the next project from these architects begins to take these facts into consideration….

Meanwhile, I believe it will be fruitful to expand this process from brickwork to other modular construction systems. What would the Pike Loop look like if constructed from CMU blocks? Or aluminum cans? Or automobile tires?

Earthships,” championed by architect Michael Reynolds, are generally built from used tires and other garbage, and finished in concrete or plaster. This construction method has become popular in arid climates where the thermal mass of the walls aids natural ventilation. The use of recycled material appeals to environmentalists, of course, and these ebuildings have become popular in off-the-grid communities. This is certainly noble, but it lacks the academic appeal of the Pike Loop wall because it is not tied in to the computational, generative design discourse that produces such work. I believe this could change, if you simply consider the tire as the module (and maybe build a stronger robot).

Earlier this year, I did a series of studies using the Grasshopper plugin for Rhino, and attempted to design an undulating wall of tires. In a few days I was able to get a working definition, and the above image is one result. I hope to continue these studies someday, though I wonder if the large module would allow a form as evocative as that of the Swiss architects…

Anyway, it’s exciting work, and I can’t wait to see more projects like this, where the realities of construction are tied back into the design process, where algorithmic architecture is informed by real constraints, and the form and concept become stronger as a result.

For more coverage of the Pike Loop project, check these stories on Wired and BLDGBLOG, and the exhibition page at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. And finally, here’s a look at a similar process, by students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.