Brutalism, with Chinese Characteristics

HK - Central Mid Levels Escalators (Again) (4)

Honest revelation of tectonics and materiality. The social potential of architectural form. As the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the primary ambitions of the Brutalist project are more relevant now than ever.

While only architects and masochists could love Brutalism’s eponymous concrete (and let’s see that Venn diagram!), the spatial and social ambitions of the Brutalist movement remain relevant as the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the first waves of which are most acutely felt in Asia’s megacities. Continue reading

Guangzhou: Diverse-City

[Guangdong Museum, Rocco Yim]

[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.]

Shamian Island

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.

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Miracle City

[In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Shenzhen.]

Shenzhen’s short history is well known: In the accepted mythology, China’s Economic Miracle began here, with the establishment of the Special Economic Zone, that grand urban experiment with market capitalism. This auspicious tabula rasa – not even labeled on maps prior to the 1980s – was surely selected as much for its lack of historical baggage as for as its adjacency to booming Hong Kong. What better place to demonstrate the potential of the new China, free, finally, from imperialist aggressors, war, and the insanity of the Mao era? With no dynastic, imperial, republican, or communist fabric, Shenzhen was essentially a blank slate, free to be shaped into a modern – and specifically Chinese – city.

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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

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.

Auditorium Parco della Musica [Renzo Piano]

Over the past few years, a handful of architects have managed to complete new projects in Rome, despite resistance from certain factions of the government and general population. While I wouldn’t call it a renaissance of contemporary architecture, these few new projects seem to be signaling a renewed interest in architectural experimentation, and a willingness on the part of the civic leaders and clients to give architects a free hand – as long as they respect whatever ruins they find on site, and are willing to go through the arduous process of building construction in this generally conservative, historicist climate.

Renzo Piano, arguably the most well-known Italian architect of his generation, was surely aware of this political climate, and it seems that he designed his Auditorium in such a way that he could easily argue for its sensitivity to context, appropriateness of materials, and potential to revitalize an area of the city that had been in decline since the 1960 Olympic games.

The basic configuration is based around three enclosed auditoriums of varying size, which are linked by an outdoor arena theater that pins the center of the composition, with lobby spaces, back-of-house areas, and other services located in a plinth beneath the auditorium volumes, wrapping the perimeter of the arena. The complex could be seen as growing out of this arena, a contemporary interpretation of a classical Roman theater: updated with the latest amenities.

The additional auditoriums are designed to be read as discrete volumes, and while their shapes do not seem to represent their function, their distinct forms do act as a landmark for the auditorium complex.

The material choice for the auditorium volumes seems to echo the cladding of many church domes across the city, and the red Roman brick is another clear tie to the architecture of the past.

Though the complex was built on a site (formerly that of the 1960s Olympics) that was not historically-charged, there were ruins uncovered during excavation work. Piano takes a sensitive approach to these historical artifacts: he doesn’t touch them.

Some ancient walls are brought into the building, covered, and treated as a part of a permanent exhibition that also includes shards of pottery and other artifacts found on site.

Other, larger areas are left exposed, outside, where the form of the building has been cut away, turning these archaeological areas into open courtyards.

While this seems like a perfectly fine way to deal with the ruins, it’s unfortunate that the design did not engage them on a higher conceptual level. I hope to write more on this topic later.

See more of my photos on Flickr.

Auditorium Parco della Musica [2002] Architect: Renzo Piano
Viale Pietro De Coubertin, Rome, Italy [Map]

Palazzetto dello Sport [P.L. Nervi]

Palazetto dello Sport, Pier Luigi Nervi, 1957-1958

Built in preparation for the 1960 Olympic games, this concrete dome structure hosted boxing matches and other events. It looks run-down today, but apparently is still used on occasion. I was unable to get inside on the day I visited, but the structure was still impressive. Nervi was as much an engineer as an architect, and in addition to several other stadiums in Rome, he was the designer for highway overpasses and other pieces of infrastructure.

Here’s a great interior view from Flickr user

The stadium is located to the north of the city, in an area that’s not considered very historically-sensitive, and so is (relatively) rich in modern and contemporary architecture: Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum and Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica are both within walking distance.


Palazzetto dello Sport
Architect Pier Luigi Nervi, 1957-1958
Piazza Apollodoro 1
00196 Rome, Italy [Map]

Palazzetto dello Sport [1957-1958] Architect: Pier Luigi Nervi
Piazza Apollodoro 1, Rome, Italy [Map]

La Rinascente [Franco Albini]

As promised, in the next series of posts, I’ll be covering modern architecture around Rome (and throughout Italy), and analyzing the “old stuff” when it seems relevant. I feel no need to cover the typical guidebook topics (though I’ve been through every page of Rick Steves’ Rome ’09 and have the photos to prove it…), but there does seem to be a lack of info out there on the best modern & contemporary sights.

So, without further ado, thus starts my own hastily-thrown-together Guide to Rome, highlighting what I believe are the best off-the-beaten path architectural sights.

First up: La Rinascente, Architect Franco Albini, 1957-1961

La Rinascente is an upscale Italian department store chain. The company had had a presence in Rome since 1887, when their impressive building on Via del Corso [map] became the first department store in the city, but 1950s Rome was considerably larger than 1880s Rome, and the location of Albini’s building at the northern border of the imperial town suggests an interest in re-centering, conceding to this sprawl.

[La Rinascente, 1887]

Albini’s work had always dealt with history and tradition (from exhibition designs inserted into existing spaces, or the adaptive reuse of existing structures), but here even with a tabula rasa he looked to the past, using varied historical references in concert to produce something contemporary. Perhaps taking the meaning of “la rinascente” – “the rebirth” – too literally, his design maintains the basic massing of the 1887 building (perhaps a functional requirement for the program, or perhaps predetermined by block size and required floor area), and incorporates the geometry of the cornice profiles, but transmutes the material into steel.

The expressed steel frame structure is complemented by red masonry infill panels whose material mirrors the immediate context. However, these are not simply flat infill panels, they are folded, and the subtle geometry suggests engaged columns: a renaissance facade redone with contemporary technology.

Really nice. To me the most interesting thing about the project (and about 20th century architecture in Italy in general) is how it deals with history. In Albini’s case, he’s managed to mobilize historical precedents without resorting to historicism. We’ll see later that this is not an unique achievement: Albini’s synthesis of the classical and the modern has a precedent in the work of earlier Italian architects, whose approach to Modernism was perhaps more restrained than in other countries, due in part to the rich architectural heritage of the country, and in part to the pre-war government’s demand for architecture that recreated the glory of Imperial Rome.

As a final note, it’s amazing how contemporary this still looks today. The connection between the department store and the adjacent apartments wouldn’t be out of place on Berlin’s P
otsdamer Platz. But maybe that’s simply because Renzo Piano knows his history….

In the next few weeks I hope to travel to Genoa, where there are four museums by Albini, at which point I can pick this thread back up… meanwhile, there are a few more photos here.

La Rinascente [1957-1961] Architects: Franco Albini & Franca Helg
Piazza Fiume, Rome, Italy [Map]

London ’09: Lloyds & Leadenhall

On one of my rambling walks through London (following the lead of KSA Professor Doug Graf), I came, unexpectedly, upon Richard Rogers’ 1986 “masterpiece” — Lloyds of London. Like the Pompidou Center of 10 years earlier (by Rogers in collaboration with Renzo Piano), the building services are all expressed on the exterior. I say “expressed” because I doubt that all these tubes are functional, but the intent is unmistakable: here’s a building whose public face is its internal systems. While at the Pompidou center, the building services are pushed to the exterior to allow open-plan gallery spaces within, here at Lloyds it seems to simply be a bold celebration of technology, and possibly the best example to date of “high tech” architecture.
Unfortunately, the place is heavily guarded, and there’s no chance to get inside as an archi-tourist. A shame, because – as wikipedia states – the interior contains an 18th century dining room reconstructed piece-by-piece within this futuristic monstrosity, in a curious act of preservation.
The concrete structure is sometimes detailed as if it were built from a system of standardized metal parts, a design decision that leads me to believe that the concept behind this building is not one based in pure material honesty and technological expression. Rogers’ attitude seems almost postmodern, using the detailing of the concrete formwork to evoke a structural frame of metal tubes screwed into place.
Leadenhall Market just down the street (whose iron and glass roof structure was added in 1881) is an even greater celebration of technology than Rogers’ tower. The existing buildings were covered by the canopy, exterior space was turned inward, and the building facades were made interior walls, all through the technology of wrought iron.

Serpentine Pavilion 2009 [SANAA]

While In London, I got the chance to check out SANAA’s 2009 Serpentine Pavilion. While it certainly beat the Serpentine Gallery’s repulsive Jeff Koons exhibit, in the end I was unimpressed.

The mirrored surface of the roof structure was somewhat effective at erasing the canopy, and allowing it to blend with the surrounding park, and the field of columns could have been nice, but the effect was ruined completely by the half-height plastic panels surrounding the pavilion. While I buy that these wind-blockers may have kept a few napkins from flying off, this apparent afterthought distracted from what otherwise could have been a nice piece of public sculpture, especially when it lead to moments like this:

The fire exit in this free-standing plexiglass panel underscores the uselessness of the wall: why even bother?

Finally, guards were posted to keep children (and curious architecture students) from climbing up on the roof structure. I have to think this would have been more appealing if the architects had planned on that possibility and embraced it… even if it meant erecting plastic guard rails along the roof edge…

In the end, disappointing. Their Toledo Glass Museum is much more effective at achieving the ethereality and transparency this seems to be aiming for.

However, the project is redeemed completely if you imagine the pavilion as a venue for pole-dancing competitions….

Laban Dance Center [Herzog & de Meuron]

[Norman Foster’s Millenium Bridge, and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern]
After the KSA’s study abroad trip concluded in Munich, I flew to London to see some old friends (had it been 8 years? or only 6?) and tour around the town with a KSA professor and a few of my classmates. I had planned on traveling to Mumbai for the month of August (before starting work in Rome in September), but I ran into visa problems, and stayed in London for about a week, twice as long as I had planned.

In the end, it is probably a good thing I didn’t fly to India. After the rapid-fire architecture marathon that is the KSA’s study abroad program a relaxing week in London was just what I needed (even if I did spend several days running around looking at brutalist housing projects).
I had studied in Brighton in 2001, and had visited London a few times back then, but I’d never really been as an architecture student, and it was interesting to return. In 2001 I was amazed by the recently-opened Tate Modern (and struck by one piece in particular: Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree), but I never would have guessed that I’d return 8 years later, having worked for the architects.

[Herzog & de Meuron – Laban Dance Center]

Speaking of the architects, I was excited to finally visit their Laban Dance Center, as I feel it’s one of their best recent projects, along with the Schaulager in Basel. The exterior walls are all clad in translucent polycarbonate panels, and while the colors already look a little faded, this only adds to the ethereal quality of the facade, on the overcast day I visited, from certain vantage points the building seemed to vanish, blending with the clouds. The facade is treated as a graphic surface, and the detailing around the windows and doors suggests that they both belong to the same system. OSU Professor Jeff Kipnis theorizes that this is a way of bypassing the unsolved modernist challenge of entry: rather than erasing the necessarily-hierarchical point of entry, the architects simply pull it into the graphic language of the facade.
The gap where the building meets the ground furthers the reading of the facade as a graphic surface, but this combines with the vertically-striated polycarbonate panels to produce another reading: that of a curtain. This subtle reference is reinforced by the landscaping, where triangular mounds of earth are arranged in such a way to produce an outdoor arena theater, with the building’s front facade/curtain as backdrop.

Unfortunately, only the lobby and cafe are accessible to visitors, but even here it’s apparent that the architects are not simply concerned with facade treatments, but are expert manipulators of interior space. From the entryway, one can see the rake of an auditorium above, dropping below the lobby ceiling plane, and a pathway to the loading dock slices through the floor. The floor and ceiling are pinned together by a large sculptural spiral stair.

Well worth the visit if you’re ever in London. More photos in my Laban set on Flickr.

Laban Dance Center [2002] Architects: Herzog & de Meuron
Creekside, London, United Kingdom [Map]