It isn’t easy being Charlie

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With the shooting rampage at Charlie Hebdo. I felt something different than what I felt with earlier acts of atrocity. Every single one makes me sick, but why was this one so particularly shocking to me? There was an “us-ness” that i felt – these people were my people – I felt a deeply held common value that was trampled here. I thought that this was something worth investigating.

That cozy “us” wasn’t there at all for the longest time. Only a hundred year ago there seemed nothing more insurmountable than the difference between the French and the Germans. A particular example is provided by the postcard that circulated as a result of a picture exhibition in Munich (1). It shows a Gothic church, over which hovers a giant man, one big hand crashing down, the other hand ready to grab the delicate structure. This painting won a prize in an exhibition, and the French were aghast. Clearly this was an evident sign of the inflated self-assumption and never ending will for destruction of the Germans. After all, hadn’t they trained their big guns at the gothic cathedral in Reims, to shoot it entirely to pieces?

The misunderstanding was monumental: the image, in Germans eyes, showed a fellow countryman protecting the venerable monuments of culture (and Germany had a claim on Gothic architecture ever since Goethe discovered the beauty of the cathedral in Strasbourg – then a German town). It was crystal clear, in their eyes, that the “Grosse Brummer” held a protective arm around the cathedral. It clearly showed the divide between “us” and the other, and no doubt it would have provoked the outrage in the men in the trenches. Yet another cause for war.

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A claim to a shared culture, a world wide culture of enlightenment and the tolerance that comes with it, is problematic. We like to be the defenders of wit, because we understand the imagery of wit, and take it for granted that everyone else in the world does as well. But the visual language isn’t simple and unequivocal. An image won’t be understood equally by everyone, because images are shored up by other images, a frame of reference, a history. The problem immediately comes up when an image that is meant for a specific audience crosses the border (as with the picture mentioned above); and nowadays there are no borders for images. An image, appreciated by “us”, is easily and completely misunderstood by the “other”.

But when that happens, it can result in something dangerous; as a reaction to this misunderstanding, the rift grows deeper between us and the other. Which is what I felt – complete unwillingness to understand what moves these killers, and at the same time exasperation at the lethal unwillingness of the killers to try to understand something like irony or humor – that is: our humor. For now, the rift is huge. I only can hope that people on either side will do the effort to understand, so that there is a chance the rift will close. European history has shown that both is possible.

(1) the picture is from the book “Cathédrales 1789-1914, Un Mythe Moderne”, the catalog to the exposition with the same name in Rouen that gave a fascinating overview of how the cathedral was taken up in the imagery of modern France, England and Germany.

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Windshield Panorama

We get in the car. Everything is loaded up, our summer clothes, the inflatable matrasses and the bedding, the tent, the little gas stove and the aluminium pans in their rattan case. Driving off for the holiday is a wonderful moment. There are times, when I get in the car to visit a client or go to a building site, once I’m well on the road, I’m aware of the delightful possibility to just drive on, beyond the location of my appointment, to go on, across the border, not to Nieuwengein or Zeewolde, but to Berlin, Marseille, the seaside at Genova, all these possible destinations that are directly connected to the road I’m driving on. And this time we do just that – new views will roll by, the familiar flat grass lands framed by office buildings and blue and white road signs will change into something wider, into rolling hills and cows lazing under a tree, the office buildings will change into whitewashed houses with tiny windows or buildings with red bricks and grey stones and colored roof tiles. And, at every moment, there is a view that will never make it into the holiday snapshots: the back of a truck.
Usually this is something to avoid, to be overtaken as soon as possible, to be ignored, because it blocks the way to the promise of new vistas. But this time we enjoyed the view, and we made photos. So I’d like to put up our collection of holiday pictures and present a different aspect of the road trip: the geometric rigor of the backside of trucks, the bold graphics, the unassuming compositions of door handles and safety notices.

It is actually rather hard to take these pictures. By necessity they are taken from a riding car and, in order to get a satisfying picture, we had sometimes to get uncomfortably close to our subject. Since I did the driving these photos were all taken by Tracy.
It was amusing to find that in a while a true collectors frenzy began to take hold of us (or rather, me). Still, it was obviously impossible to take a photo of every single truck we saw, so we had to make a selection. Lots of backs were similar, and soon it became apparent that different categories could be applied. The plain utilitarion back, the thoughtful graphic, the whimsical cartoon, the hapless jumble. By the time we arrived at our destination, the coast of Normandy, we felt we had a reasonable sampling, while regretting the ones we missed: an anamorphotic image of the inside of the van, a whimsical pig on a butchers truck, some really succesful bold lettering.
This photo series is unfinished. There are so many more views out there. What will the autostrada on the hills of Tuscany reveal, what beautiful traffic is there in the Harz?

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Do buildings really know how to fly? architecture in photography #2

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The first pictures in the Bauhausbuch #12 are taken from an airplane. An unusual viewpoint for a photo of a building, sure enough. The subject of these photos was the Bauhaus, just finished. An abstract composition of planes, rotated at a 45 degree angle, turns out, at closer scrutiny, to be a white building sitting on the dark earth, a field without any precise definition but for two faint lines that could be roads.

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The book “gropius bauhaus bauten dessau” was designed by Moholy-Nagy. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was an artist who, after WW I, had contacts with people like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, and who started working with the precepts of Constructivism and the Suprematism of Maliewitch. In 1923 Walter Gropius appointed him, at 28 years old, as a professor at the Bauhaus and he became the director of the influential preliminary course. His art from that time shows the floating planes and colors of constructivism.

“We renounce volume as pictoral and plastic form of space.
One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquids in yards:
look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth?”
(Realistic manifesto, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920)

He also became a prolific photographer who transferred the new found constructivist sensibility to the photo paper.

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“Photography when used as a representational art is not a mere copy of nature”
“What used to be a distortion is nowadays an astounding experience! A summons for a re-evaluation of beauty. This picture can be turned around. There are new views from every point.”
(Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy, 1925)

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These new viewpoints are celebrated in the pictures in the Bauhausbuch. The Bauhaus appears as a gleaming white object. Building parts like balconies and windowframes are not just functional elements but show up as abstract forms. The photo gives a new justification to a shape by the way it is balanced on the picture plane. The people in a photo of the facade of the living quarters show a death defying attitude towards gravity, perched on the balcony railings and the roof edge. Everything wants to be weightless.

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This stresses the character of the building as a non-hierarchical composition. A composition of weightless volumes in which top or bottom, up or down, are no longer relevant; only the balance of shape and color is. This building has no front or back. In fact, it is hard to find the entrance. Then there appears to be two of them, one on each side of the road that bisects the building. “Clearly defined division of the separate parts of the organism” it says in the caption under a drawing of the plan, but it is more complicated than that. To define these these parts Gropius uses various formal ruses. For instance, the “clearly defined part” of the administration department is structurally part of the construction of the two buildings that it connects. But a false raised roof edge defines it as a separate abstract bar that penetrates the volumes of these buildings. Also, this seemingly weightless bar has to be supported by a concrete beam and posts that are downplayed by their dark grey color – clearly an unavoidable necessitiy dictated by gravity that can’t take part in the play of white shapes. Similary, the volumes sit on a grey base, a humble facade of the servant space (it isn’t shown in the plans in the book) in the basement.

These humble parts get their moment in the book, though. There are many photos that show the building as a construction, a proud display of concrete slabs, columns, cantilevers and fill in brickwork. Further along in the book there are pictures of the mechanism used to open the steel windows, a device to share a telephone between two offices, the light fixtures.

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These photos exemplify the aspirations to a disinterested functionalism – “a functional form is a good form”. This was the decade in which the word “beautiful” was exchanged for the word “good”. There are some charming stills from a movie, made at the same time, properly presented with their guiding holes, that show how Gropius’s wife or a servant girl use various cleverly designed items: a built-in coat rack, a well-organised wardrobe, a set of drawers in the working desk. The sequence of movie images stresses the connection between the use and the form of the design.

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And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

Gropius published the book in 1930. By then it was two years since he had left the Bauhaus and the villa that came with it. The photos still show the optimism that carried the Bauhaus. The text stresses the rational choices that underpin the design, but the photos aspire to something more than “good” design: a beautiful and, actually, happy future. Unfortunately, buildings never learned how to fly.

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A shout-out to: Charles Fourier

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Today it is the birthday of Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), the creator of a philosophy of a communal utopia, and strong believer in the power of architecture. As an alternative to the traditional house, that perpetuated the oppressive traditional household with its inequality of men and women, he proposed the “Phalanstère”: a large communal appartment block in which the inhabitants would share the various resources in the building. Those included a theatre, a stock exchange, a winter garden and other extensive meeting places. The size of this great building would be determined by diversity: 810 different character types (the outcome of 12 common types of character) would be coupled, so that the building would ideally house 1620 people – that would be circa 400 appartments. The architectural model was the most splendid palace that he knew, Versailles (which, by the way, had 350 appartments, besides the royal quarters).

The Phalanstère was eventually built in a modified form in Guise, by Jean Baptiste Godin. Godin was the inventor of a cast iron stove. He went on to establish a succesful business making cookers and heating stoves (a common model is known as the “petit godin”).

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He embraced Fouriers ideas enthousiastically, and, in 1856, built a housing project for 900 of his workers, the Familistère. He fitted the buildings not only with a large communal court yard (as an indoor playground of the children when it would rain outside, a rather useful provision in Northern France), but with additional services he called “the equivalence of wealth”: a nursery, a primary school, a swimming pool, a laundry, a theatre, a shop that sold goods at a little over wholesale prices.
A boss providing virtually every amenity for his workers may sound paternalistic. But Godin started out as an apprentice himself, in his fathers foundry when he was eleven, and, as a journeyman, got his share of bad housing conditions. In 1880 he converted the Familistère in a cooperative society. The foundry was owned by the workers. The building and its concept was succesful enough to last until 1968, when the cooperative society was dissolved. In Laken, outside Brussels, he established a second one in 1880, smaller in scale, that housed 72 units.

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There is a short but very nice documentary about the Familistère on the tube:
Familiy lodging in Guise.
And when you’re in the neighborhood of Guise, you can go and visit: Familistère.com.

Contradiction juxtaposed #1 Look around you

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Do architects read? They certainly write. One of the first books I read in my first year studying architecture was “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” by Robert Venturi. Its first sentence states candidly: “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictionary architecture based in the richness and ambiguity of modern experience . . . I am for richness of meaning rather that clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function.” Then page after page of erudite and well-written examples follow. It was a book that, I can safely say, has influenced how I look at architecture more than any other.

It also opened my eyes for a particular kind of architecture, the examples of which I happen on, every once in a while, in my city, Amsterdam. I’d say it flourished from about 1880 into the early years of the twentieth century. Venturi has a delightful example in his book, by Frank Furness, the Clearing House in Philadelphia. It is an example of what Venturi calls “Contradiction Juxtaposed”, which, he writes, “involves the shock treatment”. The Furness building is a fine example: “The half segmental arch, blocked by the submerged tower which, in turn, bisects the facade into a near duality, and the violent adjacencies of rectangles, squares, lunettes, and diagonals of contrasting sizes, compose a building seemingly held up by the buildings next door: it is an almost insane short story of a castle in a city street”. Contradiction juxtaposed indeed!

Having seen the picture of this building and reading these lines, I found that there were similar buildings to be found on the streets of Amsterdam. It is an extremely difficult sort of architecture to get right: to make a happy marriage of different architectural parts, such as bay windows, arches, lintels, and dormer windows, that are all put in intact, with their own symmetries, not in a well-balanced composition of abstract forms, like a De Stijl painting or a classic modernist building, but more like a suicidal balancing act with architectural good taste.

It’s important to note that any local symmetry, whenever it occurs, is allowed to exist. This gives the whole building a character of an assemblage of fragments. It’s a sign of the skill of the designers of these buidings that, with all these fragments, it doesn’t fall apart or becomes a parody. I don’t think there is anyone alive who could pull this off anymore.
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These buildings are typically brickwork. This gives them a very useful basso continuo with the quiet color of the brick and the typical detailing that the stacking of bricks demand, such as arches and row locks. Windows are of a traditional type, sash windows are everywhere in Amsterdam.

To start this series off, I offer a nice example on the corner of the Bloemgracht, a few paces from where our office is located.

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This wonderful building sits on a corner with an acute angle. The elements that make up the building are all rectangular in plan. The architecture tries to deal with the conflict that the meeting of these rectangular elements and this angle provokes. And there is no fear of any unfamiliar solution that is called for!

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This was, for the time, a new type of building: the appartement block. Before, there were rental units of course, but they were found in traditional town houses that were subdivided. On the outside one would see a single house. This building tries to cope with the larger scale an appartment building has – something that would stick out on a canal where most houses are 4 to 5 meters wide.
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Because of the acute angle of the corner plot the square turret needs an arch to support it on the corner. This arch is cleverly mirrored by a second one that overarches the entrance door on the corner – the corner that is cut away to give room to the entrance door and to the people on the street to turn the corner. The bricklayer surely made a masterpiece of it. The span of the arches is determined by the size of the entry door, and they in turn determine the width of the body of the corner turret. But the actual little turret that caps it off has its own demands, and must be narrower to be properly elegant.

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Two symmetries going around the corner: on the left side the windows set up one with the windows and the two arches, on the corner the little turret makes one, diagonally, with its two facades around the corner. A little brickwork corbel supporting the gutter emphasizes it.

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The facade on the Bloemgracht has a large bay window that is so big that it becomes its own facade, which is capped off properly with an Amsterdam gable. The width of this gable conforms to the width of the traditional Amsterdam grachtenhuis but to do this the whole structure, that rises from the corbels as a twice as wide facade, stops at the level of the little balcony, creating a complex ambiguous shape.

Picture imperfect: architecture in photography #1

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I can’t exactly remember when I realised that most of the buildings I thought I knew, I knew only from photos. That was a startling thought! After all, architecture is the creation of space, and yet my knowledge of the great models was from pictures. I culled them from magazines – the faculty of Bouwkunde in Delft had a great collection of the important architectural reviews going all the way back to the early 1900’s. And I poured over them in the monographs about famous or interesting architects (not necessarily the same thing). The photos were, as a rule, accompanied by plans and sections, so I could get an idea of how these photos related to the drawings, and where excactly they were taken. Two incongruous pictures could turn out to be of the same room, a striking detail was actually a minor instance on the back facade. Seductive pictures . . . I knew that by combining pictures and plans I could get a functional knowledge of how a building was laid out – the way the living room connected up with the dining room, how a “void” could connect two floors. How the sequence of rooms in a Loos house, strung around a staircase, would connect and relate to each other. Knowledge of an abstract nature, though. The physical aspect that is also part of how a building works, the sound of steps reflecting in a space, the sense of how wide the opening of a door is – none of that was communicated by the photos.

Part – and I think a vital part – of the education of an architect is building a library, or a memory bank, of spaces. Knowing beforehand what a design will look like once it is standing up in the real world under the glare of the sun requires a sense of how dimensions translate into space. There are, certainly, nowadays, tools that help with that, like 3-D imagining. But as a rule, architects take good notice of the space they find themselves in – it could be an addition to the library. That’s why it can be such a revelation to visit a project that you know on paper only. I still remember the wonder of being in the 1.88m wide, 2.23m high hotel room in the Cite Radieuse, the well-known housing project of Le Corbusier in Marseille. These dimensions, that seemed impossibly narrow and confining in the drawings, actually worked perfectly. Certainly the view out on the foothills of the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge helped, as did the thoughtful detailing of the wooden folding doors that had a collapsible wooden bench over the window sill, and an arm rest on the door that made it into an impromptu seat. It was exactly the sort of thing you don’t see on the photos, so that’s why you go and visit.

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Of course these holiday snaps, to illustrate my point, still don’t convey how it was being there

But is was photos that brought me there in the first place. Seductive pictures . . . They show a different building. Gathered in a magazine or a architectural photo book, they tell a story, they are an argument. And when you go out, you look for that story in the first place. Photos can have a strong influence; when visiting the building, the impression of these images is overlaid on what actually meets your eye – the photo dictates your eye. The photo shows shapes starkly outlined in the light of the sun – it’s overcast when you arrive there, but you imagine the sun. The brilliant white of the walls in the picture is really a cracked and sooty surface – but you imagine it to be smooth and wonderful. The magical, wonderful presence of the building as it was conceived and photographed, that’s the reality that is truly real. The building as it stands there is compromised by use, misuse, new inhabitants, people who don’t care, badly done renovations, unhappy additions.

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Earliest photograph. You really have to look closely.

The first photo ever was of buildings. Immobile subjects, well-suited to the long exposure time that was necessary. Buildings continued to be the subject matter of photography, through the work of Atget and Marville, to the use of photography in “The English House” by Hermann Muthesius. With this book a change is visible. From the documentary work of Atget (who worked preferably in the early hours of the day, so as not to have too many distracting humans in his streetscapes) photography had turned into a means of supporting an argument. By combining the expectation of transparency – the promise that a picture is a window on reality, the truth – with a careful choice of interiors and their decoration, Muthesius’s photos would make a warm apology for the merits of English domestic architecture as a model for the German middle class house.

In the next post about this subject the question will be: do buildings really know how to fly?

Sign

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I thought I’d put up a picture up here, since I’ve been thinking about photography a lot lately while working on this post about photos that doesn’t come along very well, and I happened on this great image by Joe van Cleave.

This image of a sign, the only remainder of a gas station, struck me. There it is, a picture of an indian, held up in the blue sky, in front of this uneventful landscape. The landscape might actually be beautiful, if you could see outside the picture. The schematic drawing style of the picture prevents it to be indentified as someone of a particular tribe. It has become a generic sign, saying “indian”, or “indians here”. Yes, there used to be. This was a different country once. You can still see the contours of the hills, the colors of the landscape might not even have changed that much. But there’s a highway now, and you can see the tops of the roofs of houses beyond. And there’s only the sign left, even the gas station isn’t there any more.