Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.

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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?