Carchitecture #2 The Urzeit

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The Nissan building (now owned by a different company) by ZZ&P architects

I was surprised, when I looked for information on the Nissan building next to the A4 just outside Amsterdam, to find it was finished as late as 1991. It was this building that struck me as the first building that truly made something out of its location right next to the highway. The rectangular slab of the building is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the road, making the entire facade a billboard that carries the company logo. A whimsical blob emanates from the edge, near the top – a board room probably – and gestures at the passing cars. The blob seemed to me a rather transparent quote from the vocabulary of OMA (the architecture firm that everybody now knows from the CCTV building in Beijing). This office made, much earlier, a true piece of Carchitecture.

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The building I’m thinking of is the 1980 project for the “Boompjes” in Rotterdam. Its complicated and contradictory shape (a slab made out of towers) is further rationalized by the view it presented from the road that went past the building. A beautiful piece of OMA bravura, it was a project for a site that didn’t exist, precariously ambushed by water and a curving bit of highway. Driving on this highway meant that just when you would arrive at the building you had to make a sharp turn and right after that another, to prevent crashing into it – a fantastic cinematographic experience that was preserved in the flight of the little renderings (perspective views of the approach) that hover in the left panel of the triptych made for the presentation of the project. So here, for the first time, there was an awareness of the quality that a roadside location could have, not only because it was so conveniently placed to the means of access, but also, and very much so, because the building itself could advertise, just as the car salesmen had found out before.
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The Boompjes building was a watershed because, for the first time in decennia, it celebrated infrastructure and the highway. By the end of the 70’s you could find the ruins of the big infrastructural dreams of the previous decades in almost every city in the Netherlands. Stretches of highway looking forlorn in the still standing fabric of the old city around it. In Amsterdam a 4-lane road stopped right before a venerable remainder of the Golden Age, the 17th century residence of the Pinto family. The frail old building proved to be stronger than the stream of asphalt. In Delft a highway speeded gingerly towards the medieval centre – that is, before the value of the old brick and mortar was judged to be greater than a smooth transition by car. And so the highway stopped right in front of a row of 19th century houses; dramatically, incomprehensibly. Something similar happened in The Hague. A wide lane, lifted on concrete pillars, abruptly had to go down on its knees and bow down before the neighbourhood it all but had destroyed.
Of course the buildings that would line these dreams of swift connection and frictionless transport didn’t sport the complicated forms of Carchitecture. They were reticent boxes, quiet (or should i say “boring”) containers for the offices and shops that would bring the old city back to life. Most of these buildings are now torn down.
This was the state of things by 1980: a ban on highways within the boundaries of the cities, preservation and reconstruction of the old city centres, a move of businesses to locations outside the city, and a new effort to provide the existing highways with enough capacity to connect the cities with these new locations.

The Boompjes project never made it past the beautiful presentation. The “impossible” location turned out to be a quite possible location for a rather bland building, that didn’t do anything with the highway but addresses a bend in the river at that point, supposedly. It took another ten years for the Nissan building to appear, the first built example of car driven architecture: Carchitecture.

It’s a job that just suits me?

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foto by Reinhard Krause

Blogging can be frustrating. There’s a variety of subjects I would like to write about, and more come up every other day – but I should really work (on this blog that is) on, for instance, expanding my piece on Carchitecture and not jump from topic to topic like a little grasshopper.

Here’s stuff that makes me think, though, and just might be developed into a future post: I’ll consider these snippets little placeholders that hopefully will help me nag into actually write the things.

I would like to write about the use of photography in architecture – after all, all of us architects are ready to profess that architecture is a spatial art, and yet we have to admit that most of the buildings, yes, even the buildings that influenced us the most, we know from pictures that are as flat as really flat things. Modern architecture has been accompanied and diffused with photos since it’s beginning, and the kind of photos, the subject matter in them, and their setting in a book or article were very important in spreading the word. The amount of pictures of buildings on the Internet is stunning, and sites like Archdailyand Dezeen offer each day a generous helping of jpegs. So there is a true virtual existence of buildings that lives parallel to the actual buildings, sometimes even superseding the fysical reality – the grainy black and white pictures of Eileen Gray’s E1027 house on the Côte d’Azur are the reality everybody refers to, since the building has turned into a sad ruin and the restoration has not been going very well (maybe you can help??). Pictures proselytise, serve as manifestos, indoctrinate, seduct. How did they shape the image of architecture in the heads of its proffesionals? What about the renderings that have now become uncannily ‘realistic’? Is there an architecture of the mind next to the stuff that bricks and mortar made?

Then there is the elusive matter of Transparency. A very popular item these days, almost hard to avoid. We finished the project of the NRC newspaper offices last year in which transparency was an important starting point for the design. A newspaper wants to be transparent for its readers, but of course there still are things that shouldn’t be THAT transparent – and transparency can help you to hide those too. So, how many layers does transparency have? What is actually meant with this word – the thing the window cleaner thinks of, or the politician?

don’t go by first impressions

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This is a design for a metropolis (in fact, Berlin) by Ludwig Hilbersheimer from 1927. It is a radical proposal for a solution of the problems of the exploding cities of the early twentieth century: bad housing conditions, congested traffic, unequal division of land and assets. As described in Manfredo Tafuri’s ‘Design and Utopia’, where I first met with this surprising design, the architectural object has simply disappeared. The living unit, the cell, and the city are one and the same thing. There is no notion of a traditional city space. Starting with the cell, the city is simply a multiplication of this basic unit and vice versa; the buildings are habitation and workplace and street as well. This city has no boundaries. It is a pattern that can be replicated endlessly, as needed. The blocks stand on a plane on which motorized transport moves, without differentiation, without streets or squares. Five floors of workshop are accessible from this level. On top of the workshops there is a grid of walkways, from which you enter the fifteen floor appartement buildings. These buildings have the rigorous layout of a rental office: elevators, stairs, corridors. Off of these corridors are the apartments, the living cells, defined by the number of bedrooms – from one to six.

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I was struck, revisiting this project, with how much this design actually reflects in a way how a large, and increasing, part of humanity lives. Nowadays it seems that most people live a fleeting life, their living place in a state of flux. So they may become home owners, but, next to the agreeable living quarters they wished for, their house is also a commodity. The type of wall finish, the amount of rooms, the way the kitchen is laid out, are for a considerable part dictated by the inevitable moment that the house has to be sold, and its inhabitants move to the next place. In Hilbersheimer’s project the final consequence is faced: you enter these appartements with nothing but your suitcase and leave it the same way. Beds, kitchen, cabinets for storage of your belongings, are already present.

Hilbersheimer’s plan may look like a cartoon image of the way of living of today. But this plan has also a striking difference: the places for work and those for living are on top of each other. This, surprisingly, harks back to the oldest way of living, your home next to or on too of your shop or atelier. So there is room form traffic to go around but there is no need to commute. Here a pre-modern arrangement is at the heart of an ultra modern city.

Heidegger wrote (in Bauen, Wohnen, Denken) how building and living are at the heart of our existence on earth. The German word ‘bauen’ points to ‘raising’ as in raising crop. ‘Wohnen’ is being in a space, a place that is created by living. Not a space in a technological sense. He says “space and men are not across from each other though. She is neither an external object nor an inner sensation”. “Space is included in the designation ‘man'”. Living (‘wohnen’) should provide for the receiving of the foursome, heaven and earth, mortals and gods. This notion of the ‘geviert’ (which I translate with foursome) is a very complex one that I’m only beginning to explore. But for now I think I understand that with this notion he provides a space for the spiritual, or whatever is beyond the subject, as well for the subjective world – and without pulling these apart.

Is there room for such a space? Heidegger presented his thoughts in a lecture right after the war, and the housing shortage was an urgent issue. He points out though, that even with the building of new housing there is moreover a longing for the actual ‘living’ – and this living is not confined to the home but also present in the workspace, everywhere where man and place are present. Looking at the rigorous plan of Hilbersheimer I thought that at least one thing was right, which is that it suggests how living and working can be combined. It may not be necessary to reach for the suburban alternative to make a place. It may be a way to reconsider the new megametropoles, the multi million inhabitants cities that are now an unerasable given, and look for the possibility to create a place for humans to truly live there. A huge leap of faith is necessary.

Of course, the chilly uniformity, the absence of even one blade of grass, the total lack of fun, shouldn’t be replicated. The ‘Hochhausgrossstadt’ is a schematic proposal that is very much concerned with the production side of how to build a good city. I think it can open up the thinking about cities into a perspective to an alternative to cities that are still laid out in a wasteful and inorganic way, needing too much traffic to function, taking up too much space. Maybe this inhuman looking city may provide a way to a truly human city.