Thursday, October 17, 2013

Starchitecture!


This article adds to what I said a few months back about the latest modernist architecture - namely that we mistake sculpture for architecture, leaving practical concerns in the dust in favor of expensive white elephants funded by and for the one percent. It's even more ironic because Santiago Calatrava is a local celebrity here in Milwaukee, the location of his most significant American work to date. In fact, his building is even on our city's logo:

 
And it's too bad - Calatrava is one of the few "starchitects" whose aesthetics I actually like quite a lot.
Critics of the [PATH train station at Ground Zero] project, commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, find the final price tag hard to believe. (In January 2012 an independent audit of the Port Authority concluded that the agency was “a challenged and dysfunctional organization.”) But several executives who have been involved in construction at the World Trade Center site, who did not want to speak on the record because of their relationship with the project, said Mr. Calatrava’s designs were problematic, too, calling for hugely difficult construction, including a vast underground chamber. In addition, they said, he demanded that surrounding buildings house all the station’s mechanical elements, like ventilation, which complicated construction and called for time-consuming coordination.

Here in Valencia, the regional government’s spending spree and Mr. Calatrava’s work are being dissected and disparaged regularly as local politicians fight over who is responsible for the project’s pile of debt. Regional officials had hoped that the complex would transform this city into a tourist destination, in much the way that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao put that city on the map, and they continue to defend the investment. But they appeared to draw a line last year when the smooth skin of Mr. Calatrava’s opera house — some call it the Darth Vader helmet — began noticeably wrinkling just six years after the building opened.

In Bilbao he designed a footbridge with a glass tile surface that allowed it to be lighted from below, keeping its sweeping arches free of lampposts. But in a city that gets a lot of rain and occasional snow, pedestrians keep falling on the slippery surface. City officials say some 50 citizens have injured themselves, sometimes breaking legs or hips, on the bridge since it opened in 1997, and the glass bricks frequently crack and need to be replaced. Two years ago the city resorted to laying a huge black rubber carpet across the bridge.

“It loses the beauty, ” said Ibon Areso, the acting mayor of Bilbao. “But we can’t keep paying people who slip and fall.” In a recent storm the carpet flipped up, knocking several people off their feet.

On the outskirts of Bilbao, Mr. Calatrava was commissioned to build an airport terminal that has been nicknamed La Paloma because of its resemblance to a dove taking flight. But when it opened in 2000, the airport lacked an arrivals hall. Passengers moved through the customs and baggage area directly to the sidewalk where they had to wait in the cold. The airport authorities have since installed a glass wall to shelter them.

In June a Spanish court ruled that Mr. Calatrava and his team had to pay to 3.3 million euros (about $4.5 million) to settle a dispute in Oviedo, where the construction of the conference center at one point suffered a spectacular collapse.

In the Álava region, a winery is suing Mr. Calatrava over an undulating roof he designed a dozen years ago. Problems with leaks, which ruin the humidity control that is vital to wine, have never been resolved. The owners of the winery, Domecq, are asking for 2 million euros (about $2.7 million) to hire fresh architects and engineers to devise a solution.

Auditors in Venice are taking Mr. Calatrava and several engineers to court because of cost overruns and what they see as an excessive need for repairs on Mr. Calatrava’s Ponte della Costituzione, a footbridge across the Grand Canal. The region’s audit court has asked Mr. Calatrava to return more than a million euros. The first hearing is scheduled for November.

Meanwhile, Venice is also asking judicial authorities to find out whether Mr. Calatrava was responsible for some cost overruns because he did not promptly supply the drawings needed to begin finding a builder.

As for Valencia’s cost overruns, the politician Mr. Blanco said in a recent interview that one contributing issue might be that Mr. Calatrava’s designs appear to include few details. “Other architects, they know exactly the door handles they want, and where to buy and at what cost,” Mr. Blanco said. “But Calatrava is the opposite. His projects do not have this degree of precision. If you look at the files on the aquarium, which was built by someone else, they are fat. But there are just a couple of pages on the Calatrava projects.”

Valencia, where Mr. Calatrava was born, has a lot to regret now that Spain’s economic boom is over. The regional government, led by the center-right Popular Party, spent, for instance, about $180 million on a new airport that has not managed to attract any airlines. And some critics see Mr. Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences as another monument to the government’s extravagance, not his. Did Valencia really need an opera house, they ask?

But other critics scoff at Mr. Calatrava’s landscaped gardens beneath metal arches that become so hot no vines will entwine them. The roof of the performance hall leaks, they say. The opera was once flooded in a storm. Didn’t he know he was working in a riverbed?

One Valencia architect, Vicente Blasco, has taken Mr. Calatrava to task in a local newspaper for even trying to cover the steel sides of the opera house with a mosaic of broken white tiles. (That touch was Mr. Calatrava’s nod to another noted architect of Spain, Antoni Gaudí, who favored mosaics.) The flourish may have been a nice idea, Mr. Blasco said, but it was absurd. The buckling that is now occurring was predictable. On days with a rapid change in temperature, he wrote, the steel and tile contract and expand at different rates.

“Maybe someone sold him on some special adhesive, but I don’t see it,” Mr. Blasco said in an interview. “It is so basic. No one would expect that to work.
Ponte della Constitutazione
A Star Architect Leaves Some Clients Fuming (The New York Times) This follows several in-depth articles on Zaha Hadid in the Guardian a few weeks earlier:

Economic use of materials?
The last time was when the Architecture Foundation, of which I was director, ran a competition to design a new building to house its activities. Zaha Hadid won, and another meeting gathered in her office, in the same room where Patrick Wilson, the Thrislington man, had won the day. This time it held the many consultants who would help get the building built, who were there to learn about and be enthused by the project on which we were embarking. Hadid wandered in and out, while her project architect attempted an explanation of the designs, occasionally telling him from the doorway that he was doing it wrong.

It was not an auspicious start, and after three years, many sleepless nights and some hair loss, the project was abandoned. We experienced the same impatience with practical constraints that she had shown on the Frankfurt flight – the cafe would not be easily heatable in the winter, the window-cleaning bill equalled the salary of a member of staff of this small organisation, the project architect turned up at a meeting called to cut costs with a redesigned staircase that would increase them. At the same time she and her office showed dedication, working long hours to address problems, producing an entirely new design when necessary, and dealing with frustrations not of their making. As clients, it should be said, we at the Architecture Foundation had our own imperfections.

We were not alone among her clients in facing practical challenges – the Aquatics Centre for example uses prodigious quantities of steel, which dented London 2012's pride in using the material economically on their stadium, and coped awkwardly with the need to have temporary additions to house the seating required during Games time. But nor are such challenges unique or new among celebrated architects. Early houses by Richard Rogers were cold, damp, and/or nightmarish to build. The functional shortcomings of Le Corbusier's and Frank Lloyd Wright's works are legendary. Andrea Palladio's church of Il Redentore in Venice, consecrated in 1592, was seven times over budget and had poor acoustics. As choral music was one of its functions, the latter was a serious fault, but it is still seen as a masterpiece.

Patrik Schumacher has even addressed this question of practicality as part of the practice's philosophy. "Functional optimality," he wrote, "is… renounced in favour of the experimental advancement of social practices of potentially higher functionality." This seems to say that, if you have to choose between firing someone and having dirty windows, it is worth it, because at some point in the future her architecture will lead to a better world. It is almost religious: sacrifices now for reward in the hereafter.

The new look of hyperglobal capitalism - or totalitarianism?
Through her architecture she has sought to create new and heightened relationships between the inner and outer lives of her buildings, between the contents of an opera house or an art gallery, and the streets outside. At Cardiff the audience would themselves have become performers, as they moved through a sequence of external spaces and internal foyers. In Rome she made a three-dimensional passeggiata that fuses an old city and new art. Critics of Hadid have always accused her of making extraordinary shapes for the sake of it, to which she responded by saying that they were means to the end of creating new urban experiences, as at Maxxi. According to Schumacher, the purpose is to "reflect emerging social demands".

With some of the more recent work, however, this defence is harder to make. The CMA CGM tower in Marseille, and the Roca showroom in London look very much like shape-making for its own sake, with multiple curves that have little purpose but to create an updated version of a 1960s vision of what the future was going to look like. In the glimpses so far possible of the Serpentine Sackler, her undulating, tent-like addition joins the old gunpowder store clumsily. Some hidden intelligence might be revealed when it is opened, but for now its curves seem lumpy and overwrought, earthbound rather than floating.

It would be surprising if Ilham Aliyev, ruler of Azerbaijan, has much interest in Schumacher's "emerging social demands", or in reflecting them in the Heydar Aliyev centre, which is named after his father and immediate predecessor as president. From a distance of a few thousand miles this building looks extraordinary, with almost every surface, inside and out, being both white and curving, offering an experience of total immersion in Zaha-ness. But it doesn't look like a work of the democratic urban energy of which Betsky speaks. Rather, it seems an exercise in isolated magnificence not so different from the colossal cultural palaces long beloved of Soviet and similar regimes – it is just that the giant Asiatic-classical columns that they would once have used have been traded for futurist swooshes.

Nor does her Galaxy Soho building in Beijing, which has upset the preservationists, fulfil her practice's promise that its projects "work in synchronicity with their surroundings". Huge, bulbous and uniform, it looms menacingly over neighbouring hutongs, the streets and alleys bordered by courtyard houses that are characteristic of old Beijing. This menace is actual as well as metaphorical, as similar streets were obliterated to make way for Galaxy Soho. "During the land acquisition process," says the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, "the legal rights of the original hutong residents were also grossly disregarded." Walking in and around it, the experience is not of flow but of disconnection, of a space station descended on the city.

The architect Sean Griffiths is one of several of Hadid's fellow professionals who question her work, but he is more outspoken than most. "It's basically an empty vessel," he says, "that sucks in whatever ideology might be in proximity to it. In Moscow in 1923 it might have been interesting, but in the age of hyperventilating global capitalism, that's what gets sucked in." Another architect calls her current designs "commodified images of progress". Looking at the projects in Baku and Beijing, it's hard to disagree.
Zaha Hadid: queen of the curve (The Guardian)

Add least Kanye's still into us.
Yet still the doubts remain. Hadid's designs are so swishy, so brazen, so shamelessly flamboyant that they surely run the risk of putting experimentation ahead of functionality. I worry that her boldest projects become a kind of abstract art. These are things that we might relish in a gallery but baulk at hanging in the sitting room, never mind attempting to live and work inside.

Hadid's first successful commission, back in 1994, was to design a fire station for the Vitra furniture factory in Germany. On an aesthetic level, this was judged to be a triumph. However, it was later decided that the fire station did not quite work as a fire station and the building has since been made over as a museum for chairs. Doesn't that make the building a failure?

"No," says Hadid. "Because it was always intended as a multi-functional building. It was not done as a fire station for the whole city, it was only for the factory. And then the city upgraded its fire station, so the factory used that. But it was always thought that it could be used for training purposes, or as an event space." She pulls a face. "They sometimes use it to exhibit chairs, it's true. I had dinner there quite recently."

Other commissions have brought knottier problems. Despite being shunned by the boys' club, Hadid has found ardent support in central Asia and China, where the regulations are looser and the patrons more dubious. Just last month the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre wrote an open letter protesting about the colossal Galaxy Soho office and leisure complex that recently went up in the heart of the city. The scheme, they said, rode roughshod over the traditional Hutong neighbourhoods and was an "unfortunate example of the destruction of Beijing old town".

Or take the case of the Heydar Aliyev cultural centre in Baku, raised in honour of Azerbaijan's former president and commissioned by his son, the current incumbent. Basking on the landscape like some space-age leviathan, the centre nonetheless stands as an implicit salute to a nation beset by human rights abuses and allegations of corruption, torture and stuffed ballot boxes. Reports suggest that Baku's bold programme of urban renewal has been furnished by forced evictions, with an estimated 60,000 inhabitants driven from their homes since 2008.
Zaha Hadid: 'I don't make nice little buildings' (The Guardian)

Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre: Turning a Vision into Reality (Buildipedia)

Scottish Parliament
'The definition of an architect," said an exasperated Lord Blake, provost of Queen's College, Oxford, on the completion of the long-delayed, over-budget, leaky-roofed Florey student accommodation building, "is someone you employ only once."

It was 1971 and the architect in question was James Stirling, the uncompromisingly brilliant bulldog of British postmodernism, whose name now presides over the most coveted annual prize in architecture – to be awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects on Thursday night. The trauma of Oxford's encounter with what Blake described as Stirling's "incompetence, dilatoriness, casualness and general inefficiency" was enough to make it difficult for the Glasgow-born architect to build in this country for the next 20 years. Visiting some of the buildings that have since been bestowed with the precious Stirling prize, it seems some of their users and clients might sympathise with Blake.

Writhing at the bottom of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, in a tangled collision of granite, concrete and splintered wooden shards, the £414m Scottish parliament is one of the most striking buildings to have been given the gong – and also one of the most contentious. Designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, winner in 2005 after his death, it was lauded by judge Piers Gough as a work of "poetry, beauty, magnificence" – and by land artist Charles Jencks as "an icon of the organic resolution of nature and culture". But – finished three years late, at 10 times the original budget and subject to a public inquiry – it was a decision that was hard to swallow for many. Eight years on, has the project proved its worth?

"It certainly deserves a prize," says politician Margo MacDonald, independent MSP for Lothian, "for being the most energy-inefficient building in Scotland." Energy performance is just one of the items on the building's long list of functional failures: a great beam fell down in the main chamber soon after completion, doors buckled, windows cracked, the roof started leaking – and a flock of pigeons took up residence.

"It just doesn't work nearly as well as it should for that amount of money," says MacDonald, who prefers to watch debates on TV because the acoustics are so bad in the chamber and the microphones are in the wrong place. She has converted her "think pod" – the trademark wonky cubby-holes that project from the building's facade – into a storage space. "They're a ridiculous idea," she says. "Far too uncomfortable to sit in – and you bang your nut when you try to get in."
I'm in a Stirling prize winner … get me out of here! It is the most coveted award in British architecture. But what's it like to live or work in a building that won it? Our critic uncovers a story of leaky roofs, sweltering space-bubbles, windows that won't open – and playgrounds you can't play in (The Guardian)

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