21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

i recently had the chance to visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, by Pritzker Prize winner SANAA.  It's an interesting building for what it says both about modern art and Japanese architecture and culture.

The building is a circle in plan, meaning there is no facade in the traditional sense; it has an insistent neutrality being not only singular in form but also in material, here glass.  The glass perimeter has within it many rectangular volumes and one circular volume, varying in size and materiality, as some are voids and some solids.  Within these volumes are exhibition spaces, again either closed (opaque volumes) or open (as courtyards).  The building is roughly split in two, with the public free to enter the northern part of the building, the southern half is paid special exhibition.  The line between the two seems ambiguous and wandering in a way that leads to the belief that it's not a serious demarkation, just as one might understand the glass perimeter to be but a formality of separation between inside and outside, as you can see from the picture above.  With no line between free public and paid, one has the sense that the space is a free one to wander, until you come upon a rope barrier where it's made clear whether you paid or not.

Site Plan

Floor Plan
The notion of breaking down the barrier between inside and out is an ancient one with a strong presence in traditional Japanese architecture.  Exterior walls were often sliding screens (shoji) that when opened loosened the barrier between house and garden, just as the gate or opening in a wall one would often find between garden and the wilder landscape beyond.  The idea was not to dissolve the differences between the two, but that the differences be celebrated as a matter of design.  One was always understood as a rooted version of the other, not its replacement.  Similarly, in the SANAA plan, one understands the interior as a version of the larger city, minus all the warts and condensers and utility wires of the modern Japanese city beyond.  Present too is the Japanese characteristic of absent center, here playfully missing from the most insistent of forms, a circle. In an earlier post, we talked about that characteristic of the Japanese city and how the train station pretended as such but did so as center that expelled as much as it gathered, acting as a kind of anti-center.  This museum, with it's open stance with regard to access, does much the same, as people move about freely, coming and going, paying and not paying, 

Public corridor on north side cuts all the way through
As abstract as a red circle is for a nation of many islands, so the 21st Century Museum is as a building for the arts.  The entrance is a poke in the glass with a small canopy overhead, and the public entrance on the west side equally ambivalent about its role as portal to the glass circle.  The building does nothing to acknowledge the powerful sun that burns one side or another, and the shades that have been installed to mitigate that sun are an insult to the purity of the initial gesture; they're thin and must be pulled down one by one, and each is pulled differently, creating a chaotic appearance in a building with no tolerance for such.  It's also an affront to the ingenuity of traditional Japanese architecture, which was so attuned to the seasons and light. 

Late day sun can be blinding
The glass is often mirror
We architects like to assume that glass is transparent, but know that it often acts like a mirror.  The 21st Century Museum, like Japanese culture in general, moves as effortlessly from blinding light to shadow as it does transparent glass to mirror, and so the museum exists almost as much as it doesn't exist.  It's an enigma that plays with it's position between the precious Kenroku-en garden and Kanazawa Castle, where a wood house sits on a stone in a relationship equal to that of the garden and the landscape that preceded it.  At times it blurs as much the boundary between the sacred and profane as it does the boundary between inside and out.  At other times of the day, or the other "side" of the museum at the same time of day, it insists on this boundary by mirroring the city you're arriving from, making it's presence known from without.  In a similar "knowing from without", the island nation came to know itself as the Land of the Rising Sun, a reference to its perception from afar.

Permanent art installation Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich
The light and the dark


Japan Musings 7: Fuji Center

Hokusai, Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji
A co-worker talked to me about his long term interest in Shotokan, a form of Karate, talking about how it was as much about thinking as about the body.  He invited me to attend a session, and sure enough i found it interesting on many levels, like much from Japan.

Each session began with a sit, in which you put your feet beneath your body and hold that posture in silence until the sensei says to end it (seiza).  i found this to be incredibly painful.  If you haven't spend your life sitting the way the Japanese sit, and decide to go at when you're in your late 50's, you're going to hurt.  But sitting there one morning, a thought came..

i felt my body planted and one with the earth.  How could i not, with all the pain it was sending to me head?  And me head seemed apart from all this, as the collector of messages but the generator of none.  The body was earth, the mind the sky; one planted in the realities of planet and life and aging, the other floating in thoughts of candy bars and pipe dreams.  The image that came into me head in that instant was Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji is many things.  It is the earth solid and sure of itself as any mountain, yet its top is covered in snow and often de-materializes into cloud.  It's perfect symmetry and isolation objectifies this aspect of its nature.  It is and it isn't.  It was just this i felt sitting in seiza, with body of the earth and mind of the sky, and in the many depictions of Fuji in art, where its identity shifts from earth to flower to sky to wave; it can be what you imagine it to be.  What appears on the one hand to be so insistent and clear about its identity can on another day become vague and indifferent about the same.  And so another example of the Japanese sense of de-centered being discussed in earlier posts.

Fuji is about which Japan revolves, a single, insistent point of reference.  Hokusai created his series of views of Mt. Fuji in a way that described just such a centeredness, as he moved around the mountain as all revolves around the mountain, describing it in all seasons and weather.  The paradox is that Japan revolves around a center that at times doesn't exist, it focuses attention on something there as much as not there, and the fact that Fuji is a volcano can't be dismissed.  As mentioned previously (Japan Musings 2) about the train station as empty center, so Fuji, the assumed symbol of stability and gravity, is little more than a valve of the earth core, expelling when the time comes, emptying itself and revealing the true center, that of the earth itself.

And so The Land of the Rising Sun, de-centered, in flux and fluid, and prepared to reset the calendar any moment, Mt. Fuji or not.



A few weeks ago i went to the ICA here in Boston to wiggle my butt to some tunesies being spun by some renowned disc jocky's i'd never heard of.  Unfortunately, me ears filled with clams and some mussels that snapped shut, and when that happens my butt usually fails to wiggle.  Such is life in the later pages.

But i had another problem besides the one of ears filling with clams and mussels, and that was eyes filling with a brown, smelly substance i recognized from my long experience visiting public toilets and regularly wearing diapers.  This all came about from walking to the ICA Boston (Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, which if you've read more of this glob you'll recognize as itself a turd in my mumble opinion, but which in the context of the rest of the mess that's going and gone up in the seaport area of Boston is a masterpiece), filing past horror after horror, shithole after shithole.  What a disaster this area is!  Why are there so many shitty architects in this city able to build  and dominate the only new district possible in this supposedly design savy city?  Why and how has this come to be?

Anyone who has studied urban planning knows the history of Boston and it's neighborhoods, planned and unplanned, which comprise some of the best and renowned urban planning in the US, if not the world, with Commonwealth Avenue, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Charlestown, and the South End.  The Back Bay, in particular, i had in mind when walking the so called Seaport district, a new neighborhood created from scratch from an old industrial wasteland of sorts that was mostly empty, but included the Fort Point industrial area that's full of old brick and timber warehouses that have since been converted to offices and condos, mostly pushing out the artists that first "settled" this area.

If you look at the original maps of the city of Boston and the spit of land that it was settled on, you can understand the need to take and make city from the sea, as the original spot was so constricted there was no way for the city to swallow.

Current Washington St. is the only connection to land in 1775.

As has been so well documented by Alex Krueger and David Cobb in their book "Mapping Boston", the history of Boston is a history of taking land from the sea and adjacent swamps and making something from it, usually by flattening the bumps of this spot and using the earth to fill; Beacon Hill is the only hill left untouched.  Most renowned of these efforts is Back Bay from the late 19th century, one of the most distinguished and elegant planned residential neighborhoods in the US.

View down Commonwealth Ave from Public Garden.

Commonwealth Ave.

Comparisons of Back Bay to the Seaport District are telling, and seem almost black and white.  i'll grant that time will fill in some of what is so unpleasant about Seaport, but the lack of planning, or rather the lack of quality planning, dooms it be only as good as the buildings that fill that space, which are currently pretty horrible.  i think it's the side by side comparison, which is so easy to make in a city like this, that has me feeling bad about this age and the poor quality of space we make for people.  It's not about traditional vs modern, it's about good vs bad, the individual do-what-i-want look-at-me vs a recognition that we exist as a collective on a spot of land.


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

i finally got me tiny butt over to the new addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by RPBW (Renzo Piano Building Workshop).  The building has been open since 2012, and i guess i didn't zoom over there due to skepticsm over a lot of Piano's work, of which i've seen more than a few projects that failed to smear my make-up.  i found that many of his projects are beautifully detailed but often spacially boring, especially in the way he choreographs movement through his projects.  This one, however, is an exception, so i had a fairly large salmon flapping on my face the duration of me visit.

The original museum is one of my favorites in Boston.  It was built in the early 20th century by it's namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, to house her personal art collection made up of furniture, tapestries, paintings, and furnishings from all over the world.  She tried to re-create a Venetian palace in Boston, using elements taken from Europe, and did so by making a huge glass covered atrium around which were organized rooms (galleries) open to the space.  Much of the lighting comes naturally, from this atrium, and the result is often dim lighting in the galleries that creates an interesting atmosphere, as if walking through an old house rather than a traditional art gallery.

Part of the brilliance of Piano's solution came from an understanding of the fundamental chiaroscuro that defined the Gardner experience, where the entry sequence involved moving from a tiny, dark entrance to discover the lush light of the atrium, about which you would move in and out of as you moved through the dark gallery rooms.  The tapestry room is one example:

Tapestry Room
RPBW moved the entrance to the other side of the museum, which might sound like a disaster of sorts, but in reality proved a brilliant move.  Piano understood that though a museum in the middle of a city, the Gardner was set by the Emerald Necklace, a meandering Frederick Law Olmsted garden originally intended to ring Boston, and so was as much a garden itself as you can tell from the pixie of the atrium above.

Piano moved the entrance such that one enters opposite a small park.  He organized his addition by creating a series of bars through which one moves (colored below), until one arrives at a central stair hall, off which one then moves toward the old house through a glass passage surrounded by green.

Site Plan
Entry sequence.  The use of bars as opposed to spaces is a very modern device.
Doing so, one moves from the all glass entrance hall through what you might call a "garden bar" into the darker stair hall, where a huge glass wall re-orients you to the old house, toward which you then move, through an all glass garden corridor.  You then arrive at the old house, into a dark room, but with the light of the atrium showing itself just beyond.  You have the sense of having discovered the atrium, and the surprise of finding this amazing space is really a beautiful thing.  This is a wonderfully choreographed entrance sequence, light to dark to light to dark to light/atrium.  As explained above, this was the perfect place to use such a device to organize the spaces.

Piano's section diagram
New entrance
Entrance "bar", with garden "bar" to the right.
Inside the entrance bar, looking toward greenhouse beyond.
Another view of entrance bar.
A cliche, i know..but here it makes sense.
The central stair hall, with view toward old house.  This picture shows how one moves from dark to light.
View from the north side.

Egress hung off the facade.

View from garden toward new addition.
Beautifully detailed greenhouse
Detail of greenhouse
Piano layers
Garden passage detailing
"Post" midspan of garden passage.
As you can see, the detailing is brilliant, as is habit for Piano's office.  What's less common, but present here, is a beautiful choreography through spaces both new and old, reinforcing what was already so strong in the old Gardner museum, a depiction of art through light as it might have been during the creation of that art, light both dim and brilliant.


House for Trees 4.4

© Hiroyuki Oki
This project from Vo Trong Nghia Architects has just won the House of the Year award from AR (Architectural Review), and i thought i'd highlight it as my last entry of this architect's work, a firm i admire for their thoughtful interpretation of modernism within a regional cultural context.

What i found interesting about this project was the site plan, with the house appearing buried within a dense Ho Chi Minh City residential block.  The house appears to make this voided, residual space it's own, turning on it's head the traditional Vietnamese courtyard which is an ordered gathering space, an outdoor room of sorts accessed by the adjacent rooms, by making the empty space the occupied space, and the fragmented residual space the equal of the planned courtyard, but now undifferentiated from the fragmented outside space.

Traditional Vietnamese house, Hanoi
House for Trees Site Plan
Space is the residual of the surrounding buildings.

Floor Plan
House is accessed from the space on the left.
That the house is composed of individual blocks of rooms scattered about the residual space, with trees planted above each, gives the feeling that the architect was almost embarrassed about occupying this space, though it's done in an ingenious way that also says "we're not really here".  The trees say this isn't really a house, but a garden, a perverse version of paradise where one lives in the garden, but does so in concrete blocks.

© Hiroyuki Oki
© Hiroyuki Oki
As you can see in the plan, the rooms of this house are apart from each other; one goes outside to move about the house, it truly knows no bounds except those that others have made for it.

The house also has an interesting subterranean feel to it, with the trees hinting at a ground plane that you live below, but also undecided about where that ground plane is, as the height of the planters varies with the function each box.

© Hiroyuki Oki


Skin no bones

i'm amazed by this woman's work.  So much of it is hard to believe existing as built form, which i suppose qualifies for the amazing word, and for those of us who dwell in coping details and checking specifications for pathetic structures we secretly hope will be soon razed for the goodness of eyeballs everywhere, this is all a breath of air.  That isn't to say i like her work, though, it's just to say i think much of it is amazing.  She makes amazing things..

Unlike Frank Gehry, of whose work i've visited many projects, i've not visited a Hadid project and so, i suppose, should withhold judgement.  But fuck that this is the internet and i've got stuff to say.  i think i mentioned Gehry because he is another on whom everyone has an opinion, mostly negative it seems, though i think his work is brilliant.  Hadid also draws fire, as you know, which comes with the territory if you're going to throw wild shapes out there and have the PR skills/charisma to convince people to build your wild hell darts and land fish.  Being probably the most successful woman architect in the history of the profession might also have something to do with it.

It used to be that you learned about a Hadid project through a painting she would present of her project, and i always thought that was how she thought about her work, and the inspiration for the built form that might come from it, though in those days her paintings were rarely built.  Those days seem long gone now, what with a huge office and lots of little rendering gnomes to do her bidding.  It's odd though that her renderings don't appear to have any of the qualities of her old paintings.

Hafenstrasse Office and Residences
Edifici Torre Espiral
i'm not sure it matters that she doesn't paint anymore, if indeed that is the case, because her buildings are as much built paintings as ever there has been.  The painting above you probably assume to be seeing as if it were on a wall, or a monitor, not on the floor.  You don't imagine standing over this, do you?  Paintings on canvas always have a frame beneath that allows them to be displayed on a wall without flopping down like a hanky not properly left nostril stuffed, though we don't talk about these frames in the art world; they are a given and quite apart from the aspect of painting that we're interested in.  Great painters didn't have to be great stretcher makers.

Note: The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center has just been named Design of the Year by the Design Museum in London.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) is located in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan, and was built as a center to celebrate the country's cultural heritage through the performing arts and exhibitions.  The city of Baku began as a Persian fortress 700 years prior to the arrival of Islam to defend the northern border of the empire from Mongol attack. The city was much fought over through its history, and after a hundred years of conflict with Russia, the city was finally ceded to Russia in the early 19th century and has been an oil producing center ever since.

ZHA has made much of the Soviet architecture that dominates much of the city, and says that the form of the center was a response to the orthogonal, severe qualities of that legacy.

© Iwan Baan
© Hufton + Crow
There are any number of reasons the architect could use to justify making such a shaped building; Baku has fierce winds that blow off the sea and is one of the lowest cities in the world (elevation below sea level).  It almost looks like a shell one might find on the beach.  The fluidity of the form was justified by Hadid as maintaining an Islamic architectural tradition of covering surfaces in geometric pattern whether floor, wall, or ceiling, and claimed too that the march of columns into "infinite space" was inspiration.  It doesn't really matter what the reason was; she would have done the same thing in Des Moines.  The claim about the continuity and fluidity of space in Persian/Islamic architecture, though, doesn't hold up.  In this climate and in these lands, there has always been a clear definition between inside and outside, just as there has been between life and death, the inside/outside being as much social and civic as spacial.  That she has erased this definition and claimed it to be in their tradition is disingenuous and more likely grounded in an architects ego. That isn't to say that this building is completely divorced from the traditions of the region; on the contrary there is much to look at, and Hadid's Iraqi background should be considered, at least to a degree.

When you look at the pictures of this complex, you can't help but be struck by the scale (scalelessness) of the creature, and in a secret giggle i'm wondering about the ZHA critique of Soviet era housing blocks being big and scaleless.

© Iwan Baan
In the picture above, you can see the use of GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) forming both floor and wall and roof, none of which are defined by traditional edges and blur, as land does to sky in the dry lands outside the city.

People are the incidental occupiers of this creature.  The shape, the organization, the scale all do their own thing, regardless of the people creatures that enter to see others wiggle and prance.  It's all amazing and otherworldly and as an architect, completely admire the ability of this firm to have it's shapes built, for better or worse.

© Hufton + Crow
© Iwan Baan
© Hufton + Crow

The role of gravity is interesting.  Does it exist or doesn't it?  The whole complex is in a state of denial about the need to be supported, yet, as is custom for her projects, complex and very sophisticated structural work was done, but as is also customary in her work, remains invisible and subject to belief in magic.

© Hufton + Crow

The use of panelized GFRC to create the surface has an interesting corollary with the use of tile to do the same in Islamic architecture, where the edges surrender emphasis to the infiniteness and nobility of mathematical pattern, under the guise of truth and holiness.  In Hadid's work, however, there is no reference to an ultimate structure or truth; hers is a profane, secular one that asks only that you believe, and as is clear from her work, that belief is in a Rhino or similar beast.

Tile in Isfahan
© Hufton + Crow
Tile in Baku.
©Hufton + Crow
As you might imagine from the image below, the approach is one that seems to remove the city and urban life from the approach experience and substitutes a juxtaposition of blue sky and white monument:
The approach
©Hufton + Crow
Water falling from the sky.
© Iwan Baan
This building is an amazing thing, appearing to effortlessly defy much of what architects struggle with day to day, things like structure, scale, detail, railings, flashing, ADA ramps, HVAC, fire protection, on and on.  So much so, that i'm not so sure how much of a building it is, appearing foreign to occupation with no apparent doors or entrance, windows only as voids of the effortless folds, and sitting as if dropped softly onto the earth.  

In the end, she has built a painting, in a curious inverse of her earlier career when she proposed paintings and built buildings (occasionally), now proposing buildings and building paintings.  The rule of soft surface without any evidence of structure, the scalelessness and lack of reference to any human activity, and the appropriation of effortless form leads one to believe that she has opened a new chapter in architecture with her unique painterly vision; as to whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen; a lot of her work appears contrived and form for form's sake, but it's fun to look at.  


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