Saturday26 July 2014

Ellis Woodman's Blog

Rock of ages

Posted by: Ellis Woodman, Thu, 4 Apr 2013

As its name suggests, the new sculpture by the Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss is a work of almost comic banality. Commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery, Rock on Top of Another Rock, comprises two enormous boulders, sourced in Wales and set on top of each other in the genteel setting of Kensington Gardens. It is the sister of a piece of the same name and essential composition realised by a remote roadside in Norway last year — part of the programme of commissions along tourist routes that delivered Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois’ Steilneset memorial.

The Norwegian version grew out a desire to avoid introducing any new object to a landscape prized for wildness. All that was required was a very large crane to create a spectacle that causes drivers to bring their cars to an abrupt halt.

Speaking at the V&A with Adam Caruso this week, Peter Fischli emphasised the importance of “the moment of doubt” the viewer encounters on seeing the work — uncertainty about whether the heroic feat before them is the product of human intention or a natural process.

Fischli and Weiss' Rock on Top of Another Rock

Fischli and Weiss’ Rock on Top of Another Rock

The gesture of stacking rocks carries a powerfully archaic resonance. Fischli describes it as a primal form of mark-making. As ever, however, the artists’ sensibilities straddle the mythic and the everyday. Fischli threw doubt on Pop Art’s claims to meld the worlds of high and low culture but suggested that one territory where such a conjunction could be found was tourism. In the light of this observation he argued Rock on Top of Another Rock should be seen in the lineage of the roadside duck celebrated in Venturi and Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas.

Relocated to the naturalistic but highly cultivated landscape of a west London park, the gesture takes on a different set of resonances. Here its artificiality is much more clearly stated, amplifying our understanding of the park as a constructed environment. While incongruous on one level its presence nonetheless recalls a nearby Henry Moore and even the grottoes of the English landscape tradition.

Fischli spoke fascinatingly for over an hour on a piece that is described in its essential form by its six-word title. Like the best public sculpture, it strikes a note that is at once immediately apprehensible and highly sophisticated — these rocks are engrossingly dumb and clever by turns.

By Ellis Woodman

Limerick’s university challenge

Posted by: Ellis Woodman, Wed, 20 Feb 2013

Grafton Architects’ new School of Medicine, is not the only recent addition to the range of faculties at the University of Limerick. The out-of-town campus, on the banks of the River Shannon, is also home to Ireland’s youngest architecture school. Founded in 2005, it has built up its numbers in single-year intakes and is now into the third year of teaching a full quota of 125 students. 

The school’s founding director, Merritt Bucholz, is an American — a former student of Colin Rowe at Cornell who worked with Emilio Ambasz in New York before establishing the Dublin-based Bucholz McEvoy Architects, with his Irish wife, Karen, in the late-nineties. That international perspective has strongly informed the school’s development. 

Exploiting the easy air connections from Shannon airport, Bucholz has recruited tutors from both sides of the Atlantic including Elizabeth Hatz from Stockholm, Irenée Scalbert from London and Kazys Varnelis from New York.

Antony Gormley's cast iron sculpture located in the Central Plaza at the University of Limerick.

Source: Creative Commons/ Lukemcurley

Antony Gormley’s cast iron sculpture located in the Central Plaza at the University of Limerick.

And yet for all the cosmopolitan make-up of its staffroom, Limerick itself and its surrounding part-rural, part-industrial landscape has been a particular focus of the school’s attention. Despite boasting a substantial district of fine Georgian terraces, the city centre remains a strikingly under-occupied area, suffering from extensive dereliction.  Student projects have consistently investigated the opportunities for reviving this environment and Bucholz is hoping to contribute to that effort in a more concrete manner by relocating the architecture school to a city-centre site as part of a new multi-disciplinary design department.

View of Limerick showing King John's Castle

Source: Creative Commons/ D Johnston

View of Limerick showing King John’s Castle

In collaboration with Limerick City Council, the school is also operating a one-year project office manned by recent graduates which is considering how €9 million of government funding might be directed towards making the city a more conducive environment for cyclists, with the creation of a new cycle route between the centre and the university campus being identified as a key ambition.

In a city that lacks an established architectural community, such initiatives are proving fantastically valuable both in allowing graduates to continue working in Limerick and in elevating the ambitions of the local authority. 

Through this engagement with the challenges faced by the community within which it operates, the School of Architecture at Limerick is fast emerging as an exemplary model of what a regional architecture school might be.

Farewell to the architecture book?

Posted by: Ellis Woodman, Thu, 31 Jan 2013

One of architectural publishing’s most distinguished brands recently announced that it is to become a digital only operation.  After 64 monographical issues devoted to a consistently interesting list of global architects, future issues of the Spanish title 2G will be available only as apps and as print-on-demand.  The news is hardly surprising given the current state of architectural publishing.  Last year, two of the Netherlands’ biggest names in the industry – NAi and 010 were forced to merge while ActarBirkhauser was bankrupted, prompting its sale to De Gruyter.

2G’s embrace of a purely digital future is certainly a source of concern to this loyal reader and occasional contributor.  However, the economic argument of junking the costs of printing, distribution and warehousing at a time of diminishing sales and advertising clearly became impossible to ignore.  What remains to be seen is whether the company can capitalise on the creative potential of the new format.

Spanish title 2G

App only: Spanish title 2G

Tony Fretton is soon to publish a monograph, Buildings and their Territories, with the resuscitated Birkhauser, but is also planning a unique digital edition which will support expanded content such as a large selection of the architect’s sketches.  The incorporation of film and audio content also suggest themselves as exciting opportunities.

The new digital landscape is also enabling other forms of architectural publication to find an audience.  Justin McGuirk’s e-publishing operation for the Russian architecture school, Strelka, is one interesting model, offering long-form architectural writing by the likes of Owen Hatherley and Sam Jacob as apps that can be downloaded for a very reasonable £1.99.

The academic world continues to attach importance to the publication of research on paper as the regular flow of titles on arcane subjects published by the likes of Routledge attests.  However we are beginning to see this attitude challenged by bodies like the Institution of Architecture at TU Delft which is soon to launch a publishing initiative focussed on print-on-demand and ebooks.

Opportunities to bring out-of-print titles back into wide circulation through digital publishing are also clearly waiting to be exploited.  (“Nairn’s London – the app” would surely be a minor publishing sensation.)  Indeed, as sorry as I am that my bookshelf will not be accommodating further copies of 2G, it is clear that the shift to digital has the potential to enable a richer and more accessible architectural discourse than has been available in the past.  If publishers can only discover how to make money out of it the change may yet be welcome.

Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012)

Posted by: Ellis Woodman, Wed, 31 Oct 2012

There is something undeniably fitting about the circumstances in which Lebbeus Woods departed this world: ill for some time, he finally died in his native New York on Tuesday amidst the apocalyptic scenes unleashed by hurricane Sandy. 

Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012)

Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012)

Woods’ was a poet of urban crisis, famed for his meticulous drawings of scenes inspired by post-war Sarajevo and San Francisco after the Loma Prieta earthquake.  He drew New York too: a 1999 image entitled Lower Manhattan showed the city transformed not by flood but by the damming of the East River and the Hudson, revealing it to be precariously perched on a towering outcrop of granite.

Born in 1940, Woods was a close contemporary of Massimo Scolari and Superstudio, architects who also eschewed building in favour of developing a body of work on paper.  The drawings of all three are characterised by a markedly dystopian mood, reflecting the scepticism about the modern project that was mounting fast in the late sixties when they were students.  It is tempting to see Woods, particularly, as a Piranesi for our times.  In redirecting neoclassicism towards the frightening world depicted in the Prison series, the Italian draftsman ushered in a fierce romantic sensibility that quickly found built form in the work of architects like Soane and Schinkel. Woods too was concerned with the subversion of a moribund architectural vocabulary – that of modernism at its most technocratic – and one doesn’t need to look far to find the influence of his flexing surfaces and parasitical forms in the work of Co-op Himmelb(l)au, Morphosis and Zaha Hadid.

An inspiring teacher, not least in his role as visiting critic at the Bartlett and, as his blog attests, an astute critic, Woods also became, in the last months of his life, an architect with a built portfolio: the construction of Light Pavilion, a structure that sits within a much larger development in Chengdu designed by his friend Steven Holl, completed this summer.  However, it is for his visionary draftsmanship that Woods will primarily be remembered.  His imagination was morbid, certainly, and perhaps more than a little adolescent but its influence on the development of architecture over the past thirty years cannot be denied.

Lebbeus Woods,

Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan (1999)

Russian Roulette

Posted by: Ellis Woodman, Mon, 29 Oct 2012

The news that Zaha Hadid is soon to complete her first project in Russia, a house on the edge of Moscow for the billionaire, Vladislav Doronin and his partner, Naomi Campbell, closes a circle in the architect’s career. 

Zaha Hadid with Naomi Campbell

Zaha Hadid with Naomi Campbell

The work of the early twentieth century Russian avant-garde has served as a primary reference for Hadid since as far back as Malevich’s Tektonik, her design for a hotel on the Thames, which she presented as her graduation project while a student at the Architectural Association in 1977. 

Zaha Hadid’s Malevich’s Tektonik (1977)

Zaha Hadid’s Malevich’s Tektonik (1977)

Her energetic adoption of the sculptural possibilities opened up by parametric modelling may have subsequently rounded the corners off Hadid’s formal language but in the sky-seeking dynamism of this latest design we can still trace echoes of projects like El Lissitzky’s Skyhooks (1925) and Chernikhov’s Hammer and Sickle Architectural Fantasy (1933). 

El Lissitzky’s Sky Hook (1925)

El Lissitzky’s Sky Hook (1925)

Iakov Chernikov’s Hammer and Sickle Architectural Fantasy (1933)

Iakov Chernikov’s Hammer and Sickle Architectural Fantasy (1933)

And yet, as clear as the formal lineage may be, one very obvious point of distinction remains.  Through their designs the Constructivists were attempting to coin an iconography that reflected the communist values of the newly forged Soviet Union, while Hadid’s architecture all too convincingly reflects the image that her oligarch client and his supermodel girlfriend seek to project to the world. 

One only needs to consider Richard Meier’s liberal borrowings from Le Corbusier or Peter Eisenman’s plundering from Giuseppe Terragni’s oeuvre to appreciate that architects have never been slow to put the work of their more politically-minded forbears to new and very different uses.  Nonetheless, Hadid’s new project is freighted with a particularly sour irony. 

Where the constructivists’ drawings describe a world soundtracked by massed workers roaring through The Internationale, looking through the images of the Doronin/Campbell house it is not the worker that one hears: it is the rage of a south-London diva on the point of lobbing her blackberry at the worker’s head.

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