27 November 2009

Rock and Liberty

Açalya Klyak

Speaking bluntly, there are not many significant differences in the construction of the classically draped Liberty Statue and Frank Gehry's recent buildings.


Clothing is an area of concern that modern architects often dealt with, referred to in their writings and made direct comparisons with architecture. Similarly, tailors, fashion designers and editors talk about the 'construction' of clothes, which begins with flat patterns and becomes three-dimensional after a series of operations, i.e. cutting, sewing, and stitching. However, drapery is a word rarely mentioned in architectural discourse.
What exactly is a drapery? Basically it is a piece of cloth. It is the simplest method of clothing. It can be hung or laid over the body without cutting or sewing the material. A drapery can be made from either one rectangular piece of cloth or several cloths of various sizes, having no form by itself. It moves freely with the positions and movements of the body and it behaves differently according to the thickness of the cloth. In antiquity, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans used clothing of this kind.


The representation of the draped body, associated with luxury, wealth, and nobility, has been a widespread theme in fine arts for centuries. Yet, compared to sculpture or painting, the rendering of drapery in architecture is quite rare. One notable example is the 151 feet tall and 225 tons of Liberty wearing a green copper drapery, designed in 1880s by the French Neoclassical sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi in direct imitation of antiquity.
The Statue of Liberty is habitable; unlike other statues, its skin encloses an interior space. Her loose copper drapery is hung over the armatures placed on her iron skeleton, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The inner surface of Liberty's copper skin and the iron skeleton are not intended to be visually connected. This uncanny conjunction is also a part of the visitor's experience. Bartholdi conceived Liberty entirely in terms of its outer contours. After settling the final form in a clay model, it was enlarged to a full-scale set of plaster fragments in his Paris workshop. Following the contours of the plaster, massive wooden moulds are built. And then thin copper sheets (2.5 millimetres in thickness) are forced into shape of the moulds by hammering. The copper panels are fastened together, hung on the iron skeleton and eventually present her webbed 'skin'.

Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, opened in June 2000, was the first large-scale Gehry building after Bilbao. EMP is a music museum, dedicated to the memory of the Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix, thanks to the cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen's love of rock music and his 240 million dollars.
The museum's webpages explain that EMP's structure symbolises the energy and fluidity of music; while an electric guitar is the source of inspiration. One can imagine Gehry, a classical music fan, going to the guitar store in the neighbourhood and buying several electric guitars. After taking the guitars back to his office to examine, Gehry ends up being inspired only by their shiny finish. EMP shimmers in vivid red, purple, blue, gold, and silver, dominating the Seattle convention area.

Strictly speaking, in the complete monograph of Gehry, only one section and a few plan drawings if EMP appear. There is an obvious reason: try to imagine the difficulty of describing the building by means of conventional drawings. The traditional plan, elevation, and section are no longer employed by Gehry. Building EMP from orthogonal drawings would be nearly impossible. In a similar instance, Robin Evans wrote that in Scharoun's Philharmonie project construction workers confronted serious difficulties in setting out the foundations. Only after taking large-scale sections at very closely spaced intervals across the breadth of the building, could workers continue to build. To describe EMP one would need to chop the building into billions of thin slices. Instead of this burdensome task, Gehry's office employed a digital three-dimensional model as the single source of information for the entire project. Working with a wire frame model of the exterior surface of the building, EMP is conceived from outside in, not unlike the Statue of Liberty. The way in which EMP is constructed also presents similarities with Liberty. Gehry begins with a study model. Once he decides on the final form, the model is digitised and scaled to full-size in the computer environment. At this stage one can experience the building constructed virtually in three-dimensions. The software, acting like a weaving program, allows the three-dimensional forms to be charted two-dimensionally. In a method similar to tailoring, cutting machines produce each shape from flat sheets of metal.

One can speculate that L. William Zahner, the head of a steel company in Kansas City, Missouri, is equally a tailor. Working directly from the digital model provided by Gehry, Zahner's firm produced the nearly 4,000 panels that form the exterior skin of EMP. Each panel holds about seven shingles that have a unique shape and size, tailored to fit exactly in its designed location and each panel is woven together in situ. As a result, the building's surface looks like a patterned drapery. Consider the time, energy, and amount of money spent in draping the metal shingles over the EMP's structure. Given the materiality and weight of the building, rendering of a drapery is not an easy task.

What one sees in EMPs drapery is the representation of technology. The other representation beneath the glossy surface is the unlimited budget of the client. It seems that drapery continues to suggest luxury and wealth as it did in art for centuries. Recall the practice of depicting drapery in European Renaissance paintings linked to the rise of rich merchant families. There was no purpose for depicting drapery in those paintings other than 'to take delight in the way it looks'. It is also interesting to note that over-draped fabrics were derided by reformers in the nineteenth century because it was believed that they just represent 'a millionaire's notion of the pretty and nothing more'.

Anne Hollander, writing on the role of drapery in art, explains the concept of drapery as 'something which while it conceals, yet confers an extra ennobling or decorative dimension upon the essentially wretched and silly human form'. The question of what is behind the drapery in EMP comes to mind. Drapery directs one's attention to the presentation of the object, but what happens if the drapery becomes the main subject displayed? Unlike the Statue of Liberty, EMP is a museum — the structure is not its only material presence. The museum website tries to put the content forward: 'If you think its wild on the outside, just wait until you get inside. There you will find interactive exhibits, rare artefacts and a one-of-a-kind ride!' Paying $20 to get inside, rather than stopping at the exterior skin, is their aim.

The many connotations of drapery, luxury, excess, concealment and display seem unintentionally appropriate for EMP. The surface is almost a fetish. Although it appears as a loose drape laid over the structure, it is uniquely tailored, an expensive, shiny, boozy dress ready for a rock concert. Versace for buildings.

Of the statue and its structure, see Marvin Trachtenberg. The Statue of Liberty. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1976. p 119-50 Repoussé is an ancient technique (i.e. Greek bronzes, made of hammered sheets of metal), revived in many nineteenth-century large-scale architectural and sculptural projects, ibid., 121. Robin Evans. The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995. p 120-1 Anne Hollander, 'The Fabric of Vision: The Role of Drapery in Art' Georgia Review 29 (1975): 431. Gen Doy. Drapery: Classicism and Barbarism in Visual Culture. London, New York: IB Tauris, 2002. p 11 Anne Hollander. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking Press, 1978. p 15

Açalya Klyak. ''Rock and Liberty'
On Site review, no. 9 Spring 2003
©Açalya Klyak and On Site review

23 November 2009

Sewing the Landscape

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) at a hydrant on Kings Plaza Station, New York

Christina Maile

Nature is the secret order of things, which requires only the essence of our pure and rational thought to make itself truly understood. We believe our survival depends on the success of this search for order. However, every supposed revelation of pattern has become for us, in turn, a compelling pattern for remaking the world around us. In the end we have been conditioned by the conditions we have created.

Our cities and buildings have come to reflect a perception of nature, as it should be — symmetrical, inflexible, ordered, and predictable. To be uncivilized is to live illegibly in the cluttered wilderness of nature, dressed in the skins of animals, the ragged remnants of manmade cloth hanging like the tattered ends of rationality. Against this, the vast cities we have created cover the earth like a fabric, an unwavering, unending fabrication. It is an intelligence of hard, opaque disjunctive pieces in tight, complex displays of designs and motifs, encased in grids. The metaphor is obvious. The manmade environment is a Cartesian quilt of surfaces.

Upon it, the scissored, precise, regulated landscape (no longer nature) is serrated to the geometries of architecture and artifact. Trees are the green’pieces’ of landscape sewn between the grey and blue ’pieces’ of concrete and asphalt. Any foundation planting, including the largest - city parks - are sentimental appliques of pastoral art, neatly stitched into the grid of the city. Like the scenic curtains from which our current view of landscape is taken, the grass is never long, the trees never too large, and the shrubs always clean, tight and numerical. Maintenance-free and as real as the flowers of the city which are never picked, but purchased — the urban landscape is scentless, nameless and ultimately rootless.

There is no here, no site specificity in the landscape of the city. We stand in the snow and stare through the glass at the pieces of gigantic palm trees sewn (at great environmental cost) into a mid Atlantic skyline and never say,’Isn’t that sad.’ We hurry by oaks buttonholed into tiny concrete boxes and never cry bitter tears. There are no roots in the urban landscape because there is no origination. Like fabric, the landscape exists on the surface, gridded, denatured, sterile. Seeding, fruiting, growth and decay all denied, the urban landscape takes on the properties of a commemorative urn, a sputtering eternal flame kind of presence, fed by petroleum, more’4ever green’ than green, more funereal than real. In the city, landscape is the death of nature, and the death of our perception of it. Save for one spark of beauty.

For like a quilt, the surfaces of the city, its structural pieces, are not seamless. They must all meet in adjacencies. No material melts into another continuously. Old concrete against new, asphalt against steel curb against stone, there remains a void, a space, a joint, an interstice between the two materials. These joints, as do the materials they buffer, eventually open as the result of successive waves of weathering. Form follows tempo. Asphalt unravels, concrete frays, metal shrinks, and glass tumbles. Edges are created. And into these small openings, the hereness of the city, the wild and crazy roots and shoots of nature break forth, ripping open ever-larger seams. The bed has assaulted the quilt. (Innuendo intended).

Sex, sex, sex, rampant seeding, fruiting, pushing, shoving, thrashing, tumbling, clasping, unclasping, bursting forth. The edges of the city that are everywhere are alive with a voracious beauty, possessed only by the wind, the sun, and the rain. Enemies of good design and moral order, they are not the right plant in the right place. Instead they boldly and promiscuously push themselves outside of, inside of, on top of, and all around the gates of paradise (the walled Garden of Eden). They are called many names - mulleins, lambsquarters, eleusine indica, mugwort, goosefoot, and soldago, to name a few. But the name everyone knows them by is …weeds.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a weed as an economically useless plant of wild, obnoxious growth and unsightly appearance whose presence either excludes the growth of more valuable plants or contributes to the disfigurement of the place. That is the landscape definition of a weed. But not mine. Rather these incredible beings, these shimmering threads of stubborn desire are the city’s true connections to the fertile, chaotic bed of organic creativity lying just beneath us. The fabrication of the mind, this urban fabric is, in fact, rent by a deeper fabrication. An earthy, prowling subconscious whose initial manifestation — a bumpy rosette of tough knotted stems — represents the continuing presence of nature’s irrational behavior. And our failure to destroy it. To weed: to free from something noxious, offensive or superfluous. It is not surprising, then, that weeds are described as growing in disturbed areas. For we are greatly disturbed. They dare invade our gridded neighborhoods, unthread the brocade of our tidy streets and gardens. Hanging around at all hours of the night they just , it seems, appear overnight. And now in broad daylight, there they go, strutting their berries, wiggling their tiny flowers, their erect panicles indiscriminately casting seeds to the winds. They colonize every raveled edge, every joint, rooting themselves in, uprooting our stuff out. It’s criminal. Call the cops. Weeds should be charged with disturbance of the ’piece’.

To ‘wear weeds’ at one time referred to a fabric especially woven (wede - to weave) and worn to indicate an occupation, a situation or a position. Now it defines only mourning. And while that meaning may resonate visually in the somber straight lines of the urban landscape, the key word is weaving. For what we see in the homonymous weeds is a testimony to their occupation as healers, as weavers of green and fulsome blankets which spread stitch by stitch, warp by woof to cover the beaten and broken remains of the natural world. They mend, no, they amend all that is missing in our geometries — spontaneity, authenticity, growth. Whether we come up on them as small gestures of grassy stems with fuzzy ends, or bold sweeps of branches coruscating against stony skies, what we truly come upon, long hidden and obscured by culture, is the genius of the place. The absolute hereness of weeds. Not the here denoted, or the here designed. Not the here of utility, or of property. But that inexhaustible, nimble hereness which arises from a particular, fortuitous swirl of sun, rain, wind and edge. The hereness that creates place. It is the here whose center is not I-standing-here. It is the here where our carefully-hemmed natural order is undone, where unloosened the knots which keep us bound to the things we have created disappear. And it for this reason we fear this or that place where weeds grow, and grind back into dust or concrete their unbidden, heedless therapy. The oak in its box, the palm tree in its glass. That’s how nature should be, forever indebted, grateful to us for life, no matter how mean, brutal, shallow, sterile and short.

Yet here where weeds grow, what nascent beauty is endlessly being embroidered beneath the curling edges of asphalt at our feet; what forests contained beneath the mantle of these small tough leaves; what sudden valley, what shadowed stream? Weeds are the memories of earth. It is their presences, furtive, unwanted and denigrated which connect us, tie us to the natural world, and undo in endless filagree the hard edges of chaos we have created. The cracks of the city are the furrows for their lessons; weeds, persistently ‘weaving the weeds’ of exquisite permutation, of place, of immortality.

We are proletarians subjugated to the opiate of rational order, delirious with geometry, forever coming apart at the seams. Weeds are the warnings against the catastrophe of perception which continues to generate the monoculture known as the man-made environment. If we continue to see them as destroyers of our order, if we fail to recognize in them the fate of our own shining beauty, the darkness will continue to descend over our wounded eyes.

Maile, Christina. 'Sewing the Landscape' On Site review, no. 8 Fall 2002
©Christina Maile and On Site review

19 November 2009


Chris Hardwicke

It’s Monday morning. You grab your gear and strap your bag onto your bike. It is cold and raining, and the traffic’s heavy, but it’s only a few minutes to the bikeway. Here it is. A quick lane change and you are pumping your way up the onramp and gliding through the entrance. The street noise falls away as you join the flow. Already you feel the draft of the other cyclists blurring past in the fast lane, their steady wind pulling you forward. You relax into the rhythm and the tension leaves your shoulders as you let down your defences. No more cars breathing down you neck.
You ride along, matching your speed to those around you and looking through the raindrops on the glass-domed tube at the panorama of the city. Up ahead, you see a friend’s familiar bike trailer– he’s taking the kids to daycare. Pulling into the slow lane you chat for a few minutes before they get to their off-ramp.
Soon the bikeway opens up, widening to six lanes as you pass the commuter train station. Hundreds of suburbanites on yellow bikes merge smoothly into traffic. As you cross a valley, high above the expressway, the sun breaks through the clouds. You shift down, and take the next exit to work. Checking your watch, you notice you are early again.
Welcome to velo-city.

Velo-city is a highway for bikes, a network of elevated bicycle roadways connecting distant parts of the city. There are three lanes of traffic–slow, medium, and fast–in both directions, each direction having a separate glass-roofed bikeway tube. The separation of directions reduces wind resistance and creates a natural tailwind for cyclists. The reduction of air resistance increases the efficiency of cycling by about 90 percent, allowing for speeds of up to 50 km/hr.
Because it is elevated, Velo-city can be located in existing highway, power, and railway corridors, adapting to the built environment while requiring no additional real estate. Bikeways float above intersections and fit into spaces where trains, subways, and roads simply can’t go due to their size, noise, and pollution. Light and compact (you can fit seven bicycles in the road space taken up by one car) Velo-city produces no noise or pollution, so it can run right beside or even into buildings.
For commuters, Velo-city delivers total travel times that rival any other form of high-speed transit, and it is active rapid transit. In contrast to the passivity of taking a train or a bus; it includes exercise as an essential part of an urban lifestyle. Personal independence is expressed in individual freedom of movement. By working as a parallel infrastructure connected to subways, railways, highways, and parking lots, the bikeways expand commuting choices, while reducing congestion on our transit systems and highways. Bikeways are the ultimate in efficient, health-generating rapid transit.
Maintenance costs for Velo-city would be substantially lower than the expense of keeping subways and highways in good operational order, because the weight and vibration of bicycles is considerably less than that of automobiles or railways. And because Velo-city is covered, the lane surfaces would be sheltered from weather distress.
The culture of a city is often defined by its transportation system: yellow cabs in New York City, bicycles in Beijing, streetcars in San Francisco, freeways in Los Angeles, double-decker buses in London, scooters in Taipei, vaporetti in Venice, cyclos in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Paris Metro. Modes of transport create interdependent relationships with urban forms and city culture. Think of the relationships between cars and shopping malls, subways and skyscrapers, streetcars and main streets, scooters and roadside stalls. Over time, Velo-city will create a cycling culture for the cities it inhabits: kiss ’n’ rides, shower facilities, cycling fashion shops, velodomes, bike parks, health clubs, cycle path stalls, repair shops, bike couriers, bike picnics, car-free housing and intermodal stations. Velo-city would simply give bicycles the same level of dedicated infrastructure that other modes of transportation have enjoyed.

The bicycle has been around for more than a hundred years. It was a brilliant, modern invention back then, and remains one today. Bicycle enthusiasts have always been tenacious and devoted. And now, perhaps, it is an idea whose time has come back – bicycles now outsell automobiles in North America.

Hardwicke, Chris. 'Velo-city' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Chris Hardwicke and On Site review