It is never too late to ruminate on a conversation about architecture. And so I found myself a few weeks ago, at a day long conference called Conversations on Architecture (affiliated to Decorex South Africa).
Conversations, especially amongst architects, can be rather long drawn out affairs (this is not because they are boring but because it takes a long time for a room full of creative minds to discuss how to change the world). Not so on this particular Monday as presentations from six speakers, both local and international, were packed into only one day of bigger than bite sized nuggets. It is not possible to write about everything that is discussed in such conversations and some of the other writeups I have read, show how people perceive these things so differently. We reflect on what others have said so uniquely. So here is mine...
I have often been fascinated by the paper art of origami. In fact I am fascinated by anything small that I can create with my hands. There is something about paper art that alludes to a creative kind of ambiguous form that is not bound by the principles of nature such as gravity for example. You can build a house of cards but it will eventually topple. Origami forms are bound together by connections, which are the folds. Each deliberate fold in the paper must be so specifically and beautifully crafted so as to build a form that relies on iterative actions.
Solano Benitez from Paraguay makes paper architecture. And by this I mean a kind of form that is crafted by the oneness of the material and the intricacy of its connecting folds. He builds predominantly with clay bricks which are ample in Paraguay and are a very economical material. And so it sets a precedent for building in poorer communities yet in creative and experimental ways. The experimentation is played out in the development of a structural system that allows the brick walls to mould into different shapes and forms that defy conventional building principles. Bricks also have very basic structural properties that are quite beautiful when exploited, such as the arch - the bricks essentially support themselves. A project for the Telethon Foundation which is for the rehabilitation of people with limited mobility, uses the "building within a building" concept. The internal "room" is a brick mesh steel reinforced arch that makes an arched cavelike form inside. I am reminded of Gaudi's structural stone arches at Park Guell in Barcelona, yet Benitez's structures are pristinely elegant. Outside the main building a skeletal arched brick structure bends a similar form from the edge of the building over the outside space adjacent thus bringing part of the building structure outside.
For another house project, a structural system was engineered to allow brick walls that are only 4cm thick to be created. To create structural stability, the walls fold like an accordian, thus expressing a "paper-like" facade. Perhaps one of the most striking of his projects is the tomb for his father. Four concrete walls cantilever to form the four sides of a square in the middle of a forest. On the inside are clad mirrors, like translucent paper. Thus not only do the walls seem to disappear, but you are constantly aware of yourself as you see your fragmented reflections in the mirrors.
Heinrich Wolff urged, "don't accept convention without questioning but don't abandon it without gain". There must be sense, though beauty can often defy logic. Benitez shows that beauty and innovation can be the result of a strictly logical and systematic process.
Timber is not what it seems
British architect, Alex de Rijke says that "timber is the new concrete" and like Benitez has been experimenting with creating a new kind of architecture that derives its aesthetics from its structural characteristics and capabilities. The materials used are engineered cross-laminated timber and ETFE which is a durable teflon coated plastic. This timber can be used structurally in place of concrete which, if it is to be more frequently used, will require a mindshift in the building industry. This material is so strong that "it's like being able to make a ship out of matchsticks," he says.
Kingsdale School in London, is one such project where de Rijke experimented with these material systems. The main rectangular block shape of the existing school was retained and the existing central space transformed into a temperate "inside outside" courtyard covered by a large ETFE moulded roof. On one side of the courtyard is a timber "blimp" like structure which forms a large auditorium. Such a structure was only possible to build with the aid of a computer controlled cutting machine. Is this truth to materials or a new form of post modernism? The amount of engineering required in producing the material means that it is generally the same price, if not more than the price of a concrete equivalent. It could be argued that timber is more sustainable than concrete due to its renewable properties but in this form, a lot of other energy consuming factors also come into play. Perhaps a slightly self indulgent form, this kind of creative design does not take itself too seriously.
De Rijke's architecture is innovative and unexpected. His designs range from a glass house with sliding walls, a slightly "kitsch" wedding venue in Blackpool to many other projects that experiment with the cross laminated timber capabilities. It is playful architecture. A project he calls "Floatopolis" is an imaginary "anti masterplan" consisting of floating terraces on the Thames in London. It's a marina but also a part of the city, only this has a floating infrastructure! It is also self sufficient. The practice envisages its future studio to be a floating studio that is part of this "village". This notion is inspired by Dutch ways of living which are often on water canals and has been proposed as a solution to London's housing crisis. Living on water has many benefits and challenges. It is a mobile type of construction which does not require foundations and therefore easy to build wherever there is water. Houses can also be prefabricated to save costs. Though an unusual concept, perhaps this idea is not too far out for the future. When we live on water we never really "own" it, it is always changing and moving. Perhaps we need to learn to live more fluidly with nature instead of staking claim over a piece of landscape that was never really ours to own in the first place.
The end of the conversation (or the beginning)
Local Johan Slee's architecture also has echoes of inventiveness but mainly with simple design that fulfils more than the requirements. There is much colour, formal and material experimentation. The walls of Stone House are made entirely from stone found on the site. Thus the house grows out of its landscape - a union of materials. It echos the vernacular built forms with its simplicity and functionality. Red House similarly is blended into the landscape with the use of red soil (found on site) and cement coating on the walls.
Every now and then we must be reminded that architecture is not just about shopping malls and office blocks and making "pretty" things. It is about pushing the old towards the new and inspiring society. It is has always been the arts that have lead culture and society through the centuries. So to those who need to hear it, architecture is not what it seems.
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.