Architecture & Art: Spirit, Craft, Allied Works’ Models, and El Anatsui’s Art

Allied Works Models, El Anatsui

Whether or not you are familiar with the works of Allied Works, headed by Brad Cloepfil, a particular step in their process deserves a look. Especially with the rise of Building Information Modeling, computer rendering and analysis, and…well, everything computerized, the physical model maintains a unique role. More than trying out ideas from the mind and the computer in the place they will eventually inhabit, the physical world, models can distill architecture to its base, ‘not so much to inform the form, but to capture the spirit.’

Such comments from Cloepfil at a recent talk on his firm’s Still Museum were revealing of what role the model performs in their design process. Listening to Cloepfil, one could connect the models illuminating the projection screen behind him and begin to see where he, where the building is coming from. Indeed, some of those abstracted, conceptual models went to interviews with him, before it was even certain Allied Works would have something to design.

A weathered block of wood; the top is hewn, as if someone using a checkerboard for guidelines sunk a dull chainsaw into it a dozen times. It’s an early model of the building next door to where Cloepfil is talking, which is where, coincidentally, Ghanian artist El Anatsui had a few pieces exhibited not long ago that used exactly that language, that tool. To say that architecture is, in part, art is a given, but to have it so clearly modeled as such is refreshing. As an aside, furthering that point from the converse, Anatsui’s more tapestry-like works graft amazingly to architecture. In the convergence is an esteem for craft that such artists and architects share. Why shouldn’t architectural models reflect that artistic craft?

The reflection is refreshing, but also pragmatic. Such models, Cloepfil explains, are ‘to remind ourselves…give us touch-points as we move forward.’ Strip a design of its architectural detailing and systems, and you’ll eventually get down to its heart and soul, if that is what it was built upon. And if it was, it can be modeled. Then, regardless of changes and additions as the design progresses, that all important seed remains the driving force to refer back to and build upon. A final model may look nothing like the initial, conceptual model, but can be imbued with everything it embodies.

Some modeling done by Allied Works is used not to be held up as the spirit of the design, but to reveal it. For the Still Museum, ‘hundreds’ of concrete explorations were made with the contractors to find the right option. Direction to the contractors was to ” ‘make messed up concrete.’  ‘How messed up?’  ‘We have no idea!’ ”

Against the technical, exact documents architects create on computers and contractors execute to technical exactness, the models seem all the more relevant. A building designed and constructed to perfection doesn’t guarantee a thing; One modeled off of a simply and sincerely expressable spirit has a good shot at saying something meaningful and succeeding at a magnificent range of levels. Allied Works’ models are a reminder that what architects do begins and ends in the challenges of the tangible, graspable world, but that what must drive them is so much more.

Allied Works Architecture:

El Anatsui:   Photos courtesy of  The October Gallery and Giuliano Photos


Art & Architecture: ‘Arranged Tree’ and Then Some

Ikebana Some people will get rid of their Christmas tree tomorrow. Some will keep it put until brown overcomes the evergreen. With tape, rebar, and the right Ikebana skills, it can carry on a whole other presence, though.

Most people know of Ikebana (生け花  ‘arranged flower’), maybe only through references in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, but contemporary Ikebana is even less spotlit. This juniper trunk and limb arrangement from the Ryusei annual exhibition is a great example of it and how it is still an evolving, growing art. Even without knowing the roots or integral philosophy of the 600 year old practice, it can impact with mathematical, geometric allure and highlight the oft under-appreciated, small elements in nature.

Artists like Tetsunori Kawana even take ideas from ikebana to installation scales. In almost the same way Brutalist architects used concrete and large moves to define space, Kawana shapes strong, graceful gestures from the flexible, singular material of bamboo. His works, in their material choice and forms, enjoyably intersect the fleeting, organic nature of traditional Ikebana with the more permanent, grandiose nature of traditional architecture.

Also of note in the contemporary expansion of Ikebana is Yukio Nakagawa, in particular his Ondes Oniriques (‘Dreamlike Waves’) at Renzo Piano’s Maison Hermes in Tokyo. While Piano created a space of regularity and gridding, Nakagawa was able to reshape the interior into a rolling, deciduous landscape. He commanded the master architect’s design, a compliment to both, with bale-fulls of dried blossoms in transient, visitor-moveable piles. Perhaps Ai Weiwei’s Tate Sunflower Seeds respond in this progression in contemporary Ikebana to its most modern minimal, though that may be pushing it. Either way, it is nice to see a unique tradition and artform blend with landscape and architecture as it keeps growing, interacting, and divulging something to a contemporary crowd.

Juniper Ikebana courtesy of Sato/Yoshimura from:

Ondes Oniriques images courtesy of hermes japon co.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop:

Shosho Shimbo’s Ikebana Blog:

Architecture: Sketches (etc.) For Humanity

Sketches from artists whose works usually aren’t sketches are uniquely intriguing. Those from architects are perhaps the most acute case of this.  To architects, sketches are process tools; fascia between design in the mind and in the real, physical world, but somehow insightfully closer to the designer than the constructed edifice.

The sketches for Architecture For Humanity’s fundraising auction are a little different in that a number of them are the intended end design. Sketches as the architect’s work of art. There are even a few three dimensional works. If you can, bid on them to support a great cause; the well known non-profit has volunteer run chapters all over, with community-benefiting projects at local, national, and global levels. If you can’t, at least check them out; the sketches and AFH.

Typography: Kontrapunkt -or- Danish Pharmaceuticals, German Design Schools, and Me (and Railways, Too)

It is always a frisson experience when you’re walking through a museum and, unexpectedly, from around the (usually) white corner, you are faced with a familiar piece of work you love, but have never seen in person. This unique experience can happen the other way around, too.

Kontrapunkt is an independent brand and design agency, with offices in Copenhagen as well as Tokyo. A very un-indepth search for fonts and some almost random clicking quickly brought me to their page for a typeface designed for pharmacies. ‘Pharma’ is a well crafted typeface, which becomes apparent from the get-go. Their presentation of it includes process sketches and to-the- point explanations for the design. This contemporary typeface cites 15th century apothecary bottles and a 1932 Bauhaus typeface as influence. That tingle up the spine. In a small, hidden-away hall in the bowels of the art museum I work at, I came across such Bauhaus lettering the day earlier. The new- found typeface’s letter lineage was directly from the ink-and- paper examples in that small intestine of a corridor. They are the work of Herbert Bayer, and his ounces of ink from 80 years ago have the weight of lead in designer’s imagination’s today, without paper-weighting their progress. More than fun coincidence, it is the seepage of one good design into others, regardless of time and geography. It is refreshing to see directly how integrated and far reaching design can be.

Now just fun coincidence (on the surface; a sign of a good design firm and the global reach of design today, really); a link on the ‘Pharma’ page led to another well-done typeface, ‘Via.’ I also work with a team on a proposal for a Copenhagen rail station rehabilitation. This is the font the station uses, along with all the others in Denmark, tradition sensitive ‘Danish g’ and all. Looking past this bias (like one might have for someone in the family), it is a legible, distinctive font that is presented in a light, crisp way, again. The friction on metal scream undercutting the whooshing air-mass bass of a slowing train emanates from speakers while colorful letters flip-book flash and expand on screen and slow to a halt. Literal? Yes. But Kontrapunkt clearly designs their works from conceptual roots, past precedents, and a solid process. This is what their presentation highlights. Perceived as a dime-a- dozen multitude of stationery, black tools on a page to some, typography becomes a vibrant, evolutionary expression in the hands of this design house.

A third typeface, ‘Heart’ for the Herning Museum of Art, further exemplifies this approach. Graphic shapes of shirt patterns and the museum building inform the curves, while another slide states

Our eyes are made to follow the lines and see the letters by completing the shapes

in a sort of medical physiology meets design concept understanding. They seem to have a firm grasp on their field. For all the designing and defining, the ‘heart’ font also expresses Kontrapunkt’s embrace of imperfection and living design; graffiti flanking their font, methods of application ‘open to accident.’ They also see typography from an interdisciplinary stance, describing it earnestly as 2-D architecture. The surprisingly sculptural form of some of the sketches show these aren’t flower petal words; they’re not delicate or there just to look pretty, they don’t wilt when scrutinized.

The typefaces I came across on their site stand as examples of craftsmanship in typography and design based identity. Throw in the personal connections and their underlying implications, and it is a reinvigorating experience. Not the frisson of familiarity, meeting design you’ve seen in facsimile before, but one stemming from the freshness, depth, and reach of all types of good, contemporary design, typography and others.  It’s not having to worry so much about the liveliness and worth of it all anymore.

Their custom type page, including two free typeface downloads at bottom of left bar, and links to other great work:

Photography: Lois Conner

With an affinity for silvery hued scenes cast in cinematic aspect ratios, Lois Conner is a photographer who seems to grasp the idea of place and place-making. The homogenous content of rooftops and lotus spread out, making the disparities in details stand out between each individual. Landscapes can be equally placid or marked by human intervention that just was or will shortly be; a bird’s eye shot of a snow-devoid square where a car was, a Hanoi alley filled with a hodge-podge build up of wood scaffolding and walled by ancient brick.

She has a knack for providing the subject of the city with an air of contemporary documentation. It is as if the city were doing what it does every day, bustling with continual interactions as the setting for urban humanity, and then Ms. Conner, all set with her aperture settings and tripod levels, let’s the city know that she’s set, says with a flourish ‘smile!’ , and the city, all at once stopping and turning for the longest pause it can accommodate her with, has it’s portrait taken.  Dignified but impromptu poses and expressions cast the buildings in a historical light, with all the evidence of their contemporary lives about them. She is able to make out the coherence and common history from the complexity of the city. The buildings are a populace, interactions constant, roots shared.

Lois Conner speaks to this quality and her intentions:

My subject is landscape as culture. I am not interested in an untouched, untrammeled world. What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate yet subtle way is a sense of history. I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the tangible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.

Occasionally, a shot comes off as less genuine due to a curio-cabinet presentation (the fictional relationship she mentions?). Mere graphite for some shots, this makes diamonds of some of her portraits. They ring with the documentary tone of the Farm Security Administration’s Depression era photography program. She even manages to make an office cubicle look, if not downright modern and sensible, at least attractive in its texture and Cartesian arrangement. She also trades those silver hues for brilliant color in a few well chosen and composed images.  She sets out to do something in particular with photography, and I think she very often succeeds in it.

Architecture: Wingårdhs

A gateway of pleached oak trellises leads to a small outbuilding in the Swedish countryside, designed by Gert Wingårdh. The simple, gabled cube is a jointing of far-flung relatives, Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetic and attitude, carried out in dove-tailed stairs, exposed wood beams, and a triangle of glazing mullioned in a diamond array. This is the Mill House, and just one of many great examples of Wingårdhs’ work.

The idea of the rift and striation seems to find its way into more than a few of the designs.  This movement breaks the megalithic, singular geometries of the massing.  The results are stark.  The project descriptions, sometimes due to welcomely coarse translation, are likewise brazen and place their design language in a similar vocabulary.

More subtly (but just as powerfully), they are able to create a calming intrigue by using some of their buildings as studies of materiality. Forms awe with it. Wetlands mold into a sculpted, straw visitor center, charcoaled cladding rises conversely to the lake bed, sibling reflections about the lake surface.
The site’s character is studied and repeated back, a process of learning, but it is retold in a different voice. Any mimicry of the landscape immediately surrounding the building, be it natural or urban, isn’t a stale blending, but an elegant sensitivity.

Whether manifested in serenity or starkness, the thoroughly designed works of Wingårdhs strikes as good architecture.

Architecture: The Split Level House and The Streetscape

Out my window is a choppy landscape of architectural styles. Face-to-face with the brick and terracotta brownstone it’s set in, is some sort of Italian Revival. Far left, I can see a Philip Johnson tower; to the right is the vintage, neon lit signage of the building where Bob Dylan started his career. The other side of the Italian Revival block exhibits an art deco garage turned convenience store, backed by a turn of the century, 583 ton brick foursquare. It’s weight is known because it was moved brick by brick 16 blocks to save it from being demolished, making the streetscape all the more like a collection on display; at any second, a giant hand could plop down a Greek temple. The streetscape is a good mix, and interesting.  What it’s not, is coherent.

The Split Level House by Qb3 is.  It inhabits the corner lot of a rusticated block of brown brick buildings in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia.  Its contemporary, vertically playful insides let the vernacular streetscape spill in through the square subtractions in its gently bent, (not-brown) brick facade.  Wood reconciles the grey of the brick while glass dismisses it. The vertical play in layout culminates in a rooftop space that presents an even wider, more dramatic view to the urban fabric. The curves, height, and street-level connection book-match the attractive building face-to-face with it; that Italian Revival out my window does none of what the Split Level House achieves.

The street I’m writing from is so eclectic because that is the character its heritage set up for it.  It sees more activity and change than the Split-Level House’s wider site. Yet the architects responded to the street’s buildings (integrity) without adhering to them (sincerity), in this home.  Pluck it from it’s context, and it’s wholly modern; put it back, and it’ll revert to a piece, fitting perfectly in a century old composition. The same genes, different generation.  When a wider context of the site, block, neighborhood, and city is addressed, biological terms are apt.  Buildings like this one keep architecture alive, then keeps it lively by progressing it.

This house has had its share of press and limelight. This post evolved more into a commentary on disparate streetscapes and design responses than on the individual house, as it is a prime example.  The Split Level House is one of my favorites for many reasons, though, and should be checked out for its individualistic design merits, as well.