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Issue 144

Architecture

From housing design in Japan to urban interventions in Caracas, architecture in 2011 was characterized by a rethinking of public and private space

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BY Niklas Maak in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 12

Suppose Design Office Hiroshima House, Fukuya, Hiroshima, 2011. Courtesy Suppose Design Office, Hiroshima; photograph: Toshiyuki Yano

Niklas Maak
Berlin-based writer and arts editor for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His book Le Corbusier: the Architect on the Beach (2011) is published by University of Chicago Press.

In 2011, the public square was rediscovered: by the revolutionaries protesting in Tahrir Square and by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Zuccotti Park. Whereas in recent years, the actions of citizens in the so-called public realm seemed increasingly limited to fulfilling predefined consumer programmes in a passive, seated position (trying on shoes, ordering lattes, watching films), the public square now became the focal point of decisive changes in politics and in consciousness – and this despite all the gloomy prophesies of decision-making processes gradually shifting out of the real world into the virtual realm.

What does this mean for contemporary architecture? In the past, its most formally gifted proponents have displayed an eloquent cynicism when it came to drawing the line between private and public. The most strident example of an architecture that secures itself against the discontents of the street is Herzog & de Meuron’s luxury apartment building at 40 Bond Street, a shimmering green edifice in New York’s gentrified Bowery neighbourhood. There were fears that angry local residents (including many artists), no longer able to afford rising rents, would cover the façade with aggressive graffiti. How to deal with this? A graffiti artist in Switzerland was asked to spray tags onto a wall, which were then scanned and transformed into digital 3D models, out of which an aluminium cast structure was produced. This protective sculpture was installed in front of the house in such a way that people can no longer spray onto the façade, and are able at best to enhance the graffiti gate with a little authentic spray paint. What was once a symbol of protest against exclusive private property thus becomes an ornament adding to the value of that very same property.

In view of such wily tactics for screening out a precarious public, it is interesting to see what is currently happening in Japanese architecture – namely, the exact opposite. Be it the new House I by architect Yoshichika Takagi, assembled out of boxes right next to a parking lot in Akita, Japan, or the Hiroshima House by Suppose Design Office, consisting of a residential landscape of stacked cubes; Takeshi Hosaka’s programmatic Inside-Out House, whose rooms can be opened up via sliding glass panels, or the sculptural black boxes arranged by UID Architects in Fukuyama – in all these projects, it has become near-impossible to tell what is ‘public’ and what is ‘private’. It seems as if a new type of building is emerging that no longer reflects the duality of inside and outside, private and public, but that cuts across it.

Its prototype is the Moriyama House built in Tokyo in 2005, by Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA Architects, for a bon vivant who spends his time collecting vinyl records and exhibition catalogues. On a plot the size of a large detached house, Nishizawa built a miniature city out of ten blocks of one to three storeys that recall freestanding rooms. The passages between them are not roofed over, forming a kind of labyrinthine garden. Trees grow in the spaces between the rooms or blocks, the rooftops can be used for eating in summer, and the ensemble as a whole is like a cross between a residential landscape and a stage set, making it hard to define – is it a house whose corridors are open to the elements, or a small housing project whose individual units are no bigger than a room? More interesting than such circular definitions, however, is the promise of a different form of micro-communal life. A diverse group of people live together here in a very limited space. But unlike in a house-sharing situation, they can do so without getting on each other’s nerves. This patchwork of friends and disparate individuals is not squeezed into a large old apartment with just one kitchen, where different lifestyles and standards of hygiene collide. Instead, each resident has a micro-house with its own bathroom and hotplate. This shows how it is possible with relatively modest resources of space and money to offer the kind of homely private sphere for which people commonly plunge themselves into endless spirals of debt. In an entirely informal way, this offers a new form of cellular micro-public. Rather than being screened off from the road by a solid wall, the private sphere is permeable and porous. It turns into a social promise, a kind of de-ruralized kibbutz. A shared flat without the usual claustrophobia. A new architectural approach to altered ways of living beyond the nuclear family. This is the socio-political dynamite contained within these buildings, which are more than just inhabitable luxury design objects.

In the past, the options when it came to choosing the right architectural setting for our private sphere were depressingly few and depended on our financial situation: a small apartment or a large one, a small house or a large one. The architectural format almost imposed the life to be lived: father, mother, one to three children, pet, family car in the garage. The free architectural cell clusters in Japan attempt a counter-model that can also house large circles of friends and extended cohabitating groups, singles and families, pensioners and people passing through. They open up the private towards the public without abandoning a core area of intimacy (being alone and unobserved in the cubes is very much a possibility). What is public today, and what is private? Someone who steps out onto the street having spent six hours in his room emailing, chatting and Skyping may be someone seeking refuge from the public in the private. As a pair of conceptual opposites, inside and outside have lost much of their usefulness. The new Japanese architecture shows what might emerge beyond this binarism.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell 

Mass Design Group, Butaro Hospital, Burera District, Rwanda, 2011. Courtesy Mass Design Group, Boston; photograph: Iwan Baan

Joseph Grima
Editor of Domus magazine, based in Milan, Italy.

As anyone who has had anything to do with the creation of a building knows well, unless you happen to work in China, the speed at which architecture completes the trajectory from concept to ribbon-cutting ceremony is at best glacial. As a consequence, architecture is afflicted by a chronic syndrome of bad timing: boom times engender new projects that are condemned to debut in the midst of a crisis, dramatically out of sync with their surroundings. Not only that: the deeper the crisis, the more ambitious the architecture (a correlation that perhaps isn’t entirely coincidental). This might help explain why the eyes of all Spain – in the midst of one of the most spectacular economic implosions in recent memory, with youth unemployment reaching 25 percent in some cities – were on Seville in June for the inauguration of J. Mayer H.’s Metropol Parasol, one of the most daring, exuberant and in many ways brilliant – though certainly not the cheapest – urban interventions ever seen in Europe. Instantly branded the largest wooden structure in the world, its vast latticework frame provides shade for the occupants of La Plaza de la Encarnación in an attempt to both boost the square’s long-lost vitality and to provide the city with the kind of Guggenheim-esque architectural symbol that most mayors now seem to consider indispensable for attracting tourists. The convergence of crisis-induced unrest and a new icon of contemporary architecture produced one of the most memorable images of 2011: tens of thousands of young, unemployed indignados camped out in protest with placards and banners under the mushroom-like canopy of the Parasol.

Elsewhere in Europe, artists made their own contributions to the cause of cheering up crisis-ridden nations with excellent works of architecture. Olafur Eliasson, working in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects, designed a characteristically kaleidoscopic, crystalline façade for Reykjavík’s new Harpa Concert Hall. In Germany, Tobias Rehberger designed a bridge for the city of Oberhausen. Inspired by the Slinky children’s toy, it proves – as artists seem particularly adept at doing, bearing in mind the architectural work of Vito Acconci, for instance – that infrastructure can find meaningfulness in playfulness. As a consequence of its artistic paternity, in the place of a name it has a title: Slinky Springs to Fame.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the world’s richest man and one of its greatest collectors, Carlos Slim, inaugurated the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, which houses part of a vast and eclectic collection ranging from Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1902) to a set of rare automobiles. The architect, Fernando Romero (who also happens to be Slim’s son-in-law), evidently subscribes to the notion that a museum should be an icon and the morphology of an icon should be unusual. Its torqued envelope is clad in a chain-mail skin of metallic hexagons, and would likely have been beyond the reach of even the world’s deepest pockets had it not been for the fact that many of its elements were produced by family-owned companies. It is a courageous, exuberant addition to the cultural panorama of a city that has a profound love for its museums, and confirms Mexico’s status as one of the most innovative epicentres in the production of contemporary architecture.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, a number of innovative facilities and works of infrastructure were inaugurated in Africa. Butaro Hospital in the Burera District, Rwanda, is a particularly interesting case study in how architecture can be used as an engine for social regeneration: beyond providing access to first-rate healthcare facilities, it was used to spur on grassroots business and development in the local community. The hospital was designed by MASS Design Group, a studio founded by a second-year Harvard graduate student, Alan Ricks, with the specific objective of providing pro bono design services for African communities. The structure incorporates many low-cost solutions to the problem of disease control: as a measure to avoid the transmission of infections between patients in communal rooms and corridors, for example, all of the wards are located in separate buildings connected by open walkways and loggias, in a configuration reminiscent of an African village. In Caracas, another group of architects deeply engaged with the local community, Urban Think Tank, completed a series of interventions, ranging from a cable-car service designed to provide public transport to the city’s impoverished hilltop favelas to a new school for autistic children. As Europe and the US slip into economic freefall, and the last projects conceived in the golden days of the past decade are completed, Latin America increasingly resembles the laboratory of architecture for the decade to come.

Niklas Maak is a writer and arts editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well as John T. Dunlop Lecturer of Housing and Urbanization at Harvard University, USA. He is the author of Le Corbusier: The Architect on the Beach (2011) and Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal (2015), both published by Hirmer. 

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