Monday, 29 August 2011

Ironclad Bus Stop

There was a move to jazzier bus stops in the 90s after decades of dominance by the ubiquitous, and quite elegant, prefab shelters all down the country, as well as their queen's hive that is the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. This is the biggest I have come across from that little flowering of creativity, as well as conveniently being the one that strains the hardest to break the shackles of propriety. I think there was some subtle inspiration from the waves of the sea, and possibly the gentle curves of the seaside dunes...

It is rather strangely sited on a motorway sliproad with no clear way for pedestrians to access it, and while it doesnt provide much for them -if they can make it there- in terms of comfort or convenience, it at least has made damn well sure that it can compete competently with the trucks for visual dominance of the highway.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Lunar Eclipse

A shot I snapped of the full lunar eclipse this june. I hadn't known about the event, and whilst driving back home together with my parents, got out of the car to stare -agape- at a moon whose light was rapidly disappearing, burning itself out like the phosphorous on the head of a match, and which after a few minutes left behind only an after-image of itself in muddy orange. Like someone had deftly swapped our moon for Mars, an impostor was up there.
Later I sat for the rest of the event in a garden, where for an hour or so I was alone with what sounded like a creche full of terrorized and tortured babies, as the surrounding population of suburban cats wailed in unison at the stranger leering down at them, like its arrival was the memorial of some irreparably painful event. The dogs were at it as well, barking from every direction in regular but overlapping intervals, in warning lest the visitor turn out to intrude on more than their sky.
I didn't look for meaning in it, but I could sympathise with someone experiencing the same thing coming to the conclusion that the facts of barking dogs, whining cats, and a moon disembodied by the spectrum of light refracted by the edge of the earth's atmosphere, somehow didn't add up to the measure of the event's uncanny immensity, because they don't, and it is that unbridgeable deficit between fact and impression, between the strength and strangeness of a moment and the tawdry ineloquence of its posthumous communication, that in vain I guess Im trying to fill with these words, and a photo.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Cheesy Deception in Gruyère

As a family we love cheese and all things Dairy. Gruyère -pretty little idyllic Swiss-French village that it is- is all about cheese and cream, and merited a minor pilgrimage from where we were staying on lake Geneva up into the alps. We arrived, had fondue, ate bowls of cream with berries, took pictures of the waitresses and tourist shop salespeople dressed up in variations of lederhosen, purchased a couple of keyring-sized swiss cowbells... and unexpectedly stumbled into a typically wild bar designed by Alien (the movie) set designer HR Giger.

Of all the places in the world he could have fallen in love with, he fell in love with picture-postcard, Heimat theme-park Gruyère, deciding that this all-smiling all-dancing hill top tourist mecca was to be the home of his significantly darker, mechanico-biological, violently pornographic, science fiction legacy. There is now a Giger museum near the apex of the village's High Street, and behind some medieval arched windows opposite lurks what looks like a vaulted room housing the museum's bar.

So from a town heavy on the cheese in every respect -from the food, to the camera snapping, to the nauseating cuteness of it all- you step into some full-on stage-set cheese Noir, beginning with the Pelvic-bone-and-spinal-column Umbrella rack.

Through the alien tables, giant swiveling spinal column chairs, spinal column vaulted ceiling, writhing and complaining wall of tiled babies etc etc. There is way too much of every element, with every square centimeter of the place taken up with one or another motif by the artist. Its wonderfully OTT.

It offers itself up to you with all the honesty of a good piece of horror-ride artifice, wearing the contradiction between its quite spectacular visual and lighting effects, and the crapness of the way its materials are all revealed to be light and hollow when you knock on them, very lightly and happily indeed.

It kind of redeemed Gruyere for me, because these cloyingly perfect towns were getting on my nerves a bit. They all seem to be taken-in by their own illusion, seeming to themselves believe the lie they peddle to visitors that they are somehow real and originally swiss, simply by virtue of their physical fabric being old (and usually this is a selective truth anyway, after certain 19C romantic remodelings).

Like St Paul de Vence in the Var, these tourist havens are quite violently pornographic in how they serve up, without context or content, narrative or depth, their limbs and ligaments, streets and facades, which hump away obediently and on cue in the background of family snapshots, smiling inanely like the beautiful old houses that they are, smiling the empty unhappy smile of someone getting fucked for money. This whole sad scenario is perpetuated by the incredible belief that it is precisely in amongst this industry of heritage exploitation, exactly in the middle of this terribly efficient engine of cultural annihilation, precisely in the empty hearts of places like Gruyere, with its "Artisanal" cheese and 15th century houses, devoid of economic independence and local life, that authenticity claims to be located.

And Giger, for me anyway, with his massively over the top interior slap bang in the heart of Authenticland, by virtue of ramping up the ridiculousness of his kitsch noir, acts as the perfect antidote to all the fake earnestness outside. The Giger bar doesn't pretend to be real but asks you to suspend your disbelief and enjoy its silliness and strangeness in a pact of knowing enjoyment; it is illusion. Gruyere and similar villages pretend to be real, and ask you to suspend your critical faculties and spend your euros in specificaly codified ways, in a pact of mutual exploitation; it is deception. The Giger bar brought this scenario out into sudden clarity and relief for me. It gives the truth to Gruyere's lie

Monday, 6 June 2011

Botta Bunker Bank

A building whose landlord has clearly found a rather joyful way to increase the allure of his (rather plain concrete frame, 1960s) property to lucrative corporate tenants, both as a telecoms mast, and a clear local demonstration of banking's perpetual attraction to all things shiny and conspicuous. It is at the entrance to Kfar-Shmaryahu in the Gush-Dan region of Israel.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Seventeen Flourishes From Baden-Württemberg & Bavaria

The Town Hall complex in Friedrichshafen, a small town on Lake Constance -the birthplace of the Zeppelin- that I was quite smitten by. The number of ice cream parlours perhaps outnumbered the actual residents of this German summer resort town, which is positively bursting with 1950s cuddly modern, rigorously friendly cuteness.

As well as the Zeppelin Museum, previously the Hafenbanhof (harbour train station), a rather remarkable 1930s survivor...

...this Scharounalike bandstand on the boardwalk, replete with its own extensive list of Rules posted on its walls as to how it should be used in any given situation (the only other time I've come across such directives was an even more Byzantine, publicly posted document in the Jardin des Tuileries)...

...a granite and stainless-steel clad corporate-lobby cum public underpass (leading to a discount superstore in the edge of town)...

...and finally a ridiculously successful piece of playground sculpture (which could teach Zurab Tsereteli a thing or two about how to make kitsch, fun. rather than effing monstrous)...

Near Bregenz and the border with Austria, the Felix Wankel Institute, previously Felix Wankel's (inventor of the wankel rotary engine) private residence, which he later modified to be his laboratory until his death in the late 1970s

View up from under the Organ terrace towards the vast dome in the Rococo Ettal Abbey Chapel.

Sculpted pew-ends in the Chapel.

The 'sunken' Doric columns and entablature in the central courtyard of Stirling & Wilford's Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.

And the gallery's offices at the back of the complex.

Interior of faded, early chinoiserie tapestries in the vast, sprawling Ludwigsburg palace complex just north of Stuttgart.

Perhaps in a nod to German cultural affinities with Russia, and a similar conflicted dependency on Italian artistry, the palace is full of quite muscular, Baroque figures pumping their biceps and displaying bulging quadriceps, flexing their masculinity in defiance of all the swirling pastelles and delicate vegetal gilding of the Rococo ornament around them, a tension similarly played up to great effect by Rastrelli at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Tselo.

Some original wall fabrics in the palace that retain their vivid dye, but not their material integrity.

The bijoux mirror room.

Above is the only shot I managed to sneak of the interior of Ludwig II's Schloss Herrenchiemsee. One of the several palaces he was building at the time of his death, with this one being the only palace he never intended to actually live in. It was meant to be a replica of the Versaille of Louis XIV, but a replica in the nineteenth Century, openly imaginative creative-license sense of the word, so alot more colourful, quite alot bigger in the dimensions of its rooms, and -quite incredibly- even more overloaded with ornament. It was also not a palace in the sense of a functioning residence of royal business or pleasure, it was instead meant to be a life-size version of a model-in-a-museum, a fully immersive, lifeless, atmospheric artifact from a better time long-gone, in which Ludwig II could contemplate (alone, he hated company) the greatness of the characters, adventures, and acts that filled the period of European absolute monarchy that he apparently pined over as a lost golden age, flushed with gold, but neutered by parliament and chained by Prussia as he was at that point...

Above and below are models of another of his projects, this time a temporary Pompeian theatre for a Wagner festival (he loved Wagner, and even had a vast Wagnerium proposed for Munich -designed by Gottfried Semper no less- that was stymied by some good old 19C NIMBYism) that was to be located in the glass and iron Crystal Palace that he had built on the roof of his Munich Schloss. The Pompeian period was seen not only by Ludwig II, but also by his father Ludwig I, as another golden age to be replicated and creatively re-imagined in royal projects and commissions, although with the added benefit of being a relatively 'new' old paradigm, having only been uncovered in the recent past. Proof enough of the family's interest, beyond this theatre, is the Pompejanum, a "replica" of the house of Castor and Pollux built on a hill with a commanding presence over the town of Aschaffenburg by the said dad.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Luxury in Lausanne

SANAA have done it. They've managed to produce a piece of pure, unadulterated luxury that looks and feels the very opposite of weighty lucre, in a region that expends such a significant proportion of its creative prowess in attempting to achieve exactly that, in the form of exclusive appendages that pretty much fail universally in embodying anything except their weight in gold, or platinum, or Moon-Dust, or Narwhal tusk...

Few things in our cities are more contentious, fought over, valued and hoarded than space. Few things can have such an immediate and direct effect on our quality of life, on the way we interact with each other in our free time, and indeed how we spend our free time; whether we are forced to huddle alone in our cupboard-homes pursuing solitary pastimes, expend our income on leisure activities that turn our free time into a source of consumptive production, or whether there are places where we can enjoy the pleasure of unprogrammed time enjoyed in our own manner, in a public space, surrounded by other people equally doing nothing, or working hard, as they will, together or alone, but in a contiguous space.

^Above is a short video of my sister-in-law being frogmarched by me around a little portion of the building, but here you can see a better video and some of the official spiel.

Parks are one kind of place that provide those sorts of conditions, being free for all to use how they wish, according to some simple rules of propriety. However, while they are usually full of possibilities for wandering, dozing, and playing sports, they do not provide the shelter or the positive means for engaging in activities of the more contemplative, intellectual sort, that are always so well catered for in the local or national Library.

There are Libraries IN parks (Milan, Buenos Aires), but until now I had not come across a park IN a library. We are all quite inured by now to the impotent visual spectacle of our Dubais, Westfields, Cheesegraters, and the tainted feeling of tawdry exclusivity which they attempt to drown us in, ocular euphemisms for the sinister structural imbalances we know they really embody. Walking into a marble-clad lobby, a shiny new inner-city mall, a vast be-travertined atrium doesn't feel special, does not make me feel good, it just feels frightening, it makes me feel watched, isolated, unwelcome, my behaviour must be correct, else guards appear out of nowhere and escort me and my arse out of there pronto.

Libraries have even stronger codes of behaviour, they just happen to fit my habits and opinions like a glove.  Its just that their order of mutual respect, and communal maintenance of the perfect environment for thought and study or drawing and writing, is just so much more meaningful and important than keeping people feeling safe so that they continue spending their money on pointless crap. Parks are more open in the range of behaviours they allow, since they have enough space -groups of people can form islands with enough distance from other islands to not disturb each other with their antics; but they are equally free of any obligation to buy, of any duty to be a functional economic unit, to have a direct purpose for being there. And that is a very valuable, and increasingly rare commodity these days: the ability to spend time in a shared space, outdoors or indoors, in which you are not obliged to be participating in any form of economic exchange; in which you do not have to be there for an explicit purpose; in which your presence is not a means to an end other than your presence itself.

So with the backdrop of libraries closing all over britain like those female ants-with-wings that like to die en-masse every spring, and with new public spaces in London (and elsewhere im sure, but im very provincial) either privately owned and watched over by private security who maintain the right clientele spectrum, or public but designed to discourage loitering through seats that you cant sit properly on (lean-to's), and ledges that you cant lie on, with that backdrop I walked into the Rolex Learning Centre, and it was like someone had dropped me through a wormhole into an impossible alternate reality.

SANAA have always been interested in parks and landscape, in the sense of a field for human interaction and activity, but here they have been allowed to turn the usual logic of building inside out, so that the circulation spaces outstrip the area of programmed space, to be used as occupants wish, wi-fi everywhere, bean-bags strewn throughout, the floor undulating all over the place, and pierced here and there with circular openings that let you look through to the vast grotto underneath. Its full of direct quotes from OMA's 1990 Agadir convention Centre competition entry, and builds on that office's thoughts surrounding the nature of the Library in the 21st century that were developed with the Seattle Public Library project, all pulled together here into the most spatially generous interior I have ever come across. In a way it could be seen as a bit of a No-Stop-City kind of infinitely extendable, totalising nightmare, where the natural and technological have completely converged to turn us into happy self-contained creative nomadic units, but then, in this form I find that much more desirable than having nowhere to go other than a bloody art gallery.

A vast interior landscape (the building's floor area is 37,000sqm), free for anyone to use and enter, to relax on the floor and chat in, attend lectures in, research in, or have dinner and listen to concerts in. A building where so much of the space is devoted to really nothing at all in particular... bean-bags at the ready. It cantilevers and bridges like mad, for no other reason than to simulate nature, stimulate your spatial awareness, and encourage your ability to occupy and enjoy awkward angles (there are lots of tables too). It is white and gray, and as a student of mine pointed out recently -devoid of texture. However that neutrality just brings into focus -almost didactically- the fact that this building provides in luxurious, fecund abundance, the kind of beautifully designed in-between, unprogrammed space, together with freely accessible learning facilities, that are either so etiolated in our cities, or already dying away. Despite all the attempts of new semi-public places like One New Change to appear welcoming, they are simply not, and cannot be by virtue not only of their design (with its nods to public access, viewing deck etc) but of their very raison d'être.

Walking around the Rolex Centre on a quiet afternoon, there was a studious, but relaxed and languid atmosphere. I wanted to stay, I felt welcome, I wanted to make my own corner with book, laptop, sketchbook and cup of tea, somewhere on one of the more out-of-the-way hills, and settle down to do-my-thing. In terms of how the building was experienced (separate to the official blurb and concept, they so often bear no relation to the actual completed building -as in Zaha and Eisenmann's aerial architectures) it brought together the distant sounds, walkers, and clustered picnics of Hampstead Heath with the respectful, sobre collection of concentrating individuals that is my experience of the British Library. Public building for the public, with access to services and public space to work and not work in, the fact that this (aside from the engineering theatrics) felt so totally unusual, luxury, unique, and exclusive (all the words that ring so hollow in adverts for luxury housing developments and boutiques) was, after I left, a deeply depressing thought; that the unusual and singular is no longer that which panders to wealth and exclusion and short-term economic gain, but that which includes, is blind to wealth, and focuses on developing long-term quality of life. As commercial spectacle has long since taken over, this, the undetermined public interior, has become the ultimate in luxury.

But then this building is not really open to just anyone, and it has a very clear, demographically specific economic purpose. It is tucked away, far from the centre of Lausanne on the university campus, where it took us quite a while to find it. It is a university institution first and foremost, a forward thinking and experimental one yes, but of a very specific context that can afford it, and feels safe in the knowledge that its openness is open to a very specific crowd. This building is an armature of the luxury business and bio-tech that the region fosters -it is a place so wealthy and homogenous that it can afford to develop a new place like this, seeing it as a specific investment in the 'intellectual capital' (and this is the international, wealthy demographic who filled the place) that maintains the country's high levels of industrial competitiveness. The feel good factor that I felt there was, like the copiously amenable corporate campuses in Silicon Valley, geared towards the optimisation of productivity of the students and researchers. But it still made me feel good.

Which is good planning. But why not for everyone? If only the state could again realise what certain academic institutions and corporate bodies (and everyone that Im acquainted with) know, namely that humans need more from their environment than to be shuttled from one place to another, constantly producing and consuming and competing and worrying and wanting and trying...

The following are some more images of the interior, which I visited on a sunday afternoon, hence its relative quietness, although there were still substantial amounts of people there, thinly scattered about...
oh, and below is a sort of internal funicular for wheelchairs that navigates one of the steeper areas.