Thursday, 24 February 2011

Pigmented Mini-Henge

Pigmented glass pieces from the Orsoni Workshop in Venice, which are cut up to make "smalti", or mosaic tesserae. But here acting as an adult's excuse to play building blocks.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Avant-Garde meets Orthodoxy: The Ramot Polin Housing Complex

Ramot Polin is a 720 unit social housing development in Jerusalem, built on land expropriated from the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil from 1972 onwards, designed by Zvi Hecker, and part of a large government building campaign immediately following the 6-day war.

A certain degree of formal experimentation was allowed to pass in the rush to build, and so Hecker somehow managed to argue the case for these amazingly impractical honeycomb units on a combination of their modular replicability, and the speed at which they could be assembled, as well as a "these geometries are a part of the underlying structure of nature" type argument. They were quick to build and cheap, to boot they looked interesting, and so they were built.

The buildings are on a hill 4km north of central jerusalem, and as you approach, instead of looking like crystalline outcrops of pure geometrical forms, some of them are difficult to distinguish as entities of architecture at all, instead from afar they together manage to look just like a ramshackle village on a steep site, of which there are a few thereabouts.

Which is because the estate is an extreme example of the Israeli, and generally Middle-Eastern, tendency to radically alter and make additions to the family home outside of official planning regulations and permits.

The interior spaces are monumentally impractical, with large areas of unusable walls, horribly cramped balconies, windows that seem especially designed for children to fall out of, issues everywhere with rain screening, drainage, and lack of natural light, all amounting to the development from the beginning not attracting the middle income, secular families it was originally intended for.

The bold shapes lay empty, the government slashed rents, and a rather surprising, less assuming community slowly made it their home over the coming 30years. Several hundred Haredi Orthodox Jewish families, appreciating the low rents and seeing the awkwardness of the complex's layout as a very minor inconvenience indeed (as well as guarantee that others wouldnt follow) compared to some of the places they had previously been forced to call home, moved in on mass.

The isolated hilltop location was an added benefit, since the community could contain itself, protected, away from the rest of the city, developing into and through the Architecture to become a late 20th century version of the old Shtetls from the Pale of Settlement.

The unappealing oddness of the buildings themselves were much of the reason that these low income families could afford what are essentially very well specified apartments with full amenities, and as they set about adjusting the estate, flat by flat, year by year, staircase by staircase, to fit their evolving needs, and in some cases growing wealth, they never fully efface Hecker's forms, instead inserting variation and enhancement within, and on top of, his modular layout.

Initially minor practical alterations like plugging nooks and crannies that attract dirt and animals, sealing open edges, were followed by changes to open up the cave-likeness of the interiors to make them more livable by adding proper balconies, larger windows, air-conditioning and straightening a wall here and there, whilst more recently, together with these changes which keep being made, residents are enlarging their flats, and adding extra rooms, with each addition having its own set of materials and look of its own. Rather than consuming the original buildings, these changes bring Hecker's project to life, integrating it inseparably to the growth, development, workings and identity of a minority community, in a way realising his biological metaphors.

Not everywhere has changed so much, it is mostly the blocks that have several generations of the same families living in them that have taken full authorship over their surroundings, and have altered them alot. In the blocks which have changed dramatically, there is an unexpectedly organic union between the abstractions of Architectural Formalism, and the exigencies of everyday life and specific community needs. The project's fate, and its continuing life and evolution, is in stark contrast to Robin Hood Gardens (a fundamentally more liveable complex) in East London (finished the same year as this started), and other social housing schemes in the UK that are not only being unceremoniously cleared of their buildings, but also their residents and communities -the seed of their survival and adaptation, in the continuation in a different form of New Labour's damaging, euphemistically named 21st century slum-clearance scheme, Pathfinder.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Went to Dorset

Was very foggy. Above is the chapel of St Catherine near Abbotsbury, and below is a high ridge near the sea that -as you can see- affords "panoramic views over the stunning West Dorset countryside"...

I also visited Poundbury, but then if I talk about it here or post any pictures, that might give the impression that I found it in any way important, relevant, or even interesting. And I didnt. Salisbury Cathedral however was magnificent, and all the more for me presuming beforehand that it was just all about its silhouette, when in fact its interior is far more impressive. Its the most elegant and composed of the churches ive visited in England, having a massive, sculpted sobriety relatively missing in all the other fussy, haphazard or just plain dull British medieval Cathedral interiors ive seen (visits that are in no way exhaustive i must add). Apologies that photos do not follow here, but none of the images i took in any way convey its stoney qualities...

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Two Medieval Men Kissing & Other Delights

This is a round encaustic tile from a medieval English pavement. The sequence of images tell a story (apologies but I cannot remember which story... it involved a king. Duh), and are the earliest set of surviving figural tiles from the British Isles. Although the men appear to be, and are indeed kissing on the lips, this was a way of passing on luck, and wishing well, for a journey rather than any more Hellenic form of younger-older male bonding.

Rather more appropriate to ambivalent European depictions of love is this delicate, but morbid, depiction by a Flemish painter from the fifteenth century, of a knight courting his object of desire. Pallid and gaunt, looking as if they have a cold, red-tinged flesh flaring at their nostrils and the sides of their mouths, the pair are watched by a disconcertingly over-eager figure of Death, who is either a reminder of the folly of earthly passions, or a stark description of what will be awaiting the man should his entreaties be rejected by the fair damsel. Fittingly the whole thing is painted on the bowing shape of a ceremonial shield.

Above is a scene from an object tenuously named "The Standard of Ur" that has survived from the ancient Sumerian town of the same name, and was recovered from a large Royal tomb. Its surface is decorated in minute mosaics, and show on one side an image of "War" and on the other "Peace", the photo here being from the side of Peace, cattle, goats, harvest and all.

Also from near Ur is this 4500 year old mosaic encrusted column, one of several found at the site of a temple dedicated to the god Ninhursag. At its heart were palm logs, covered in Bitumen, and around which were attached pieces of mother-of-pearl, pink limestone, and black shale.  Each tessera had a copper wire passed through a loop at the back of it and the ends twisted into a ring. The wire was then sunk into the bitumen for attachment. When discovered in 1919, the archaeologists found that the columns were exactly the same diameter as modern petrol drums and so during reconstruction, sections of tesserae, held in place by bandages dipped in wax, were wrapped around empty drums to restore their original shape.

All these items are on public display, free of charge, at the British Museum