RA Magazine Winter 2013
Issue Number: 121
Who's who in Sensing Spaces
Jay Merrick introduces the architects taking part in Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined
Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto De Moura
Both based in Porto
Architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. Photo © Leonel de Castro.
The combination of these two legendary Portuguese architects has already worked its magic in London, with their co-design of the 2005 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, a structure based on a distorted interlocking timber grid. Yet they take very individual approaches.
Alvaro Siza says architects don’t invent anything – they just transform reality. There is an artistic aspect to his practice, which many regard as a benchmark of the Critical Regionalist strand of architecture – an evolved modernism, infused with, or abstracted by, place-specific expressions of form, materials and history. Siza’s 1997 Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto is a fine example: his manipulations of white walls, space and moments of asymmetry produce artful spatial and perspectival tensions.
Architect Álvaro Siza. Photo © Chiara Porcu.
‘Nothing is planned in and of itself, but always in relation to belonging,’ says architectural academic Vittorio Gregotti of Siza’s work. Siza comes from northern Portugal, notes Gregotti, ‘where the light of the Atlantic is long and illuminates poverty in an abstract way, reveals all the harshness of surfaces, each change in the road around homes, every scrap, in a grandiose, dry and bittersweet manner.’ The way Siza designs – slowly, with pen and sketchbook, and often in a café in Porto – is about as far away from 21st- century computer-aided design as you can get.
Eduardo Souto de Moura designs by instinct. ‘If people ask why I have made two doors, then I can only say I don’t know. Part of the answer is that, for me, architecture requires continuity: we have to continue what others have done before us but using different methods of construction and materials.’ In his 2004 Braga Stadium we encounter an almost delicate-looking cross-section; at the Paula Rego Museum (2008) in Cascais, he created a surreal landscape of chunky red buildings with pyramidal upper sections.
His use of materials is often surprising, giving his buildings a depth of character that cannot be absorbed rapidly. Ultimately, he believes architecture is ‘not about communication, but about your obligation to the requirements of the brief. If you want to express yourself, paint a picture, make a piece of sculpture, or write a book.’
Based in Dublin
Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara, Grafton Architects. Photo © Alice Clancy.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, directors of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, flared onto the architectural radar in 2008 with the completion of their building for the School of Economics at the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan. Their biggest project before that had been an innovative 10,000sq m extension to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Trinity College, Dublin. The 65,000sq m Via Roentgen building at the Bocconi University not only demonstrated that Grafton could design major international projects, but that they could do so with great formal and spatial boldness.
It has been onwards and upwards from that point and their design for the Medical School and student housing at the University of Limerick was shortlisted for the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize. Farrell and McNamara have also developed a substantial academic reputation, notably at University College, Dublin, and in their sharing of the Louis Kahn Chair at Yale University.
The Bocconi building signalled their design confidence unequivocally. It effectively covers a city block with an architecture that is like a vast urban sculpture whose internal arrangements produce an unusual realm of solids, voids and falls of light. And it’s not just a formal exercise – they like the idea that form can absorb emotion or passion.
The language Grafton use to describe key features is revealing. Farrell and McNamara speak of buildings inhaling and exhaling, and quote Louis Kahn’s remark: ‘To hear a sound is to see its space.’ They describe the undercroft at the Bocconi University building as an ‘erupting landscape’, and the great hall, or aula magna, as an ‘embedded boulder’.
Based in Tokyo, with another office in Paris
Architect Kengo Kuma. Photo © The Courier.
How can the historical traditions of Japanese architecture be reinvented in 21st-century architecture? No designer has delved into the possibilities more than Kengo Kuma, who approaches this challenge as both a practising architect and as one of the profession’s most respected academics.
There is never a hint of pastiche. Instead, in extraordinary buildings such as the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre (2012), a loosely skewed pile of eight timber ‘houses’, we find innovative translations of traditional forms and materials. The Café Kureon in Toyama re-expresses aspects of traditional Japanese timber structures with its cascades of beams.
Another characteristic of Kuma’s work concerns the way he deals with linking spaces, and this was heralded in the name of his first practice, Spatial Design Studio, set up in 1987. We can pick up another important clue to Kuma’s design philosophy from the title of a 2008 exhibition at the University of Illinois in Chicago: ‘Material Immaterial’. This dualism, in which the solid is juxtaposed with the transparent or the ephemeral, can be seen in Kuma’s Xinjin Zhi Museum, completed in 2011 in Chengdu, China, where the pavilion’s glass walls are overlaid by a gapped screen of stone tiles.
‘Architecture cannot resist the strength of nature,’ says Kuma, ‘so it needs to find ways of coexisting with it. Ma – which means space or sense of place in Japanese – is very important to me. It’s more about the experience of space than the building as a physical entity and it’s something I always want to pay attention to.’
Based in Beijing
Li Xiaodong works in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. China is set to become the biggest single production and consumer society the world has ever seen. Li’s architecture is a counterweight to this condition, a reminder of simpler values and experiences.
At the heart of his work is not the ideal of modernism as such, but a spiritual exploration of ideas that uses rational thinking, technical knowledge and artistry to produce what he calls ‘rich’ design. He has a deep concern about environmental issues, and is on record as saying that sustainable design is of critical importance in China: ‘We really need to reconsider the way we construct, and the way we think about society.’
Architect Li Xiaodong, inside the Liyuan Library Photo © Kate Goodwin Li designs buildings of calm gravitas using simple materials in often unexpected combinations that reflect cultural and climatic relationships. There is a definite search for the spiritual essence of place, and a striving to create conditions of tranquillity and harmony derived from qualities of space, light and structure.
‘The Western tendency,’ he says, ‘is to look at the world as a series of objects, while in China and the East we tend not to differentiate between subject and object. So Western architecture develops from perspective, with the building as an object to be looked at from without; while Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from within.’ An example of the latter is his design for the Liyuan Library near Beijing, completed in 2011, with its cladding sourced from locally collected firewood visible through the windows.
‘For the Chinese,’ he continues, ‘an artificially created space is first of all cosmological and should be in harmony with the order of nature.’
Pezo Von Ellrichshausen
Based in Concepción, Chile
Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Photography: Ana Crovetto / © Pezo von Ellrichshausen.
Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen describe their Chilean architectural practice as an ‘art and architecture studio’. The precedence of art in that description is provocative, but not unexpected given their ideas about architecture. In particular, they are not seduced by the currently prevailing idea of designing modern buildings that defer to their context. So their Poli House is a concrete block perched high above the coastline in Chile’s Coliumo peninsula, alone in a vast natural landscape.
They are also interested in triggering unexpected relationships with existing buildings or the spaces around them. The search to articulate these tensions is evident in their domestic architecture, and particularly in the way they compose interiors. Gago House in San Pedro, Chile, is rectilinear and has asymmetrically positioned windows – some flush with the façade, others deeply punched. The house stands next to a large, old-fashioned, heavily gabled villa. Fosc House (2009), also in San Pedro, is even more startling, with an angular plan and stained-concrete façades. However, ‘the emphasis is on the proportion of the rooms, their sequence, the way they open – simple things, but which taken together suggest something more complex,’ says Pezo.
‘For us, beauty resides in the simple and the unpretentious’, says Von Ellrichshausen. ‘We like the idea that there are essential ways of understanding spatial relationships, a universal language, and so we have been investigating spatial structures in a primitive sense. We don’t ever start with a “design”, because we don’t design. We think not of details but of the structure and bones of the piece, the elements that will survive the process.’
Diébédo Francis Kéré
Based in Berlin
Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. Photo © David Heerde.
In 2004, while still a student in Berlin, Diébédo Francis Kéré won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for his design for a primary school at Gando, in his native Burkina Faso. It put the international architectural spotlight not only on him, but on Burkina Faso, where people have often lived in harsh physical conditions, and where the words ‘education’ and ‘architecture’ have been estranged.
Kéré’s design for the school library uses very limited raw materials such as earthenware pots to form lightwells. He introduced a bold new fusion of modern and traditional architecture that set an immediate benchmark for the country’s schools: simple to build, durable, and providing much improved learning and community environments through better shading, airflow and protection from heavy rain. Kéré has gone on to develop a series of building types – again using simple materials – that have introduced new architectural forms to many African settings.
While Kéré’s studio is in Berlin, the ethos of his designs is rooted in his Burkinese culture. ‘Every night when I was a child,’ he recalls, ‘my family gathered together. We would sit close to each other in a sort of circle and listen to the adults telling stories; there was no light so we couldn’t see each other. It was an intense feeling of being in a safe, protective space that had been created through our presence, along with the lone voice of the storyteller in the darkness.
‘In African tradition, building a house involves the whole community, with everyone participating,’ he continues. ‘Architecture is defined through the construction process, and I try to take advantage of this collective way of working within my own architecture.’
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