Tag Archives: Architecture

Enter urban jungle

In the art/architecture scene there was a period with green hype around 2009. The cities were to become green again; balconies, windowsills, rooftops were to become local farms – to connect us with the food supply, the nature, all the things good and green. (See for instance here or here).

However, nature is not just home made tomato chutney. Greenization comes with issues. Enter nature, enter the battle between man and nature. How about having insects and/or pesticides all over our cities? I can see the rats loving the new urban farms. Some places have recently suffered from an increase in “city rabbits”, and after them, “city foxes”. What’s next, “city wolves?” How about bugs? The bed bugs, that basically disappeared in the 50s (as a result of DDT), are back, having invaded thousands of hotels, camping sites, malls, movie theaters. They’ve even taken over the ladies’ clothes section of Macy’s in New York. Nature making a comeback.

Recent years have brought forth huge rising numbers of youth unemployment. In the west, there are huge numbers of unemployed young people without a sense of belonging to society. This is a threat to the social contract altogether. Take the riots in England, for example, where the laws appear to be out of the window. Ask any 20-year old from England or elsewhere, if he or she identifies with society. Even if they aren’t out on the streets wreaking havoc, the answer might be no. Maybe they say something about everybody looking out for their own interests, or refer to “the law of the jungle”.

Architecture has at times been notoriously naive about the human nature. Take all the housing projects in the 60s and 70s, that were supposed to be all about the good for the people. Well, many of them have become slums now. So, be careful what you ask for when you make visions of an urban jungle. We might get exactly that.

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“Good design”

My second-latest post was dedicated to a certain modern architect and designer, Alvar Aalto, whose work has become iconic or dogmatic for a whole country. Actually, the problem of modernism turned into dogma is much bigger than one single person in one single country. Take design, for instance – take a moment to think about what is considered good design in contemporary Western society. Perhaps some of the following items pop out of your neural circuits:

Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair photo:wikimedia commons Barcelona chair (1929) by Ludwig Mies van der RoheArne Jacobsen's Egg chair (1958)

The latest edition of Icon Magazine allows you to participate in a contest called The Ultimate Living Room where you can win items labeled good design. Here’s what came up. Many of the items presented by Icon Magazine, as well as the three chairs above, are widely accepted as iconic pieces of modern design.

“Neomodernism” sure is back after postmodernism. This is reflected by how we today define “The Ultimate Living Room”.While I do appreciate the forms and beauty of the modern, simple aesthetics, I do wonder what it tells of a society when many of its icons come from the past. – Or am I just spoiled by the momentum of societal change since WW2, expecting change to be present all the time? I mean, look how long it took us to get rid of the classical views. A couple of thousand years.

Only, I feel a bit sad for the modernist movement. The language of design was that of breaking free from the past, breaking free from the classical ornaments. It is funny to see the rigidity around the definition of good design today. But I guess that’s the way it works. Ideas are first innovative, then they become dogma only to finally they fall to limbo. “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”

You might say society is not really through with modernism yet, so why should we change our icons? We still like the simple, industrially reproducable objects that emphasize the superiority of industry and technology. The three chairs above still reflect the society we live in, even though they were designed 50-70 years ago. Sure enough they do, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing some new ways to express the modern or neo-modern era we live in.

Hmm have this as a homework, try to find contemporary good design chairs. 🙂

photos: wikimedia commons (-hover over the photos to see who designed the chairs and when)

The glass house

In my second-latest post I mentioned Andre Breton’s Glass house.  The concept refers to a desire to take away the border between the public and the private. The glass house is a very contemporary concept,  being reflected among other things in popular culture and architecture.

Look around you, -what has been built in your city lately? Maybe you immediately think of a major glass box. The contemporary glass boxes are like giant Big brother houses. The border between inside and outside is becoming less clear, as is the border between public and private. Everybody can look into each others’ lives. We sacrifice our privacy but in return, we get fifteen minutes of fame. We feel the eyes of others on us.

Transparency can also be a positive concept, enabling “lies” and falsehoods to be exposed better. Sounds fine, but the trick is, who gets access to the exposed information? Transparency can act as a means for social control. The glass houses are not far from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

Alvar Aaltoland

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Typical Aalto light solution. The light comes from above; not directly but through a tunnel. photo:hanba.

Being a Finnish blogger interested in architecture,  a post about Alvar Aalto is bound to pop up at some point. I’ve been blogging since march and have managed to hold the post off for nearly seven months.

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is The iconic figure in Finnish architecture and design. Despite having passed away well over thirty years ago, his influence is still very imminent. Having  been a groundbreaking modernist he is still today widely admired to a point where this devotion may be called ‘worship’.

Don’t get me wrong. I think he was a genius and definitely a great architect.  I am very impressed with many of his works and find them very beautiful and intersting. Still one has to wonder, is it not time to move on?

This summer I joined a guided tour of a building drawn by Aalto called the kansaneläkelaitos (The Social Insurance Institution’s headquarters) – a governmental administration building. This building, completed 1956, is interesting yet definitely not one of Aalto’s most famous ones. I’ve spent much of my childhood near the building but had never before this day been inside it.

The main hall where the customers used to be served. The central hall is typical for Aalto and is seen also for instance in Helsinki's Academic Bookstore.

The main hall where the customers used to be served. The central hall is typical for Aalto and is seen also for instance in Helsinki's Academic Bookstore.

Ironically enough, Aalto designed this government office to be a place where the citizens could spend time and interact with the government. It was to be a “people’s living room”.  The leather couches in the waiting area are inviting and comfortable. The inner courtyard is peaceful. Yet only a decade later, in the 1960’s, the building had to be closed for the public, and access restricted, because of vandalism. The people did not want this living room. Today, I could not even go to the toilet without somebody helping me out with an electronic key card.

Wall ceramics

Wall ceramics

I believe these attempts at producing a good relationship between the state and the individual  are very interesting. I am sorry this one didn’t turn out. The place is nice and peaceful on the inside. I don’t know if I’d like to hang out at a government institution, but given the choice, I would not mind sitting on the inner courtyard lawn on a sunny day.

Here’s a view of Aalto’s much  more known design and architecture.

The inner courtyard (not the best shot) Notice how the gate prevents people from coming in.

The inner courtyard (not the best shot) Notice how the gate prevents people from coming in.

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Miniature of the Social Insurance Institution headquarters

Miniature of the Social Insurance Institution headquarters

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Aalto vase. A bit different version from the one you might recognize.

Aalto vase. A bit different version from the one you might recognize.

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Why copy the Greek?

St Petersburg (photo: matildaben)

St Petersburg (photo: matildaben)

Once, strolling down the streets of St Petersburg, I thought about the multitude of neoclassical buildings around me. The city is known for its neoclassical and baroque architecture.  Street after street is laden with pillars, statues, curves, ornaments.

Passing a pediment after another, I wondered whether the Western culture really has nothing other to focus on than the ancient Greeks? Why keep reproducing an ideology from around 300 BC? In art we look back to the Greek for their classic proportions, in philosophy we start with Socrates and Plato. Literature students need to read the Iliad & Odyssey. It’s an important era, for sure, but has there not come anything new since?

I’ve recently started reading Ayn Rands massive novel The Fountainhead, which (among other things) describes the shift from classical to modern era in architecture. I’m just a few dozen pages into the book, but I immensely enjoy the juxtaposition between the conservative, traditionalist architecture graduate Peter Keating and the rebel Howard Roark, who is expelled from the university because of his modernist ideas. The year is 1922.

We today take the white, smooth, ornamentless, functional buildings for granted. This is a result of the likes of Roark  having questioned the old Greek paradigm. The modernist movement, of course, changed not only architecture but arts, literature, physics, everything. Whatever you think of the modernist thoughts and dogmas, whether you like it or not, modernism really did provide an alternative to the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars, the iambic pentameter and classical mechanics.

Interestingly enough, Ayn Rand is from St. Petersburg. Maybe she was inspired by the same streets as I…?

Ps. this is another automatic pre-scheduled post… I’m still hiking in the mountains of Jotunheimen, Norway,  far from ornamented pillars or plain surfaces.

Defining “pink or saccharine” architecture

Do you remember the film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola? In the film, there were so many things pink and sweet. The pink dresses, sweet colors and of course, the cakes Marie Antoinette is famous for: If they have no bread, then let them eat cake!

Malmo Public Library (photo: Percita)The concept of “pink, saccharine” architecture I described in an earlier post may be a bit elusive. I’ve tried to define it in this post, using  libraries in the Swedish city of Malmo as an example. The public library extension by Henning Larsen Tegnestue (completed 1997), is a very beautiful building featuring a multitude of interesting, trendy design details. It involves the usage of open space and is a place where several different media and information sources cohabit. Many traditional library-users, however, may have been a tad disappointed, appreciating silence and logical categorization of books more than the attractive design curves. For the people who want to study, the Malmo public library provides desks. However, if you inspect the trendy, beautiful open space solution here, it is obvious that anybody talking anywhere within the premises is heard by everyone else, disturbing the studying process.

Malmo Public Library (photo:dclay)

Malmo Public Library (photo:dclay)

Cell phones beeping, people asking the librarians questions, high heels on the wooden floor. There is a constant background noise and hustle. Yet, despite of this, the library is popular, people spend time there. The library has succeeded being a contemporary space used by the public. A “dryer” library may have attracted only a small fraction of the society to use it (the nerds/academics/bourgeois). The trendiness truly has made the library accessible. One can question, however, if it fulfills its function anymore.

One characteristic of the “pink, saccharine” architecture is that it is accessible and pleasant, popular. Also, it wants to attract comments of awe and presents immediate gratification; “wow funky!”  The function of studying is no longer the focus. The focus is in the easy-access popularity. Just open your book, look trendy and smart. The library is a place to congregate, chat and enjoy yourself!

There is another new library in Malmo, in a place called The Clinical Resarch Centre. (See pics below). This is a center for biomedical research and tuition purposes. Not unlike the public library, it is a “cool” place. I’ve had the chance to see the old biomedical library settings, and have found the transition from old to new very interesting. The old library was a very unimpressive place design-wise, consisting of simple shelves, school-style desks and chairs on rows (built in the seventies/eighties?) While the exterior is postmodern, the library itself has a modernist, functional stamp to it. While not completely silent, it provided a simple atmosphere for studying. (There’s a pic at the end of the post.) The new library, in contrast, is an open place, not unlike the public library.  Candylike colors, sweet details. Silence is lost, and the body language has changed. The people are conscious of the trendy environment. Again, the people not only go there to study, but to “look studious”. This small shift in purpose a characteristic of saccharine architecture.

It starts to become obvious that “pink, saccharine” architecture is a subdivision of postmodern architecture. Postmodern architecture is a reaction to functionalist, modern architecture. According to functionalism, any form has to serve the building’s ultimate purpose. With modernism, ornaments were banished, since they have no function. In early postmodern architecture, the ornaments were re-established, and references to earlier architecture styles, such as the greco-roman styles were common. Also, there was often a playfulness, irony in the way several older architectural styles were mixed together in postmodernism.  Saccharine architecture, on the other hand, while it has re-established ornaments and makes references to the past (particularly the International Style), it has lost the postmodern irony. The building is to be taken seriously, it is to be awed, respected for its trendiness. There is no humor in the candylike colors. Also, the building’s wonky details are more important than the function.

The last statement can be further exemplified by these chairs in the Research Centre:

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

The lower part is for sitting, and the upper part is either a back rest or laptop table. However, in these chairs, nobody has ever been reported sitting in (with or without a laptop). Anyone who has done any serious studying may question the positioning; why should a biomedical student sit right in the middle of a corridor, where people go back and forth? Again, this is not a place for serious studying, but rather, a place where you sit to be seen by peers. While one may argue that a public library may have other purposes than strictly studying, a biomedical library surely must put studying at focus? Here, again, the purpose of the  chairs is secondary to the cool, trendy atmosphere they create.

I find this shift from functionality to trendy sensations and immediate gratification to be very interesting. The more I study these libraries, the more obvious is their subtle, yet massive dose of rebellion against the modernist doctrine “form follows function”.

Here’s my attempt at a definition: “Pink or saccharine architecture” refers to the practice of choosing interesting, pleasing colors and forms, as well as giving the viewers the immediate gratification through funky, awe-inspiring details. The actual function of the building is secondary to its popularity. The primary purpose is to be cool, hip and appreciated by the wide masses.

I guess I’m drifting a bit too far with my associations, but since this is my blog, I have the right to do it anyway; I see a connection between the pink architecture and the growing obesity issue. (sic!) Have you not seen how the pre/peripubertal kids are so fat these days? It’s not their fault, really;  we have subjected them to too much candy floss and cupcakes. They live by the saccharine principles of hedonism and instant gratification. They’ve been raised by the trendy and cool stuff; everything must be easily accessed! There is a candy stand around every corner.

Nevertheless, I believe candy and pink saccharine are like fire in an old Finnish proverb; a good servant but a bad host. A couple of ornaments here and there is just a nice addition (just look at the green, wonky hanbablog logo!). Similarly, sweet cakes are a nice addition in life, but you cannot really live off of them – as Marie Antoinette found out.

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

OLD MEDICAL SCHOOL LIBRARY, Malmo University Hospital

OLD MEDICAL SCHOOL LIBRARY, Malmo University Hospital

Clinical Reseach Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Reseach Centre Library, Malmo

Green Architecture for the Future

Exhibition review: Green Architecture for the Future in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Recently, I’ve come across a lot of talk about transforming cities into green spaces. Not long ago, I wrote about an exhibition in London Building Centre called London Yields: Urban Agriculture. In the article, I speculated on (and modified) a concept first coined by Salman Rushdie, namely tropicalizing cities.

Ecoboulevards (photo: una ballena de seis ojos)

Ecoboulevards (photo: una ballena de seis ojos)

This exhibition also takes on the concept of tropicalization, suggesting how to modify our surroundings towards something greener. Some plans are already under execution, while others are mere scetches. A group called Ecosistema Urbano proposed an interesting (and fully executable) plan as how to increase the amount of trees downtown. As a part of this plan, titled Ecoboulevards, a meeting plaza surrounded by a structure of trees giving shade was presented. Here, community issues can be discussed under trees away from the heat. Simple and interesting democracy/sustainability project.

Some plans were small, others big. Some artsy, others down-to-earth. A common theme was new architectural or city planning solutions to managing energy, water and other resources sustainably. I, as a non-professional, did not understand all of the fine technical details. Nevertheless, I found reading about the technology very inspiring! I was reminded of the Eiffel Tower – made from cast iron, it was an expensive construction with a lot of flaws, but it foreshadowed the era of steel

Transport vehicle in Masdar City (photo:tuexperto_com5)

Transport vehicle in Masdar City (photo:tuexperto_com5)

fortified concrete. Perhaps some of these constructions may be remembered as the start of a greener era? Let us hope these expensive pioneer projects will pave way to what will be mainstream in the future. One very interesting project is the Masdar City, a sustainable carbon neutral city currently being built in Abu Dhabi by Foster architects.

The Endless City (photo:hanba)I forgot to bring my camera along, but it was ok, since a great portion of the exhibition consisted of excerpts from the book The Endless City (Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, Phaidon) I already have at home. Both this part of the exhibition and parts of the book were a tad disappointing for hanba’s scientist-wired brain. Glimpses of data are presented in a haphazard manner, throwing a figure here, another there in flashy orange writing: “There were 547 million Europeans in 1950” or “121 buildings over eight storeys in 1980 in Shanghai”. It is hard to draw accurate conclusions or predictions from this mess of data. I guess it’s like this so the people would get ANY glimpse of the data. Seeing as percent figures aren’t so sexy to discuss, I guess it’s better to tread on a floor where one can hop over bright colored text stating: “60,981 days to the end of gas”, then to have the data not catch any form of attention at all.

Just as interesting as it is to see the green visions, it is fascinating to see the flip side of the coin. Stefano Boeri decribes in “Green dystopias”, three possible negative scenarios we need to prepare for. One is how to maintain the balance of wild nature and tamed parks if we turn more and more of the city into wildlife. Also, if we turn city into agricultural land, we should make sure that this land will not be “monopolized” for one crop or company. I was reminded of BLDGBLOG’s comment about urban agriculture and disease control (talking about the swine flu); when you mix people and cattle, diseases may catch along.

One of my favorites was United Bottle Project by Instant Architects, featuring water bottles you could recycle just like normal. At the event of a catastrophe, however, you could first use the bottles for clean water and then fill the discarded bottles with sand and use them as building blocks for houses. Very creative.

All in all, the exhibition was  very thought provoking. In fact, since I came home I’ve looked into changing my electricity contract into a green one…

I’d like to finish with a quote on the wall in Louisiana by Stefan Behling, Foster architects: “Consumption is a matter of needs, and needs depend on design. Your need for petrol depends on the design of your car, a need of a car, in turn, depends on how the city you live in is designed. So if you can change the design of your city, you can change your needs and in the end, your consumption.”


See also: New York’s High Line park – a green park that has just opened http://www.thehighline.org/

Upcoming: Since some readers have (with full right) been confused about the term “pink, saccharine architecture”, the next post will provide a definition for this concept. Newly built libraries in a Swedish city will be used as an example…