Between high tech and ornament
Mutations: the skin of the building has been transformed from a finish to an interactive surface, an interface, a sensitive membrane through which the building transmits and receives information; both literally, with imprinted or projected images and text, and in terms of energy with increasingly sophisticated and “intelligent” environmental control systems. State-of-the-art technology and ecology come together in a single strategy, the dialogue with the natural environment comes forward as the dominating architectural theme and the building’s skin becomes a place of communication, conflict and exchange, and even of the literal and highly artificial representation of nature. As in the vertical garden facades by Patrick Blanc – the latest being the new ethnographic museum at Quai Branly (see domus 895, 2006) – or in the buildings “that breathe” by Edouard François. There are two contrasting visions. In one, imprinted by the design, the composition and the form, one finds those who imagine skin as a homogeneous, impermeable, two-dimensional surface. On the other hand are those who see the wall as a porous material system that is energetic, technological and three dimensional. In the new sports centre building for the University of Cincinnati, designed by Bernard Tschumi, the external surface maintains the elasticity and adaptability to the shape of the body that is typical of skin, yet it is not a soft and light organic membrane but a rigid mineral fabric, a giant monumental mesh draped around a colossal piano nobile. Suspended in mid air by seemingly random supports, the precast concrete lattice is folded like paper fretwork, like a sheet that, always remaining vertical, adapts softly to the curves and counter curves necessary to occupy every interstice of leftover space. Tschumi’s concrete lace has a special strength, perhaps because it manages to juxtapose seemingly irreconcilable characteristics in a stimulating way, such as the visual lightness of the fabric and the heaviness of the material, the fluidity of the perimeter and the granite-like appearance of the volume, suspended in mid air like a cloud of stone in pure surrealist style. The rhomboidal grid: anti-classical myth, unfulfilled temptation of Louis Kahn, used by Ieoh Ming Pei in Hong Kong, successfully relaunched by Herzog & De Meuron in the Prada showroom in Tokyo and taken up by Norman Foster in the Swiss Re Insurance Tower in London and the brand-new Hearst HQ in Manhattan. Generator of patterns of great visual impact, the diagonal design is a textile-inspired grid that places the graphics before the structure, deviates the static limitation of architecture, disengages the building from its supporting base and transforms the facade into an aerial doodle. The diamond-shaped pattern is also the constructive motif for the Chokkura Plaza that Kengo Kuma has recently finished in Japan. Inspired by the nature of Ooya stone (the same stone used by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo), Kuma has invented an archaic fabric worked horizontally with a rhomboidal pattern so flat that the stone courses are laid in almost horizontal strips, irregularly parallel. The texture on the external walls looks like a geometric reworking of a primitive dry stone wall, while inside the artifice dematerialises in repeated effects of transparency, almost like embroidery, a hefty veil illuminated with backlighting. Kuma reinvents the architectural approach to new stone by working on a series of antithetic pairings: heavy/light, closed/open, opaque/transparent, dark/light, right up to the reigning pair of natural/artificial. Kuma’s pavilion therefore becomes a sensory device. The rhythmic alternation between solid and void dilates the relationships between light and shade and, a more important and unusual fact, the material expressiveness is translated into tactility: the perimeter wall presents itself as a sculptural mesh and the rugged surfaces of the Ooya stone invite the hand to run over the jagged corners. The headquarters of Hugo Boss Industries at Coldrerio, designed by Matteo Thun, adds a third and different point of view to this theme. In this case the operation is simpler and more radical: around the body of the building, formed by an elegant industrial metal structure, is wrapped a continuous band made from a timber grid, a sheer and enveloping mesh that surrounds the whole warehouse at the height of the second and third floors. The result is rather surprising because the grid, laid diagonally, has a strong out-of-scale effect. The natural colour of the wood and the simplicity of the corners recall a garden trellis but the dimensions are considerable and the overall effect is monumental. The wooden trellis has nothing to do with the building that it contains; it is an extraneous body that seems to float like the empty shell of an ecological spaceship which by pure chance has been placed around another completely different envelope. Again, here the contrast between the chilly high tech materials, burnished steel and glass, and the warm tone of the wood aptly represent the dual aspirations of contemporary architecture, increasingly divided between technical performance and the need for a lighter, friendlier approach that is more aware of its own effects. High technology appears as a one directional energy, an efficient colonising force that is, however, anonymous and menacing. The return to decorative themes and natural materials indicates the direction of the near future, which will be increasingly marked by the construction of environments that are more in tune with psychology, culture and the desires of contemporary man. The magic circle that unites state-of-the-art technology, a return to ornamentation and the textile analogy is also manifested in the USA West Coast Pavilion designed for the recent Architecture Biennial in Beijing by Elena Manferdini. The pavilion is formed from a series of overlapping layers and irregular textures laid across the faces of a deformed solid. The holes in the external surface, combined with the diamond shape of the structure, generate a kind of three-dimensional arabesque that dematerialises into a dazzling effect of polarised light.
“Built in stone, with a steel core.” This is how Kengo Kuma defines Chokkura Plaza, the reception facility for passengers passing through Hoshakuji station, in the Tochigi prefecture. It is an open structure, not only in terms of its spatial arrangement but above all due to the modulation of its rhomboidal grid. The diagonal constructive system follows a pattern of shaped and overlapping Ooya stone blocks clamped to thin steel sheets. Ooya stone is particularly porous and was chosen as the material best suited to the development of a structure that Kuma wanted to be “warm and welcoming – an architecture that solidifies the process of sublimation from earth to sky”.
Headquarters Hugo Boss Industries
“A soft visual impact” is what Matteo Thun set out to achieve in this recently completed project at Coldrerio. Its central core, a glass and steel parallelepiped accommodating the work spaces, is enveloped in a cloud of curved wood that has significance in terms of both form and function, acting as a brise-soleil. The outer weave of large empty rhombs, treated as if it were a flimsy fabric, echoes the client’s textile activity. Convex in relation to the interior volume, the wooden shell interacts with the surrounding green landscape and at the same time creates a visual fade-over.
Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center
The front of the new Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center at the University of Cincinnati was designed by Bernard Tschumi as an answer to some of the site’s pre-existent complications. Loading docks, service tunnels and technical rooms, which could not be transferred, have in fact been incorporated into the project by means of large steel girders embedded in concrete blocks, which characterise the building’s outer shell. The shell acts as a continuous structural grid, enabling the existing functional elements to be contained below ground, and the sports centre to be developed in a free “boomerang” form on five levels. The complex is organised around a long atrium. This receives natural light – and communicates with the exterior – through the triangular eyes that regularly punctuate the whole perimeter strip of unfaced concrete.
USA West Coast Pavilion
Atelier Manferdini, directed by Elena Manferdini, a young architect and stylist with her practice in Los Angeles, was invited to the Beijing 2006 Architecture Biennial to take part in the exhibition “Emerging Talents, Emerging Technologies”. Six pavilions were erected in the courtyard of the Millennium Museum in the Chinese capital. One of these, the USA West Coast Pavilion, was designed by the California-based office. The pavilion is the result of diverse overlapping layers of corrugated iron, which separate and join to form the volume. The diamond-shaped frame is combined with the treatment of the skin which, with its three-dimensional lace-type configuration, creates dynamic filter and screening effects.