Midweek Musings: The Beauty of the In-Between

Design is a tricky thing. It has a tendency to be all consuming. As an architectural designer, I spend at least forty hours a week puzzling. Somewhere in that in-between is beauty.

Shadowtecture.

Right now as I find myself smack dab in the middle of a approaching deadline, while trying to balance completing the A.R.E., planning a wedding, settling into a new house, and maintaining some semblance of sanity, it is easy to miss that magic. The stair details that I spent four full days on do not feel beautiful. They feel overwhelming and brain frying.

But in all that time spent figuring out how things can come together, relationships are established and pieces are placed. At some point, those endless hours in the computer screen turn real at an astounding scale. And if you did your job right, it is beautiful.

Even incomplete, you know this is going to be a great moment.

I think that often people forget how much of architecture is iterative. You may never guess from the completed project that you live in or walk by, but hours were spent on countless iterations of facades, layouts, connections, detailing and even patterning. The finish product sited in front of you, may be technically ‘complete’ by contractor standards, but rarely ever the architect’s. There are always more solutions to be found as one spends time refining design. (Some of those solutions even happen on the construction site).

These panels took weeks. WEEKS. Iteration at it’s finest.

The phases of design always remind me of a roller-coaster. You start out with anticipation and easy gains. You make progress and ascend the hill. At some point, something doesn’t work (or a lot of things). You descend. Fast. You rise and fall as you progress towards completion. The problems get to a smaller scale, but are hills none the less and come rapidly. Years later, you have a building and hopefully it is one worth that time investment. On occasions, you don’t even get that.

But sometimes you do and it is beautiful. 

So for when in a few hours from this exact moment, I tell myself that it is time to just throw in the towel, I want to remember this.  I want to remember staring at what is to be, and thinking it’s awesome. This now almost complete project (which you are seeing pictures of) also had a moment when nothing seemed to click and I was ready to start over. This roller coaster made it’s way out of countless bends and descents to arrive at something glorious.

It’s still making it there.

I can’t speak for all of design. Product designers might feel this same sense of pride and contentment when staring at their well-done object. I imagine they would or at least I hope it to be so. But, a part of me is overjoyed to know that this object making me content is inhabitable. It will be spaces and areas that people will live and work and breathe in. It might shape lives. Not the architecture, mind you, but the building.

Who will meet at some point on these stairs?

At these moments especially, I like to believe good design is camouflaged. Actively there, but not often noticed if it is working correctly.  Traveling with Chris has taught me that most people do not notice many of the things that secretly irk me to my core. (Cruise ships, why are your nosings raised? Are you trying to make the elderly fall down the stairs? You are succeeding at making me fall down the stairs, mind you.)

Unfortunately, because of camouflaging, I spend a lot of time on things that a good majority of people might never actively notice. I accept this. It is a part of life for sure. I do know that the people using the stairs I have spent days on, will probably not dwell on their construction for more than a minute unless they are awful. But for those lucky few that do, damn, there are good moments.

You’ll notice this clerestory. Promise.

So I ask you dear reader to take a hard look at your surroundings. Make an architect happy today and be someone who notices. There is a whole world of beauty waiting to be acknowledged. 

Willa Koliba-  Stylin’ A Nation (1892-1893)

Wanting to be remembered is probably innately human; we strive to mark this world in a way that it is tough to erase. For prominent architects, this takes on a different meaning. Eames is forever linked with his chair, Corbusier with his movement, and Mies with a phrase. I wander down this rabbit path precisely because I wonder if these architects would be proud. Eames’ chair is still coveted, and Mies stands by his philosophy, but Corbusier’s style is now a little ‘dated.’

While there will probably never be an architectural history class that fails to mention him, his style is a product of its time and its use now is more throwback than ‘modern.’ Would Corbu be proud? Maybe, probably even. But you can bet your dollar that Witkiewicz is forever proud to be linked to Poland’s first architectural style. (What? You have never heard of him?)

Some might say it has a few things going for it.

With all the Canadian fresh air recently flowing through my lungs, I have been dreaming of timber. Timber barns, timber lodges, timber teahouses next to a glacier. As I strolled through downtown Banff all I could think about was its similarity to Zakopane.

I will venture that when we normally see heavy timer, we don’t think of architectural styles. Instead our mind conjures ideas of Pa Ingalls creating his log cabin in Rocky Woods. We think of the everyday rather than design.

Stanislaw Witkiewicz thought differently. After settling in Zakopane, he came to love the traditional Goral huts and designs that proliferated in the area. In 1890, Zakopane was quite small, but in the next few decades it would gain significant popularity for skiing, health restoration and artistic endeavors.  Witkiewicz watched as hundreds of visitors came and observed the construction of Swiss and Austro Hungarian chalets all over his beloved town.

Stanislaw probably felt like I do when I see the domination of McMansions in the landscape, disappointed. But for all we know, he could have been outraged too. Whatever exact emotion he was feeling, he used it to fuel a new style of architecture. It was imperative that the style not feel Swiss or Hungarian, but Polish.

It’s a little different, isn’t it?

 

It’s important to note that his desire for a national style was rooted more deeply than just country pride. At the time, Poland had been robbed of her own sovereignty, a series of partitions and uprisings had led to Prussian, Austrian and Russian rule. So while Poland as a sovereign nation may not have existed, Witkiewicz was determined that the Polish style would.

Utilized the vernacular of the native Gorals (native highlanders found in Southern Poland and Northern Slovakia) and mixing it with a bit of Art Nouvea, Witkiewicz created the Zakopane style.

This trend towards the vernacular is not unique to Poland. The arts and crafts movement that took Europe by storm in the 1880 is not dissimilar. Both called for a return to rich design and decoration made before machinery and factory production. People had become dissatisfied by the products they were getting from their progressive factories, they yearned for the past. For Witkiewicz, it had the added bonus of being a return to a truly Polish craft.

Willa or Villa Koliba (because Ws are Vs in Polish) is the original villa linked to the creation of the style. With it, Witkiewicz had lofty aims to build “a home which would settle all existing doubts about the possibility of adapting folk architecture to the requirements deriving from the more complex and sophisticated needs of comfort and beauty. To design a home that would inherently withstand all common grievances and undermine all customary prejudices. To erect a house that would prove that one can have a home, a dwelling in the dominant style of Zakopane and yet be confident that this home will not disintegrate, that it will effectively protect one from storms, gales and the cold, that it will possess the full range of comforts yet simultaneously be beautiful in a fundamentally Polish way.” (“The Zakopane style in Polish Architecture”. )

It’s up to you to decide if you think he achieved that.

To do this he used soaring roofs reminiscent of their gothic brethren, chalet-like silhouettes, and the Gorals’ stone and wood carved decorations. He applied meticulous handcrafting but in a way that the Gorals never had before seen. Traditional wooden cottages were made from rough logs, but they flourished in delicately carved patterns and woodworking. Inspired by the practical, Witkiewicz was able to adapt the style to certain aesthetic needs, attempting to combine the folk architecture with complex and refined ideas of comfort and beauty. Throughout it all, Stanislaw believed the Gorals were co-creators of the Zakopane style, even as he shifted the purpose of the vernacular for his own aims. He broadened the geometrical and plant motifs often found in their designs to include the flora of the Zakopane region and in some instances he applied decoration on a more modern design in the way someone might apply a sticker. So all in all, there were pluses and minuses.

Sticker decoration or fundamental? Either way, it’s pretty awesome.

Willa Koliba (actually meaning shephard’s hut in Polish) was originally envisioned as a hut to store Zygmunt Gnatowski’s collection of ethnographic artifacts. Witkiewicz, a well known draftsman and playwright, convinced Gnatowski to award the commission to him. What he created went far beyond a hut. These stylish interiors you see are actually really grand for this time. This house was chock full of furniture and utensils, tiled stoves, cornics, curtains and cast elements for door handles and locks. It was ‘designed.’

The orginial building held five rooms. The dining room, drawing room, and bedroom occupy the first level, while Gnatowski’s room and the servant’s room can be found on the upper level. Since restoration, these rooms have returned to what they used to look like. Gnatowski later added an addition to the building, before dying without heirs. From there, the villa passed through a series of hands and wound up in the Nazi’s lap as a seat of the Hitler-Jugend during WWII. Following WWII, it became an orphanage until December 1981. When repairs were once again necessary, it was decided to restore the building and open a museum celebrating this lesser known style that really only ‘technically’ lasted for twenty years.

Whether or not he accomplished his personal, lofty aims, later designers would take these ideas and run with them. They further developed and added decorative shapes to the style. It began to spread, even though it would never reach all over Poland as Stanislaw hoped. It did end up making it to Warsaw though (which is actually pretty far away from Zakopane), where someone tried to adopt it for brick construction. The beginning of WWI would bring the style to a grinding halt. By the time Poland was ready to build again, advancements had left the design ideas largely abandoned, although some villas and homes are still incorporating elements today. Witkiewicz may not have gotten a truly national style, but he did initiate the development of regional architecture and applied art.

People believed the Zakopane style was a return to the golden age and it fit with their idealized romantic version of peasantry. It made them remember a united Poland, a soverign Poland. They adopted it because it was closest to the authentic traits of a nation that no longer existed. It was intended to express true Polish-ness.

And although some regions might lack a true ‘style’, Zakopane truly embraced its own.

A church made in a similar vein.

Parc de la Villette – Follies with Meaning (1984-1987)

A combination of two events brings you Parc de la Villette this week. First, moving and fixing up a house is behind us (for now) and you can now find me walking outside trying to soak up every last sunray of summer left. Couple this desire with the ongoing debate on Paris hype circulating my office recently and I am thinking of Parc de la Villette. Part folly, part park, is well worth some exploration.

Sitting on the edge of the city’s 19th arrondissement, the third largest park in Paris does not meet many people’s ‘park’ expectations. And that’s okay because in general we are all a little apt to have too many expectations.

When people think of a “park”, they often focus on Frederik Law Olmstead’s notion. They expect to enter a space where the city no longer exists. They expect a retreat or an oasis. Parc de la Villette does not retreat from the city, but it invites the city in without any limitation. There are no desired activities for areas, there is only 137 acres layered with folly points and line walks.

Folly at folly’s best. Don’t you think?

At this point, you are probably confused. Most park spatial organizations are not conceived of in lines, points and surfaces. But most parks are not designed by an intellectualizing deconstructivist either.

Bernard Tschumi, a French architect of Swiss origin, beat out the likes of Koolhaas, Nouvel and Zaha Hadid to win the competition for Parc de la Villette. In the 1980s, Paris was looking to redevelop the abattoir area (don’t let the pretty French word fool you, they are talking about slaughterhouses). The competition brief asked for a forward-thinking design that would mix a complex program of cultural facilities. Tschumi attempts to go beyond park and create a place where the natural and artifThe icial are forced together. The passerby is encouraged to interact with and discover these different spaces.

Folly and Line and Surface side by side.

Tschumi imposes a three-part system of 35 points (25 of them being red follies), lines, and surfaces. The red architectural follies are the points. They are used for wayfinding as they are spaced precisely 120 meters apart from each other. Their noticeably different form allows you to recognize and place yourself in space. The next layer of paths become the lines of movement throughout the park. They intersect and bend into points of interest with abandon. Surface makes up the rest. 85 acres of green space is left to be defined and reimagined by each individual park-goer.

Think of it like a stack. First comes the grid of points, next comes pedestrian paths (crossing at will), and the leftover is the surface.

The entire design hinges on layering. It attempts to provide freedom of movement and use inside a superimposed organization of the points and lines. With this freedom, Tschumi upsets the basic architectural assumptions inherent in most systems by rejecting organization. These three components are stacked, not organized. There is no composition or hierarchy. They merge and shift into each other, encouraging interaction with their own. They collide at will.

But why? Why do this? Tschumi believes removing a coherent meaning will force people to have their own experience and interpretation of the park. This whole conceptual strategy emerged from the deconstructivism running rampant at the time.

But it sure makes for some interesting park walking.

Deconstructivism embodies the idea of fragmentation and dislocation. It loves curvilinear shapes that skew and mess with object frameworks (just like the idea of Tschumi’s paths).  Deconstructivism embodies controlled chaos and unpredictability, while still not being haphazard.  That “control” in controlled chaos is the most important part. The precise placement of follies helps tie the whole thing together and together, this park becomes an ideological manifesto. It attempts to eschew the common concept and turn it on its head.

Points of reference made possible by big forms and bright red paint.

But while ideas and concept are all great, my favorite part is the follies. The word folie is often connotated with silliness or delight. In England, the idea of the ‘folly’ related more to the folly of the rich for building an elaborate replica of whatever floated their boat (often greek temples or pyramids) than joyfulness.

I’m pretty joyful.

Often, extravagant country homes in France or England would feature lawn ornaments or garden sculptures that were extremely elaborate and without real purpose. These structures took on the term folly. In this park, there is something beautiful about finding your way through a space based on these ornaments.

What about you?

In them, I think Tschumi tries to get the best of both worlds. Deconstructivism aims for anti-ornament or decoration as it breaks apart a building to its very essence; since the folly lacks any real meaning it completely embodies the idea of deconstructivism.

Each folly starts as a three story cube which is manipulated, added to, and subtracted from at will. The permeations are seen throughout. Some house important park functions, while others are just spaces to pass through. All are coated in bright red.

Under and over and through we go.

The constant process of designing and all its permeations is often overlooked.  With a finish building, you rarely see the process work that modeled every type of grand stair possible or all the possible options for how that door would hinge to create a flat plane. You miss the earlier revisions, where small tweaks to window placements and form shifts can make a big difference. But these things are happening constantly. This month, for me at least, it’s sculptural. At work, we are designing a 3d sculpture for the center of a space. I have already made 10-12 possible options that will mold and shift and maybe even combine to a finished product.

This one is a playground. Some folly on this folly.

When I look at these follies, I see process. I see the love that comes out of playing with form and artfully dissecting or adding to it. While, I’m sure Tschumi had many more than 35, it’s nice to be able to see more than one. It’s nice to think that the process has become a finished product here.

Tschumi hoped to create this park in a vacuum. He hoped to eschew historical precedent (even though if you ask me that follies look very modern 1920s). He strived to create a non-place that invited interpretation and exploration. His critics would tell you that it lacks personal scale and ends up being more conceptual and analytical than they desire. But, I think in his personal mission he succeeded. He created his manifesto and challenged theoretical concepts in the spatial experience. Believing space is defined by event and action, not space and form, the design encourages you to wander and make it your own.

And you better believe I wandered that park searching out all those follies. I interacted, explored and moved through them. I saw the points of intersection and embraced the moments with lack of scale. It may not be your typical park, but perhaps it’s all the better for it.

Those follies live up to their definition of delight.

From Where I Sit – Week 27

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would need you to weigh in on two ongoing debates. First, I would want to know if you think summer is over now that July fourth has passed. Do you know people actually think this? It feels like it has just started getting warm and people are already decrying the loss of summer.  Are you one of them? And if you are, can you please give me some advice on how to maximize the now ‘end’ of my summer. I need all the help I can get. Second, what are your opinions on Paris? Is it overhyped or the best city in the world? Once I heard your rationale for these two things, I can make the corresponding tallies and continue on with the rest of our lovely dessert date.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would beg me to explain. Normal people don’t just ask random polling questions and then settle back into their chai lattes. I would tell you that I am bemoaning the whirlwind of summer. It’s almost shocking to have transitioned from dreaming of sun-kissed skin to being insulted by the heat even though it happens every year. With all the impending activities that are packed into the next two months I am overwhelmed. Throw a new house into that mix and we are on ‘make the most of summer’ crisis mode. Every time I hear that summer is over, a part of me stands madly resolute that it can’t be. It can’t have passed me by already, when I have yet to enjoy it. We would make a pact to do something to enjoy it this weekend.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would  tell me that most people love Paris. My poll seems to prove as much. They love the romance, the quaint feel, the food, and the architecture. Meanwhile, I think I just like the crepes and the Sainte Chapelle. I would need to explain my hatred for hype. I am critically averse to hype. If you are hyping something, I am hating it. Are you like this? Am I the only one? This is why it took me so long to watch Hunger Games or listen to Serial. If I am being honest, this character flaw I have, to hate something hyped, has helped me out. It is much easier to binge watch/listen to these things than wait year after year for the next installment. Believe me. You would have to interject, because Paris cannot be binge watched. Nevertheless, I am not feeling the hype of Paris. Don’t get me wrong, it is lovely. But, I could name dozens of places  (even in France alone), I would rather see before Paris. After my tirade, I would want to know why. What makes you love this city of lights or love whatever else it is the city of. Maybe you would be able to convince me a little. Maybe not, but you would try regardless, because turns out people are very serious about their love of Paris.

If I was sitting across from you right now, you would ask to see pictures of the house that Chris and I just bought. The little fixer upper that is taking all my free time and extra money. Although the house will never grace this blog in the capacity of being amazing architecture, it is exciting. It is exciting to finally not be renting and to be able to do little things to make the place we live better. If you were interested, I would tell you about all my big plans and the many phases to come. I would even invite you over for some cake once things are made livable. I hope you would reassure me that it will be less of a construction zone in two weeks when we move in.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would ask about your recent dreams. Lately, I’ve been suffering from panic dreams of painting.  This is quite possibly the most boring dream ever and oddly stress inducing, but it makes me think that dreams are not just random synapses firing in my brain. If so, shouldn’t my dreaming be a little more random? If we were together, I think we would both marvel a little at how much of the human body we still don’t know about. This is just a crazy thing if you really think about it. Case in point is the dreaded lyme’s disease I had last month. Turns out doctors still don’t have a lot of information on lyme’s disease, dreams, and concussions.

Instead of thinking about how frightening it is (and it is frightening if you are the one suffering), I’ve decided to believe it’s because we are all marvels. And even though it is a scary, it is also empowering. Everybody is a thing not fully described, not fully understood. Made up of millions of elements that are smaller than what we can really see, we may never be completely mapped out. There are not robotic or rote answers for all of us, everything is a puzzle. And because we are never fully understood or static, that means you can still be a little bit of anything, always.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would wonder about your plans. I was watching a comedian the other night who cracked a joke about people in their thirties. The comedian goes, “what does it feel like to no longer be the future?” It was funny, but also crazy depressing. As I inch closer to that with my birthday next week, I would have to admit that my future still seems lengthy. I don’t believe I’ve fully arrived at it. You would agree because at this age we have to. But most likely, everyone feels like that always. You will talk about your own endless hours wondering where you are going or where you want to be. I would ask if you think the grass is always greener on the other side, or when is it appropriate to take a leap of faith. Turns out I am not big on taking much leaps. I crave regularity. So, I would propose that we take some leaps together.

If I was sitting across from you right now, I would excuse myself to go get another ice cream sandwich and ask you to remember right where we left off.

Nasher Sculpture Center –  Urban Oasis (2003)

You sense the birds. You hear the bubbling water. You can almost feel the dew still on the grass. And as you pass down each path, you inhabit the space of the sculpture. One by one you peer at them, around them, through them. Then they start to blend and morph as they interact with their neighbor. Up until the moment a small boy almost fell into the fountain, it was quite possibly the most peaceful break I have ever experienced in a bustling city. And even the fact that this kind of oasis could be in the middle of a city blows my mind a little bit.

Texas has its fair share of urban oasi (and yes I’m just going to treat that as a plural oasis- whether or not it is). We’ve seen them before. Remember, Johnson’s Fort Worth Water gardens? That one is an oasis of water and cement. This is an oasis of sculpture and trees.

Old North Church / Christ Church – Fake News (1723-1745)

On my parent’s most recent visit we strolled along the Freedom Trail in search of pastries. (This is a pretty common occurrence if you come visit me; take note potential visitors). Turns out the freedom trail is great for those in search of sugar. At some point, we ended up in Old North Church and stumbled upon a fascinating display extolling the inaccuracies of the church’s perceived history.

And because fake news is ever present on our minds (or at least mine), it’s presence on the political scene as early as the Civil War and likely earlier stuck with me.