studio unité blog

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Models take flight

Over the past week a couple of artistic projects have come to my attention that have a similar thread - modern architecture and the model.

Spanish artist Jordi Colomer's project can perhaps be seen as an ironic jab at modernism's love for the monumental: 

anarchitekton is the generic title of a video series made as a work in progress: 
barcelona, bucarest, brasilia, osaka are the first stops on this journey.  A perculiar character, idroj sanicne travels the city contaminating the streets with fiction. The models of the buildings are like grotesque banners, utopian provocations, or playful flags. Idroj runs to the broken rhythm of the cross disolve static images which, paradoxically, reflect a sense of unflagging movement. A multi-projection in which each city is presented on a screen and everything happens simultaneously.

Similarly poised in irony, German artist Alexander Callsen has actually constructed a 1:1 scale model of the DDR's Haus des Reisens (’House of Travel’) in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, and erected it up a mountain in the south of France. 
Composed of printed canvas wrapped around a scaffold structure, it was part of the Horizons art festival in the Auvergne region of France till the end of September. 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Green Zone

Last weekend some friends here in Berlin organised "The Green Zone," a social occupation of the old Iraqi Embassy in what used to be DDR's East Berlin. Lasting from 3 till dark, a generator powered DJ played minimal techno as a large crowd explored the ruins, beer in hand, and mused about this strange but surprisingly common remnant from Berlin's past.

The building had clearly been thoroughly looted, most windows smashed, and severe fire damage made you wonder about the structural integrity of the stairs and roof. There were still masses of Iraqi books and documents littering the floors which made it clear that for some reason this building had been abandoned in a hurry. Gifted to Iraq by the DDR in the 60's, and abandoned in favour of a new home in the west after the reunification of Germany in 1990, this building is of confused legal status. According to conversation at the event, German police are unable to enter the property without gaining permission from the Iraqi Government - it is still officially Iraqi soil.

In attempting to find the event, we had biked to the wrong end of the street, only to discover another abandoned embassy of some unknown nation. This was made clear by the array of flagpoles on the front lawn, now conspicuously flag-less. This district of northern Berlin is littered with similarly abandoned buildings, (presumably stuck in a similar legal conundrum to Iraq's) while the rest are large stately homes that are well looked after - this is an affluent neighborhood. Despite this, the neighbors didn't even look twice as we entered the property, struggling up a broken staircase before entering through the open front door.

Urban reclamation of this kind is common in Berlin. Squatting has been prevalent since the war, and jumped to new heights when the wall fell, as thousands of people from the East literally fled their homes for the West leaving completely furnished apartments ready for the taking. And there are still thousands of empty buildings and building lots all across the city. Considering the population of Berlin reached 4.5 million during World War II, it is currently 1 million people under capacity, which means lots of empty space and no need to fill it.
Furthermore, I believe Berlin's history of successful protest has had a lasting effect on how the Police force approach situations. It is common to see excessive police presence, but they seem to be very reluctant to take action, and while they are quick to respond to complaints about noise, acts of trespassing don't often attract a response.

While I've attended a few social events in abandoned lots and buildings now, I've yet to see an artistic or architectural installation or intervention using these abandoned spaces (other than graffiti and murals). Perhaps there's potential to use this active social scene to aid in pulling off a large scale urban intervention.

As for The Green Zone, it successfully finished up at dark, transforming into a giant bike gang carrying away various Iraqi treasures including some giant portraits in gilded frames. Riding through the local volkspark we discovered a small campfire that had been left burning and so reclaimed it as our own for the rest of the evening.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Architects Sketches & Storytelling_02

As the second entry to the series 'Architects Sketches & Storytelling_02', we're posting up an all time favorite of ours... MAXWAN. Maxwan is an Architecture and Urbanism Practice based in the Netherlands. Maxwan first burst onto the international scene with it's innovative proposal for the new town Leidsche Rijn. Michael Speaks raked up a good rant about them in the A+U series 'design intelligence', and had initially brought them to light at the 'big soft orange' exhibition in 1995. Speaks heralded maxwan as a practice that refreshingly broke away from the 'aestheticized form generation that dominated architecture in the 1980s and early 1990s', and instead refocused the agenda for architecture towards 'a renewed emphasis on the analysis' of social, economic and cultural content. The catalyst that prompted maxwan to refocus on such content, emerged as a response to the political will that drove 'BIG' developments in the Netherlands at the time. The Dutch government had mandated that '1,100,000 new dwellings be built by the year 2005 ' and maxwan's Leidsche Rijn project was a development for 30,000 houses. (Yes, absolutely massive.) Maxwan's story telling approach does occasionally lightly dapple with some 'informatic' type diagrams, but these almost seem to sit as a quick flick that merely wraps up some background dialogue. The real selling point for maxwan sits within their reductive hand drawn sketches and visionary cityscapes. It is through this technique of soft hand drawn sketches that maxwan communicate design propositions and implications. The drawings often seem to be almost out of a childrens story book. They are simple, legible and potent. Enjoy:

image source: MAXWAN.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Architects Sketches and Storytelling_01

If you're one of those people who frequently flick through architecture projects that are emerging from avant garde 'ideas' competitions, you would have noticed the trend towards people utilising tight, slick, digitally constructed 'diagrams' to communicate seemingly complex ordeals and design processes.

(images above are of the 3rd prize winner from the white house redux competition that took place last year, run by the Storefront for Art and Architecture)

They are beautiful, energetic, and reflective of our ever expanding and interconnecting global society. I have to admit that I have been somewhat possessed by this mode of communication, and gain much satisfaction in laboring away at such constructions. But I've also come to realise the excessive exhaustion of the whole process, and it's limitations in story telling. The reason I say this is because the whole infatuation is a relatively isolated mode of communication. When it comes down to it, the only people that are really going to appreciate one's efforts of drawing up pages of complex diagrams are architects and architecture students, and not the lay person. Thus perhaps complex diagrams are almost as esoteric and egotistical as an architect trying to use Deleuzian philosophy to design a building. (and I say almost because I appreciate the value of good diagrams that inherently attempt to represent a rigorous design process/ line of thought, as opposed to irrelevant representations of differential geometry).

The whole diagram pandemic really took off when OMA/REX did the proposal for the Seattle Library, and was presented at 'TED talks'. But the development of this application within the architecture profession has mutated into something that has lost sight of it's fundamental purpose. Which is to tell a simple story.

When it comes down to it, if you want to sell an idea, and more relevantly, sell it to a wider public audience, you've basically got to communicate it in 30 seconds. For this reason, perhaps a more relevant medium lies within the age old wobbly hand of the architect, the hand drawn sketch. Obviously, it's nothing new, and it was probably how mankind first communicated instructions for building, but there is a relatively new trend of architects mainly in the Netherlands and Japan that are pushing sketches in a new direction. These drawings speak of activity, inherently present a spatial implication, and most importantly are as user friendly as a toaster.

What's more is that 'sketches' are a 'soft' medium for selling an idea. When presenting an idea to a client, a hand drawn sketch will portray a sense of flexibility and openness, that leaves the door open for clients to access, give feedback, and comfortably engage with a proposal. The details of 'things' are no longer scrutinized and instead, the essence of an idea becomes central to the conversation.

So with that overly exhaustive preamble... we're going to do a series of posts on simple, playful and punchy architecture sketches. First up are the sketches of SANAA.

The image above is a drawing by Ryue Nishizawa that was part of a proposal for De Kunstlinie’ Theatre and Cultural Centre. According to the drawings was

"part of a process toward discovering and illustrating a continuous set of rooms where there is no hierarchy and no apparent structure. There is no difference between structure and partition or circulation and program. The differences come not from spatial characteristics but from proximity to water, light and adjacent rooms"

(Sanaa images from 'Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/Sanaa: Works 1995-2003')

These drawings are startlingly simple, but perhaps what's even more impressive is how the built realities of these sketches are really not 100 miles away from the original conception. There is a mind boggling purity in the transition from drawing to building that underlies Sanaa's philosophy.

(image from

p.s I'll never stop diagramming....

Proposal for HK+SZ Biennale gets a little closer!

Our 'Guerrila Signage' proposal for the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now in early negotiation! Below are some images from our spread.