Thursday, September 07, 2017

Old vs. New: Masterclass

Though what follows is my most passionate praise of good design, I wish to be open from the beginning about my process for selecting examples. The point is not to settle the question definitively, but rather celebrate architecture. Contrasting these periods furnishes us with information and techniques that help elucidate good design in our own communities. Hopefully readers can forgive me for leaving so many excellent architectural examples off the page. This is especially true for a lot of the smaller more intimate projects which I would have included but do not have enough quality reference material available online to draw upon for illustrations. At some point the research has to stop, and celebration of architecture begin!

Villa La Rotonda, Italy.
Andrea Palladio 1508 – 1580.

Gently easing us into the subject, we first visit a canonical example from art history. Designed using the ideas of Roman architect Vitruvius, Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda from the late 1560s represents a sharpening and uniting of many architectural ideas before the extravagance of the Baroque and Rococo periods took over in Europe. Ideas of Humanism and the early Enlightenment influenced the structure and are represented in the main central rotunda, around which the whole plan is organized. The plan uses a piano nobile design where the main rooms are located on the first floor above ground level. There are practical reasons for this organization in a historically agricultural societies, but I think the design has benefits in modern times as well, but mostly these benefits draw on Eastern influences (like Feng Shui). Real skill is displayed in achieving the plan’s symmetry. Using symmetry as an organizing principle can contribute to the unity of the whole project. For the most part, however, the method has fallen out of favour in modern times. A result of the broader cultural shift away from Classical and Neoclassical styles because they have come to be associated with what many people would consider retrograde periods of history. Achieving perfect symmetry is a very challenging proposition in any design program however. In my opinion, this difficulty is one of its attractive characteristics. Investigating the site as a whole, how the structure relates to the site also reveals a lot about the how Palladio wanted to shape the building’s relationship with the environment. There’s really no effort made to make the building harmonious with the natural landscape. Instead, it’s full speed ahead to dominate the space with formal gardens which lead the visitor to the Villa. Interestingly, to increase solar efficiency, the building was rotated 45 degrees off the cardinal directions so that each room had quality daylight. Today the building is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is in good condition for visitors.

Himeji Castle, Hyogo, Japan.
Ikeda Terumasa 1565 – 1613, Tokugawa Ieyasu 1543 – 1616.

Of the art history I’m most familiar with, Japanese architecture ranks near the top. Many smaller and intimate Zen temples, whose builders’ names are now lost to history, is where my true heart lies. However, with only only one crack at selecting a building to represent the past, Himeji Castle of Hyogo prefecture, Japan, is a bold choice. The whole site is sublime. Established in the 1560s by Tokugawa Ieyasu, its military heritage is not hard to spot, with slots for archers chillingly placed around the grounds to triangulate on attacking troops. However, essentially once completed, Japan began several centuries of peace, which is why the structure handed down to us today in such good condition and has been deemed a World Heritage Site. There’s an abstraction to the layout that will be familiar to modern users, especially with the use of white to define the major forms. The terracotta tiles of the roof form elegant curves which highlights the care that went into its design. There are only aesthetic reasons to pick such a complex design because the people at the time ascribed such meaning to it. Inside the structures, one will see an also absolute tour de force of timber construction of a type we are not likely to see again in modern times. I’ve actually had the chance to tour inside these buildings and the timber construction is amazing. Some of the core vertical timbers are much wider than one could possibly put their arms around. The lack of nails or metal brackets in its construction is one of the factors that gives it such flexibility in this earthquake prone region, but is also a unique characteristic that is quite hard to execute. The rarity of Japanese joinery expertise and the decreasing availability of high-quality slow growth timber of massive dimensions contributes to its limited use in modern times. Himeji Castle is an example that stands alone in the quality of its construction and is not likely to ever be duplicated.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China.
Wang Shu, 2007.

China Academy of Art’s Xiangshan Campus has to be an inspiring place to work. Phase II by Chinese architect Wang Shu, completed in 2007, has many playful touches, but instead of seeming silly, we see a master at work deepening the meaning of every detail, exactly how good architecture should be executed. The structure measured quickly impresses upon the viewer its sharp form and rectilinear design. However, upon reflection, feature upon feature is revealed (only some of which can be addressed in this short piece). Firstly, it should be noticed that the building is actually conforming subtly to an uneven hill side. If one were to walk the perimeter of the building, one would see its extremely complex relationship with the site’s topography. All is controlled and resolved elegantly in Wang Shu’s design. The sort of randomly placed windows mirror the creative and playful interior, but a lot of coordination is needed match the interior with the stair feature wrapped around the exterior which is defining its circulation patterns. The wooden strands woven through the railing is a nice artisanal touch, but close inspection of the stairs show the real conceptual genius executed perfectly as it links the various levels. Many projects would struggle with such a complicated feature (nor would changes in stair dimensions necessarily be allowed). The difficulty of the stair feature justifies this building’s inclusion in this piece but the whole is so much more. Hopefully, when placed side-by-side with Himeji Castle, some of the abstract qualities that we assume are modern, are revealed rather to be timeless.

Pritzkers Residence, Colorado, USA.
Renzo Piano, 2013.

A modern villa which compares favorability to Palladio’s is Renzo Piano’s house for the Pritzkers (yes those Pritzkers) from 2013. It’s reasonably safe to assume the clients are of good taste, and indeed the completed project is an architectural jewel. Located in Colorado, the house makes great use of timber to add a steady visual rhythm to the interior. A characteristic of Piano’s designs are great space planning and certainly in this building everything relates to everything else perfectly. I find the spaces so well considered. Each space is proportioned to the others other without anyone ever thinking: This space is too small or too large for its function. The multi-functional requirements of each room are well realized. It must be very interesting to live in such a house. The project is leagues more sophisticated than Palladio in terms of its relationship with the site, the structure being both placed harmoniously within the hillside and playfully cantilevered out. Arguments exist that the sort of Zen-like placement of different site structures is more sophisticated to both design and interpret, but I still think perfect symmetry with the same degree of functionality is more difficult. Another contrast modern readers will appreciate between Palladio’s villa and the Pritzkers Residence is that the building services are so much more sophisticated and complex today. There’s a purity to Villa Rotunda because the major skill necessary to design and build it was structural engineering. A good aesthetic sense is probably helpful but modern buildings and the architect’s role have changed drastically as the need to include other building systems in the design have grown. Residences are still great laboratories for design because their smaller scale allows for greater design risks. The increased complexity doesn’t seem to have phased Piano.

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