"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Saturday, 25 February 2017

43. Six Buildings that Will Rock your World in 2017

    Kazakhstan World Expo (via AS+GG)

It's that time of year again. Yes, today we release our list of structures that we believe will rock your world in 2017. This year the list can be summarized in one four-letter word: A-S-I-A. And not just China - although that country will contribute the lone Megatall - but also Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. Only one building outside this region has made it onto our list.

We readily admit that this is the shortest and least global list we've ever produced. With good reason. Dubai and other petro-economies are feeling the pinch of declining oil prices and are slowing down. London and New York, after a brief period of experimental design, have settled back into the comfy confines of banal boxes and tall matchsticks. Chicago is emerging from a long and hard recession and just beginning to build tall again. Beijing's harsh and humourless leadership has ordered an end to out-of-the-box design. And while some developers are building taller than ever, the process is taking longer than ever.

That's the background against which we present the best-of-the-best for 2017.

Rocketing to the Sky

Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill (AS+GG) may be two of the world's most accomplished, yet least acclaimed, architects. But that's the way it is when you spend much of your career toiling for a global megalith like Skidmore, Owings, Merrill (SOM). It's the corporate execs, not the architects, who get the lion's share of the credit.

Had Smith and Gill formed a partnership earlier in their careers (as they eventually did in 2006) they would be known worldwide as the STARchitects who designed the world's tallest building (Dubai's 162-storey Burj Khalifa) the world's future tallest building (the 167-storey Jeddah Tower) and a cornucopia of giants like Chicago's 92-storey Trump International Hotel + Tower, the 89-storey Nanjing Greenland Financial Center, and Shanghai's 88-storey Jin Mao Tower.

In the year ahead, AS+GG's reputation should soar as high as their tallest skyscrapers. The small firm will complete not one, not two, but three works of WOWchitecture. The largest of these will be the 127-storey Wuhan Greenland Center. By the end of 2017, the tower will be the third-largest in China and fourth-largest in the world:

 (Image via AS+GG)

The Centre incorporates four key design features: a tapering body that gives the building the look of a giant spaceship; softly rounded corners that reduce wind resistance; a domed top above which is an arched tip; and concave sides that create a unique aesthetic.

From Unknown to Unknown

If there's one thing that's even less well-known than Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, it's that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, will host a World Expo later this year. Coincidentally, the lead architects for the Expo are AS+GG How good was their design? Consider that they beat out more than 49 companies, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Snohetta, HOK and Coop Himmelb(l)au.

The centrepiece of the Expo will be a 25-storey sphere, the Kazakstan Pavillon:


 (Image via AS+GG)

The sphere will be clad in double-curved glass made in Italy. The building will go zero-energy one better - it will actually produce energy. By scooping out a gouge at the top of the sphere, the architects will enable Astana's brutal southwest winds to enter a channel on the interior skin of the sphere, and from there it will be steered to energy-generating turbines.

Mr. Foreman, Your New Grill is Ready

  (Image via AS+GG)

When I first saw the above image, I thought it had to be a new prototype for the George Foreman Grill. It had just the right amount of flatness on top and curves down the sides. But the more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of a flying saucer. In actuality, it was inspired by Kazakhstan's national symbol, the sleek golden eagle. In a way that's sad. There are lots of buildings that resemble flying saucers and birds (see post #6) but not many that look like a George Foreman Grill.

The building is the Astana Congress Center, another space-age contribution to the Expo by AS+GG. It will feature a 3,000-seat auditorium and secure VIP and VVIP areas to host world leaders who are expected to show up for the Expo. It will host significant events during the Expo and act as a hub for post-Expo legacy events.

You're Never Too Old to be Young

Moshe Safdie is now in his 50th year of being an architectural wunderkind. OK, so maybe 78 is a bit old for a wunderkind. But Safdie is still every bit as unique, provocative, and controversial as he was when he launched his Habitat onto the world scene at Expo '67 in Montreal.

This year, his arrow in the heart of the conservative architectural establishment is Altair, a two-tower, mixed-use development in Sri Lanka: 

 (Image via:Safdie Architects) 

One tower will rise 69-vertical storeys into the air. The other, looking as if it is tired and needing support, will lean at an angle onto the first. Sri Lanka has the kind of tropical climate where just about anything will grow just about anywhere. So, a dramatic stepping of the balconies will ensure that a network of gardens will open to the sky.

The Torsos Keep on Turning

Ever since Santiago Calatrava stunned the word in 2005 with his 52-storey Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden, architects have been trying their best to refine and redefine the look. This year's contribution - and wildest interpretation yet - comes courtesy of Vincent Callebaut. The Belgian ecological architect designs futuristic projects which take into account the many aspects of sustainability.

 (Image via: Vincent Callebaut Architects)

The Agora Garden in Taipei, Taiwan will have two key distinguishing features. First, the 21-storey building will look like a strand of DNA, with its iconic double helix twisted around a central core. Secondly, the building's exterior will feature a cascade of suspended gardens that will cover the entire building and include 23,000 trees and shrubs. Residents will also be encouraged to grow their own fruits and vegetables. This urban forest will absorb 130 tons of carbon dioxide. It's a small drop in the bucket of global warming, but as Callebaut told CNN, "The tower presents a pioneer concept of sustainable residential eco-construction that aims at limiting the ecological footprint of its inhabitants." The design includes natural lighting and ventilation as well as rainwater recycling and rooftop solar panels.

Definitely NOT Made in China

One building on our list - the only one not in Asia - is being eagerly awaited by adults and children alike. It's the LEGO House experience centre in the company's hometown of Billund, Denmark. And why not? Who among us hasn't owned a LEGO set or reasonable facsimile at some point in our lives. The folks at LEGO obviously believe in their product. The building will look as if it has been constructed from 21 giant LEGO bricks:

(Image via BIG)

Designed by the red-hot Danish firm BIG, LEGO House will be 30 meters high, with public access from the outside to several rooftop gardens. Inside, visitors will experience exhibition areas, a cafe, and LEGO store. At the laying of the House's foundation brick, BIG founder Bjarke Ingels gave the children's toy his seal of approval. "For me the LEGO brick embodies the notion of systemic creativity - that the rigour and rationality of the LEGO brick allows children of all ages infinite possibilities to create their own worlds and to inhabit them through play." Perhaps Ingels was one of those kids, since many of his buildings have that distinct child-like imaginative quality.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

42. When Searching for Treasure, Any Treasure will Do

Main Entryway to Pinang Peranakan Mansion

One of our favourite hobbies, besides appreciating great architecture, is walking urban streets photographing street art. (Please see our other blog, streetsmart319.blogspot.com) We often do this in tropical countries, where survival requires learning a few tricks of the trade. The alternative is putting unnecessary wear and tear on your feet while melting away beneath the baking heat and humidity of an unforgiving sun.

That's not to say Heather and I always practice what we preach. Like mad dogs and Englishmen we usually begin stalking our prey under the noonday sun. A morning start would, of course, be so much smarter, but we're just not morning people. Hey,we're barely afternoon people. So, the biggest challenge to our photography is keeping the sweat out of our eyes long enough to frame a good shot and press the shutter button. That, and grabbing enough shade and liquid to keep from keeling over from sunstroke or dehydration. 

While we may not play by all the rules, we've learned to compensate by sniffing out the quickest routes between ourselves and the street art. Every city offers its own shortcuts. In George Town, the capital city of Penang, Malaysia, we discovered that the key is to seek out four-way intersections. There, you gaze in every direction at the rows of Chinese shophouses -- the city's iconic form of architecture. If you don't spot a break in the houses (as in the renovated stretch below) there's no point in walking up the street. Your only reward will be rows of blisters.

A row of Chinese shophouses in George Town

You're more likely to find gaps in areas where older shophouses have been torn down -- or just given way to the forces of gravity -- making room for street-level parking lots. On either side of the lots, the remaining row house walls present artists with large, deep and inviting concrete canvases. Indeed, some of the best murals in George Town can be found adjacent to parking lots.

 Mural by 4Some Crew

Symbiotic by Addison Karl

One day - a typical George Town afternoon of 33C+ with blanketing humidity --  we were sauntering around an area of row houses when we spotted a break in the pattern and a large, open, setback. We knew that we were onto something. But little did we know what. Instead of finding a parking lot with great street art, we walked smack dab into the outer courtyard of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Peranakans, also known as the Straits Chinese, emigrated from China and settled in the British Straits settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore -- collectively known as Malaya. They were largely traders and the Pinang mansion was built in the late 1800s as the home of successful magnate Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. It was, and is, an eclectic (but opulent) arrangement of Chinese carved wooden panels, English floor tiles, Scottish ironworks, mother-of-pearl furniture, gilded mirrors and Rose porcelain. It also houses over a thousand pieces of antiques and collectibles.

Walking through the Mansion's wooden front doors, we entered the ornate reception hall -- a two-story, open-air atrium. It was our lucky day as a festive event was in the offing and the room was festooned with flowers and Chinese-patterned umbrellas. It all made for a spectacularly colourful scene, whether viewed from below::


or at eye level:

Two main family rooms ran off the Reception Hall. They were primarily used by women and were separated off by gilded doors with lavishly designed lattice work. The doors were called "spirit doors" since the lattice was meant to confuse malevolent forces and keep them from entering the main house.

One of the rooms is a dining hall, used primarily for hosting European guests:

The remainder of the first floor is divided into galleries showcasing the Mansion's treasures, including furniture:


Decorative ceramics:


Beautiful glass lamps, collectibles, and period kitchen ware:

The doors to the annexes were beautiful displays in and of themselves:

And overall the house had such an elegant feel to it that even the washroom signs were classy:

Doubling back to the main Reception Hall, we climbed the Fleurs-de-Lys stairway:

to the Mansion's second-floor:

Being the family's private area, the second floor wasn't quite as glitzy as the first. But the bedrooms still contained some beautiful objects:

including display cases filled with finely crafted flowers and bowls of crystal and glass:

As well as an attractive woman who was still learning that if you aim your camera at a cabinet with a mirror in it, you're going to be in the picture!

After a few minutes of wandering about the second floor, we went back down to the Main Reception Hall. There we discovered the real reason why the Mansion was so fancied up that day. A local couple dressed in traditional garb was using the Mansion as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

It was a scene that had no doubt played out hundreds of times before. But today there was one difference. At least two of the photographers had started their day thinking that they were going to be shooting street art.

Friday, 10 June 2016

41. Paris' Castel Beranger: Delightful or Deranged?

When architect Hector Guimard put his finishing touches on Castel Beranger in 1898, Paris had its first Art Nouveau apartment. Some of his critics called it deranged, but I think the building is completely delightful. So, either tastes have changed considerably over the past 118 years - or else I'm deranged too. I suspect the jury is still out on that one!

Art Nouveau, which was inspired by nature and its round, sinewy and elongated forms, was considered a "total art style". Guimard was involved in every aspect of the building's design, including, structure, furniture, ornamental ironwork, carpets, glass, wallpaper, door knocks and doorknobs. He designed each of the apartments individually - no two were alike.

Castel Beranger's front gate (pictured above) may be the single most beautiful piece of metalwork I've every seen. It has all of the curvy, swervy lines and hints of musical notes that Guimard learned from his mentor, Brussels architect, Victor Horta. The pairing of bronze and blue, an unusual coupling to say the least, was pure inspired genius.

The fluidity of motion in the gate, carries on through to the entrance hall and inner door, where ceramics and stained-glass add to the blend of materials. The ceilings and the tops of the walls are covered with polished copper plates with metal motifs. The metalwork looks a little more green than on the outside, owing to the hallway's yellow lighting:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

The pattern continues on into the vestibule:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

And to the main stairway where a relatively new innovation - blown-glass bricks - were used to bring in light and add beauty to the stairwell:

(Photo via: Jean-Pierre Dalbera, Wikipedia)

The outside facade of the building - with the exception of the gate - is a bit more whimsical, featuring wrought-iron sea horses, and masks said to bear a more than striking resemblance to Guimard's face:

But it wasn't all fanciful. Guimard also used the project to develop and advance his Art Nouveau design technique:

While Castel Beranger may not have pleased the more conservative elements within Paris' society - avant-garde design rarely does - it earned enough friends to see the building's frontage designated as Facade of the Year in the 16th arrondissement in 1898. It also played a major role in winning its designer another commission, without which Paris would be missing one of its most recognizable icons:

Yes, the Hector Guimard who created Castel  Béranger is the same Hector Guimard who created dozens of Metro entrances across Paris' extensive subway network. And really, where would the romance of the Art Nouveau period be, and where would the beauty of Paris' Belle Époque era be, without Guimard's uniquely delightful Metro entrances?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

40. Zaha Hadid: An Appreciation

 New Century City Art Centre, Chengdu, China
(All renderings via ZHA)

Architects aren't supposed to die at 65. They really aren't. From Sinan Mimar the builder of Istanbul's great mosques (who died in 1588 aged 99) to Oscar Niemeyer who created the magical jungle city of Brasilia (and lived to within 10 days of his 105th birthday) architects have been renowned for living long, fulfilling and productive lives. Let's also not forget Philip Johnson, who reached 98, Frank Lloyd Wright 91, Jorn Utzon (Sydney Opera House) 91 and Buckminster Fuller 87.

Among the living and still going strong are I.M. Pei, who will turn 99 later this month, Cesar Pelli 91 and Frank Gehry 87.

Finding an architect who died at 65 or younger took me all the way back to the Finnish duo of Eero Saarinen (St. Louis Gateway Arch) and Viljo Revell (Toronto City Hall). The former died while undergoing surgery for a brain tumour in 1951, aged 51. The latter in 1964 aged 54.

Then came Thursday March 31, and the shock heard round the architectural world. The news, when it arrived, was swift and stark, bare and brutal: Zaha Hadid, Dead at 65. Like a nuclear explosion it arrived unexpectedly, unmercifully, and with soul-crushing finality. Like a thief in the night it robbed us of an invaluable treasure, one we are helpless to replace. We had expected so much more from her -- like at least another couple of decades of transformational work, lifting the bar higher and higher to worlds unimagined -- and unimaginable by other architects.

We are, by now, familiar with the broad brushstrokes that shaped her life's work: a woman in a "man's profession"; an Iraqi Arab in a world dominated by the West; a new face in England, a country often more comfortable with Empire than immigration; and a prodigious mind that designed structures that were often deemed too spectacular to bring to life -- even in envelope-pushing Emirate Dubai:

Signature Towers 

Dubai Opera House

Where others might have been blinded by the glare of the public spotlight, or crushed by the weight of expectations, Hadid shone. The greater the challenge, the more she rose to it. To the Pritzker Prize -- often referred to as the Nobel Prize or Academy Award of the architecture profession -- the first woman to do so. To two consecutive RIBA Stirling Prizes. To a multitude of other awards and accolades too numerous to mention.

Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, DBE to give her her full due, was a complex and multi-talented person who always chose the road not taken. She didn't understand words and phrases like "normal", "ordinary", "status quo", "fitting in", or "running with the crowd". Her buildings, like her personality, were outrageous, audacious, flamboyant, singular, provocative and iconoclastic. She simply set out to create a new type of architecture, and she succeeded marvelously. She didn't work outside of the box, she destroyed the box completely.

We live in a world today which, unfortunately, privileges brevity over profundity. Thoughts, even paradigm-changing ones, are expected to be expressible in 120 characters or less. And so, many have sought to encapsulate Hadid's work in a single word: organic, futuristic, visionary, curvy, swervy, free-form, undulating. Each on its own is inadequate; all together, they still come up short.

If I were to accept the fool's errand of summing up Hadid's work in a single word, that word, as self-serving as it may be, would be WOWchitecture. There simply wasn't a single thing that she created -- buildings, bridges, pavilions, artwork, furniture, jewelry, even yachts....to name a few -- that didn't make you go WOW! She was the ultimate WOWchitect and on most days my favourite.

Hadid-designed Yacht

Those of us who were fans of her hyperimaginative style, each had our favourite buildings. Her best-known structure was the white concrete and glass (nearly all of her buildings were white concrete and glass) London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics. Hadid called it "a concept inspired by the smooth geometry of water in motion":

For me, her creme de la creme included the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan:

Guanzhou Opera House:

Wanjing Soho:

  Regium Waterfront:

These are already built. Others are underway and will soon join the parade of spectacular structures. Like the metro station at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:

And Port House in Antwerp:

Somewhat further down the road, we should see the construction of the Sleuk Rith Institute, a memorial in Phnom Penh to Cambodia's holocaust:

Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether her greatest design will ever see the light of day -- an Abu Dhabi arts centre so bold and futuristic that it can only be compared to the Starship Enterprise:

While her creations may have been close to perfect, Hadid herself had her share of flaws. Frailties are, regrettably, part of the human condition. Some of hers were small ones. She could, for example, be prickly. A reporter arriving for an interview could never be certain as to which version of the lady would show up. Then again, the same has been said of Gehry.

She could be flush with the arrogance of success, but not as badly as Lloyd Wright, who designed his first wife's clothes so that they wouldn't clash with the house they lived in. She didn't suffer criticism well -- who amongst us does -- to the point where she denied the obvious. She bristled when her design for the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar was criticized for resembling a woman's private parts. And yet I would defy any reasonably intelligent person to look at a rendering of the stadium and deny that what they are seeing is anything other than:

Small sins are forgivable. But she committed large ones as well. Like embracing dictatorships: in Libya...in Azerbaijan...in Russia...in China...in China again...and again...and again... Seeing her designs built always seemed more important to her than promoting human rights. She argued (never persuasively) that good architecture could help open up closed societies. She could also be dismissive about the deaths of low-paid, immigrant construction workers in the countries where she built. She didn't pass up jobs or advocate on their behalf. "It's not my duty as an architect" she proclaimed to The Guardian in a quote that would earn her the enmity of much of the architectural community.

Such are the complexities and dualities of creative genius: brilliance and instability; iconoclasm and arrogance; advocacy and denial; creating new worlds while toadying to the worst values of the old.

At the end of the day -- and sunset arrived much earlier than we had expected -- Zaha Hadid was a woman who knew her own mind, listened to her own heart, set her own path and followed her own dreams. She lived, perhaps unknowingly, the mantra of another brilliant (and flawed) star who shone brightly for a while before flaming out, also too soon, Steve Jobs:

"Time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition...Everything else is secondary."