"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

Thursday, 30 January 2014

6. Six Buildings that will Rock our World in 2014

2014 is going to be a great year for WOWchitecture!

Sure, we'll still be living in a world where bland and banal boxes rule the day; where playing it safe triumphs over taking a risk; and where "value engineering" means cheaping-out on design. 

But on the plus side, we'll see more and more brave souls -- architects, engineers, developers and construction professionals -- ready not only to think outside the box, but willing to destroy the box entirely.

So let's celebrate six transformational projects. Together they'll make our planet a more exciting place in the year ahead.

Building Most Likely to be Confused for a Spacecraft

At the edge of a small peninsula, where the Rhone and Saone rivers converge in the city of Lyon, France, the Musee des Confluences sits ready to open its doors. Or should I say blast off. Because while I've seen a number of structures mimic the form of flying saucers, this one looks like a full-blown starship:

                                                                            Photo Credit: Armin Hess, Coop Himmelb(l)au

Designed by Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, and built largely of glass and titanium, the Musee is pure magic. Its shape is defined by three sections: The Plinth, The Cloud and The Crystal. Each section will explore one of life's great questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? What do we do?

Along the way, visitors will explore the history of the universe, how evolution works, and how societies function. With a journey this large is it any wonder it will take a spaceship?

Beam me up Scotty!

Close Encounters of a Classical Kind

Continuing on with our spaceship -- and indeed our French -- theme, I love the way this model makes it look like a group of stunned earthlings are walking up into the maw of an alien mothership.

                                                                             Photo via Atelier Jean Nouvel                                        

Earthlings of all stripes may indeed be dazed -- and dazzled -- when they gaze upon Jean Nouvel's aluminum-clad Philharmonie de Paris. The classical music hall, scheduled for completion in December, already sits high on Paris' northern skyline, giving the city of light yet another landmark.

Like most hyper-creative buildings, the Philharmonie has drawn its share of nay-sayers. The New York Times described it as resembling a mound of loosely stacked plates topped by a 170-foot-high sail. The Guardian compared it to a stack of giant paving stones.

Meanwhile, bean-counting auditors have jumped all over the project's rising costs, now up to €387-million. Still, as former President Nicholas Sarkozy observed while shooting back at the penny-pinchers, "Who can argue that in this time of crisis we don't need music?"

Who indeed.

Stairway to Heaven

The city of Shanghai has long had one of the world's great skylines.

Why? Number one, its buildings have a genuine Asian character, creating a strong sense of place. Two, they are beautiful sculptural works in their own right. And three, new skyscrapers fit seamlessly into the urban landscape, creating an integrated whole instead of a jumble of tall buildings.

The latest addition, Shanghai Tower, follows this successful formula to perfection. It looks like an enormous bamboo stalk, an important cultural icon. It's willowy appearance and quality cladding give it an elegant beauty. And, as the second-tallest building in the world (121-storeys and 632-metres high), it nicely aligns with the adjacent Jin Mao tower and Shanghai World Financial Centre, creating an image of a giant stairway to heaven.

                                                              Photo via Gensler Architects                                  

Shanghai Tower was designed by San Francisco's Gensler Architects. The firm says its design team "anticipated that three important strategies -- the tower's asymmetric form, it's tapering profile and its rounded corners -- would allow the building to withstand the typhoon-force winds common to Shanghai."

Now, if they could only do something about that air quality.

Let's Twist Again, Like we did Last Summer...

Ever since Santiago Calatrava built the HSB Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden, cities have been falling all over themselves to create their own version of a twisting skyscraper. Dubai has one, so does Panama City. Manama (Bahrain) will be finishing its version later this year. Even the Shanghai Tower could be put in this category since it rotates 120 degrees from top to bottom. But my favourite is Moscow's Evolution:

                                                 Photo via DvW,skyscrapercity.com                                   

Designed by Edinburgh's RMJM, Evolution is part of a new cluster of skyscrapers rising on former industrial land about three miles from the Kremlin. Its architects call it "sexy", and while I wouldn't quite go that far, it does bear a certain resemblance to an elegant ballerina.

Evolution clearly isn't the first twisting torso, and it won't be the last. There are many more in the pipeline around the world. That's unfortunate, not every city needs a turning tower. Maybe it's time we called it a day on this high-impact, but over-exposed design. You really can have too much of a good thing.

Sure, but Where's the Cheese?

One thing I love about British architecture fans and critics is that no matter what a building is called officially, they'll come up with a better (and more popular) name.

Call a building 30 St. Mary's Axe? They'll rename it "The Gherkin". City Hall? Oh you must mean "The Beehive". Even nicknames get nicknames. When it turned out that the sun reflecting off a building previously dubbed "The Walkie Talkie" was melting solid objects, it was immediately re-christened "The Fryscraper".

Hell, even architects are given nicknames. Just ask Wil Alsop, aka "Mr. Blobby".

So when Richard Rogers proposed a skyscraper that looked like a wedge standing upright on its flat end, what could the witty British possibly call it other than The Leadenhall Building?

                                                     Photo via rsh-p.com                                                

Oh, right. The Cheese-grater!
By any name, the building is pure Richard Rogers -- lots of glass, exposed infrastructure, a dash of colour for whimsy, and a seven-story atrium to create both a sense of grandeur and a new people place in the heart of London's business district. If you want to see more of the Rogers style, all you have to do is cross the street to his Lloyds of London building with its famous spiralling metallic outdoor staircases; or venture further afield to his Millennium Dome.

The Cheese-grater isn't just Rogers flexing his prodigious architectural muscles. The shape actually has a practical purpose -- it preserves clear view-lines of London's St. Paul's Cathedral and its iconic dome. So, handsome and practical. Job well done Baron Rogers!

To Hell with the Alphabet, we'll Call it what we Want

It's been a rough year for Canada. My former home and native land has become the laughing stock of the world thanks to crack-smoking, binge-drinking, smack-talking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and enfant-terrible Justin Bieber.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, proving that no Canadian is above ridicule, can be seen on YouTube serenading Benjamin Netanyahu with the words, "I get high with a little help from my friends..."

Canada is desperately in need of love and affection. So I'd like to do something nice for it by celebrating one of Toronto's more innovative buildings.

It was nearly a decade ago that Starchitect Daniel Libeskind put forward his ambitious design for a waterfront-area condominium called the L-Tower:

                           Photo via Studio Daniel Libeskind                                                                

The design was bold, brave and somewhat outrageous -- sort of like Rob Ford after a long lunch-hour. Who'd have thunk it? A building shaped like Italy! The foot section would be public arts space and the leg section would be private residences.

It wasn't meant to be. The global economic crisis struck hard, government money dried up, and the area tabbed for arts was cancelled. The ever-resourceful Libeskind went back to the drawing board and returned with a re-draft:

                                Photo via  Studio Daniel Libeskind                                           

More than a few people noted that the much-marketed and by then well-known "L-Tower" now looked a lot more like an "I-Tower". What were its developers to do? What would they re-name it?

In change-resistant Toronto, that was no problem. The old name became the new name. The 58-story tower stayed the L-Tower.

Still, it's a most handsome building, one that raises Toronto design standards to new heights. If the Arctic vortex that has North America in a death grip ever  eases off, the building should be finished off in a few short months.

Now it's your Turn

That's my preview of the six buildings that will rock our world in 2014. Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don't. It's a free country (unless of course, you're reading this in China, Egypt, Syria, Russia, Ukraine.....)

I'm interested in your opinion. Did I leave something out? Did I include something you hate? What are your favourite buildings for 2014? Please leave your comments below.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

5. Las Vegas: Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health

If you look in the dictionary under "WOWchitecture", you'll see a photo of Frank Gehry.

OK, so there's no such word as WOWchitecture. I made it up. Poetic license and all that. Still, if you look in Wikipedia under "Starchitect", the first image will be that of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Toronto-born and California reared, Gehry is quite simply the world's most famous living architect. Just about everything he builds is dubbed iconic. And rightly so in the case of his swirling titanium masterpieces like "El Goog", the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Chicago's Millenium Park bandshell. He has a Pritzker Prize, which is often described as the Academy Award of Architecture -- although I've yet to see a winning architect show up wearing an embarrassing gown or deliver a drunken speech.

Perhaps Gehry's greatest accomplishment has been building a classy building in Las Vegas -- a city he swore he'd never work in. The Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health has just about everything you'd expect from a Gehry building: extreme design, swirling metal, and controversy over what it represents.

"What does the building mean?" Gehry asks, anticipating the usual question. "The objective is to have a building that has feelings, that has an emotional response to the place it's in, to the topic that it's addressing, and to the people that are going to view it."

Like most Gehry buildings, the Centre, which opened in 2010 doesn't seem to spring organically from its natural surroundings:

In this case, the building was deliberately designed to be provocative (as if a Gehry building could be anything else). The Centre wanted a building that would encourage people walking by its downtown Las Vegas site to come in and begin a dialogue on the prevention and treatment of brain diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's.

True to it's word, when I visited in late 2012, an eager volunteer sprang from the building with a load of information about the Centre's ground-breaking research and treatment, as well as its architecture. I learned, for example that the building has 199 windows, no two of which are alike:

Each window has a custom-fitted computerized shade connected to its own motor so can close independently when the baking Mojave desert sun becomes too much. The windows are set in an undulating stainless steel canopy made up of 18,000 shingles, each cut to unique measurements. It's all held together by 30,000 steel bolts.

The Centre consists of two sections: the "molten-metal clad" event centre, and a more conventional-looking treatment and research facility. Connecting the two is a colourful courtyard:

Gehry's buildings may not be as organic as those of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose horizontally expressed prairie houses mirror the flat plains on which they're set. But in its own way, the Lou Ruvo Centre is the perfect symbol for its location. After all, what could say "Las Vegas" better than palm trees in the desert and a handful of hot dice:

Unlike the proverbial lion in winter, Gehry, at age 84, hasn't lost any of his growl  or bite. He's still carving out new architectural roads and snapping back at critics who refuse to follow. Here's a preview of his Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation that will open later this year in Paris:

And here's what he's planning for one of downtown Toronto's main streets:

The latter, a trio of 80+ story skyscrapers, would create a global icon in the heart of Toronto. It would also provide an enduring tribute to the architect-genius who still has a strong emotional connection to his birthplace. 

Yet, as with nearly all Gehry buildings, there is considerable controversy and opposition to the project. Toronto is a city that is slow to warm to the avant-garde. Much of its populace considers the design too bold. And the city's planning department, whose name has never been mentioned in the same sentence as "visionary" or "daring", claims it's too high. Meanwhile, Gehry himself has said he'd rather pull the project than see it butchered.

Stay tuned. This is going to be interesting.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

4. Brussels, Belgium: Cauchie House

From 1890-1910, the Art Nouveau style swept across Europe and other parts of the world from America to Argentina. It drew its inspiration from nature and embodied curving, sinewy, elongated forms -- especially those of flowers, vines, and women with long-flowing hair.

Art Nouveau was considered a "total art" which means that it embraced all forms of artistic expression: architecture, fine and graphic arts, sculpture, vases, lighting, furniture, jewellery, fabrics, ceramics and just about anything else you can think of.

Just exactly where Art Nouveau was born is a matter of some conjecture and considerable argument. The French say it was in their homeland. The Belgians say it was in their homeland. And the Catalans, who haven't even had a homeland since 1716 (but are doing their best to create one today) claim the work of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona as the starting point.

Personally, I'm not going to take sides. Although as someone who lives in the Spanish region immediately south of Catalonia, I'm only too eager to declare that my all-time favourite Art Nouveau building is Gaudi's Casa Battlo.

Gaudi was just one of the stars in an Art Nouveau firmament that included Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Hector Guimard, Victor Horta, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret and Mary McDonald, and Emile Galle. Today  I want to shine a light on a a lesser-known star, Paul Cauchie.

Cauchie and Lina Voet met, married and built a house in Brussels in 1906. He was an architect, decorative painter and interior decorator. She was a painter and teacher. He designed and built the outside of the house. She co-designed the interior. The house was no ordinary home-workshop:

Let's look at Maison Cauchie floor by floor:

The top floor reflects many classic Art Nouveau themes and motifs. The women are the eight muses of art. The flowers are roses. The windows are round. The only deviation from form is the silver jagged balcony railing. A true visionary, Cauchie anticipated Art Deco by two decades!

The second-floor exterior features a more modern, liberated-looking woman holding up a sign that says "Pour Nous, Par Nous" which means "For us, By Us".

Given that the suffragette movement was very strong at the time, and what looks like paper is in the woman's hands, I thought that the image might symbolize a woman's right to vote. But the truth is far more prosaic. Cauchie and Voet envisioned the house exterior as a giant billboard advertising the artistic services that they provided. This becomes more clear in the sign on the ground floor promoting their commercial services: paintings, decorations, embroidery, furniture and chandeliers:

Normally I'm quite opposed to commercial advertising in a residential area. But if the front of the house is just one giant marketing poster, then I wouldn't mind having a few of these in my neighbourhood!

The actual technique used in creating the artwork is called Sgraffito. It involves applying several layers of plaster, tinted in contrasting colours, to a moistened surface. The plaster is then cut according to a pattern to reveal the desired colours.

The Cauchie House WOW factor can be seen both outside and inside the house. The interior features a beautiful Sgraffito mural portraying the five senses:





Amazingly, despite having created one of the shiniest gems in the Art Nouveau world, Paul Cauchie decided that he was more of an interior decorator than an architect, and is only known to have built three more houses. He did, however, create 600 Sgraffito instalments across Brussels.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

3. Jaipur, India: Amer Palace

3. Jaipur, India: Amer Palace

I have to admit I've never been a big fan of the Taj Mahal. Maybe it's too symmetrically perfect. Maybe its overexposure on a zillion travel posters, TV ads and magazine covers has reduced it to cliche. Or maybe it's the mushy, slushy love story that underlies it. What can I say? I'm not the sentimental type.

A couple of years ago, while travelling through Northern India, I saw the Taj up close. Or, rather, the part of it that was visible through air so polluted you'd need a hacksaw to cut through it. I still wasn't impressed.

Fortunately, in a land of dazzling architecture and amazing spectacle, I saw a number of structures that made a far deeper imprint on my aesthetic psyche .

Like the Palace of Winds:

And the Baha'i Temple on the outskirts of Delhi:

Not that either of them is the subject of today's post. That honour goes to the Amber Fort (also known as Amber Palace), which is perched majestically on a hilltop outside the City of Jaipur.

Construction of the Amber Fort began in 1592, during the reign of the Moghul (Muslim) Emperor Akbar the Great. It was built of red sandstone and white marble, and blends together Moghul and Hindu styles. 

For those not into architecture or history, what you mostly need to know is that it's the kind of classic fort that we would have loved to run around in as kids. It's full of ramparts, exotic gates, cobblestone paths, and colourful lookout points like this: 

Which in my own still childish mind I reimagine as looking like this:

The Fort is built around four courtyards. At the rear of the first courtyard is the highly ornate Ganesha Gate.

Lord Ganesha is one of the 330 million Hindu deities, but a particularly popular one since he's regarded as "the remover of obstacles". He has the body of a man and the head of an elephant, as you can see from the image near the top 
of this archway:

He's also cute as the dickens:

At the top of the Ganesha Gate are beautiful lattices behind which the ladies of the Palace would sit, out of sight, looking down at the troops gathering for battle or celebrating victory:

From the other side of the Ganesha Gate the observation perch looks like this:


Also near the Ganesha Gate are embossed double-leaf silver doors that lead to the small Sila Devi temple where the Maharajas worshiped:

The Sheesh Mahal, or Hall of Mirrors, is generally regarded as the most beautiful part of the fort -- although I'm more of a Ganesha Gate man myself.

The ornamentation is impressive whether viewed from afar:

Or up close:

One of the stories behind the Hall of Mirrors is that in ancient days the King's wife wasn't allowed to sleep in the open air, but she loved to see the stars. The King's architects designed the hall such that if two candles were lit, the multiple reflections would convert that light into thousands of "stars".

The Sheesh Mahal also contains a formal garden with a star-shaped fountain, typical features of an Islamic garden.

The Amber Fort can be reached by four-wheel drive or elephant. The elephants are not well treated, so please take the jeep!