Saturday, 9 September 2017

Isle of Dogs Pumping Station



This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of Icon Magazine

“Architecture is more than plumbing, just as eating is more than an excuse to make turds”
John Outram

If you look to your left as you come around the Thames on a clipper along the curve of the Isle of Dogs from central London, the fat skyscrapers of Canary Wharf congeal into an impressively featureless mound in the near distance, while in the foreground a teeming encrustation of apartment buildings in an array of mostly 1980s variations on brick vernacular, elbow each other out of the way to get glimpses of the river.

Joyously popping out from the middle of this mountainous architectural compost heap, staring at you as you pass with the gaping intensity of a cyclopean eye, is what looks like the front of a jet engine that’s been lodged in the centre of an industrial shed’s roof, both of which have been dropped on a pair of partially submerged, super-giant brick columns. These are each topped by capitals that are so brightly coloured and fanciful, that if extracted, they could quite happily make for two very successful, gloriously exuberant carnival floats.

And thus is how most Londoners have their first glimpse of John Outram’s defiantly singular Isle of Dogs Pumping Station from 1986-8. At a time when most of architecture was polarised in the popular imagination between the neo-traditionalists, who wanted to recast Britain in the image of an idealised, suspiciously monarchical-looking past, and the Hi-Tech architects who saw themselves as inheritors of another equally idealised past, but this time of great machinery, and pure engineering bravura, Outram’s staunchly complex little manifesto of a building seemed to speak of a much richer relationship both to the past, and to the present.

Unlike the neo-traditionalists, Outram vocally and vigorously utilised the latest technology, engineering and mechanical services, intimately incorporating them into his design language. Unlike the Hi-Techs, he used it as a generative device around which he developed a rich, evocative language of ornament and architectural forms, rather than leaving it to speak only of the functional purposes it served.

Unlike the neo traditionalist’s enslavement to stories already told a thousand times over, and Hi-Tech’s refusal to say anything at all, Outram was a master of creating new narratives and stories and myths through his architecture, by designing his buildings as eloquent overall compositions, and by using material techniques he invented with the express purpose of making his designs ultra-expressive, or as he put it, to allow them to be always “saying without speaking”.

His “Robot Order” (described by one arch-modernist as “sheer terrorism”[i]) was a super-large column type wide enough to contain all the modern electronics and services required by buildings of the time, in a most economical and efficient manner. Neither clinging to the past nor purely technological, Outram always imagines a fusion of the ancient and the hyper-new, for example asking, “what if these big stone columns were now reamed out by some gigantic boring machine and filled with all the electro-mechanical viscera essential to a contemporary building?”

“Blitzcrete”, a rich, almost luxuriously polychromatic concrete filled with large fragments of multi-coloured brick was adopted from make-do techniques using bombing debris developed during the Second World War, while Doodlecrete, a form of “iconic writing” was a manner of casting concrete with bold graphical pattern inlays. The wonderfully named “Video Masonry” was a technique he developed of transferring inkjet colour prints onto precast plaster panels, often shaped like masonry, producing wildly embellished surfaces that attained the kind of “iconic density” he aimed for in his projects.

The Pumping Station doesn’t deploy all of these methods, but it is an exceptional paragon of architectural communication and evocation, a building which speaks of far, far more than its prosaic infrastructural function. It is clearly a temple, but it is no piece of reactionary classical revival, it is a temple of the now, still after 30 years a fiercely contemporary masterpiece that manages to be simultaneously ancient and futuristic, camp and weighty, sophisticated and accessible, and overall a visual delight of the kind very few architects ever manage (or, strangely, want) to achieve, but which Outram managed to attain again and again in his career. Which is why as The Sunday Times put it in 1991, "When people see an Outram Building, their immediate response is to wave and cheer". 


[i] A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, James Stevens Curl,  P546


Portman's Progression

This review of  Portman's America: & Other Speculations featured in the September 207 edition of Architecture Today

John Portman is one of those great figures in architecture whom other architects do not quite know what to make of. Clearly a brilliant designer who invented novel forms of space, much like Jon Jerde his incredible commercial success, and the unapologetically vast scale of his projects, has rendered him somewhat suspect in a profession that is beholden to the mystique of the uncompromising artiste, of the creator who somehow manages to not sell out.

This is of course a myth as silly and dangerous as that of that of the deified symbol of Libertarian Individualism, Howard Roark. True architecture, the stuff that changes the way we go about our daily lives, the stuff that bends societies in new directions, is always hand in fist with capital of the largest scale and most inscrutable might.

No one has managed to straddle the divide between the raw might of money and finance, and the artistic perfectionism of the Roark-ian visionary better than Portman. Both architect and (spectacularly successful) developer, he refashioned an entire city -Atlanta- in his image, as well as creating megacomplexes in others, from Detroit to Shanghai and San Francisco, finally realising the Modernist megastructural dream at scales unimaginable up to that point.
Not only did these projects generate vast wealth for himself and other investors, they also consistently (and profitably) pushed the boundaries of how dramatic, theatrical, and awe-inspiring otherwise banal programs could become when joined together and supersized. John Portman never answered to a client, John Portman answered to John Portman, and in an age where so many are lamenting the death of the role of the architect, of the profession’s being side-lined and of its general ineffectuality, Portman’s fusion of the roles of client and architect seem to show a uniquely appropriate way out of that impotent impasse.

“Portman’s America & Other Speculations” is a timely and welcome publication for such an iconic figure who on the one hand designed what Frederic Jameson has cited as the most emblematically Postmodern of building interiors -his Westin Bonaventure Hotel- and whom on the other can be seen as the apotheosis of corporate American Modernism. The book is deliciously illustrated with a series of new photos by Iwan Baan, which manage to perfectly capture the inventive bravura, and lost-era feel of Portman’s works, as well as the kind of future-past urban environments that they generated.
A fascinating fly-on-the-wall conversation with Portman reveals his upbeat, relentlessly positive and charming personality, as well as some of the stories behind his singular path, from when he’d just completed two or three houses and he decided he’d “never making a living on this,” to his relationship with financiers in which he states, “I don’t get to know bankers, they get to know me.” His projects are shown in a rather concise and matter-of-fact manner, and while It would have been wonderful for the architectural drawings to be given more space, and for further anecdotal and interpretative information or material to be provided on each, they present the coherence of his output well.

The two essays, and series of Portman-inspired projects by Preston Scott Cohen’s students, are positive first steps towards architecturally and critically re-engaging with Portman’s body of work. They perhaps however work better as illustrations of quite how much fertile ground there is for further critical assessments and formal analyses of his oeuvre and methodologies, than they do as robust investigations in their own right.

As Mohsen Mostafavi points out in his introduction to the book, even Rem Koolhaas could only bring himself to partially appreciate the city of Atlanta and Portman’s work when visiting in the 90s, stating that it was “a convulsive architecture that will eventually acquire beauty.” As this book now makes clear, and hopefully this will be the first of several assessing his profuse legacy, we now have enough distance from their inception to look upon these projects and see in them the terrible beauty -a uniquely American beauty- that they embody.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Architecture of the Japanese Bubble






Published in the April 2017 edition of Icon Magazine

1980s Japan was a nation hurtling at exponentially increasing speeds into a seething, self-consuming, technologically fantastical, aesthetically ravishing future, fuelled by a turbo-charged mixture of industrial innovation, financial speculation, and the biggest real-estate bubble the world had ever seen.

An unprecedented wave of new development transformed the nation’s cities, feeding off quite literally insane land valuations that saw property selling in Ginza for $750,000 a square meter, and which meant the land on which the Imperial Palace sat in Tokyo was calculated to be worth more than all the real estate in the whole of California combined.

While Japanese corporations were hoovering up companies around the world, small rural towns with more money than they knew what to do with were building gigantic museums, stadiums and bridges, and Japanese businessmen were happy to spend $80 million dollars for a single painting, a riotous sense of raging hyperreality was manifesting itself across Japanese culture.

From the dystopian future Tokyos of Ghost in the Shell and Akira, to Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films with their collapsing together of the past and the present, the fantastical and the banal, and the Western and the Japanese, to the urban condition of the country’s great cities, which were rapidly coming to resemble Ridley Scott’s hyper-saturated, dark vision in Blade Runner, the frenetic financial explosion ignited an aesthetic chain reaction that saw the creation of a whole ecosystem of new artistic subcultures and forms of expression.

The efflorescence of strange new forms was particularly marked in Architecture, in which a generation of designers produced some of the most distinctive buildings to be found anywhere in the world. Unlike other countries where development is usually at a very large scale, the vast majority of construction in Japan occurs towards the smaller end of the development spectrum. Even in times of normal economic activity this allows for younger, and more alternative architects to acquire commissions, but in the boom years it led to a feverish bonanza of commissions for a host of architects with highly idiosyncratic approaches, buildings by a few of the unfathomably more forgotten of whom are shown here.

Hiroyuki Wakabayashi, a Kyoto architect from a product design background, produced the Life Inn in Kyoto in 1986, a mountainous building of stacked cubes inside of which is carved a fragmented, feverishlyornamental void replete with its own grotto waterfall, and exploding, colourful geometries, reminiscent of the most eccentric of science fiction film sets. Through his following projects, the complexity and hyper-ornamentation of that interior void came to conquer the entirety of his compositions. The Unagidani Children’sMuseum in Osaka is an eroded, pre-ruined, 8-story concrete grid-frame in which every single 3metre grid space contains an entirely distinct little building, each of which are formed from an entirely distinct, highly crafted, but clearly Wakabayashi-generated, architectural style.

His Humax Pavilion in Tokyo perfectly captures both the simultaneous impulse to be technologically fantastical as well as moodily historical, and the desire to encrust the entire form of the building, inside and out, in a bristling cacophony of brooding ornament. As he put it “it is an irrational instinct for man to long for the future while latently having a desire to refer back to the past, this architecture is the best embodiment of this instinct.” It looms with fantastically theatrical menace over Shibuya, like a gigantic, ancient, futuristic artefact. Wakabayashi does not need scale for effect, his tiny Maruto 15 and 17 buildings in Kyoto are equally intoxicating in their alien eeriness, and are perfect examples of his total impregnation of form with evocative ornament, absorbing all of one’s attention when on the streets in which they sit.

The most internally coherent and intriguing body of work from the period was produced by another Kyoto-based architect, Shin Takamatsu, whose brooding, obsessively composed and detailed buildings are best known in the West from the Piranesian, chiaroscuro drawings he produced to illustrate them. The drawings do give a strong impression of his intense and rather dark vision of architectural space, but it is only through visiting his works that one can fully absorb the extraordinary richness of his buildings as fiercely personal explorations of architectural synthesis.
His works are deep, sometimes frightening psychological journeys made through the act of architecture. He fuses an exceptional range ofreferences together with newly invented motifs, into designs which rival the mosticonographically elaborate of Europe’s fin de siècle architecture, only here they create a language of overloaded technology crashing together with subjective poetics, personal angst, and history, in a fusion that only late 20th Japan could have produced.

His Pharaoh Dental Clinic in Kyoto from 1984, and Syntaxretail building from 1988-90 (now demolished), express these qualities perfectly. Both relatively small in scale, with Pharaoh being positively minute, they are powerfully expressive forms, even verging on being frighteningly so in the degree of their intensity. The fierce effect his buildings elicit in visitors was always carefully calibrated by Takamatsu, who has often described the dark and thrilling tensions which pulse in his structures, and which draw passers-by towards them with wary interest, saying of Syntax that it is a “space that is menacing, the parts menacing the whole, the whole menacing the parts, and even the parts menacing each other, just as the whole menaces itself.” Takamatsu produced an astonishing body of work, and much like his Kyoto counterpart Tadao Ando, the precision and consistency, whilst constantly inventing and inquiring, is astonishing.

At the other end of the country, on the northern island of Hokkaido, Kiko Mozuna built an entire oeuvre of buildings, mostly around the municipality of Kushiro, based on his own esoteric cosmic principles. Each of his buildings, and his architectural-philosophical ideas about the nature of architecture were explored through exquisitely complex, colourful, and layered drawings, so intricate that they often approach the visual potency of Mandalas. The blending of influences explored through these drawings is clearly visible in projects like his Kushiro Municipal Museum from 1984, with its strange recollection of ziggurats, mounds, and symbolic Japanese forms, as well as his pre-ruined Nusamai Junior High School, the hyperactive, symbolic overload of Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf, and the stacked scaled architectures of his Kushiro Castle Hotel.

In Tokyo Kengo Kuma produced the bizarre M2 building, a sublimely surreal nightmare of architectural-historical forms blown out of scale and crashed together in aggressive, purposeful abandon. Originally a car showroom for Mitsubishi, it has since been repurposed as a funeral parlour -a supremely appropriate program for this uncanny intervention into the Tokyo cityscape.

Toyokazu Watanabe’s monumental concrete or steel-grey buildings seem to come straight out of a film by Studio Ghibli, blending Japanese and Western references with an eye for a kind of fantasy picturesque. His relationship to references evolved from his Standard House 001 in Nakano of 1979 that quite literally took Adolf Loos’ unbuilt tomb for Max Dvorak, built its general form, but transformed it through the application of a different materiality (his trademark grey) and numerous domestic apertures, leaving it hovering somewhere between Japanese suburbia and fin de siècle Vienna.

This transformation of precedents rapidly becomes more complex and begins to incorporate far more referents, with his Okamuro House of 1981, merging a suburban house with an observatory, and a coffered dome, in a combination that Charles Jencks has described as “hallucinatory”. By the time he is building large scale works like the Bunka No Sato Cultural Centre on Tsushima Island, the awesome Akita City Gymnasium of 1991, The Kamo CultureCentre of 1994, and the Kamiyubetsu Folk Museum in 1996, each of his projects have become a veritable carnival of incorporated references, blended into fantasy worlds, one of which is specifically crafted, and conveyed, for each of his built endeavours.

Between 1979 and 1984 Takefumi Aida created a series ofhouses in Tokyo based on the game of Toy Blocks. With the intention of rediscovering a sense of playfulness in the act of design and in the associations conjured up by a building, he created structures that in fact come across as rather eerie and sinister in the outsize scaling of what are familiar elements. In their piling-up and profusion, the implied toy blocks of his buildings start to recall the partially ruined and re-appropriated symbolic ceremonial structures of lost civilisations, like a monstrously large and melancholic child was attempting to reconstruct the buildings of Mycenea, or Machu Picchu.

Aida said that “the extent to which a building can be the manifestation of an architect’s sensibility determines the importance of architecture in a given culture,” and as is evidenced by his houses and the other works highlighted here, this was a moment in architectural time in which a culture gave seemingly unlimited opportunities for the most eccentric, and often most gloriously impractical of sensibilities.

In a full-blown fusion of Lebbeus Woods’ Parasitic architecture and Japanese science-fiction Gundam, Makoto Sei Watanabe’s Aoyama TechnicalCollege in Tokyo barely registers as a building at all, for all the world looking like a giant robot insect that has landed in Tokyo and is feasting on the chaos of its urban condition, tearing things apart under its fragmented, robotic limbs.

Even more extraordinarily science-fiction is TakasakiMasaharu’s Kihoku Observatory outside Kanoya City, a vast concatenation of sculptural forms in concrete that is so dynamically expressive, being somehow simultaneously spaceship, and insect like, that one almost expects its columns to start rising up and down, steaming like pistons, or stomping slowly across the ground like huge legs. Masaharu states that “the future is imagination and the present is a melting point of symbiosis”, and in this project, he managed to perfectly embody this notion of a complex present suffused with strange visions of an imagined future.

Designed in 1988, Hiroshi Hara’s Umeda Sky Building is a pair of interlinked towers in Osaka that was originally meant to be twice as big, with four interlinked towers. The tops of the buildings are stacked with imagery of clouds, and the profiles of smaller architectures, like literal villages in the sky. Hara calls a giant “crater” in the bridge between the two buildings a “’vestige’ remaining from where a spaceship had flown away”, a never to be used docking platform through the centre of which dramatically rise a pair of outdoor escalators, high above the city. When not reflective glass, its fragmented, collage-like curtain wall looks like it’s made from a whole collection of varied, flattened buildings. As was Hara’s intention (the original scheme was to be called “Sky City”) the project grows out of the Osaka skyline like a Calvino-esque imaginary extension of the city, levitating over Umeda as an impossibly odd reminder of a time that itself seems equally impossible when looked back upon from the mindset of today.

There were many architects working in this period whose careers have flourished during the intervening years, and some -like Kengo Kuma- reinvented themselves to match the changing stylistic sentiment of the times, but the kind of works, and most of the architects highlighted here, were products of an unreproducibly unique moment in time, in a culture that was primed for not just allowing, but actively catalysing the most unlikely forms of architectural brilliance. From the through-the-looking-glass, unhinged logic of the 1980s economic bubble, Tokyo, Kyoto, and much of Japan has been left with a built legacy of wild originality that rivals any of the other great efflorescences of architectural creativity in human history.




Saturday, 25 March 2017

The State of Illinois Center


The State of Illinois Center by Helmut Jahn, opened in 1985, sits in Chicago’s downtown like an all-singing, all-dancing, strobe-lit carnival float gate-crashing a funeral. It is vast, takes up an entire city bloc, is 17 floors high, is mirrored, scalloped, canted, coloured, decorated, striped, and historicised. It is about as subtle as an exploding meteorite. It revels in its shininess, and it flaunts its singularity.

It is easy to forget just how exciting the opening-up of architecture was around this time. Like the markets, style was deregulated, decoupled from the stale dogmas of a ubiquitous and super-boring modernism. Philip Johnson stuck a gigantic Chippendale split pediment on top of a skyscraper, Michael Graves put colourful ribbons and cartoon colours on a government building in Portland, Stanley Tigerman built a house in the shape of a conjoined ejaculating penis and vagina.

This was an era in which those architects who were willing to accept the brave new world of aesthetic liberty were free to design as they wished, to forge a ‘style’ of their own, and sometimes in the process become one of the new breed of world-famous, celebrity architects, and no one was better at it than Helmut Jahn.

Philip Johnson made the cover of Time, but Jahn was on the cover of uber-cool GQ. Graves built projects that looked like giant lego sets, Johnson built towers that appealed to the Polo-neck Hamptons set, but it was Jahn that forged a look which was to best represent the contradictions, paradoxes, and obscene pleasures of the time.

The dapper Bavarian with his trademark hat and Versace suits was referred to as “Flash Gordon”, and living up to the moniker he flashily, brazenly, and often brilliantly smashed together Hi-Tech, Modernism, Historically referential Postmodernism, Pop, Googie, and Art Deco, with a flair unmatched by any other architect. It was rare for these to be present in a single design, however the epic scale, and public nature of the Illinois Center was his chance to do just that, and he went all-out, producing one of the most ambiguous, spectacular, and inscrutable buildings of the period.
The full-height atrium is floored in stone paving reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, while the atrium walls look as if the Centre Pompidou -replete with all its primary colours and hi-tech paraphernalia- had been turned inside out and been crossed with Piranesi’s “Le Carceri d'Invenzione”. This is a visually saturated, theatrical interior in the grandest manner, open to all: It is mad futurist pomo, for the people.

The Center’s external volume is treated as one gigantic sculpted shape, sliced at odd angles by the edges of the site, reflective and curved like a consumer electronics product blown up to impossible proportions and clad in a decorative, stripey version of the modernist curtain wall. This seductive alien object, known by locals as “the Star Wars Building”, sits on an abstracted classical colonnade of pink and gray granite, which used to extend out around the Plaza in front, decaying as it did into a ready-made ruin, crumbling out into the city as if the classical could not exist without the hyper-modern.

With the wisdom of the crowd, Star Wars is a perfectly apt comparison. A popular mass market media product in which the future became the same as the ancient past (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). Jahn’s Illinois Center managed to rediscover the excitement of the future -something very much lost in the march of the sub-Miesian tombstones- while incorporating the romance of a glamorous American past, and all orchestrated with a virtuosity and ease that made the building instantly consumable.

The building is currently in danger of being sold by state governor Bruce Rauner. If this were to happen it would, in all likelihood, be demolished. Much architecture of the period was obscure, glib, or as Venturi Scott Brown proudly proclaimed, ugly and ordinary. Despite the Center’s technical failings (the client cut costs and used single glazing, turning the building into an oven for half the year), it is none of those things, and stands as a monument to the virtues of hyperactive expression, wilfulness, joy and virtuosity over the usual cerebral restraint, and hermetic smoothness of high architecture.


Flash Gordon’s Star Wars Building still sparkles and scintillates, and should continue to do so long into the strange and exciting futures its bizarre design has always hinted at.


Published in Icon Magazine, January 2017