Friday, January 30, 2009

Portugal and wet socks.

Lisbon - Portugal

Hello from Portugal!! I'm in Lisbon right now starting off the Branner Fellowship with remnants of my previous obsession of stone in Western Europe, and transitioning into the current research of building in remote areas. Lisbon is the capital of Portugal, and as such is privy to ornate decorations and large stone columns like all good centers of politics. The relative pomp and Dolce and Gabbana stores aside, there is a deep current of Portuguese aesthetics permeating building down to the surfaces you walk on. Strangely enough, one of the things you're most struck by upon entry to the city is the stone underneath your feet. It sounds odd to think of walking surface in a city center actually making that much of a difference, but the white limestone and black basalt stones fashioned into mosaics are everywhere. I mean seriously everywhere. In the alley you would take your garbage out you would be rolling on over 400 hand-set stones in every square meter.Like most old European cities, Lisbon has used cobblestones in the streets and sidewalks since around the the ancient roman era, but after a devastating earthquake in 1755, it switched over to large, flat stones in the streets like most of its European neighbors. Many people believe the designs for the mosaic stones came from the waters of the Targus after it turned turbulent due to the force of the earthquake, but the first known use of the paving pattern [in Portuguese : "calcada"] was in 1840 in the parade ground of the military headquarters. Apparently it impressed the townspeople so much that the town council declared in 1895 that the mosaic stone patterning would be used on all sidewalks from this point on out. And they have held very stead fast by that ruling it looks like. Though most of the main boulevards in the city have moved on to more readily available non-porous surfaces [say hello asphalt], every single sidewalk in the city seems to be made out of individually meticulously set stones, even those in the not so nice industrial areas down by the water [don't ask how I know that]. Along with the incredibly intricate, repeating, and usually site-specific black and white mosaic designs are the subtle differences generated by just white stones alone. For instance, on the sidewalk they will use the ultra small stones [1.5" x 1.5" roughly?] then have a large stone break and go to medium sized stones to signify as something as simple and mundane as a driveway. One instance in itself probably wouldn't be cause for celebration, but taken over the stretch of an entire city it is surely a labor of love, sweat, tears, and more than one curse word by the workers that place them. Okay, I think that got my stone fetish out of my system, but if it pops up again in another post I apologize in advance. Now onto what everyone came to the blog for......hard core nudity!!! [Just kidding. Sorry to get your hopes up. It's really just an old castle.]

Sintra - Portugal (Castelo dos Mouros)

My next stop was in Sintra, a small town about 30 minutes West of Lisbon closer to the Atlantic Ocean. The goal was to visit the Castelo dos Mouros [Moorish Castle], a castle dating back to 9th or 10th century that stands atop the neighboring mountain next to Sintra. It was raining when I left Lisbon and since it was my last full day in town I thought "it can't rain the whole day...". Yes. Yes it can. It is entirely feasible. Though armed with my marmot rain jacket and a camera nestled under my rain gear I plodded up the steep incline from the lower village to get to the ruins. After about 45 minutes or so and soaked already I decided to just start scrambling up the muddy hillside to bypass the continuing cutbacks, which in the end worked out okay minus a few thorn bushes and a pair of dirty jeans. The castle sits atop the ridge but by following the contours of the mountain, manages to appear to organically grow out of the mossy stones that surround it. The decomposable parts of the fortifications [wood floors, fencing, and ceiling] have long ago become worm-food but the bones [stone ramparts] remain.
The castle was built at the top of the mountain undoubtedly for military reasons regarding line of sight [Nick Sowers where are you...] but one of the results of doing so was its intimate relationship with its site regarding topography. Sometimes the castle ramparts winds itself through the large stone boulders and valleys, but other times it gobbles up the boulders themselves, swallowing them and incorporating them as part of the wall itself.
Using only one material medium for the walkways, stairs, and walls allows the circulation to turn and twist upon itself. Sections become plans and wrap into elevations. The site has a moving relationship to its natural landscape, dominating it at points, and becoming subservient at others. Though the weather ultimately sent me packing with a drenched day pack and gear, the atmosphere created by the fog was one of stillness and mystery, only shattered by the occasional bark of a stray mutt or a not so quiet, clumsy American student...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Flight 782

Thank goodness for long layovers and being stuck on tarmac. I was thinking about how to tighten up my research on construction related to different cultures and doing some writing. I had bought a copy of Dwell (the new issue about prefab) and was pondering whether prefabrication was a good avenue to narrow my investigation. After my copy of the magazine was "stolen" by the cleaning crew in between plane changes, I took it as an omen from the architecture gods that I wasn't quite there yet. After further head scratching and pencil chewing, I started to realize the common thread in the projects I was drawn to was their locations.
Casa Malaparte, Thermal Baths, Ronchamp, Thorncrown Chapel, the South Pole research station, and Petra (among others) all had the challenge of a remote site in order to spur their unique construction techniques. Petra was carved out of stone b/c there were no other materials to be had, and Thorncrown Chapel had to have timber pieces which could be carried by two men far inside the forest. At the South Pole, only materials which fit into a HERC LC130 (cargo plane) could be flown into the desolate iceland.
It is the extremity of the site that led to these projects developing a unique and site-specific context in which to build. Since the easy options of calling a dump truck or concrete mixer are exhausted, other avenues of construction must be explored. I've titled my investigation "RE:mote Controlled : building in areas of isolation" to signify the updated research topic. As now and in the future, comments are welcome and would be greatly appreciated if you have examples that I should know about!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Prep Time

"Building art is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, only today can be given form. Only this kind of building forms. Create the form out of the nature of the assignment with the means of our times. This is our task..."
-Mies van der Rohe

Still in North Carolina getting the last of the prep work that I can done before I set off into the great unknown, or at least unknown to me. Right now I'm pulling together my ghost lab application for the coming summer as well as sneaking in and out of the NCSU Design Library. I ran across a great book by accident entitled Building Simply, which goes into depth of the importance of building within a means and time available to garner better results, not worse. A great essay by Florian Musso entitled "Simply Good" states that "As with simplicity, complexity is an option, and it can no longer be ignored solely on the grounds of restricted means." I believe Musso is calling attention to the somewhat recent discourse in architecture of more complex and louder buildings many times taking the main stage. That since we can no longer use the excuse of ease of construction and affordability, increasingly complex and over the top buildings are many times as easy to get built as those simple ones.

Anyone that has ever undergone an architectural education has experienced the tendency to add more rather than take away from a project. Many times in order to have the most visually engaging project as possible for a short critique session where subtleties are able to elude even the most attentive juror. Though the book sometimes presents simple design as the end-all-be-all of architectural intervention, I think it offers some extremely relevant critiques of our desire to strive for complexity rather than simplify when it comes to construction and design.

The first step on the trip looks to be Portugal, which is either a short flight or a long swim depending on how you look at it. Though only a week or so long trip, I hope it will be a great place to jump in and investigate the rich Portuguese tradition of masonry construction and understand how one of the modern masters, Alvaro Siza, regards his relationship with the current craftsmen as well as the past ones in his long and fruitful career. I leave you with a quote from Siza explaining his deep appreciation for the laborers of his projects...

"I still keep the precarious pleasure of working with the marvellous artisans of the North of Portugal; plasterers, carpenters, stone masons - those stone masons that raise with three sticks five meters long lintels and place them over openings singing ancient music, as was done in Egypt by the builders of the pyramids. Equally satisfying is the work with the labourers of Holland, immigrants or not, who assemble the standardized parts produced by industry. The gradual loss of how builders with hands that were once ours, slowly and patiently would work, beyond the limits of drawings, still affects architecture and architects."
-Siza 1989