Thursday, July 30, 2009

Back on the road again (like the song...)

In Norway now, the land of vikings and the world's largest per person consumer of coffee. I figured I should give a little disclaimer on the blog to announce my absence, because I'll be getting out on the Norwegian Highways for the next 10 days and am not sure what access I'll have to a computer...

I'm doing research on a collection of projects under the umbrella association "Norwegian Tourist Routes". By 2015, there should be over 200 different projects completed, ranging from rest stops and bird watching towers, to bike sheds and service stations. They have announced 5 sections officially and have 13 more in the current process of construction. Architects from all over Norway have competed in competitions and the work from what I've seen already is amazing.

Here are some of the firms I've ran across engaged in the projects:

Jensen and Skodvin
70N arkitektur
Reiulf Ramstad Arkitektur
Saunders Architecture

And some more info about the overall scope of the project can be found here.

So hope to post again soon, but now its off to spend more than a few nights in a car, and the rain doesn't look to be letting up anytime soon...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Holy Zumthor Battle Royal

What? Exactly.

I like the title because it is attention grabbing. But what exactly am I talking about? Well, I just crossed the border from Switzerland to its northern neighbor Germany a few days ago and have been doing some Peter Zumthor pilgrimages. On the list of projects to see [among others] were Zumthor's St. Benedict Chapel [San Benedetg] and Brother Klaus Chapel [Bruder Klaus]. The former in Sumvitg, Switzerland and the latter near the small small town of Wachendorf, Germany. Seeing both of the amazing pieces of architecture in such a short time apart got me thinking of what they had in common, and understandably thought they warranted a head to head contest of spatial might to see which would emerge the victor. Though, the architectural contest is more similar to the "dream league" of youth soccer in North Carolina. One where there are no victors and losers, and everyone gets orange slices afterwards.

Before we ring the bell, I first feel morally obligated to tell people how to reach the Brother Klaus Chapel, because it is not exactly easy through public transportation. Especially if you have such a loathing of posted signage and think you can find a quicker way by cutting through farmland [I can blame George Medlin for handing that trait down...]. But quickly, here are directions to the Chapel so others do not get into a situation where they are wandering down a busy highway with no shoulder.

From Cologne, Germany, take a train to Satzvey, one stop before Mechernich. There aren't many buses running, and especially on a Sunday so I recommend walking the 4km to the town of Wachendorf from the station. You're going to be heading roughly east by southeast the whole way if that helps. First thing is go south from the station and cross over the train tracks. Keep walking on that road and you'll get to a t-intersection. Whatever you do, don't turn right. That will put you on the highway and people will honk at you when coming around blind corners. Instead follow the sign to Wachendorf and take the left road. Walking along the bike road you should pass under a bridge in a few minutes, if you do you're on the right track. After you go under the bridge take a right onto Veyerstrausse. After walking on that road for about 10 minutes you should see yourself approaching a small town named Lessenich. Bear right once you get into town and look for signs to Wachendorf on your left. The aptly named street will be titled "Wachendorferstrausse" and will later turn into Iversheimerstrausse. After 15 minutes or so you should see the parking lot on the right hand side for "Bruder Klaus Kapelle" and the road Ribdorfer Weg. From the parking lot its another fifteen minute walk down the gravel road.

You're welcome.

Back to the real reason we're all here. Small Zumthor Chapels. I haven't read any texts comparing the two yet so I figured I would foster some of my own thoughts to fill the void. Both buildings are by the same architect, similar both in small size and remoteness of location. Both have a single entry with light coming in from above and religious program. Both have construction methods expressed as the act of making which shapes the design. With all this in common, what could be different? We'll start with site...

St. Benedict's is nestled along the mountainside, lush grasslands provide space for cattle to graze and flies to lazily drone around. Greens and browns dot the landscape, and hiking paths trace through the woods down the steeply sloping site. In contrast to the animals grazing are the surroundings of the Klaus Chapel. Golden in hue, fields of wheat and gentle flatland stretch out as far as you can see. Even from a distance the building rises above the low farmland like a concrete stump that has been allowed to reside on the owner's land for some time.

Getting up to the buildings beholds something different. You come from below the wooden chapel and its presence is hidden many times by the buildings sitting close beside it. Its concrete step-brother is in the middle of a flat farmland, and on the 15 minute walk to get there it is always is the foreground of your vision, even though the path turns and twists. Where San Benedict shows you the entry upon coming in contact with it, Klaus sits blank and stonewalled in expression, and only upon walking around do you find out how to get into the up-till-then quiet exterior.

Both doors are made of metal. Though the entry is coated in wood in the case of San Beneditg, hiding its true nature under slats of pine. Klaus on the other hand, makes no question of what its portal is constructed of. It appears as a solid piece of metal and its weight to open it proves its nature. The entry of the wooden chapel pulls itself out of the building and the other is recessed flush with the face of the concrete.

At Saint Benedict's, you are required to ascend a small staircase to elevate you to the floor height of the interior. The concrete staircase does not actually touch the building, but is held off by a small gap that separates it from the wood. In the case of Klaus, the lead floor meets a crushed stone entry path that is barely raised from its surrounding grass and gravel. The height difference and the actual meeting of materials is different and exaggerated in both accounts.

St. Benedict's takes the colors of the forest to heart, both philosophically and literally resembling the outer layer of bark on a tree. Rough and shaggy, the outside of the chapel is covered with weathered wooden shingles that show the passage of time and seasons. The exterior of the chapel devoted to Brother Klaus by contrast is smooth to the touch and eyes. Monolithic in appearance, the only secret it reveals about it's inside are the series of holes left by the concrete formwork used in construction. Benches on the outside allow you to sit after the short pilgrimage walk.

The inside of the chapels inverses itself in each individual case. The chapel from Sumtvig casts away its coarse exterior to take on the refined rectilinear form of smooth wooden pews and columns. The furniture is smooth to the touch and there is plenty of room to sit down and direct your attention forward at a horizontal angle to the alter. The craggy interior of Klaus is again a direct contrast to its smooth outer face. The process of construction for the inside was to stack trees up together in a tent like fashion and then burn them out, leaving a dark blackened surface that is jagged and eerily natural to the touch. There is only room for two grown people to sit down on the inside, and your views are directed upwards towards the religious fixture and light streaming in from above.

One from above, one from the side. The light that meets the warm wooden exterior of St. Benedict's illuminates the interior, flooding the seats and floors with rays of sunshine. Light bounces around easily due to the bright coloring of the material and paint. Dark and brooding, the majority of light comes into Klaus from the top, with small amounts radiating from the glass spheres put in place of the holes to the outside. The shadows that fall tend to exaggerate the rough interior and draw attention to its ribs.

There is plenty more to talk about in the case of these two long separated brothers of sorts. I wish they could meet one day and listen to the conversation they would have between the two of them. Do you think they would get along? Would one like Death Metal while the other is a Beatle's fan? Personally I think they are like identical twins separated at birth, raised in different houses, but with the same core of being.

Time to sign out now though, mosquitoes are eating me alive and look to be calling more of their friends over to an easy meal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Vrin and Gion Caminada

One of the biggest reasons I am in Switzerland to begin with was the study the work and context of the architect Gion A. Caminada. Gion lives and works out of the small town of Cons, about 1.5km south of the small mountain village of Vrin, population 240. Vrin lies in the Lumnezia valley in the canton of Graubunden, Switzerland, nestled into the Alps that surround it. For most exterior purposes, Vrin is like many of the mountain villages that dot the landscape in the Swiss countryside. It has a small population made up of mostly farmers and herdsman, struggles with what and how to regard tourism while retaining its unique culture, and has faced economic hardship and dwindling population over the years. But Vrin is different in that in 1979 they formed the "Pro Vrin Foundation" in order to try and preserve their culture and way of life, but also actively seek new alternatives and methods in both architecture and planning that would not allow them to fade into economic obscurity. They started with the mantra "Preservation by Design", which means to keep their heritage intact but develop new methods of building in this remote mountain community.

One of the methods of building that Gion Caminada and the population of Vrin have been working with most extensively is the art of "strickbau" construction. Strickbau is extremely common in most alpine regions and consists of "layered wooden beams, 'knitted' together at the corners for stability and typically extending somewhat from the core block." One of the main industries in the alpine region is wood, so thick timbered construction is used for its durability and plentiful availability. What Gion was faced with, was how to take this traditional building technique and incorporate it into buildings of the 21st century. Also important was the economic livelihood of Vrin, so using local labor and materials was necessary to jump start the economy again and keep the money in the hands of the community with the creation of new jobs. What I think is most important about all of this is that the architecture is not a radical departure from the traditions and techniques developed over the ages, but an improvement and building upon them. Many times I would walk by a building several times without realizing it was designed by Gion, which I believe to be a great testament to fitting within and enhancing a given context, not trying to overpower it. Which made me think of Vals, and the introduction of Peter Zumthor's baths. I'm not sure how the village was before the pritzker prize winner designed his masterpiece, but it has also transformed the countryside through the construction of numerous and not particularly well done hotels needed to cope with the large increase in tourism. Does dropping a wonderful piece of architecture into a rural mountain town radically transform that area by tourism alone and therefore destroy what made it unique in the first place? Though of course this is also a question about how to handle tourism, and I digress back to my initial point about the context of Vrin... In response to a question about repetition or discovery in an interview, Caminada replies:

"Repetition has always interested me. I find the vast visual diversity of our modern cities extremely boring. The monosyllabic style of an old Italian city is attractive by contrast. I believe we are not even capable of registering too much diversity. One must repeat certain things to prevent the world from becoming monotonous."

I brought the quote up because I believe it talks about the context of Vrin and the honest attempt to fit in with a context, not act as a radical departure for it. Which brings up a whole other slew of questions about globalization and if architects should even be allowed to design in a place they have never been. Even after doing multiple competitions myself in locations I had never traveled to before, I'm under the mindset that all of the internet research and googleEarth mapping I could do would never be enough for actual on the ground experience. Caminada has lived in Vrin almost his whole life, growing up there to his farmer father and working in carpentry for most of his youth, and mostly only branched out to similar contexts he can understand and design within.

But back to the"strickbau" typology [there are too many things to write about and not enough keystrokes in the day]. As I mentioned earlier in my ramblings, strickbau is a construction type made up of heavy wooden members knitted together and usually extending over at the corners. Think "Lincoln Logs" in real scale and you'll be pretty close to picturing it. Strickbau was and is used because it could deal with non intensively manufactured logs and minimal construction materials, many of the fasteners being different types of dovetail joinery. The question then is how to take this construction type and update it to meet the modern demands of residences and buildings with the improvement of building technologies? Currently, Caminada has been updating the joint where the members connect using a hybrid type of stick framing eerily similar to some construction in the United States. Though instead of regular platform framing studs, parts of the wall are pre-assembled and overlap at the corners for a minimum use of material but still strong structural strength. The benefit in the new technique is that it also limits the use of complicated joinery and time consuming fitting, allowing construction to keep up without sacrificing quality. Caminada continues to experiment in every building, trying out new techniques, but gratefully they always seem to be like steps of a seasoned hiker, slow and steady, never hopping from stone to stone.

Before I move on to barns, I wanted to leave you with another quote from Caminada's book Cul zuffel e l'aura dadl : Gion A. Caminada. You should definitely pick the book up as I could spend days blogging and only graze the surface of many of the different and pertinent topics it discusses. In response to the topic of transparent spaces:

"Dealing playfully with any event or occurrence is possible only when certain rules for play exist. By contrast, current playful approaches to completely open spaces reflect the weakness of today's lifestyle. By that I mean the freedom of life in the modern world and the people who have no idea how to deal with this kind of freedom. The classical Modern period generated this freedom but it didn't teach anyone the art of dealing with it once it was attained..."

Even without the work of Gion Caminada, the small village of Vrin somehow managed to steal a small piece of my heart and lock it away in one of the many farm buildings. And when I say many, I mean many. The "core" of Vrin clusters together as if animals seeking warmth from the closeness of the nearby homes, while the hills are dotted with structures to store hay and many times the animals that eat it. The landscape is not completely natural, and without the constant cutting of the grass for fodder, it would eventually turn back into the heavily forested area that it once was. To store the grass that is cut, there are wooden structures extremely similar formally to those that are present in Vals [see previous post], but with some very important differences. It is interesting that though Vals and Vrin are only separated by a mountain range, the valleys speak different languages, German and Romansch, and buildings with the exact same function should be so similar yet so different. In Vrin, what drew me to the grass barns was their almost religious devotion to a particular size and form.

From what I can understand, this is largely due to the size of the timber that could be cut and carried to the site and then assembled into the barn. The plot of land that is tended to by the structure is dependent on how much grass can be stored at any one time, therefore the spacing of the buildings is somewhat regular spatially, as they are all almost the same size. The hay storage is on the top level, with the door raised above the average height of the snow during the winter. All of the barns sit perpendicular to the slope, also to allow access from the backside for the animals to be sheltered in the small lower story. What is most interesting about the barns for me is their rigid similarity, but subtle differences. Each is almost the exact same dimension, yet in their construction or possibly the idiosyncrasies of the owners, each is subtly different. Repeated over and over again, they make a powerful presentation of design within a box, or in this case a barn.

Thoughts on Traveling #22 : Why is it always that one of the last pictures you take is a jumping picture? Its like you've run out of things to do so you figure you'll just lift your feet in the air and that will make a better picture. It makes no sense what-so-ever and I thereby dismiss them as a practical insensibility, after this one that is... [sidenote: the TaylorCAM was in action during this time, I'm really looking forward to what this whole series looks like]

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bathing with the Best

Excerpt from my travel sketchbook while in Peter Zumthor's Thermal Baths:

" the 42°C water room I was thinking about the morality of space and wanted to write my thoughts down before they flutter away like little angry birds. It all started when I was thinking about stealing a towel in the main area [I had not brought one and could not figure out where to obtain one for the life of me]. As my imaginary devil and angel were locked in a heated debate, I opted to await their decision in the "fire" room after a briefer than expected plunge into the opposite extreme, the 14°C pool. As you enter the 42° room [not big enough for more than 8 people sitting comfortably] the colors change from from the blue, green, and gray hues to a deep burgundy wall and flat concrete made to look pinkish by reflected light. I very slowly made my way into the water, further confusing my body that was only a minute ago actively attempting to prevent hypothermia. The floor of the small space was rougher than normal. Aggregate in concrete blown away to expose reddish and muddy brown rocks. The height of the water was just above the headrest, less than an inch deep.

As I stared up at the ceiling I was contemplating if the space itself was what was giving me this more dwelled on than normal moral dilemma? In short, was it possible for a space to have a moral character?
I got thinking back to many of the churches that stuck out in my memory... Fay Jones' Thorncrown, Mont St. Michel, St. Peters... What if it was not the overbearing thought of eternal damnation or the presence of mysterious symbols that filled my body with moral fiber, but the actual space itself? Are prisons in their design un-moral, and therefore condone the violence that goes on in between their walls? Would it be better to have a beautiful space for a prison or would that go against the idea of punishment deemed necessary? Is isolation enough of a punishment in its own accord that it doesn't need to couple itself with horribly designed spaces?

Was it the light above, or the temperature of the water, or sounds echoing off of the walls that made me smile at passerbys more than normal? For me, the baths have a sacred quality to them, rivaling many of the churches I have seen in my limited years.
After this long game of moral badminton, I still ended up stealing the towel. Not sure what that means about me yet though, some questions are better left alone maybe..."

Suffice to say the "Baths" were a mind altering experience, and lead to the thinking of deep thoughts in shallow water.

The small village of Vals held its own uniqueness though. Vals is located in a narrow valley in the Alps, with close shorn green hills rising up on either side dotted with a very particular farm building. The building itself is used for storage of the grass that is cut and used for fodder for livestock. One taken by itself is not a spectacular sight, but when multiplied hundreds of times over, the formal language becomes extremely powerful by repetition alone. They are all nearly identical formally but the closer you look, each is made personal in some form or another by its owner and caretaker. They rise from a stone plinth [concrete in the modern ones], possibly to get them above the snow line in winter, and the stone continues upwards to create four stout corners used to hold up the roof. All four sides are then infilled with usually vertical wooden siding, though the side on the uphill direction has the door used to shuffle the hay inside for storage. Seeing all of these farm structures done with craft and strong regional ties got me more than a little nostalgic for the tobacco barns I grew up with in my home state of North Carolina.

I hope to find out more about the structures that are such an integral part of alpine village culture in the future though so far I'm having trouble finding English speaking citizens in the small towns. Back in Chur now and will be heading to the small remote village of Vrin tomorrow for 3 days so its likely I'll be MIA for a bit.

Thoughts on Traveling #21 : Zumthor... I know its probably not your fault and everything... but this has got to be the worst entrance to a place of relaxation I've ever seen. I felt like I was about to walk into a strip club in a bad part of town.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Miss Swiss Miss

I just got into Switzerland and boy are my arms tired. My arms aren't tired from flying or anything ridiculous like that. People can't fly, that's crazy. No they were tired b/c I think I slept on them wrong on my plane ride into Zurich. And for those of you that are confused because my last blog entry was in Chile, don't be. A lot of stuff happened and then I got to Switzerland. End of story. Well not the end of the story at all, but I'll get back to it later I hope. But in the vain hope to stay current we are now in Swiss territory.

Zurich is one of the most tidiest, cleanest cities I have ever seen. It's streets are so clean you can eat off of them, and in fact one time I almost did since my bratwurst hit pavement. I hope they are paying their street-sweepers six figure salaries though, because it is also one of the most expensive places I have ever been. Single espresso? 4 dollars. One hour of internet? 7 dollars. Towel rental from a hostel? 5 dollars!?! I'll dry with toilet paper thank you.

I stayed about 3 days in the city and on the last day I ran across some Ivan Valin worthy research along the canals of the city center. Apparently the canals in Zurich are clean enough to swim in, as a young Swiss job-skirting population jumps into the fast moving canal and drift/swim down a ways. Then get out, walk and chat up to the put in point, and do it again. Nestled along the sides of the riverway (is that a real word?) are fences to lock bikes in, and plenty of hard deck surface to lay out in towels on. Volleyball courts, beer stands, diving boards, and one chain-smoking lifeguard all come together in the middle of the city to do the water equivalent of frolicking. Sadly it was my last day and my trunks were packed in a trunk in the hotel, so I left Zurich arid but sweating to go to the smaller town of Chur to the east.

Fact about Switzerland:
There is no standing army, men between the ages of 21 and 32 are given a gun and 24 rounds of ammunition to keep at their homes and undertake a few days to weeks of training a year. Then after discharge they go into National Guard service.

That is in no way relevant, but thought it was interesting. Chur. Its a pretty small city (pop. 32000) in a flat valley flanked by two tall mountains on either side. Located in the Swiss canton of Graubunden on the eastern side of the country, its being used as my home base as I try to seek out some zumthor work as well as the small small town of Vrin (pop. around 300) a train's throw away from Chur. Vrin is home to the work of Gion A. Caminada, where he has done many notable projects in the tiny town with local labor and materials.

To get a better feel for the town that is to be my home for the next week, I decided to take a hike up the mountain to get a better look. I didn't really consciously make the decision to go on a hike, but having just gone to the grocery store and buying peanut butter, jelly, bread, and tuna, I didn't really have any alternatives. Before I knew it I was crossing a road with rather fast moving and quick reacting car traffic in order to find a breach in the fenced in fortifications at the base of the mountain. Eventually I stumbled on what could be a trail, but since there were only markings with no words, I couldn't tell if it was telling me to stay out or go in? What would you think if you saw three horizontal bars stacked on top of each other with 2 white and one red in the middle? Feeling in an optimistic mood, I took it as an invitation and ducked around the nearby house to start scrambling. After a while the broad 6 foot wide trail became lazy, washed out and became a 6 inch wide overgrown footpath. I eventually made it to a place where they had been doing some recent logging and was interested in some of the improvements they had made in their infrastructure.

For preventing drainage in their gravel roads, they used sections of old railroad ties buried in the earth with concrete on either side to not allow for shifting. The trough in the middle was left open so that water could spill out harmlessly and the railroad metal meant that it would last a very long time. In other locations, where there were replanting efforts going on, the bottom of the fence pole was burned, presumably to keep termites from eroding the wood.

Back in the hostel now and ran across some interesting research conducted by "New Scientist" magazine. They were attempting to find where the "Most Remote Place in the World" was. Before Stephen Loicano has an aneurysm, I think Antarctica was discounted in the search, so it mostly deals with the other continents. But it discounts air travel and looks at how long it takes to travel somewhere by land or water from a city with the population of 50,000. From their research it looks like Tibet is the "most remote place on earth", with one location taking 20 days of hiking and one day of car travel to get there. To be really honest I think they should have included air travel, but then it wouldn't have been as interesting.

Also found two other interesting terms. A "pole of inaccessibility" marks a location that is most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographic features that could provide access. "Point Nemo" is the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, or the place furtherest from any land mass at 48 52.6 S x 123 23.6 W. "Ultima Thule" in medieval geographies was meant to denote any distant place located beyond "the borders of the known world". Looks like I'm heading to Tibet...

Thoughts on Traveling #20 : It is impossible to win staring contests with young children. Yet they have no patience. It makes no logical sense.