|The funny thing about funnyshapeism
||[Oct. 26th, 2012|11:02 pm]
This post is in preparation for a presentation I’m giving to the office about a building I visited over the summer. It will serve to get my thoughts in order and collect all the images and create some of the graphics I will need to explain myself. I do not aim to flatly condemn or praise the building, I just want to present some informed observations about its nature and my reaction to it. Hopefully it will spark some discussion.|
Before we get to the building itself, and before I reveal it, there are two things that need to be understood to frame my discussion.
The first is the notion of 'funnyshapeism'. I define this architectural language as ‘form determined by parametric programming, symbolic metaphor, sculptural gesture or the realisation of theory’. There are many examples of this form of ‘poetic determinism’, and some examples work as buildings than others. However, I do not think it would not be unfair to say that generally they function well in spite of their form rather than because of it. There are of course exceptions to this rule, sometimes, wilful form-making is appropriate, and other times it is not.
Vitra Fire Station. Weil am Rhein. Zaha Hadid. 1994.
My first example of funnyshapeism is Zaha Hadid’s fire station at Vitra. After a huge fire crippled the Vitra factory in 1981, it was determined that a firefighting hub near to the factory was essential, as some parts of the complex fell outside the protection of the local districts. This building was Hadid’s first built work, and was envisaged as an extension of the linear landscape defined by buildings and existing context. It takes the form of a series of floating concrete shards between which the functional elements of the building are contained. To quote Hadid’s website, ‘The Vitra Fire Station defines rather than occupies space’.
I agree with this, and the defined spaces are very interesting ones. The building feels like a frozen explosion, all the planes shooting away in different directions, but captured in a moment of time.
This is all very poetic, and it's a great little building, but is it a good fire station? Personally, I think all the internal optical illusions, angled walls and weird internal geometry would drive the occupants mad, and I very much doubt that having flying shards all over the place is conducive to smooth operation!
House IV. Cornwall, Connecticut. Peter Eisenman. 1975.
This house in Cornwall, Connecticut never set out to be a functional house, intentionally ignoring the idea of form following function. It aimed to disorientate the occupants, disregarding the concept of the traditional home completely in the name of exploring the interface between building and a tweaked sculptural grid. The clients admired Eisenman’s work and engaged him despite his reputation as a ‘paper architect’, and gave him to opportunity to realise his theories in this house.
The design emerged from a process that began with a grid, manipulated so that the house was divided into four sections. This grid would permeate through the entire design so that the building itself could speak of the process from which it was derived. Design elements and structure are placed and revealed so that the construction and design process is evident, but not always understood. As such, some columns and beams play no structural role and are incorporated only to enhance the conceptual design. Beams meet but do not intersect, building planes slip through each other and generate slots in the walls and ceilings that represent the geometry of lost surfaces, further exaggerating the notional grid.
The result of all of this grid wrangling is a series of spaces that are quirky, well lit and rather difficult to live with. According to Eisenman, this was an intentional move so that the users would have to grow accustomed to the architecture and constantly be aware of it. This intentional disruption to life by architecture is a good example of a funnyshapeist building being made to work by the users despite its form rather than because of it. Function follows from, an inhabited sculpture.
Jewish Museum. Berlin. Daniel Daniel Libeskind. 2001.
This is my last example, and I include it because I think that it is one of the few times when funnyshapeist form-making is appropriate. This building has a function, but it is also a poetic sculptural memorial. This building is difficult, uncomfortable and awkward to use, but in this case I think it’s ok for it to be so. As a place to view exhibits it’s rubbish, but as a piece of artwork to be experienced, it works.
The tortured zigzag plan is created from a notional shattered Star of David, sliced through with void spaces and lit through a matrix of openings and slashes in the façade derived from the addresses of prominent pre-war Jews. Every designed part of this building has symbolic significance and the unease one experiences as you interact with these solid symbols is fitting.
We also need to consider the typology of the building in question, in this case a museum for exhibiting really big things. We aren’t talking about gemstones and portraits here; we are talking about fuck-off bits of engineering and reconstructions of entire streets. Big stuff. There are lots of examples of Museums of Big Things, and here are a few of my favourites.
London Transport Museum. Covent Garden. Designed as a dedicated flower market by William Rogers in 1871. Occupied by LTM in 1980.
The former market halls that make up the London Transport museum are perfect for the display of large vehicles. The main spaces have large spans, lots of natural light and a regular shape, allowing for the logical planning of exhibits and enough flexibility for more unconventional displays.
Natural History Museum. Kensington. Alfred Waterhouse. 1881.
Designed as a series of large galleries with a large central hall currently exhibiting a diplodocus skeleton. Unlike the London Transport Museum, this building was designed to house Big Things rather than being a reclaimed structure put to a new use. Once again, we find large vaulted volumes with a lot of natural light. The architecture is ornate, but ordered and while it does compete with the exhibits, it is all detail and decoration and does not affect the primary form.
V&A Cast Courts. Kensington. General Henry Scott. 1874.
Built to house the V&A’s growing collection of architectural casts, the Cast Courts are vast shed-like structures with an elevated viewing gallery separating the twin volumes. These spaces are part of a much larger museum, which, quite frankly, is a chaotic warren of galleries, which is almost impossible to navigate without a map. These spaces are not representative of the other exhibition spaces, but they are very good for the Big Things they house, namely a full cast of Trajan’s Column in two pieces.
A quick look at the examples I have just given revels that the general form is a big box or shed with ancillary functions, smaller rooms circulation spaces coming off the main space. It’s a logical layout and it works well, putting the Big Thing in the centre with all the enabling bits and bobs around it. Here’s a rough guide to typical shed forms, which I have derived.
Now, lets introduce some funnyshapeism to the mix. Take a classic shed form and add a sculptural wave referencing the contextual interface between the city and the water. Fair enough, logical bit of symbolism there.
Have you worked out what it is yet?
It’s Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow! It’s a museum full of trains, boats, busses, cars, bikes and one or two fibreglass horses.
The basic form of this building is a morphing swept profile of the classic shed shape, generating a big internal volume. The base profile is stretched, distorted and given a distinctly modern flavour, but the essence is there. The building is a twist on the classic big shed form, following the tried and tested model demonstrated by the other museums of Big Things. Given this, one would expect it to work in much the same way, and be a good museum space.
This is the funny thing about funnyshapeism.
I spent a long time thinking about why this was and I have identified 5 things, which I think are wrong with this building. These comments are directed at this building, but some are transferable to other examples of funnyshapeism.
This building has an amazing roof and internal ceiling. It’s like the whole thing was squeezed from an enormous icing bag. The problem here is that only seagulls can appreciate the roof and you can’t really interact with the ceiling. You can look at it and think about how muck like whipped cream it looks, but you can’t get close and experience those sensual folds in an existential way, you can only look at them. Interestingly, most of the published sexy architectural photographs were of the ceiling or taken from helicopters, very few were of the actual space, mostly because it isn’t that interesting. The flat walls you can experience internally and externally are rather boring and quite oppressive in a funny sort of way, and they really don’t help enhance the strange spaces that surround the building.
The plan of the building is a swoosh, and it’s one big volume, so you’d think it would be easy to navigate and get from A to B and work out where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Since there isn’t a straight wall to be found, this is deceptively difficult. Even with a few big internal marker posts, it’s still difficult to avoid getting lost and finding yourself back where you started. More distressingly, I’m fairly sure I missed a few exhibits because they were lost in an unexplored fold or swoosh.
Speaking of exhibitions, I pity the curator. Trying to rationalise the space and present the exhibitions in a logical manner was probably next to impossible, and trying to work with the space rather than against it was probably equally fraught. The result of this fight is a big wonky volume full of exhibits that feel like lost objects strew in room that doesn’t suit them; this is no mean feat when you’re exhibiting steam locomotives.
4. Whiz whiz bloop!
This is another one for the curator and one that is easily fixable, but is symptomatic of the building. In trying to work with a whacky building, the exhibit designer has tried to create whacky exhibits in an effort to compete with the shape of the room and shout louder than everything else. All the exhibits light up in bright colours and make odd noises when you pass them, encouraging you to interact with the little touch screen to trigger even more flashing lights and noises. Everything is screaming for attention, making you do things and ooh! Look at me! NO! Press my buttons! Wait! I’m cool Woop! Woop!
Just shut up.
Shouting louder doesn’t get my attention; keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. I want to think about what I’m looking at.
This is the subtlest thing, and possibly the thing that bothered me most. All the internal spaces are painted light lime green. This doesn’t sound like a cardinal sin, but it casts everything and everyone in a slightly sickly hue, and your brain can’t quite adjust to the colour and tune it out. The other big shed examples have a lot of natural white light and where there is artificial light it is white and the walls are also white to reflect it. This allows you to experience the space and exhibits in a conventional way that doesn’t require additional effort to compensate for coloured light.
I walked out of the museum with a splitting headache into a world that looked oddly blue. It makes the inside space feel like some sort of alternate realm, distressingly divorced from the real world. I was sure I had experienced this before, and I spent a long time thinking about it before realising how I knew the effect. The Matrix. Inside the matrix everything is green, outside the matrix everything isn’t.
So, what exactly is the funny thing about funnyshapeism?
Good question, and one I hope my little seminar will answer.