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Ordinary beauty is quite an interesting title for this exhibition because these photographs are not very ordinary at all. Smith’s editing eye and the way his compositions are chosen are truly remarkable. The angle of the frames, the light and of course his strategic choice of introducing objects that refer to the human body. In doing so, regardless of the fact that people are usually absent in his photographs, the human presence is always implied. I believe this potentially derives from his architectural training. Usually in architects’ drawings and illustrations the human scale is evident but actual human bodies are absent. Architects are poetic this way. They are trained to be sensitive to peoples’ needs which are supposed to be their priority, however more often than not human bodies are absent in their representations.

My first impression when I entered this exhibition was that the quality of these photographs was superb. Which actually did not explain the fact that I was slightly bored and not very excited to write about them. It took me a whole month I believe to get around writing this article.

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Still I cannot deny that I liked quite a few of the subjects depicted. For example the bench with the plants growing through it stayed with me because even though Smith was a trained architect he shows a lot of respect, or one might even say awe, for nature and its ability to take over human creations. In fact in some ways Smith shows he is not that into the man-made environment even though architecture seems to be the centre of his attention. Ultimately architecture seems to be almost a necessary evil in these images when what actually prevails is nature and the decay it brings, which is inescapable.

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Undeniably all artists have their own private obsessions. The subjects that speak to them, are their inspiration and what they choose to depict. For Edwin Smith the underlying subject in his photographs is the past or rather a world that is destined to disappear. Hence his pictures are always filled with nostalgia and intense emotion. As I have already mentioned the compositions are great and he is unique in revealing all that is poetic in things that otherwise would have been seen as mundane and unimportant. However there was something in this whole collection of pretty images that did not agree with me.

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Probably it had to do with the fact that this overall sentiment of nostalgia is not very exciting. When people start reminiscing too much about the past and glorify it by saying that things were much better then than now, you know that they are growing old. And it is a known fact that feeling old has nothing to do with age. Being in the present and anticipating the future is young, while being nostalgic and resentful of change is old. People can be young or old at any age. If they are old in a young age a possible way to describe them is conservative.

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This is what I did not like in this exhibition. Smith is supposed to be one of the most iconic British photographers and actually the one that represents Britishness better than most and indeed he has done an amazing job in focusing on history and its importance. He has also done a great job in producing a body of work that is ultimately a “memento mori”, a reminder of human mortality. This is achieved through the importance that is given to the power of decay and the way in which it is implied that nature is destined to destroy whatever man has created.

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However there are some things that are very intrinsic to Britishness that are totally left out of these images. Eccentricity, novelty, innovation which all have one foot already in the future and look forward to change. Smith’s images focus in the past and whatever is destined to disappear and die. Naturally death is always present within life and truly there are no new beginnings without something being lost or left behind. There is always pain over the loss but the pain is partly overtaken by the joy of the anticipation of the new. Here the new is not even implied. This very conservative way of looking at things is most definitely not what speaks to my heart. Still this exhibition is very much worth seeing.

The exhibition will be on until the 6th of December 2014

Find out more on RIBA’s website here

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Tonkin Liu’s architecture is certainly impressive both aesthetically and conceptually.  Parametric design usually is because of its intricacy. This particular work’s aesthetic reminded me slightly of Islamic architecture although the latter Is intricate in regards to decoration and not as fas as the actual structure is concerned.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic Architecture

Attempting an almost simplistic definition of parametric design, it is the production of structural forms, using variables and algorithms which generate a hierarchy of geometric relations. In other words the variable (usually a certain structural part) follows a specific ‘rule’ in movement, rotation or distortion and its repetition or its development ultimately produces the building’s form.

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This design tool has been quite fashionable the last 25 years or so as the architects have gotten increasingly infatuated with what they can come up with technology’s assistance. Looking into its history though I was surprised to find out that Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia is also considered an example of early parametric design. The calculation of its breathtaking vaults and arches was achieved with the help of the fascinating inverted model of plumb lines that is now placed in Sagrada Familia’s museum.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Left the plumb line model

Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu started their practice in 2002. What is interesting in their approach is that they like to observe nature very closely and find ways to imitate its forms, not decoratively but structurally. Their idea of creating the lace-shell is the centre of this RIBA exhibit. In a nutshell what they wanted to achieve was to make flat sheets that would have their own strength. In their own words, to create “a suit that could hold itself up”. In order to do that they studied seashells where stiffness is achieved regardless of the thinness of the actual material. After analysing a shell’s formal characteristics they narrowed down certain qualities the combination of which result to its strength. Curvature, corrugation, distortion, stiffening and beading.

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The next phase was to develop the algorithm that would combine the above and in doing that they also introduced another element in their study: perforation, which aimed to reduce the volume of the material and make it lighter. Reading their Prototyping Architecture essay (download it here) I was impressed with how observant they are with nature and the way they attempt to incorporated the lessons they learn from it in their design. For example the reduction of volume with the method of perforation is an interpretation of how caterpillars strategically munch on leaves without ever compromising the leaf’s structural integrity because if they did, naturally they would fall off it themselves.

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The organic aspect of Tonkin Liu’s design is what elevates their work aesthetically. In the past I was never taken back by most parametric architectural examples I came across. Somehow they all looked similar, mostly because they seemed rather soulless and a bit too technical for my taste. This kind of work is different though. It is undoubtedly inspired.

Keeping in mind that the algorithmic development for these projects is more complicated than most it makes sense that Tonkin Liu would need extra help. This is where the equation becomes even more complicated and the famous statement “the cause does not justify the means” becomes relevant.

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Lend Lease, the colossal multinational corporation that has funded the talented architectural team’s research, has delivered in the past architectural icons such as the Sydney Opera House. However the last few years it has been behind two very controversial developments in London that have forced thousands out of their homes in order to raise the land value and attract more desirable clientèle. These developments are non other than the Olympic park and the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle and like most similar projects they have been presented to the public as regeneration of run-down areas when in reality their goal was an immorally disproportionate profit compared to the damage that was cause to the social fabric of the affected areas.

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There is no doubt that this work is spectacular but to my eyes it loses most of its value. Romantic as this may sound, I believe that choosing one’s allies is at times more important than the quality of the final product. In fact I find very negative that people get so immersed in their work that they fail to look at the bigger picture. History has shown that experiments which took place in the expense of the underprivileged, ultimately got the place they deserved in the public eye’s opinion. Although nowadays more people than most are willing to turn a blind eye when external beauty is extraordinary enough.

Find Tonkin Liu’s website here

Find the exhibition’s website here

 

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Megalithic, minimal architecture is most definitely not my cup of tea. Yet weirdly the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmenabad by Louis Khan is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life. Kahn stated that the concept behind it was to wrap the building with ruins in order to generate passive climate control. This is how genius he was, he created poetry by the use of absolute, strict logic. How many other architects or artists were ever able to do that? The way that I am moved by Kahn’s architecture can only be compared to the feeling I get when I look at images of Gordon Matta-Clark’s art. A delightful tightness in the stomach is how I would describe it. Vertigo but of a pleasurable kind, similar to that one feels facing natural grandeur like looking down from the top of a cliff.  I always thought that Matta-Clark was inspired by Khan and this exhibition in the Design Museum does not fail to mention there was a connection between the two.

Top picture : Indian Institute of Management, Ahmenabad / Bottom pictures: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical intersect

Top picture : Indian Institute of Management, Ahmenabad / Bottom pictures: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical intersect

Khan was brilliant and apparently more dedicated to his work than most of his peers. However he died by heart attack in a train station’s toilet with a debt of half a million dollars. Apparently he was too much of a dreamer. A true artist who never even considered to balance cost and quality in his art. He went to all lengths, he slept on the floor of his office working at all hours, calling his colleagues to complain about something at 4 in the morning and expected the same degree of dedication from everyone. He developed schemes for projects without knowing if he would ever get the commission. He continued to ameliorate finished projects when the clients have long stopped paying him. Hence the debt. Money was not important, ever. Architecture was important.

Left: Louis Khan's notebook / Right: Down town Philadelphia study (not built)

Left: Louis Khan’s notebook / Right: Down town Philadelphia study (not built)

Often his non-negotiable views on architecture though were to cost him grand commissions like that of designing the centre of Philadelphia. Even though he was invited to produce a scheme, his concepts were never materialized because they were considered too utopian. This failure of his is documented at the beginning of Design Museum’s exhibition and the public is therefore warned about the architect’s seemingly unrealistic intentions.

In one of the videos screened in the exhibit, Mario Botta says that “Lou” was not only fascinated with the outcome of his work, the built product, but with the process of creating it as well. Regardless of how obsessed he might have been with the artistic process, science and construction were still extremely important aspects of his work. Kahn among other thing is known for his invention of servant and served spaces.

Yale Art Museum. Tetrahedral ceiling 'servant' space

Yale University Art Gallery. Tetrahedral ceiling ‘servant’ space

An example is the tetrahedral ceiling grid for Yale University’s Art Gallery, the geometry of which is revisited at the Philadelphia City Tower project, a massive model of which can be found in this exhibition.

Philadelphia Tower project. (Was not built)

Philadelphia Tower project. (Not built)

In general I enjoyed the models I saw at the Design Museum a lot. Some of the most fascinating ones are naturally the original work models that his office produced for the capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Those rough cardboard jewels look like geometric puzzles that one is challenged to solve and they materialize perfectly their creator’s complex dream for space.

The Capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Building and original models

The Capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Building and original models

All of Kahn’s values which were ultimately ingrained in his architecture are highlighted in this exhibition: science, community, landscape, timelessness. This is achieved with simple but eloquent texts, videos and photographs but most importantly with original hand drawings, sketches and models. This is why this exhibition is not to be missed, because it displays masterpieces that once were only humble traces of an architect’s mind. Rough doodles on a piece of paper meant to instigate a conversation with an employee or client.

Top: Exeter Academy Library / Bottom: Kimbell Art Museum

Top: Exeter Academy Library / Bottom: Kimbell Art Museum

Many of his buildings did not look very impressive from the outside. The exteriors of Exeter Library and the Kimbell Art Museum for example resemble factories. Upon entrance however they unfold miraculously proving that the experience of the person who uses them was what really mattered to Khan.

Similarly the few houses he built show his intentions of designing them to become homes to their owners and not self-absorbed works of art. In general the “quality and not quantity” aphorism is very appropriate for Louis Kahn’s architecture.

Original drawings sketches of Louis Kahn's house designs. Model: Vitra reproduction

Original drawings sketches of Louis Kahn’s house designs. Model: Vitra reproduction

After visiting this exhibition I remembered watching Nathaniel Khan’s documentary about his father entitled My Architect, back in 2003 and decided I needed to watch it again. I remembered liking the film the first time I saw it and I did again now. Regardless of the fact that Nathaniel Kahn is on a very personal journey to settle his unresolved issues of abandonment with his father and too much personal information is revealed in the process of doing that.

Salk Institute of Biological Studies

Salk Institute of Biological Studies

Naturally I was surprised and at times appalled by how horribly selfish and insensitive Kahn appeared to be with his three parallel families. Nonetheless as Roland Barthes has stated (in his Death of the Author essay), the creator’s personal story is not and should not be considered while evaluating his/her work. Louis Kahn was an architectural genius who inspired and motivated hundreds of students during his years of teaching and later on thousands of architects who were acquainted with his work. Not to mention the effect he had on the lives of the users of his buildings.

Capital of Bangladesh Dhaka

Capital of Bangladesh Dhaka

Ultimately there is no doubt that Kahn was an exceptionally inspired idealist of an architect. His legacy could not be described more eloquently than by the words of his friend and colleague B.V Doshi who Kahn had his last dinner with the night before he died.

Matter in spiritual terms was what mattered to him. Silence mattered to him. The enigma of life mattered to him. Those are not normal discourses but this is what he liked to talk about. When someone can understand those things he cannot be a normal person. He must be a highly cultivated soul.”

The exhibition will be on until the 12th of October. Visit Design Museum’s website page for it here

Watch Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary “My Architect. A son’s journey” here

In the past I have loved to complain about the Serpentine Pavilion not so much about particular design reasons but rather because of what it generally represents: the architectural elite. Without researching much this year’s design (I had basically only heard that it was one of critics’ favourites) I went to Kensington Gardens.

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Initially this folly seems almost basic in shape. There is something ancient about it which I guess has to do with the organic-ness of its form and with the fact that its columns are sunk into really large stones placed on the lawn. Hence an illusion is created and the structure seems to be hovering over the ground. The most important reason for me liking this doughnut of a hut is that it is an introvert structure compared to most of its show-off-predecessors. And like most introverts, especially the shy and artistic types, it is full of surprises. Another reason is that it was clear to me that it was not designed for people only to come and look at it in awe. On the contrary it was made for people’s comfort, cosiness and intellectual stimulation. I run into all sorts of visitors, those who just came there to have a coffee and a chat, the ones that took hundreds of photos, studied and drew it like myself and those who just came in to take shelter from the rain.

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Whatever the reason everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy and study it. I have the impression that this is one of those truly inspirational buildings that make people who are not already involved in architecture, want to take an interest in it. And I believe that this is achieved through innovation. Like it or not this sort of building is not something that people bring to mind when they think of architecture.

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Of course as the saying has it, everything in the arts has been done before and as architects and critics of architecture would attest, many references to other designers can be spotted in this pavilion like for example Archigram or Future Systems. Regardless of how intriguing and stimulating this style of architecture is, it is at times too progressive for its own good because it makes it hard for people to identify with it. Not to mention that architecture that has little to no references to classical forms unfortunately often ends up looking rather tacky. I believe it is extremely difficult for architects to come up with forms that are truly innovative and still manage to attract the mainstream. Probably this is because most people crave for the new but are afraid of it as well hence they gravitate towards the old and familiar.

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Smiljan Radić seems very nice in the interviews I watched. He sounds very calm and collected and really involved in his art, in a non self absorbed way. Looking into his body of work I was happy to read that he hates signature buildings and that other than very few elements he has used before in other buildings most of his projects do not seem at all aesthetically related. That is of course because they have different programs and are made for various users and climates.

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His Serpentine pavilion’s recipe of success is that it looks like something that has landed here from outer space but also somehow looks like an ancient relic, a massive rock of Cyclopean mythic architecture. It is both old and new and it brought to my mind a sort of aesthetic that I find truly appealing: retrofuturism. Above all though it is an inviting shelter for the visitor and regardless of its weirdness it manages to keep a certain degree of humility. Its interior spaces on both ground and café level were packed with people who were not admiring it, they were just living! This is what I liked about it. My stay there was a half hour exposure to utopian futurism, but hey, forgive me for being a huge science fiction fan.

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Find the Serpentine Pavilion website here

Find more Smiljan Radic projects in Archdaily here

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The House of Muses is an interesting little installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London and is placed under its entrance canopy. Swiss architecture/design collective GRUPPE won the competition held for it and the structure is shown as part of London Architecture Festival 2014. It is inspired by London’s historic architecture and specifically by Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Alban’s Church, the tower of which is the only part of the building that survives. I find the pavilion rather elegant while also quite successful in its attempt to remind one of classical forms without simply reproducing them. Post-Modernism’s caricaturing of similar styles is certainly avoided here. On the contrary the references in colour and geometry are there but slightly shifted.

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The pavilion is supposed to be a fragment of classical architecture but one is unable to identify where exactly it has been taken from. It is not for example a fragment of a column because it does not have the right shape. It reminded me of learning how to draw elevations of ancient Greek plaques with decorative motifs and how difficult it was to make the lines meet using the compass. It required a very steady hand, precession and confidence.

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The one thing that I disagree with is its placement. The canopy over it is just too close to the top of the installation and the whole thing feels a bit stuck under it. Walking around it and realising that it can be entered I understood the restrictions that required for the house of muses to be protected from the rain. Still I think that another solution could have been found for this problem. I believe that cramped as it is in its current position it loses in strength and people do not pay as much attention to it as they should.

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Once inside things are totally different. Its frame is wooden and looks like scaffolding. It reminded me of a theatre’s backstage where the main goal is to support the set on stage. Things are useful but are not meant to be seen hence are not required to be beautiful. I do not mean that in a negative way. On the contrary I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the white smooth exterior, with the warm informal interior. I believe that it is a good analogy for the way that architecture works in general. Much effort is invested in the appearance of buildings while what keeps them standing, the foundations, the structural frame, the utility shafts, are usually not beautiful but still truly essential.

As far as the interactive concept I am not entirely sure. The tags have random things written on them by the children that have entered the installation. I do not really find anything wrong with that. After all this is a museum visited by many schools so if the declaration of a teenage crush is what its visitors have to say, oh well, so be it.

House of Muses will stay at the Museum of London until September 21st

Find the Museum’s page about it here

GRUPPE’s website here

London Festival of Architecture program here

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This is an article about an exhibition I caught at its very end hence I did not have the opportunity to post my opinion about it before it was over. However late it might be now, I still think something should be said about it. The exhibition took place at the Building Centre and it was entitled “London is growing”. Before I went there I already knew that it was showcasing London’s latest high-rises, most of which I am not particularly fond of anyway. Especially the Shard, which being the tallest of them all is considered, for unknown to me reasons, one of Londoners’ favourite (it comes second after the Gherkin). I have spoken about the Shard in the past and in case you are interested you can read my opinion here. Very briefly though let me say that what shocks me the most with people’s views of such buildings is that they are based only on their aesthetics and the awe they inspire because of their size. The fact that high-rises mirror and affect directly politics and the economy is totally disregarded.

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Like all architects I can attest that the awe-inspiring effect of tall buildings is not negligible. I will never forget my first time in New York and how I felt. To my defence I was still very young. Having lived in London for some years I have witnessed aggressive gentrification at its finest. Whole neighbourhoods, their history and unique colour are obliterated in the altar of profit. This is exactly what is celebrated in this exhibition.

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A statement by Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage made me laugh bitterly. “London’s face is its fortune and it belongs to everyone”. What a joke. London today more than ever, certainly does not belong to everyone. It is largely privatised. For example most of the high-rises’ featured in this exhibition offer so-called public spaces on their street level embellished with gardens, benches etc. However those spaces are private and are “protected” by security guards who are instructed to exclude all sorts of “inappropriate” conduct like skating, protesting or even playing. (You can read more about the privatisation of public space in London and a story on how local businessmen were sent away from a so-called public square in the City for playing cricket here). Not to mention the cruel devices that are installed on those “public” benches and floors to assure the expulsion of skaters, the homeless and such.

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According to the studies quoted in this exhibition all those new and really tall buildings are intensely needed because London’s population is growing and its economy is expanding. Still many contradictions are revealed in the information provided for the visitor if one is tuned in to notice them. One of them is that regardless of the fact that there is a need for housing in “growing London”, hardly any of these tall buildings include apartments, not to mention social housing of course!

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This is mainly due to the fact that a social housing tower collapsed to its side in Canning Town (1968) due to poor construction of its pre-cast parts. Since then social housing in particular is largely avoided in new high-rises. The only “shining” example of residential towers is that of the Barbican which thrived according to whoever wrote the exhibition’s texts, due to good management. The fact that Barbican’s apartments were renovated to become luxury lofts is not mentioned at all. Nothing is also said about the poor Londoners who are forced out of their homes and get ostracised to the 6th zone and beyond because this is the only area they can afford. Out of site is out of mind, I guess.

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Still many panels in the exhibition assure the visitor that these new vertical cities of buildings that keep popping up are closely monitored in order not to interfere with the aesthetics of historic London. English Heritage is here to make sure of that and also to assure that St. Paul’s view from Greenwich Park will never be obstructed. Thank God for that!

This exhibition is finished, but trust me, you are not missing on much.

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If you are interested to read more about the privatisation of public space in the UK Anna Minton’s Ground Control is a brilliant book about it. You can find more about it here

The second London Architecture Festival installation that I visited was the Rainforest Pavilion which was commissioned by the Architectural Association and designed by Gun Architects, a Chilean based practice. It is placed on Bedford Square right opposite the school’s entrance and it looks interesting but also quite contradictory from afar. Heavy metallic columns/tree trunks, support white dripping cones that resemble lightweight origami folds. The columns are rooted in axially spread metallic bases with their triangular gaps filled with white rocks, ferns in pots and a little pond.

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Approaching the structure I immediately thought I wanted to stand underneath it. The sun lit the pavilion from behind and I could clearly see the water dripping from the cones on top of it. Unfortunately it seemed rather difficult to enter because of the instability of the rocks at its base. I was disappointed to thing that this might be an object to be looked at from the outside, like an art exhibit. After all the rainforest effect could only be felt if one stood inside it. So I cautiously tried to walk on the rocks but soon enough I exited the structure because I really could not wander about freely. All of us visitors in the pavilion were looking as if we were going to lose our balance and bump into each other clumsily. I was puzzled with the architects’ choice to put those rocks in it, because the actual concept seemed brilliant.

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At the exhibition in the AA’s members’ room I found out that this project was a smaller version of another much bigger installation; the Water Cathedral, which was the winning entry for MoMa’s Young Architects Program in 2011 and was built at Santiago de Chile in 2012. The original structure had leaner columns but the stalactites were very similar to the Rainforest pavilion ones. However its floor was flat with the exception of some clusters of truncated cones that were used as seats but also visually unified the project because they reflected the geometry of the structure above them.

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

I only understood the reasons behind the alterations to the initial concept when I read Jorge Godoy’s (he and Lene Nettelbeck are Gun Architects) interview in AA Conversations. Apparently the changes were made by the engineers involved in re-designing the pavilion due to council and insurance constraints. In the same interview Godoy admits he is not too happy about people being reluctant to enter the pavilion and he also believes that it has to do with the rocks at its base.

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Gun’s architecture is largely experimental and aspires to incorporate the natural elements, which I find admirable. Apparently the Water Cathedral created a wonderfully cool micro-climate which was a refreshing surprise for the visitors, considering Santiago de Chile’s dry heat. The Rainforest Pavilion on the other hand is placed in London, a very humid city and people cannot really enter it easily. Since it does not create a dramatic climatic effect, maybe the experimentation should have extended to the collection of rainwater in the stalactites instead of connecting the structure to Thames Water mains.

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The Rainforest Pavilion is an interesting structure created by very talented young architects. Still I believe it is not as successful as the original, Water Cathedral. It is more of an advertisement, showcasing their creators’ potential as designers but does not manage to truly “stand” on its own. Projects that aspire to work with the natural elements, wind, water etc. are by definition site specific and this one was designed on a different scale and most importantly for a different climate altogether.

Rainforest Pavilion website

Gun Architects website

Jorge Godoy’s interview on AA Conversations

MoMa’s Young Architects Program Water Cathedral page

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