Archive for August, 2011

in praise of the stepped-section

2011/08/26

Monumental, heroic, epic … and frankly quite terrifying, the typology of the stepped-section is an architectural embodiment of Edmund Burke’s philosophical enquiry into the idea of the sublime.

The passion caused by the great and terrible in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect.

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror, be endued with greatness of dimension or not; for it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous.

Edmund Burke A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful

Neave Brown Alexandra Road Housing

 

Patrick Hodgkinson The Brunswick, Bloomsbury

Groundings

2011/08/24

The following text provides a foreword to the book accompanying Daniele Sambo’s forthcoming exhibition Sown at the New Glasgow Society from 05 September – 05 October:

 

Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Alan Paton Cry, The Beloved Country.*

 

Scotland, land of the Scot, its soil and rock hallowed by a people.

Sacred soil and venerable rock whence this nation was borne.  This is a land, lush and verdant; host to crop and livestock, heather and ruddy peat. Surveying all this we must know it is that same soil which is the very source of this great fecundity, and that is not all: be it Prometheus’ first man modelled from clay and water or Adam from the dust of the ground, we surmise that we, too, are of the earth – our first dwellings the womb and the cave. Indeed, it is to the ground that we must return, our burial reaffirming our kinship with the soil.⁠1

To ancient soil and rock we must transfer in order to site the birth of the Scots. A little north of Lochgilphead in the reaches of Kilmartin, there lies a craggy hillock, Dunadd, its peak a double-mound. This was the bosom on which a fledgling nation suckled. This was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada, founded by Fergus Mór mac Eirc, the legendary Irish king, who had made his way to Argyll (Ar-gael meaning eastern-Irish) across the faem in about AD 500.  Indeed Scoti or Scotti was the generic name given by the Romans to the migrating, maritime Irish. The three sons of Fergus who had also come across from Ireland’s Dál’Riata gave their names to the three tribes of the lands of Dalriada: these were the Cenel Loairn in the northern parts of Argyll, the Cenel nOengusa, mainly on the isle of Islay, and the Cenel nGabrain down in the southern parts of the peninsula. It was from one of these three tribes that the high king of Dalriada, the Ruiri, was chosen.

Four defensive lines of wall protected the summit of that nuclear hill-fort Dunadd. Atop the hill, there are three sacral rocks, each one carved: a hollowed-out basin; the depiction of a boar, now worn and faint; and the imprint of a foot. Although we cannot know for sure their purpose – our comprehension obscured through the murky annals of time – the theory is that during inauguration, as over-king stood with one foot in stone-inscribed print, all the local chiefs would bring soil from each their own land and place it in the carved basin, thus signifying that they pledged their territory and allegiance to the kingdom.

By the ninth century, the ruling-house of Dalriada would eventually find itself inheritor of all Caledonia – by prominent marriage, treachery and war. Cenned (Kenneth) Mac Alpin, not only succeeded in seizing power of all Pictland, but introduced a hereditary monarchy to rule the Picts and Scots as one. This amalgamation was underscored in the most emphatic and monumental manner when Kenneth Mac Alpin, Lord of Kintyre, brought not soil but stone from his western seat in Dalriada to have placed in the church at Scone for his own inauguration – this stone, no less, the famed Stone of Destiny.Thus the nation that we know was born, rooted in its land on a foundation of soil and rock.⁠2

Scotland is a people rightly proud of its land and heritage. There is a common sense of ownership, which is reinforced by the so-called right to roam: the Scot will be told by no Sassenach laird where he can or can’t go. Famously, the monarch is Queen of the Scots, not Queen of Scotland. However, there is a discrepancy between this sense of ownership and the actual facts of ownership: roughly half of Scotland is owned by just 500 people, few of them Scots. Nevertheless, times are changing: Alastair McIntosh’s book, Soil and Soul, outlines the victory of the beleaguered residents of Eigg, becoming the first community to clear their laird from his own estate. With Holyrood’s Land Reform Act of 2003 it has become easier for communities to take ownership of their land: now about one per cent of Scotland’s 19 million acres has passed into the hands of its communities ranging from small forests to entire islands.

With this collective ownership (actual or perceived) comes the responsibility of stewardship; stewardship of the land and stewardship of our built environment. This is a responsibility that we must all commit to – politicians, planners, architects, communities and individuals. In Glasgow, we can be especially proud of our heritage, that great Victorian grid interspersed with grand public parks and spread out across drumlin field; those mounds of earth and glacial debris that give us Dowanhill, Partick Hill, Garnethill, Hillhead, Woodlands Hill, Maryhill, Blythswood Hill and the rest. A former industrial powerhouse, Glasgow can be proud of its many community ventures, the Govanhill Baths Community Trust and the Woodlands Community Garden being just two notable examples. Glasgow can also be grateful to independent bodies such as the New Glasgow Society whose members’ collective endeavour, wisdom and voice ensure the positive stewardship of its city.

Daniele Sambo is an Italian artist based in Scotland whose primary medium has hitherto been photography. With an outsider’s fresh perspective, he has sought out pockets of land within Glasgow, some of them hidden, others more public.  His project transposes light installations into these spaces that make us think afresh the relationship to our land and its stewardship. Light being the great fertiliser, Sown provides a catalyst for the fertile soil of our minds.

 

* Of course, it is a far-off land that is referred to, both geographically and a politically very distant South Africa from today’s. However, the sentiments, I think, are universal.
See: Andrew Ballantyne A Face in the Cloud

See: Norman Davies The Isles. A History

Academy for the Fine Arts and Architecture, Maastricht, by Wiel Arets

2011/08/18

His first major project, Wiel Arets won the commission in unusual circumstances. The story (according to Arets at least) goes something like this: he turned up to the interview, a relative unknown – his strategy risky; he arrived without material. Instead, he ad libbed a sketch-diagram – an architectural a cappella performance if you will. It was a diagram of a route through a bar that every every student must take to get get to their studios; it was a diagram that encouraged the inter-pollination of ideas amongst disciplines that this route would excite; it was a sketch-diagram that would ultimately win him the job.

He understood the power of the route.

One of the essential elements of good architecture is the route – the way in, the way through and the way out of a building.

Tom Ellis The Discipline of the Route

The resultant project creates a new piazza which the building lantern-lights at night. The rigid geometry of concrete frame and glass-brick does not give away the dynamism of the internal spaces, the tree-top bridge merely alludes to the prominent promenade architecturale within. The expansive use of glass-brick throughout amply washes the studio spaces with diffuse light – this then enlivened by refraction, reflection and those horizontal slot views. The patination of age makes for a characterful facade – that is if being polite. In truth, and up-close, it could do with some nurture. But let that distract not from an otherwise radiant and giving building, and a building with its users at heart.

another door in the wall

2011/08/17

another door in the wall

One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought so far as he was concerned it was a true story.

He told me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light … I saw it all as frankly incredible

To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door leading through a real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.

It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden into which he came.

There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colours clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In that instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad – as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything beautiful was there …

Wallace mused before he went on telling me. “You see,” he said, with the doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, “there were two great panthers there … Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid. There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either side, and these two, huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball. One looked up towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came right up to me, rubbed its soft, round ear very gently against the small hand I held out and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden…

excerpt from HG Wells’ The Door in the Wall

Casa di Artisti, Isola Comacina, by Pietro Lingeri (and the curse of an island)

2011/08/15

Isola Comacina

It was all because of a curse.

The clanging bell signalled the entrance of the propietor of the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, dressed in cod-livery. As he poured a bottle of brandy into a large, copper cauldron, he recounted the ruinous history of the island whilst setting alight the liquor in an exorcism of fire, daily rehearsed to ward off the infamous curse that has beset the island since Vidulfo, the Bishop of Como, declared in 1169:

Island, be thou cursed throughout the ages.

The bells will ring not any more. No stone shall be put upon stone. No one shall ever host another on this island or they shall meet a violent death.

To the brandy was added sugar and coffee, and this sacramental liquid distributed and imbibed amongst every guest. Thus concluded an epic, three-hour luncheon – a quasi-ceremonial feast that has remained stoicly unchanged since 1947: the breaking of the ‘friendly’ bread; half a beef-tomato, topped with a slender slice of lemon and oregano; an antipasti of 8 veg in rustic ramekin – berlotti in olive oil, baked onions, pickled beetroot, pepper, chicory, celery, carrots, cauliflower; Prosciutto Tipo Praga (a cured ham, smoked in a wood oven) adorned with Bresaola della Valtellina (air-dried beef, and aged in the cellars of the Locanda); wood-grilled lake trout, filleted in front of us and simply dressed with plentiful salt, lemon, pepper and olive oil; fresh leaves with vinaigrette; rottami di pollo in padella (butterflied chicken fried in a cast-iron pot); a hunk of crystalline Parmigiano Reggiano, cut from the centre of an enormous round; fior di vaniglia ice-cream served with peaches and liqueur. Not to mention several carafes of wine.

Thus gorged and quite possibly inebriated we set off in search of the three artist’s houses designed by the Italian Rationalist architect, Pietro Lingeri.

The Isola Comacina is a small, wooded island situated in the middle of Lake Como (in fact the lake’s only island). It was famed for its Comacin stone and for its legendary craftsmen, the Maestri Comacini who were reputed to build to the most exacting standards and highly sought-after across Europe for their skilled masonry. Several mediaeval churches were built on the island, one in honour of the Holy Grail which the island is purported to have briefly safeguarded in the sixth-century, having been brought to the island by a British clergyman from the church of Aquae Sulis. During this period, the island was known as Cristopolis – the City of Christ. The island allied itself with Milan during the Ten Year War against Como, commenced in 1118. With Como defeated in 1127, the Isola Comacini became the region’s most powerful political centre, with fortifications surrounding its numerous houses and churches. However, under the protectorate of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, Como rose once more, and in 1169 its soldiers invaded the island, waylaying destruction and havoc to the fortifications and people alike, and razing its buildings.

It was then that the Bishop of Como would invoke his malediction upon the island. For centuries no one would dare live or build on that island, but in 1919 (after the Great War) the island was bequeathed to Belgium in grateful homage to King Albert I. However, the island was returned to the Italian State the following year under the condition that the island would remain a place for Belgian and Italian artists to relax. Albert met his ‘violent death’ of the notorious curse in a mountaineering accident whilst climbing alone in the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu at Marche-les-Dames in the Ardennes. Due to his being an expert, Alpine climber, some dismissed the official account of his death with rumours of murder abounding.

The island was passed to the Accademia delle Belle Arti of Milan, and it was they who commissioned Lingeri (a 1926 graduate of the Academy) to build three houses on the island as artists’ retreats. These were designed between 1937-39 and construction commenced in 1940. In fact, originally there had been plans for six houses and a hotel, but only the three were built and so they remained when we found them (across breached fence and dodging alsatian guard-dog); deserted and desolate, but not quite in ruin.

By 1948, and with serpents as the island’s only inhabitants, the silk manufacturer Carlo Sacchi and the speedboat racing champion Sandro De Col contacted Lino Nessi with the intention of establishing the Locanda on the island in defiance of the curse. Before its completion, Sandro De Col died suddenly and tragically in a speedboating race, whilst Carlo Sacchi was murdered at the Villa d’Este by his girlfriend, the Contessa Bellentani. Disheartened, and possibly fearing his own life, Lino Nessi was ready to give up the project, until the English writer Francis Dale recommended to him the excorism that is practiced after every meal to this day.

Pietro Lingeri had already built the A.M.I.L.A motorboat club near Tremezzo on the lake in 1927, which with its marine aesthetic was a slightly naïve allusion to Modernism. This project also anticipated the more mature Novocomum apartment block, dubbed ‘Il Transatlantico’, on which Lingeri had collaborated with Giusseppe Terragni. Lingeri would also collaborate with Terragni on numerous projects, including the Milan apartment blocks and the Casa del Fascio.

A.M.I.L.A motorboat club

Whilst Lingeri’s three Casa di Artisti differ slightly in plan, depending upon their size, orientation and position on island, they share the same, basic form (owing much to Le Corbusier) and rich palette of materials. The ground plan consists of a dining space separated by a glazed-brick chimney stack from the living space-cum studio. The stack becomes more slender at mezzanine level, and crowned at roof-top by an indigenously-inspired chimney-pot. The stack provides heat for the entire open-plan space, and to its side at ground-floor is a small kitchen. Directly above kitchen is a small wash space. Above the dining at upper level is the artist’s sleeping area, and there is space for an easel at mezzanine level overlooking the double-height studio. The bedroom opens onto an external balcony with views out over the lake.

Materially, the envelope is 500mm thick Moltrasio stone, grounding the buildings in the rock of the island. This perimeter is penetrated by wall of slender, Terragni-style glass-bricks, and windows framed in chestnut. A clerestorey framed similarly provides further light. Timber beams and columns support mezzanine and roof. At ground-level, the floors are a simple, herring-bone tile which gives way to the chestnut of the stairs and mezzanine above. A sheet of bianca carrarra screens the shower room and completes the material palette.

The play of timber, glass and stone in the façade creates abstract rhythms, and the structure is clearly and neatly described with columns and beams overlapping and doubling. Lingeri created three houses in a Modern form with butterfly roof and open-plan, yet tempered this by utilising native materials and a heaviness appropriate to its setting. Modernism to Lingeri (as with Terragni) was a logical historical progression, and he freely brought on historical and cultural reference. Thus, the Casa di Artisti are a Modern architecture, enriched and informed by their acknowledgement of the architectures and their materials preceding them.

Since we visited that accursed island, the Casa di Artisti have subsequently been restored so that Italian and Belgian artists may spend their summers on the island once more, dependant on and inspired by their daily, heady doze of brandy and fire.

Casa di Artisti, pencil and charcoal drawing

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