Archive for January, 2012

nature & artifice


The Hôtel Guimard by Art Nouveau architect (of Paris Metro fame), Hector Guimard. Avenue Mozart, Paris – completed 1912.




mazzorbo housing project (venice), by giancarlo de carlo, 1980-85


In his inauguratory address as RIBA’s new president in 1991, Richard MacCormac quoted Giancarlo De Carlo. In his speech the former cites the latter, Italian architect who summarises his own efforts to build within the constraining spatial and historical boundaries of Venice, specifically the then recently realised project for 80 dwellings on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian lagoon:

De Carlo says: “To design in a historic place, one should first of all read its layers of architectural strata and try to understand the significance of each layer before superimposing a new one. This does not mean indulging in imitation, as this would be a mean-spirited approach, saying nothing about the present and spreading confusion over the past. What is called for is the invention of new architectural images that are authentic and at the same time reciprocal with images already existing.”

Richard MacCormac Address to the RIBA, 1991

Given that the island is only a short  Vaporetto journey from Venice itself, De Carlo was keen to assimilate images of architectural identity and a close-reading of in-grained ways of living. To that end he would conduct systematic observation (or typological obsession) whilst attempting to ‘invent and modify the space needed’. He used white Istria stone for the edgings, steps, and moorings (just as in Venice); the layouts of the house are based on carefully identified patterns of rooms and room-relations, windows, window-groupings, doors & thresholds found in the area. The colours of the facades are derived from colours identified in the locale, albeit the render is badly peeling and the colour fading.

According to the architect, the project’s quality is:

The result of the transaction between human beings and the quality of the organisation of physical space, which depends on the way space is peopled and forms are inhabited.

Giancarlo De Carlo

… which would appear to be a bit of a disclaimer – at least there was not much in the way of transaction between human beings when visited, but perhaps that was our fault for peopling the space incorrectly.



Every living thing has a physical boundary that separates it from its external environment. Beginning with the bacteria and the simple cell and ending with humans, every organism has a detectable limit which marks where it begins and ends. A short distance up the phylogenic scale, however, another, non-physical boundary appears that exists outside the physical one. This new boundary is harder to delimit than the first but is just as real. We call this the “organisms’ territory.” The act of laying claim to and defending a territory is termed territoriality.

Edward T. Hall The Silent Language


Werner Blaser Portrait of Mies van der Rohe


People have developed their territoriality to an almost unbelievable extent. […] The man of the house is always somewhat apologetic about “his chair.” How many people have had the experience of coming into a room, seeing a big comfortable chair and heading for it, only to pull themselves up short, or pause and turn to the man and say, “Oh, was I about to sit in your chair?” The reply, of course, is usually polite. Imagine the effect if the host were to give vent to his true feelings and say, “Hell, yes, you’re sitting in my chair, and I don’t like anybody sitting in my chair!” For some unknown reason, our culture has tended to play down or cause us to repress and dissociate the feelings we have about space. We relegate it to the informal and are likely to feel guilty whenever we find ourselves getting angry because someone has taken our place.

Edward T. Hall The Silent Language


It is doubtable whether anyone would have had the audacity to have attempted to take Mies’ place on his MR20, but it is amusing to consider what reaction may have erupted from that smouldering volcano. The immutable silence of Blaser’s famous photographs, belies the audible presence of that architect in his seat. The heavy mass of his frame is at odds with the cantilevered, tubular steel of the chair. His weight and its give (a slight spring) combine with cocked arm and clenched fist to provide the pendulum of a thurible, wafting the incense of the strong cigar around the room – its odour absorbed by the enveloping wood paneling.

truth & value


The search for truth – be it the subjective truth of belief, the objective truth of reality, or the social truth of money or power – always confers, on the searcher who merits a prize, the ultimate knowledge of its non-existence. The grand prize of life goes only to those who bought tickets by chance.

The value of art is that it takes us away from here.

Fernando Pessoa The Book of Disquiet

on Le Corbusier


The modernism of “les trente glorieuses” was a direct reaction to the formal, smooth, pre-war Modernism whose master was Le Corbusier. The reaction to Le Corbusier was led by Le Corbusier – an artist who was forever reinventing himself.

He was a Swiss peasant who wanted to be a French genius. He was a sculptor, collagist, an activist, a catastrophic theorist, a totalitarian toady, a collaborator, a monk, a socialite, a cultural colonialist and a utopian follower of Fourier and Godin.

The five “unite d’habitations” that he designed owe much to the example of those pioneers. Once the machine is taken for granted, it no longer demands glorification. Like Roger Excoffon’s typefaces, Le Corbusier’s post-war manner uses machines, but doesn’t worship them. The architecture is plastic, expressive. There are deliberately rough edges. The materials play at primitivism. Purity of form is suppressed, impurity of form is more interesting.

Did I realise this in 1962? No. But it did prompt wonder and delight. I didn’t ask why. Nor did I make the link to the Citroen DS and the Mistral typeface.

Ronchamp was a piece in an unmade jigsaw, which, whatever it ended up looking like when finished, would proclaim the conjunction of France and tomorrow. In my second country the future had already arrived. Rather, “a future” had already arrived. A future that had nothing to do with nuclear-tooled ideological gangsters in 405-lines black-and-white. That future did not belong to us.

Jonathan Meades On France; fragments of an arbitrary encyclopaedia



Rasmussen leads us in…

Coming from the Adriatic, which forms a dramatic seascape of wave crests with shadows of an amazingly intense ultra-marine, to the flat waters of the lagoon behind the string of islands, you feel that you have been transported to an unreal world where the usual concepts of shape and form have lost their meaning. Sky and water merge into a brilliant blue sphere in the middle of which dark fishing boats glide and the low islands appear simply as floating horizontal stripes.

Venice itself looms like a mirage, a dream city in the ether. And this impression of unreality persists even to the very threshold. The coloured phantoms of the buildings, floating on a watery surface, seem to be lighter than all other houses one has ever seen. In bygone days Venice must have looked even more exotic…

Steen Eiler Rasmussen Experiencing Architecture


We take up with the superlative travel writer, Robert Byron:

Venice, August 20th, 1933.-Here as a joy-hog: a pleasant change from that pension on the Giudecca two years ago. We went to the Lido this morning, and the Doge’s Palace looked more beautiful from a speed-boat than it ever did from a gondola. The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar-ends floating into one’s mouth, and shoals of jelly-fish.

Lifar came to dinner. Bertie mentioned that all whales have syphilis.

Venice, August 21st.-After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quick-fire of greetings: the English are arriving.

In the evening we went back to Harry’s Bar, where our host regaled us with a drink compounded of champagne and cherry brandy. “To have the right effect,” said Harry confidentially, “it must be the worst cherry brandy.” It was.

Before this my acquaintance with our host was limited to the hunting field. He looked unfamiliar in a green beach vest and white mess jacket.

Robert Byron The Road to Oxiana

Oslo City Hall


Oslo City Hall by architects Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson.



Des Esseintes sat dreaming of one thing and another. The burning logs piled high in the fire-basket filled the room with hot air, and eventually he got up and opened the window a little way.

Like a great canopy of counter-ermine, the sky hung before him, a black curtain spattered with white.

Suddenly an icy wind blew up which drove the dancing snowflakes before it and reversed this arrangement of colours. The sky’s heraldic trappings were turned round to reveal a true ermine, white dotted with black where pinpricks of darkness showed through the curtain of falling snow.

He shut the window again. This quick change, straight from the torrid heat of the room to the biting cold of mid-winter had taken his breath away; and curling up beside the fire again, it occurred to him that a drop of spirits would be the best thing to warm him up.

He made his way to the dining room, where there was a cupboard built into one of the walls containing a row of little barrels, resting side-by-side on tiny sandalwood stands and each broached at the bottom with a silver spigot.

This collection of liqueur casks he called his mouth organ.

A rod could be connected to all the spigots, enabling them to be turned by one and the same movement, so that once the apparatus was in position it was only necessary to press a button concealed in the wainscoting to open all the conduits simultaneously and so fill with liqueur the minute cups underneath the taps.

The organ was then open. The stops labelled ‘flute’, ‘horn’ and ‘vox angelica’ were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would drink a drop here, another there, playing internal symphonies to himself, and providing his palate with sensations analogous to those which music dispense to the ear.

Indeed, each and every liqueur, in his opinion, corresponded in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curaçao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its piercing, velvety note; kümmel like the oboe with its sonorous, nasal timbre, crème de menthe and anisette like the flute, at once sweet and tart, soft and shrill. Then to complete the orchestra there was kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky raising the roof of the mouth with the blare of their cornets and trombones; marc-brandy matching the tubas with its deafening din; while pearls of thunder came from the cymbal and the bass drum, which arak and mastic were beating with all their might.

He considered that this analogy could be pushed still further and that the string quartets might play under the palatal arch, with the violin represented by an old brandy, choice and heady, biting and delicate; with the viola simulated by rum, which was stronger, heavier and quieter; with vespetro as poignant, drawn-out, sad and tender as a violoncello; and with the double-bass a fine old bitter, solid and dark. One might even form a quintet, if this were thought desirable, by adding a fifth instrument, the harp, imitated to near perfection by the vibrant savour, the clear, sharp, silvery note of dry cumin.

The similarity did not end there, for the music of liqueurs had its own scheme of interrelated tones; thus, to quote only one example, Benedictine represents, so to speak, the minor key corresponding the major key of those alcohols which wine merchants’ stores indicate by the name of green Chartreuse.

Once these principles had been established, and thanks to a series of erudite experiments, he had been able to perform upon his tongue silent melodies and mute funeral marches; to hear inside his mouth crème-de-menthe solos and rum-and-vespetro duets.

He even succeeded in transferring specific pieces of music to his palate, following the composer step-by-step, rendering his intentions, his effects, his shades of expression, by mixing or contrasting related liqueurs, by subtle approximations and cunning combinations.

At other times he would compose melodies of his own, executing pastorals with the sweet blackcurrant liqueur that filled his throat with the warbling song of a nightingale; or with the delicious cacaochouva that hummed sugary bergerets like the Romances of Estelle and the ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, maman’ of olden day.

But tonight Des Esseintes had no wish to listen to the taste of music; he confined himself to removing one note from the keyboard of his organ, carrying off a tiny cup which he had filled with genuine Irish whiskey.

He settled down in his armchair again and slowly sipped this fermented spirit of oats and barley, a pungent odour of creosote spreading through his mouth.

Joris-Karl Huysmans A Rebours



hear, hear

art criticism


I have little to tell you; indeed one says more and perhaps better things about painting when facing the motif than when discussing purely speculative theories in which, as often as not, one loses oneself.

Paul Cézanne to Charles Camoin, Aix, 28th January, 1902.