ImageA weekend on the road, in Istanbul.  Technically not research (although with domes very much in mind, maybe this was a sub-conscious choice), just a few days in a city that had been calling for a long time.  A beautiful place, full of urban spaces and buildings that have done their work for centuries, often jammed up against buildings from another era or mindset that do something entirely different.  And the food…

ImageShould mention one newer building that’s worth a visit.  The Istanbul Modern, a contemporary art museum in Kirakoy that’s been built into a former shipping warehouse.  Very much of the post-Tate Modern school of “solve the problem and stay out of the way,” which I’ve come to appreciate more and more.  This one doesn’t have the giant turbine hall, even, so the art is really, truly, what’s on display.  And it’s interesting work, too–you don’t typically think of twentieth century art in a city with the Aya Sophia, but their permanent collection is organized in a way that’s didactic in the best sense, and that argues for Turkey’s modern art history as a viable example of international trends seen through a regional lens.  All of it unknown to me, anyway, and much of it compelling and provocative.

patrik schumacher’s biennale rant

This has been buzzing about the architecture discussion boards for a week or two now, since Zaha Hadid’s second-in-command unleashed a rather delayed reaction to 2012’s winning entries in the Venice architecture biennale, which focused on housing and on documenting slum conditions.

Ok, where to begin?  Maybe let’s let Mr. Schumacher speak for himself:

“STOP political correctness in architecture. But also: STOP confusing architecture and art.

“Architects are in charge of the FORM of the built environment, not its content. We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor – as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency.

“Unfortunately all the prizes given by the last architecture biennale where motivated by this misguided political correctness. STOP political correctness in architecture! And yet, architecture is not a l’art pour l’art discipline. Architecture is NOT ART although FORM is our specific contribution to the evolution of world society.

“We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics.”

Now, I’m all for the broadest possible acceptance of all views in our discipline, and I’ve been known to throttle projects–student or otherwise–when they try for a facile veneer of ornamental social concern instead of addressing deeper, difficult issues.  But the term “politically correct” is the last resort of the disingenuous, and you can bet that anything following the phrase “stop political correctness” will  be self-serving, queasy rhetoric about how the ten percent’s rights are being trampled upon by the inconvenient opinions of the 90%.

So, to parse this.  First, architects damn well control the content of the built environment, but in ways that we don’t always grasp and are rarely good at controlling.  By simply accepting a job our work validates and leverages the ‘content’ of our client–we’re tacitly endorsing it and whatever comes with it.  And the values that we bring to the table during design produce the ‘content’ of the finished product whether we want them to or not.  Where we direct resources is inevitably interpreted as a statement about our values, the values of those who built the thing we designed, and the values that are, for better or for worse, being imposed on the people who live with the building every day.

If–for example?–your firm sees no problem with accepting a multi-million dollar project for a World Cup stadium in a country that has a repressive political regime (Schumacher has a funny definition of “conservative”), you might as well be casting a very large vote for that regime.  If you’re a well-known, internationally recognized architect, you’re also implying to the public–who aren’t all that good with political nuance or irony or anything subtle like that–that the culture you represent similarly endorses the goals, values, etc., of whomever is building that stadium.  It’s inevitable.  We look back in history and can’t help but think of Michelangelo and the Medici as inextricably linked, for example, making all involved more complicated, less easy to pigeonhole as enlightened or despotic (Philip Johnson?  Luigi Moretti?).  If that government happens to not care–again, hypothetically?–that a World Cup stadium project is likely to mean the deaths of  thousands of workers over the course of its construction, you can’t get away with claiming that the construction has nothing to do with you.  Seriously.  Even if fans don’t link the finished building with those deaths, much of the world won’t ever see that stadium without linking your work to the worst day of those workers’ families’ lives.  By any humane reckoning they ought to count.

SHoT, the Society for the History of Technology, has a great unofficial motto: “technology isn’t good, technology isn’t bad, and technology isn’t neutral.”  I’ve always taken this to mean two things: first, that technology simply amplifies whatever values it’s applied to, often to unintended effect, and second, that if we can’t predict or even in hindsight know whether the outcome is good, bad, or indifferent, we need to be particularly thoughtful and cautious about development and later historicizing.  I guess I see architecture in the same light; whatever we’re building, it’s going to monumentalize and entrench some ethical framework or another.  And those frameworks will always–always–bump up against limitations and real-world complications that will produce wildly unpredictable consequences.  It’s our responsibility to be as judicious as we can in taking on jobs–skeptical of every intention, maybe–and as diligent as we can in executing them, trying to foresee whatever possible outcomes might be and doing our best to steer the projects into directions that have the greatest possible upsides.  Throwing up our hands and saying “not our problem,” or–even worse–deciding that the best way forward is to simply ignore any value-laden outcome at all and resign ourselves to making formally pretty things and calling that world-breaking simply isn’t getting it done.

I’m piling on, but if it’s impolite to call a firm whose work requires enormous outlays of fiscal, material, and human capital to achieve what they call a “complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics?”  Then I agree with the call to “stop this political correctness.” We might should have an honest and probably painful conversation about the actual politics (which is what I think he actually means by “content”) of work that privileges form over ethics, and about self-serving claims that one can be above such concerns.

Update–25 March 2014, 1203 edt.  Here’s the International Trade Union Confederation’s Report on working conditions at the 2022 World Cup sites, and a recent article in The Peninsula Qatar that disputes its findings.  Both are worth a read.

Jenney “In His Own Words” at Alliance Française, Chicago

The Alliance Française, Chicago is sponsoring the premiere of William Le Baron Jenney: In His Own Words, a french-language film on his life and work, and particularly on his French education and the influence of Parisian culture on his later life.  Some of the impetus for this project came about as a result of a Jenney symposium in Paris in 2012.  I was pleased to take part in that, and I have been delighted to play a very small role (research, not starring) in the film itself.  It’s in French, but an English transcript will be available.

Making it all the more unmissable, Robert Bruegmann will be giving a talk beforehand situating Jenney’s Chicago work and French education.

The screening will take place at 6:30pm on Tuesday, April 8 at 54 W. Chicago Ave.  Admission is free but reservations are required–call (312) 337-1070 to save a place.   More information is available on the Alliance Française website.

nervi in california


Among the mysteries I’ve been chasing is a single image in the traveling Architecture as Challenge show of a scheme Nervi did for the San Mateo Creek Bridge, on I-280 between San Francisco and Palo Alto.  That’s a bridge that I drove over at least a hundred times while working in the Bay Area, and while it’s an impressive span what’s there is not exactly Nervi.

Sure enough, there’s a whole stack of correspondence and drawings for the project.  It’s a long, slightly tangled story, but it involved Nervi doing consulting work on behalf of Kaiser Steel for demonstration freeway projects.  That’s  interesting, because Nervi’s emphasis on concrete was one of the things that kept him from commissions for the southern portion of the Autostrada del Sole, Italy’s great freeway project that included post-tensioned and steel bridges.

The project was initially just for freeway viaducts, but the publicity Nervi’s schemes generated attracted the attention of the California Department of Transportation, who commissioned Nervi to design steel schemes for a viaduct in Sacramento and the San Mateo Bridge, a 1750′ wide valley on the peninsula.  I’m still working through drawings of the viaduct, but did manage to get enough on the Bridge to throw a quick model together.  The piers are the familiar ruled-surface geometry that Nervi used for the Palazzo dello Sport and the Savona rail station, but for this proposal he designed them out of hollow steel–instead of twisting narrow formwork boards, here the piers would have been made by twisting long, thin steel plates.  The jigs that held the form boards were, similarly, to be replaced by permanent collars at intervals up the piers’ heights.


The deck was to do a similar material switch with another of Nervi’s standard approaches, here taking the profile of the Corsa Francia viaduct in Rome and rendering it in steel plates.  And a giant pair of headers, pinned to one another, would have formed the cross-tie at the heads of the piers.

Pretty impressive stuff, but it never got anywhere–from what I can tell there was initial enthusiasm from Caltrans that faded quickly in the face of unfriendly cost estimators and general bureaucratic inertia.  What was built isn’t bad–and it’s out of concrete, not steel–but this would have been one of Nervi’s grandest works if it had gone ahead.

The best find in the correspondence so far is Nervi asking the engineers at Kaiser whether the bridge should be designed for seismic forces.  San Mateo Creek flows out of the large reservoir on the Peninsula that is formed by…the San Andreas Fault.  So that was a big “yes.”