In Brasilia this week for the annual conference of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures. Last year IASS met in Poland, this year Brazil. Picking your organizations based on annual meeting locations probably isn’t acceptable professional judgment, but this one’s got a leg up on some others.
My colleague Rob Whitehead and I both presented yesterday—Rob on engineering vs. (or sometimes in alliance with) architecture in Saarinen’s shell designs, and me on Nervi’s cantiere—shipyard or jobsite? We were both part of a special afternoon session on historic shell structures, part of a working group that the IASS has to assess and raise awareness of the discipline’s history and the plight of some of its monuments. Our session had some great papers, including Cornell’s John Abel on their collection of string models from the late 19th century, designed to teach descriptive geometry and a fascinating precursor to hypar structures and ruled surfaces.
But with the hard work behind us, Rob and I set out this morning—before the heat kicked in—to go find some Niemeyer. And we did. Brasilia is a strange, forbidding place for the most part—a long series of freeway interchanges and landscapes that are barren and underthought. But the ministry district is fully landscaped, and the main Congress Hall is as lovely and iconic as you’d imagine. Crossing the streets to get to it? Not so great. Niemeyer’s genius was his willingness to think of architecture as sculpture—exactly what Rob and I try to beat out of our undergraduate and graduate students, so these are the guiltiest of pleasures. But despite their total structural illogic, his domes and towers and plazas are all technically accomplished, in that very little distracts you from the amazing play of equatorial daylight on their surfaces. It takes enormous knowledge to get a perfect concrete surface, and to figure out how to do it without expansion joints. Designing in a climate that is always 80-90° helps, I suppose, as does having the light that Brasilia does.
And there are moments of sheer technical brilliance, too. The Foreign ministry’s colonnade, while not quite in the Nervi category of inarguable static form, is a beautifully done rank of wedge-shaped concrete fins, board-formed and tapering to an elegant but constructable 2” tip. Aligned along Roberto Burle Marx’ garden, it’s an endlessly engaging dialogue of architecture and landscape. If only this took place along the main axis through the hotel sector, too…
OK, back to work. Plenaries today on composite materials, and FTL’s Nicholas Goldsmith on shape finding vs. form finding. Plenty to keep us indoors during the midday heat.