WAF Newsletter - Keynotes - December 2019

WAF Keynotes 2019

Jeremy Melvin, 17 December 2019


The keynotes at WAF 2019 each took a particular look at the theme of flow, though they tended to relate to flows of and between space and time.

Marc Koehler’s opening night keynote on the concept of the Open Building – a tour de force especially as he had compered a whole day’s programme on the same subject on the Festival Hall Stage - told a story of how human life can flow through and reshape a building with several iterations over the course of its life. The Open Building concept starts with John Habraken’s notion, evolved in the 1960s, that buildings consist of frame and infill with the former lasting much longer than the latter which can be replaced to suit individual occupants’ needs.

Koehler first brought these ideas to WAF’s attention with the Superlofts Houthaven project in the Amsterdam docks which won the Director’s Special Award in 2017. It amasses a series of forms which created a myriad of loft volumes which could be individually adapted to suit particular users – in lecture he showed a sunlit space with a mezzanine adapted to himself, his boyfriend and their dog.

He also showed how spaces can be reconfigured, for instance to include a home office when children leave home, or more bedspaces inserted when they are born. All in all his presentation made a powerful case for Open Buildings to be a viable strategy for urban development, especially for homes, and highlighted the growing number of examples across Amsterdam and beyond.

Thursday lunchtime saw the return of one of WAF’s most popular performers, Archigram founder and former Bartlett professor Peter Cook. Picking the theme ‘coming up for air’, which he turned into a depiction of architects who by their dislocation in space or time have resisted the zeitgeistian flow of architectural taste. ‘Aaaah’ or ‘Wazzat’ he exclaimed when some particularly egregious challenge to architectural convention came up on the screen.

His first slide set the tone: combining images of work by Steven Holl, Toyo Ito, Frank Gehry, Bernard Tschumi, Nick Grimshaw and Amanda Levete, he explained ‘I love you all but you’re not in this story’, as the strains of John Adams’ ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ – an impression of the composer’s ride in his brother-in-law’s Ferrari, faded away.

There followed surprisingly respectful comments on Aldo Rossi, ‘you can’t deny he has something’, flowing into the more organically formalistic Spaniard Francisco Javier Saenez de Oiza, and the quilted concrete of Miguel Fisac. Another subtheme ‘out in the sticks’ highlighted Team X member and Professor at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand School of Architecture Pancho Guedes, the late lamented Kathryn Findlay whose practice stretched from Japan to her native Scotland before a shout of ‘Wazzat’ in response to Will Alsop (also late and lamented).

In the evening Massimiliano Fuksas held the audience spellbound with a ravishing flow of images. Shapes, surfaces, materials and forms flow into each other with intriguing complexity bringing new meanings to the word dynamism. In the Milan Fiera, for instance, a long canopy flows like a wave over a central walkway, at one point swirling downwards as if it were a maelstrom in the ocean. Inside becomes outside, and stasis mutates into movement. A dance performance, la Fura dels Baus in the complex staged in April 2006, is the apotheosis of this sense of tension.

He can bring straightline geometries to life as well, as in the twin towers on the outskirts of Vienna, a pair of twins who could be Mies van der Rohe’s grandchildren: their wish to consummate their love for each other is just denied by a narrow vertical strip.

Yet for all their promise of movement, all these components are in reality stationary. What does move though, are the shadows and reflections as the sun moves during the day, and as people inhabit them. Fuksas himself acknowledges the affinity between his image-making and that of the film director Stanley Kubrick. No one in the audience needed persuasion.

On onward to the massively talented Australian John Wardle, whose perspectival viewing device captivated so many visitors to the last Venice Biennale, and some some old Cooky favourites like Enric Miralles and Lebbeus Woods and some even more outrageous drawings by Juan O’Gorman which seemed like a set for Dungeons and Dragons.

According to this taxonomy Zvi Hecker ‘simmers’, Jurgen Meyer H and Ma Yasong of MAD poke fun, the latter offering one possible route for China with another coming from Pritzker prize-winner Wang Shu.

Friday lunchtime saw a revelatory talk from Jacques Ferrier and Pauline Marchetti of Paris-based Ferrier Marchetti Studio. Drawing on work from their research as well as their design studio which they have distilled into a book, they set out the case ‘a sensual city’ as a way of re-engaging people with the urban environment. This includes a significant study of how thresholds work as depictions of life, death and rebirth.

Their work is persuasive including a formally inventive civic building on the River Seine in Rouen. France’s first carbon positive building on this scale, its diachronic glass skin displays a subtle, changing colour palette that reanimates the former dockyard setting, and ‘reinvents’ impressionism for the 21st century in the city where Monet’s numerous paintings of the Gothic cathedral defined its 19th century iteration.

In their hands, the idea of a sensual impressionistic city is not just a way of finding a home in the urban environment, but also a way of connecting to nature and the wider environment. There are numerous seductive interstitial spaces for within the skins and forms which become havens for solitude. A major redevelopment around Paris’ Gare St Lazare, and a rethinking of a large social housing project reinforced their concern for urban environments and human emotions.

Finally, WAF 2019 concluded with a lecture by Elizabeth Diller, which reflected on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s achievements over the last year. Focusing on two major projects which completed in 2019 in their native New York, a major extension and reconfiguration to and of the Museum of Modern Art, and the entirely new Shed in the Hudson Yards district of West Manhattan.

DS+R have, she explained, a complicated relationship with MoMA, which started with a project to remove a piece of wall which had long been concealed behind a painting, and reinstall it in the Whitney. Eccentric but evocative, it involved overcoming the shock that ‘Whitney white is different to MoMA white’ and the strange behaviour of a robotised drill, that made random holes in the wall until it hit the replaced section when it started to drill holes at regular spacing.

Everything at MoMA is complicated because of its history and its status as the pre-eminent collection of modern and contemporary art. The idea was to remake the museum so that it has more and more usable space to show as much of its collection as possible, to improve the entrance, shop and general visitor experience.

The Shed is a very different prospect. As a new organisation it has nothing of the history that MoMA has accumulated. So DS+R had a far freer rein to indulge their invention in displaying and making art. Part Pompidou Centre – as a series of open spaces, and part Ron Herron’s Walking City – though only about half of the building opens out on a rail track to make a massive, flexible volume, it becomes something entirely new. With imaginative programming by director Alex Potts across almost all conceivable artistic media including performance and film it increases the range of possible cultural experience in New York, just as the MoMA reorganisation increases the range of regular gallery experience in the city.

If this was ‘Elizabeth’s’ – any self-respecting head teacher would call her – end of year report, it would have confirmed her success. But might have included a warning against slipping back in the next year. A more sober assessment would acknowledge that with her future catalogue including the London Concert Hall, such regression is extremely unlikely.

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