01 May 2013

Just a house

Hiroshi Sugimoto's reconstructed Chashitsu teahouse.

Japan seems to be a place where housing, the very notion of "the house", is being constantly questioned, rediscussed and reinvented.  The historical ephemerality of Japan's architecture is widely known. It is partly due to the use of wood as construction material (with good resistance against earthquakes but always endangered by fire), and partly to traditional customs, exemplified by this passage of the Book of Tea by Okakura Kazuko:

"The tea-room [...] is not intended for posterity and is therefore ephemeral. The idea that everyone should have a house of his own is based on an ancient custom of the Japanese race, Shinto superstition ordaining that every dwelling should be evacuated on the death of its chief occupant. [...] Another early custom was that a newly built house should be provided for each couple that married. It is on account of such customs that we find the Imperial capitals so frequently removed from one site to another in ancient days. The rebuilding, every twenty years, of Ise Temple, the supreme shrine of the Sun-Goddess, is an example of one of these ancient rites which still obtain at the present day. The observance of these customs was only possible with some form of construction as that furnished by our system of wooden architecture, easily pulled down, easily built up." (Okakura 1906 (2001):40) 

During my current stay in Tokyo I had the chance to visit the HOUSE VISION exhibition. In the homepage the organizers declare no less that "if you would like to see the future of Japan please come". The aim of the exhibition is to give a hint about possible outcomes of a coupling between technology firms and building industry, showing seven 1:1 scale houses/pavilions, designed by internationally renowned Japanese architects, in partnership with different firms. Kengo Kuma designed the exhibition site (in Odaiba) and the show featured, among others, architects Toyo Ito, Sou Fujimoto, Riken Yamamoto, Shigeru Ban, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, and firms like Honda, Lixil, Toto. The architects' creativity and the the firms technology were supposed to match, in order to achieve new standards and new modes of living. This resulted, e.g., in Fujimoto's blurring boundary between interior and exterior space (the street), introducing small, personal vehicles in the house or in Ito's will to have undefined and multi-functional spaces.

Even though the house of the future is a trite idea (think about the Smithsons' House of the Future), it is remarkable that this exhibition generally focused on low-profile, down-to-earth ideas, far away from the metabolic frenzy of the '60s and '70s in Japan.

Fujimoto's pavilion.

Ito's house.

Japan's land use, especially the land use of Tokyo, is characterized by small, usually narrow parcels, belonging to different owners. This is an additional reason why small, single, residential buildings incarnate the essence of Japanese architecture. The private house is, therefore, a fundamental typology in every architect's work. Even though some clear trends in contemporary Japanese housing can be highlighted, like the blurring of interior and exterior spaces (e.g. Tezuka Architects), the sublimation of walls into membranes (e.g. SANAA) and the integration of greenery and natural elements (e.g. Junya Ishigami), there remain heretic, anti-modern characters like Terunobu Fujimori, complementing the kaleidoscopic nature of the Japanese "house".

Terunobu Fujimori's house in Kokubunji, Tokyo.

Okakura, K. (1906) The Book of Tea (2001) Dreamsmyth, USA

More pics

17 March 2013

Shanghai farewell: Chenshan Botanical Garden

View to the Quarry Garden from Chenshan.

Taking advantage of an extraordinary mild weather, I spent my last Saturday in Shanghai in the Chenshan Botanical Garden. This 200-ha botanical garden opened in coincidence with the 2010 Shanghai Expo, after 3 years of construction. It is located in Songjiang district, which used to be a town  more important than Shanghai (at the time a fishermen's village), in the western outskirts.
As we can read in this project description, the first known botanical garden (and zoo) in Shanghai dates back to the 1930s, located in Jessfield Park (renamed Yaofeng Park and currently Zhongshan Park). During the 1950s plans were laid-out to create a botanical garden in Songjiang, but they never came into being. In 1974 a new garden was established on the grounds of the Longhua Nursery, and it developed into the Shanghai Botanical Garden, covering an area of 81ha. Finally, in 2003 Songjiang district was granted permission to build a new botanical garden.

View to Chenshan.

The garden was designed by the German offices Valentien + Valentien, Straub + Thurmayr and Auer + Weber. Inside a somewhat circular, elevated path, a number of biotopes are to be found. Past the massive (and seemingly over-sized) entrance building you can visit the garden, which unfolds in a series of different "episodes", including water gardens, ponds, thematic plant collections organized by place of origin, the Chenshan mountain, a quarry garden, 3 greenhouses and an education center. The Botanical Garden boasts Asia's biggest greenhouse (12.000 sqm), containing tropical, sub-tropical an desert species. But the main attraction is unmistakably the quarry garden.

Inside the greenhouse.
The dramatic corten steel pathway and wooden platform.

Designed by Beijing's Tsinghua University, the project restored an old quarry, active between the 1950s and 1980s. The designers linked, by means on a curvy corten steel walkway, a dramatic cliff and the water pool in front of it. This path continues on a wooden platform on the water, before entering in the mountain and emerging to the surface again, in a very cinematic composition.

Entering the steel walkway.

The Garden is very popular among Chinese, but it was rare to spot foreigners around. And even though crowds line-up at the entrance, they get dispersed quite quickly once inside, given the sheer size of the area. The best way to reach the Garden is to take metro line 9 to Dongjing station and then hop into a taxi for a 5 minutes ride. For great pictures of the park visit this Chinese blog.

08 March 2013

An urban, industrial cruise

Pudong with the Shanghai Tower under construction.

Last weekend, taking advantage of the sunny weather, I hopped into a cruise departing from the Shiliupu ferry terminal (south Bund), reaching the meeting point of the Huangpu and Yangzi River (Wusong Kou) and coming back. A total of 3,5 hours. This cruise is by no means a classic one: in fact, it features the world's busiest port and Asia's longest river.

The route is highlighted in red.
Cranes to load and unload cargos.
Yangpu Bridge.

After passing by the familiar profiles of Pudong's towers, the banks of the Huangpu present a typical skyline of residential and office buildings for a few kilometers. But as one reaches the impressive structure of the Yangpu Bridge (the only bridge you encounter - there are five underground tunnels though), the landscape is exclusively constituted by cranes, ships, containers, arranged in a linear port. Shanghai's Harbor is split into two parts, the recent Yangshan deep water port and the Huangpu River port. Together they form the world's busiest port since 2010.

An industrial landscape.
Please don't eat that fish...
A relic of old Shanghai?

When our boat reached the meeting point of the Huangpu and Yangzi River it gently turned around to come back to the Bund, offering a glimpse of the many ships transiting. Though not a beautiful cruise in the usual sense of the word, it gave a hint about China's import-export scale. The river is still very much used as a crucial piece of infrastructure, but, with the rising importance of the deep water port, it could slowly be reconverted into a more natural and appealing environment.

At Wusong Kou.
The Yangzi River at last.

15 February 2013

SiFang Art Museum (opening?!)

East facade.

Last summer I visited Steven Holl's SiFang Art Museum (四方美术馆 literally the "four-sided museum") in the outskirts of Nanjing (thanks for the initiative, Adam!). We could not figure-out if the museum was open or not, and its website was of little help, so we decided to check it out by ourselves. The museum is part of a bigger project, the Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architectureintended to project Nanjing into the international art scene (check this 2011 N-Y Times article). It was supposed to open in October 2011 but the opening was delayed until June 2013, as we can read from the museum's website.
The museum is located in a natural reserve on the western bank of the Yangzi river, and no signage whatsoever helps finding it. We relied on the address found in the internet, and hopped into a taxi. The taxi driver had no idea about the place and had to stop several times to aks people on the street for the right way. Needless to say, they did not have any idea either. Luckily enough, the structure is visible from the street, so we were able, after "touring" for a while, to locate it.

Location of the museum. Nanjing's center on the right of the Yangzi River.

Close-up. You can see the museum in the red circle.

The museum, as we were expecting, was closed, but we managed to convince the local watchman to let us into the property to have a look and take some pictures. The building seems to have some decent detailing, considering Chinese standards and it's a pit not to have visited the interior. Before reaching the central, scenographic stair leading to the museum's entrance, one wanders through a series of dark concrete walls, placed following an ortogonal geometry, that define the exterior space like a garden. The concrete was poured in forms shaped like stacked bamboo canes and create an interesting contrast with the diaphanous, "flying" volume.

Dark concrete with a bamboo cane texture.

South front.

Besides the architecture though, it remains to be seen if the effort of creating a new artistic and cultural hub in Nanjing will work and how this private initiative could reach this goal. Scattered around the hilly landscape, in fact, you can see a number of different buildings (e.g. Wang Shu-like), either under construction or empty. We will see if next June at least the SiFang Art Museum will finally welcome its first visitors.

More pics here.

24 August 2012

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Observation is one of the most important research tools in (human) science. When researching about behavioral patterns of people, its advantage lies in the fact that the research subjects, not aware of being "studied", can act naturally. Urbanist and sociologist William Whyte produced, out of his Street Life research project, a book (1980) and a movie (1988), both titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, focusing on how people interact with/in public space. This witty movie, shot New York, analyzes how relationship to the street, seating, sun, water, trees, food, and "triangulation" influence the success of urban spaces. Such a research cannot not remind of J. Gehl's Life Between Buildings...