Monday, April 30, 2012

Milano’12: Teaser


Once again, I was overwhelmed by the Milan Salone. I was running around for three days, taking over 1,200 photos of the things I saw at the Rho Fairgrounds and all over the city. The different ways of display were still quite impressive, especially when there was a nation to represent. Japan stood out as a country with outstanding contributions from Issey Miyake and Nendo. INTERNI again occupied the old university courtyards, this time for a show titled “Legacy.” Other blockbuster shows include MOST curated by Tom Dixon and “The Future in the Making” put together by Domus and Audi. Big-shot architects like Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, David Chipperfield, and Tadao Ando all left their marks in Milan this year.

Please be patient while I’m sorting out my photos. Eight posts to come!

Related: Milan coverage last year

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The iron words

Finally watched The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep was absolutely amazing. On top of that, I found the movie full of wise words. Here are some quotes I’d like to share.

Young Margaret Thatcher: For those that can do, they must just get up and do. And if something is wrong, they shouldn’t just whine about it. They should get in there and do something about it. Change things.

Denis Thatcher (referring to home videos of some memorable moments in the past): You can rewind it, but you can’t change it.

Margaret Thatcher the Education Secretary: If the Right Honorable Gentleman could perhaps attend more closely to what I am saying, rather than how I am saying it, he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself!

Margaret Thatcher (when giving her daughter a driving lesson): One must be brave if one is to take the wheel.

Margaret Thatcher (after visiting the US): They are unafraid of success. We in Great Britain and in Europe are formed mostly by our history. They, on the other hand, are formed by their philosophy. Not by what has been, but by what can be. Oh, we have a great deal that we can learn from them.

Airey Neave: If you want to change this party, lead it. If you want to change the country, lead it.

St. Francis of Assisi (quoted by Margaret Thatcher upon arrival at Number 10 Downing Street): Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

Margaret Thatcher: People don’t think any more. They feel... Do you know one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Now thoughts and ideas, that interests me.

Alfred Roberts (quoted by Margaret Thatcher): Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny! What we think, we become.

Margaret Thatcher: Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live. Should we withhold the medicine? No. We are not wrong.

Margaret Thatcher: We will stand on principle or we will not stand at all.


Monday, April 16, 2012

The cult of Steiner

The exhibition “Rudolf Steiner – Alchemy of the Everyday” at the Vitra Design Museum is the first major retrospective on the complex man who was all at once a writer, philosopher, sociologist, educator, architect, and artist. I don’t really know much about Steiner’s achievements in such different fields. So it’s a perfect chance for me to learn about his life and work and get a holistic view on the inception and progression of the whole anthroposophical movement that he started.

The first room provides an overview of the context where Steiner’s worldview and artistic style were formed upon. Turning of the century, Goethe and German Idealism, late Romanticism and the advent of Modernism, the Lebensreform (“Life Reform”) social movement, etc. Josef Gočár’s desk clock is included as an example of Czech Cubist influence. And there’s a model of Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion to show the Durchgeistigung (spiritual permeation) idea of the German Werkbund. It was also the age of evolution theory, microscopy, and X-ray. Organic design works by Antoni Gaudí, Henry van de Velde, Richard Riemerschmid, and Hector Guimard are featured alongside Ernst Haeckel’s groundbreaking book Art Form in Nature published in 1904.

The first room: Context
Josef Gočár, desk clock, 1913
A print from Ernst Haeckel’s Art Form in Nature, 1904

In Steiner’s view, nature consists of four parts: a mineral world, a plant world, an animal world, and the human being. And the human being includes a physical body, an etheric (life) body, an astral (sentience) body, and the ego “I”. His 9m-high wooden sculpture The Representative of Humanity is the perfect illustration of this thinking. The Christ figure – the human existence with “the most sublime principle” – stands free in the center. He is surrounded by different distorted figures of Lucifer and Ahriman – light and dark devils that represent the two polarized traits of our lives. Christ’s gesture with one arm raised and the other lowered suggests an inner state of consciousness, a balanced existence between Luciferic frenzy and Ahrimanic tedium, between expansive pride and contractive insecurity.
A miniature of The Representative of Humanity (1917-25) on show

The anthroposophical society
The anthroposophical approach had influence in many areas of social lives, including education, agriculture, medicine, and social finance.

Steiner founded the Waldorf schools, a pedagogy based on his child development theory and education principles outlined in The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy in 1907. The approach follows an interdisciplinary curriculum according to “epochs” rather than subjects. It emphasizes the role of imagination and the arts, integrating knowledge with creativity. In 1919, the first Waldorf school was founded to serve the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Now there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools around the world and it has become the second largest group of private schools just after parochial schools.

Anthroposophical farms practice biodynamic agriculture, which sees the soil, plants, and animals as a self-sustaining system. One of the key elements is the exclusion of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Preparations are made with extracts of certain substances, and their efficacy is enhanced by the observation of cyclic rhythms in nature. This method recognizes and supports natural energy and mechanisms of a healthy balance, and links back to the fundamental worldview of Steiner’s anthroposophy.

It gets a bit more cult-like when it comes to anthropological medicine. The approach incorporated some aspects of homeopathy but defined itself as an extension of mainstream academic medicine. Steiner adhered to Paracelsus’s principle of similitude (“like cures like”): “a poison in the body would be cured by a similar poison.” He was convinced that certain methods could be used to extract the active ingredient from a substance and successively dilute it until a “spirit-like essence” remains (“potentiation”). Yet again, all this has its anthroposophical roots: it is a holistic medical discipline where etheric and astral bodies must be taken into account.

The central social concept of anthroposophy is social threefolding, laid out with a series of essays in The Renewal of the Social Organism (1919-20). The theory suggests a threefold social order: economical, political, and cultural; and the three realms should be relatively independent to form a mechanism where they can mutually correct each other in an ongoing process. Steiner believed that it could be “a third way” between capitalism and socialism. Joseph Beuys’s blackboards installation is featured as a sample artwork that was inspired by this theory of a new society.

Joseph Beuys, Directional Forces, 1977

Art and design
Steiner’s contribution to art was far more than just inspirations. He was himself an artist (as sculptor of The Representative of Humanity) and invented a performing art form called eurythmy. As the Greek root of the name suggests, this expressive movement art emphasizes on the beauty of harmony, both between the performers and the audience and within the performers themselves. It was widely taught at the Waldorf schools as well as performed on stage.

An installation explaining the stage composition of an eurythmy performance

Eurythmy reminds me of Loïe Fuller. In fact, the same fluid language was “frozen” in the form of stage set for one of Steiner’s four mystery dramas, The Guardian of the Threshold. The organic waves created a landscape of spirit and fantasies.
The Guardian of the Threshold, Scene VI (The Spirit World), 1937

Steiner also worked with scientists on geometric research to develop crystalline structures, which became an important part of the so-called “anthroposophical style.” Examples include Carl Kemper’s platonic solids series (1930s) and Paul Schatz’s Oloid discovered in 1929. It reminds me of Olafur Eliasson’s structural studies. The curator obviously also sensed the similarity and included Eliasson’s Before the star lamp in the show.
A showcase with Carl Kemper’s platonic solids (left) and Paul Schatz’s Oloid (far right)

In order to have a headquarters for anthroposophy and a center dedicated to the spiritual sciences and all art forms, Steiner began to build the first Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland in 1913. Named after Goethe, the timber-concrete structure opened in 1920, but was soon destroyed by arson on New Year's Eve 1922/23. Right after the accident, Steiner set out to design a second Goetheanum, this time completely made of reinforced concrete (15,000 m3). Construction finished in 1928, after Steiner’s death. It was the first large-scale building to use concrete for such a sculptural form. In the center is a large auditorium with a 30m span that can house 1,000 visitors for eurythmy and mystery dramas performances.
The second Goetheanum, 1923-28

The Organic-Expressionist style is similar to that of Gaudí, Erich Mendelsohn, and Wenzel Hablik. In Dornach, Steiner also designed about a dozen other buildings, including Duldeck House (1915-18), De Jaager House (1921-22), Eurythmeum (1927), and two utility facilities: a boiler house (1913-15) and a transformer house (1921) – all with expressive forms.
Models, with the boiler house (1913-15) on the right
Models, with the transformer house (1921) in the front

As I walk through the exhibition, a voice keeps whispering to me: “you have to go to Dornach.” I am sure it will be totally worth the trip. I will definitely report more after that. Till then...
To be continued...


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just the little things

Once again, Denmark has been rated the world’s happiest country. This time, it’s a report claimed to be the first ever official study, commissioned by the UN and published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Before this, the Gallup World Poll released data in 2010 ranking Denmark the happiest country among the 155 surveyed. In 2008, the World Values Survey by the US National Science Foundation also put Denmark on the top of their most content nations list. And back in 2007, surveys done by Cambridge University and Leicester University both agreed that the Danes are the happiest people on earth.

One can easily give several reasons for this. The Danes are quite wealthy, living in a secure society with almost zero crime and corruption. They grow up with good health care and education systems (they get paid to go to school). After graduation, they work only 37 hours a week (Mon-Thu 7.5 + Fri 7), with 5 weeks of paid vacation per year.

Good systems build up a more civilized society, but they don’t guarantee personal happiness, which is more a subjective emotion or attitude. “It’s probably because we have very low expectations,” my Danish friend Goldie told me. “When it rains, we simply shrug our shoulders. When the sun comes out, we’ll say, ‘wow, this is really amazing!’” Take a look at some of the questions asked by the Gallup Poll: Did you enjoy something you did yesterday? Were you proud of something you did yesterday? Did you learn something yesterday? I guess at the end, it all comes down to the little things people experience every day.

If you are not expecting much, many little things in your life can be wonderful. For the Danes, a few drinks with friends, a sausage on the street, or a dinner with family is enough to make a joyful day. They are proud of their lives and proud of what they have: Danish pastry, Carlsberg, Tivoli, Hans Christian Andersen, Georg Jensen, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Queen Margrethe, Lars von Trier (maybe until Cannes 2011), and Daniel Agger’s tattoos. They joke about the little mermaid being super tiny, but deep down, they love her as the romantic symbol of the kingdom. There are millions of bikes in Copenhagen. If this simple vehicle can take you around perfectly, who needs the newest model of Chevy SUV?

The Danes can find “hygge” in the dark and cold winters through the soft glow of a simple Le Klint lampshade, or the balmy smell of a candle. When summer comes, Copenhageners strip and lie down naturally on the waterfront deck in the middle of the city, sunbathing. Not far from the boardwalk, the Harbor Bath is certainly one of the most popular urban hang-out in the city.

Oh yeah, the Harbor Bath. You know Bjarke. He is so typically Danish and looks always so happy. He acts like a kid, easily psyched about simple, straight-forward, and sometimes even stupid ideas. He has this charisma that can convince anybody that architecture is in fact very simple and fun.

If life is all so simple and beautiful, why do we need ambitions? Georg Jensen and Arne Jacobsen gave their answers through quality: design with close attention down to a single screw or a door knob. Bjarke seems to believe in quantity: do a competition every week and you may win every month. Either way, the little moments of simple pleasure could lead to greater joy at the end.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

From Neues Museum to Neue Nationalgalerie

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation recently announced that David Chipperfield won the contract to renovate the New National Gallery at the Kulturforum in Berlin. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, stated: “I am confident that with David Chipperfield, this icon of modern architecture is in good hands. In our work together on the Museum Island, I greatly appreciated his sensitivity to historic architecture and the conceptual clarity of his approach.”

I agree that Chipperfield showcased his refined sensibilities and did a great job in the restoration of the Neues Museum. When I visited the building, I was fascinated by the grand but appropriate new gestures, the subtle repair of details, the elegant co-existence of old and new...

From the Vestibule to the Staircase Hall
The Staircase Hall
The Mythological Room
The Medieval Room
The Room of the Niobids with beautiful bowstring girders
The Modern Room
Small transitional space covered with copper
The Majolika Room
The Western Art Chamber
The Egyptian Court
Upper access to the Egyptian Court
The Egyptian Court: “structure within structure”
The Greek Court remains full height

But still, the news about the New National Gallery troubles me deeply. Winning a Mies van der Rohe Award doesn’t give you the right to mess around with a Mies building. The Friedrich Stüler Neues Museum is more than 150 years old now, and it has suffered severe bomb damage during WWII. What’s wrong with the New National Gallery? It was only built in 1968. According to the announcement, the following measures are planned: “the renovation of all the building’s structural elements (steel supports, reinforced concrete, steel and glass façade), the restoration of visible surfaces (stone, terrace), the replacement of security and fire protection equipment, the updating and preservation of all visible fixtures (lighting etc.) and the administration rooms, along with the restoration of existing furniture. Furthermore, the coat check, museum shop and café will be updated to meet current museum standards.”

It is this “furthermore” that frightens me. Does it mean there will be a gift shop and a café on the ground floor? Are they commercializing a space of the ultimate sublime? The vast empty lobby is the best example of the Miesian “Universal Space” concept. It is meant to be completely open and remain undefined. Any specific program would ruin the idea. I really hope the shop and café stay in the basement. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Chipperfield was appointed Director of the upcoming Venice Biennale. I like the title “Common Ground” he chose, which celebrates at this right moment an interconnected architectural culture and encourages sharing, collaboration, and dialogue. I hope he finds common ground with Mies and maintains the original purity and spirit of the New National Gallery. Restoration work will begin in 2015 and conclude in 2018, and the gallery will be closed during those three years. I’d better go see it again before it risks being turned into something else.