Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The shrine of design

The Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec exhibition at Centre Pompidou-Metz is the first major solo show of the French brothers’ almost 15 years of design collaboration. Titled “Bivouac,” the show is staged to be a temporary encampment. The 1,000-square-meter gallery is filled with beautiful objects, but the space is far more than just display of things. The ensemble creates a powerful atmosphere, something so stunning and moving that it almost feels holy. It is religious. It is the shine of design.
Honda vase and Conque wall lights in the back

The monumental scale of the gallery space enables large installations of the modular pieces. There are Clouds (2008) right at the entrance, with Twigs (2004) and Tiles (2006) on either side. These three “walls” are arranged parallel to the long gallery, while transparent screens assembled perpendicularly to divide the space naturally into zones yet at the same time maintain the visual connection of the gallery. Through Cloud Modules (2002) on one end and Algues (2004) on the other, one can see a rich superimposition of different scales, textures, and colors.
Tiles on the left
Clouds and Osso chairs
Twigs on the left
Twigs (Branches)
Cloud modules at the end
Through the “cloud”
The Algues screen divides the space softly
Through Algues

Monumentality doesn’t exclude intimacy. Unlike a typical museum setting full of “please don’t touch” signs, the Bouroullec exhibition actually encourage interaction with the objects. The immersive experience allows visitors to feel the comfort and tactile dimension of the work with their own body. “Comfort is one of their foremost concerns, in their eyes a responsibility even.” wrote Constance Rubini, head of cultural programming at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The Textile Field (2011), originally staged at the V&A for the London Design Festival, is reenacted here in the exhibition. Sit down, or lie down. Stare at the Bell lamp (2005) or the Aim Lamp (2011), make a sketch, and contemplate.
Sit down on the Ploum sofa
Textile Field and the Bell lamp above
Sit/lie down on the Textile Field
Aim Lamp is one of the most recent designs in the room

One may spot keywords like nomadic, ephemeral, modular, organic, playful, or flexible to describe the Bouroullec brothers’ work. But to me, there is really no theme. Their work is not about rhetoric or even meaning. As the brothers say, their design is not very “talkative.” It’s expressive and intuitive. This is evident in the iPad app “Cercles” that accompanies the exhibition, which doesn’t offer any text explanation of the objects. After all, Algues doesn’t come with an IKEA-like assembly instruction.
Joyn office system showing the “Cercles” app on iPads
Sketch, felt pen on digital print, 2005 (featured in the the “Cercles” app)

In the exhibition there are also “behind the scene” videos showing how the Bouroullec brothers work. The atelier looks like a lab, where drawings are made with felt pens and prototyping emphasizes on the importance of the craftsman’s hand. This analog methodology provides a fresh breeze in the current highly digital design culture. There is no need to worry about how to materialize the flashy renderings, because materiality and production concerns come into play in the early design stage. To the Bouroullec brothers, the creative process is “an alchemy between technology, and the form and function of the object,” the “junction of experimentation and everyday life.” The result is a series of amazing products that have simply made the brothers the best working French designers in the world. (Sorry Philippe, but yes, I mean it.)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jacques vs. Winy (+ Ricky)

Jacques Herzog, Winy Maas, and Richard Burdett’s dialogue at the Swissbau fair in Basel last Saturday was both thought-provoking and entertaining. The event, titled “Small Cities, Big Buildings,” started with each of them giving a presentation, and then it got funnier and funnier in the roundtable discussion. Jacques and Winy really did what they were supposed to do – fight. Ricky tried to mediate but he eventually realized that there was not much he could do, and he was right.

Big thinking

If there were one common message from the three individual talks, it would be: good cities, big or small, and good buildings, big or small, all require big thinking. Ricky Burdett kicked off his presentation by saying “I don’t know much about small cities, so I am going to talk about London.” He used London Olympic Park as an example of how building a piece of the city through design could help rebalancing the city and stitching back neglected and fragmented neighborhoods.

The siting of London Olympic Park is to rebalance the east-west sides of the city.
KCAP’s London Olympic Legacy Master Plan Framework

Winy Maas showed several ways of tackling the problem of big vs. small: cutting (Berlin Cumberland Palace), splitting (Oslo DnB NOR), porosity, making small building bigger with big effects (Spijkenisse Library), making big city smaller through intensification (Grand Paris), etc. Didden Village, for example, is a small roof expansion. But its success made the city of Rotterdam rethink and change their urban regulations.
MVRDV, Cumberland Palace, Berlin
MVRDV, Didden Village, Rotterdam

Jacques Herzog was really playing the local card in his presentation. He began by the claim that “Basel is a small Swiss city, but it’s on its way towards a tri-national metropolitan.” HdM is currently involved in several big buildings in Basel – a scale that many Swiss are still not comfortable with. In these projects, there are always concerns about the city and ways of engagement in the smaller scale. The Novartis building, for instance, doubles the height limit to provide an iconic corner presence of the campus on the Rhine riverside. At the same time, it reactivates the waterfront promenade with a public restaurant and cafe. The addition to the Messe is another big one. I have to say, I was quite surprised to see the end of Clarastrasse completely blocked by the massive new construction. But the hole, which takes the shape of the round inner courtyard of Hall 2, really creates a new public locale within the vast plaza. I can totally see people talking on their phone, “I am right under the hole. Let’s meet here.”
HdM, Novartis building, Basel
HdM, Messe Basel, Basel

“European Paradigm”

Winy Maas claimed that “small city” is fundamentally a European paradigm. It’s all about small scale and “cuteness.” And the one country that has the most acute “small cities syndrome” is Switzerland, where there are many cute little villages. In his study of the “spatial future” of Switzerland, he proposed to densify around Lake Zurich to create a so-called “Super-Zurich” with a huge gridded array of towers. It looks like a big lipstick mark on the map. Winy said, “This is my biggest kiss to Switzerland.”

MVRDV, “Spatial Future of Switzerland” study
MVRDV, “Super-Zurich”

I thought this was really just a grandstand flubdub for a good laugh, even it could still be a compelling hypothetical statement. As Jacques said during the discussion, “This is the most stupid thing I saw today.” To my surprise, Winy tried to defend it as a real serious project. Jacques flipped, “It destroys everything that makes Switzerland Swiss!” “The conservative parties in Switzerland are still extremely anti-urban. We need to educate them by illustrating how things could work in cities. But it’s still not right to touch some ‘holy sites,’ like the lakes and the mountains.” He continued, “I believe in specificity. Places are different and it’s good like that and we should maintain it. Talking about difference is talking about the future.” Now Ricky jumped in, “Yes, I think how to calibrate the difference is key.”

Winy also presented “New Basel” in his talk – a master plan he won in Basel to turn a post-industrial site in the Klybeck area into an island with funny-looking towers. Local newspaper said it would be the Manhattan in Basel. Winy admitted that it’s nothing like Manhattan. “The cuteness of it just makes things look like a scale mistake.” In Jacques’s presentation, he showed an urban study of Basel that HdM did with Rémy Zaugg in the early 1990s. One image indicated towers on the exact same industrial site. He didn’t say it out loud, but it was clear that it meant “Hey dude, I had this idea 20 years ago!”

MVRDV, “New Basel,” Basel
MVRDV, “New Basel,” Basel
Image from “Eine Stadt im Werden?” urban study by HdM + Rémy Zaugg

Rigorous, careful, and modest

Jacques said, “We should be careful and modest to cities, although by nature I am not a modest person.” “The more I work on the urban scale, the more I feel it’s important to be rigorous. It’s not rigid in the Lampugnani way. But the city is not a battlefield for everybody to do their own freaky things.” Tate Modern is about enhancing the existing conditions and continuing the potentials. The Basel urban study and the Dreispitz area study are also about discovering possibilities of the city based on extensive research and design considerations.

Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Novartis Campus Master Plan 
HdM + Rémy Zaugg, “Eine Stadt im Werden?” urban study, Basel
HdM, Dreispitz area urban study: three distinct fields based on existing potentials.

City planning and democracy

Another interesting point brought up by Jacques was that most good cities, like Paris, London, Berlin, and even Amsterdam, were not made in a democratic regime. He called Paris the most beautiful city in the world. And its beauty lies both in the royal monuments and the “monotonous” Haussmannian urban fabric. Winy didn’t agree on the monotony part, but Ricky picked up the point, “London Olympics could only happen when planning power is taken from democracy.” It was not to say they ignore the general public. But city planning is by nature a “top-down” process. In the Swiss hyper-democratic system, nothing is easy in the cities. Jacques said, “In Switzerland, urbanism needs to seek an alternative form of ‘bottom-up’ monumentality.”

I guess ultimately, the judge of a good city form is still the general public. As Jacques said, “A city has to work. People have to love it.” No matter how ugly it is, Westfield Stratford City is still quite a successful project in the sense that it’s the first catalyst to attract people and revitalize the area.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Divergent Modernism

If you think modernity is all about white plaster boxes or big sheets of glass, Carlo Mollino would probably tell you no. Born in Turin in 1905, Mollino worked mostly locally in northwestern Italy and remained isolated from the design establishment. His eccentric personality left his work somehow enigmatic, deviating from the dominant Italian Rationalism of the time. The retrospective at Haus der Kunst in Munich successfully captured the idiosyncrasy of Mollino’s oeuvre, presenting his multi-faceted work as an alternative “Maniera Moderna.”

Hybrid style

Although trained as an architect in the 1920s, when “Gruppo 7” published their Rationalist manifesto, Mollino was more interested in the irrational. “There are no reasons,” he once wrote, “If there were, we would have a way to build a convenient machine for making art through logic and grammar.” Instead of high modern purity, he turned to Surrealist montage methods and got inspirations from Alvar Aalto’s regionalist thinking. The result was unexpected grafting of Alpine traditional wood cabins onto bold modern concrete structure. Projects like the ski-lift complex at Lago Nero and the apartment building in Cervinia successfully married the two different aesthetics: the abstract and the figural, the so-called “high” and “low.” Casa sull’altopiano (house on the plateau) transformed the traditional rascard typology by putting it on top of a concrete platform with two legs on the side. The most mundane house has become special because it looks like eerily half floating.

Slittovia del Lago Nero, Sauze d’Oulx, 1947
Casa del Sole, Cervinia, 1955
Casa del Sole, Cervinia, interior
Casa sull’altopiano, Agra, 1953


Besides being an architect, Mollino was also an avid skier and instructor (he wrote a book on techniques of downhill skiing with many illustrations), a racing car driver (he also designed a racing car), and a stunt pilot. Of course, hobbies are about fun and gratification. In the case of Mollino, it’s also about the formal and stylistic aspects of those sports. He drew lines of ski tracks and photographed them. He also studied acrobatic movements with detailed drawings. All his passions were choreographed ballet after all.

“Rapid and closed” parallel moves, photographed by Carlo Mollino
The asymmetric racing car “Bisiluro DaMolNar”
Carlo Mollino on his Bisiluro car, 1955

Lutrario Dance Hall gave Mollino the perfect opportunity to translate his extreme choreography into architecture. The colorful and dynamic design makes the space seem to be dancing with its users.
Lutrario Dance Hall, Turin, 1961

Mollino’s choreography was brought to the highest level in his last built work Teatro Regio in Turin. In the lobby, spaces on different levels communicate with each other, activating the performance of the public. They move in a fluid way, and the building becomes a big choreographic machine. In the auditorium, 37 boxes wrap around the perimeter. The mixed sensibilities of Futurism and Surrealism, similar to his earlier RAI Auditorium, may well made the project into a set for a Kubrick movie.
Teatro Regio, Turin, 1965-73
Teatro Regio, lobby
Chair for RAI Auditorium, Turin, 1952

The organic curves

One important part of Mollino’s oeuvre is his photography. For over three decades, Mollino produced thousands of erotic female portraits, starting with a Leica before switching to a Polaroid. The highly staged Polaroids, usually untitled, look like porn. But similar to his other hobbies, one can argue that the ultimate aim of these Polaroids is not about sex, but rather to capture the beautiful curves of the female body.

Carlo Mollino, Untitled Polaroids

Mollino’s interest in the organic curve can be seen in many of his designs. Among all the furniture he designed for Casa Minola, a green velvet armchair stood out as resembling many animal forms. Are those ears? Wings? Legs? Tails? The railing of the main stair in Lutrario, on the other hand, is a series of carefully composed plant-like shapes, paying homage to Horta and Gaudí.
Armchair for Casa Minola, 1945
Working sketch, iron balustrade for the main stair in Lutrario Dance Hall

Mollino loved curves, and he did so with parallel technical knowledge. In order to make the ideal curvatures in his furniture design, Mollino developed a process for bending plywood in 1950 and patented it. Unlike Aalto’s or the Eames’s process of steam-bent plywood, Mollino’s version was more low-tech, forming bent plywood with cool-molding. The elegant sculptural shapes were results of intense manual craftsmanship at the local Apelli & Varesio workshops, following precise unfolded plans and detail drawings.
Drawing for two small tables, 1950s

At an auction by Christie’s New York in June 2005, a unique oak and glass table designed by Mollino in 1949 for Casa Orengo was sold for $3,824,000. It set a world record price for a piece of 20th century furniture. Was it Mollino’s complex design sensibility and talent, or the rarity of the handcrafted piece? Probably both.