Saturday, 17 September 2016

Complex urbanism

To give this piece its full title: Complex urbanism wears simple, at times casual clothes.

I am no longer actively teaching architecture, but sometimes I still feel like getting a message off my chest.  And so it is with some thoughts about Jean Nouvel.  Nouvel seems to conjure up some extraordinary pieces of architecture distinguished by uniquely simple diagrams.  Which to my mind, are too rarely remarked on.

Yes, the seminal Institut du Monde Arabe was justly famous not only for its remarkable dynamic abstraction of mashrabiya screens as mechanical irises, but also lauded for its resilute geometric solution to a difficult gap in the Paris built fabric.  That clarity of thinking is no longer easy to recognise.  For me the overall scheme is disappointingly disfigured by the major additions filling in the plaza, and now stomach bumping with a banal billboard the Notre Dame across the river.

But Paris has been good to Nouvel, and he has been good for Paris.  He has twice employed the same fundamental strategy for inserting museums as 'pavilions in a garden', while also healing gaps in the city's characteristic block perimeter facades.  

As a way of turning the diagram into built form, its almost simplistic: run a gossamer thin glass screen to the height of the adjacent buildings, and enjoy the freedom of laying out your building in the sequestered landscape behind.  The Fondation Cartier in Paris from 1994 established the trope.  But while the building behind is a thoroughly enjoyable modernist glass ensemble, it arguably holds no further profound lessons for the architectural pilgrim.

Its next manifestation, in the Musée du quai Branly you find the same diagram for the screen and the garden, but also a richer vein of arguably interesting thinking.

First, there is the misdirection.  That famous green wall seems to be the first and often only image associated with the Branly in many articles and web entries.  In life, it turns out to be the facade of the minor, administrative wing of the museum. Its real function seems to be to respectfully extend the corner from the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, at just the right height, and just the right weight.  The greenery allows Nouvel to compose the facade with a different rhythm and scale to that of the apartment buildings, while minimizing any clash that would otherwise occur.  Importantly, that facade is just as long as is needed to anchor the corner, and no more.

The real urban work is being done, as in the Fondacion Cartier, by the inscribed glass screen, forming the perceived edge to the remainder of the block, while revealing the garden behind.  

In this garden, the much larger museum building wallows like a beached whale, stitched together by an internal armature for which the declared analogy is a river.  Regardless of what that sounds like, I actually mean it as a compliment.  Like Frank Gehry when asked 'why?' about his Barcelona fish restaurant, Nouvel is entitled to say 'why not?'  This lesson is simple.  Almost any analogy will work, if the architect extracts from it its essential organisational or expressive potential, rather than render its superficial connection to site or context.  And if in design development the analogy doesn't work out, a good architect abandons it, gets rid of it, and starts with another, better one.

But for me, the biggest lesson is what is hidden. Therefore I learnt it not from experiencing it directly in the museum.  I have never come across anything more than a cursory mention of the artists in residence studios, that occupy the apartment buildings on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais.  No diagram, no plans, no images.  Yet that is where, I infer, Nouvel makes one of his profound departures from the modernist idiom.  

If I am right, I figured it out staying in a semi-basement apartment in Paris, accessed tortuously, like the famous sequence from Mon Oncle, but more dark passages than irrational stairs.  At the end of that transit was the apartment, almost miraculously opening a shuttered window back to the quiet courtyard.  It was a great place to come to rest and enjoy.  It didn't really critically matter how you got there, as long as the 'there' lifts your spirit. 

The proposition is that for personal and domestic places, the delight at the destination does benefit from the romantic, almost secret path.  But it needed no clarity of the 'parti'.  And so it is, I suspect, with the artists' studios.  See that 'mess' where the new museum building collides with the back of the apartment blocks?  I am pretty sure it was made that way.

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