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Category: Architecture – Urban Design

Six Degrees, Six Degrees: Sydney Architecture in 2012

The other day I installed new brake rotors on my mountain bike [1]. They are beautiful; every scrap of stainless steel not required to withstand structural stress and the build up of heat has been removed. A laciness which could be mistaken for decoration is no more or no less than the result of form following function. As a chain is a chain and a tire inexorably a tire, so the rotors would cease to be themselves were they square or triangular, made of concrete or glass.

Architecture is not like this.

“Helter-Shelter,” An Exploration into the Organization of Temporary Communities. Photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie, AIA Headquarters Gallery

Moving is part of our cultural heritage. We are restless; we are adventurous; we move to find better opportunities or just to explore. We have pushed the boundaries of this country west and north and south. We abandoned farms in droves and moved into urban areas at the same time exiting cities to build rings of suburbs. We have forsaken homes altogether to live on the open road, inventing recreational vehicles and trailer parks. Recently, thousands of Americans with bad mortgages have been forced to give up their homes, clinging to their RVs like life rafts in a storm. In good times and bad, it seems, we are on the move.

Burr & McCallum, Architects

A few years ago I went to a lecture of which the most compelling theme was the link between 20th century architectural practice and toy design. I can’t remember the specific architects who were mentioned back then, but I can think of two practitioners from the Northeast who, I believe, at least partially fit into that thesis—Ann McCallum and Andrus Burr of Burr & McCallum in Williamstown, Massachusetts:

The toy is sometimes the object and the by-product of obsession, invention, tinkering, and learning. In the right person’s hands, the toy can express elevated aesthetic thought and highly selective insight, instances where rigorous work and play are so closely linked that they can become indistinguishable from each other. Another way to say it is that

Virtuosos make what they do look easy. 

Why I am a Whinger

My reaction to the release of what Infrastructure NSW calls a 20 Year State Infrastructure Strategy was what I am going to call an epiphany. It was almost nothing, certainly born as much out of laziness as principle, more the morbid blue glow of the florescent lights in Sydney’s new made in China train carriages than an incandescent halo centered over the head. To decide ‘I shall have a cheese sandwich for lunch’ would be both more useful and more profound than my realization that I can’t, or won’t, or don’t want to write about Sydney’s boring and intransigent problems anymore.

The Tour of Guimardia (English Version)

In its shopfronts cashmere sweaters the colors of macaroons. Behind their digicodes its reposing hameaux. In its ballot boxes three out of every four votes for Sarkozy. Hidden in their Maseratis its children dressed in black. The sixteenth arrondissement of Paris is a peninsula between the Bois de Boulogne (which belongs to it) and the Seine; there is the slight feeling of a border crossing, of breaching a feeble forcefield, upon entering or leaving. One can find here the works of Perret, Sauvage and, soon, Gehry, but it is the section of the Earth’s surface with the greatest concentration of buildings by Hector Guimard (1867-1942). The seizième is to Guimard as Oak Park is to Frank Lloyd Wright, except that it contains works from all periods of the architect’s career, from 1891 to 1927. Along the way one passes other buildings which support the contention, inherently arguable and worth arguing, that the sixteenth is the most architecturally interesting arrondissement. Annexed to the city in 1860, the seizième grew up in what we might call, with light apologies to Robert Caro, The Years of Hector Guimard, a complex, under-appreciated and richly contested period in the history of modern architecture. A new eclecticism began to rebel against the last moments of a played-out Haussmannization. Many modernisms were in play. Art Nouveau, which seems barely able to contain Guimard’s work, let alone the output of the entire period, may now seem the stuff of coffee table books, a particularly beautiful dead end, a fashion, a decorative style, but its surviving remnants hint of an influence more spiritual than physical.

Le tour de Guimardia (version française)

À ses devantures les pulls en cachemire aux couleurs des macarons. Derrière leurs digicodes ses hameaux reposants. Dans ses urnes les trois-quarts des votes pour Sarkozy. Cachés dans leurs Maseratis ses enfants habillés en noir. Le seizième arrondissement de Paris est en effet une péninsule entre le bois de Boulogne (qui lui appartient) et la Seine. Une frontière invisible le cerne, une petite résistance entre l’arrondissement et sa ville. On peut y retrouver les bâtiments de Perret, de Sauvage et (bientôt) de Gehry mais le seizième est le lieu de notre planète avec la plus grande concentration des bâtiments de Hector Guimard (1867-1942). Le seizième est à Guimard ce que Oak Park est à Frank Lloyd Wright, mais on peut y voir les bâtiments de toutes les périodes de sa carrière, de 1891 à 1927. Parmi ces bâtiments il y a bien des autres qui soutient la proposition, discutable j’espère, que le seizième soit l’arrondissement le plus intéressant sur le plan architectural. Après sa annexion à Paris en 1860, l’urbanisation arrivait au seizième pendant les années de Hector Guimard, une époque de plusieurs modernismes. À Paris un nouveau éclectisme architectural a commencé à résister l’Haussmannization épuisée. L’Art nouveau ne peut pas décrire l’ensemble de l’architecture de ces années, ou même l’architecture de Guimard lui-même, qui changeait au fil du temps. Puisque sa architecture n’était pas influente par rapport aux modernismes des années suivantes, l’oeuvre de Guimard vive trop souvent aux musées plutôt que dans les rues. Bien qu’il était une impasse dans l’histoire de l’architecture, qui ne veut pas habiter une telle ruelle.

Developers’ Rule: A New Plan for Planning in New South Wales

A true story: one day at the New South Wales Department of Planning two planners are talking about different theories of urban planning. ‘Neoliberal planning,’ the first says, “that’s what we do.” “No kidding,” the other replies.

“No kidding” might be replaced by “yer darn tootin” after the release of the NSW Government’s A New Planning System for New South Wales – Green Paper. If the title doesn’t quite grab you, a new planning system, however boring, will have a far greater impact on people’s lives than more juicy topics like a new Museum of Contemporary Art or a new pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Planning is the most visible juncture at which architecture meets politics, and what the Government is proposing is interesting for the way that it reveals urban planning as the point where conservatism begins to conflict with itself, where a libertarian sensibility runs counter to pro-business economic rationalist conservatism. The development industry is not quite a friend of the invisible hand; it does best when certain freedoms are curtailed. This was shown most clearly in the US by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded the Constitution’s “Takings Clause” (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) to allow governments to claim eminent domain for purposes of private redevelopment.