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Talk About Contemporary Architecture

By Gilles de Bure, Flammarion, 2010, pp. 256, $24.95

Ministry of Culture in Paris

Ministry of Culture, Les Bons Enfants site, Paris, 2005, by Francis Soler and Frederic Druat

By Carter B. Horsley

"Who really cares how the temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, Macchu Picchu in Peru, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China, or Palladio's Rotunda in Italy were built?  It is the art, literature, musicality, and symbolism that have bestowed historical value on them and enable them to stand the test of time."

That is the essence of great architecture and what this wonderful book tries, every effectively, to convey despite its relatively small format.

It is full of great color photographs of some major monuments of architecture and many very exciting and interesting recent projects around the world.

In addition, it has short but quite fine essays on various aspects of architecture as well as a section on 30 top architects and their major projects.

One of the more interesting projects illustrated in the book is the 2005 Ministry of Culture building at Les Bons Enfants site in Paris, designed by Francis Soler and Frederick Druat.  The building wears a very intricately woven "jacket" of lace.

Hermes and Sony stores in Tokyo

Renzo Piano's Maison Hermes Building, 2001, left, and Yashinobi Ashihara's Sony Building, 1966, right

"It is in Tokyo that the marriage between architecture and fashion, between space and luxury, is truly being celebrated," the author observes and illustrates with Toyo Ito's Tod's Building, Jun Aoki's Louis Vuitton Building, Renso Piano's Maison Hermes building, and Yashinobi Ashihara's Sony Building.

Murinsel in Graz, Austria by Vita Acconci

Murinsel, Graz, Austria, 2007, by Vita Acconci

"In 2007," the book notes, "an unidentified floating object was spotted in Graz.  This was the Murinsel (''island on the Mur'), landing delicately on the river that runs through the Austrian city.  Here Acconci tries to show how an urban space might be treated as open forum, debating chamber, and discussion platform,  The Murinsel is a walkway that is also a hybrid structure linking the two banks of the watercourse over a pair of slender foot-bridges the shell of which contains a metal-and-glass cafe, a theater with seating for 200, and a children's play area.  Generated by the distortion of a double geodesic dome, the Murinsel, as liquid as the waters beneath, is a succesful example of the osmosis between art and architecture."

Elbephilharmonie in Hamburg

 Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron, 2011

Of a major new mixed-use project in Hamburg, Mr. Bure observed that "The Kaispeicher, a one-time cocoa warehouse, an immense, disused brick-built ship conflating abstraction and realism, had long closed down.  What was to be done with it?  Turn it into a venue for music, housing, several halls and leisure zones with retaurants an stores.  Herzog & de Meuron rigged it out with an elegant set of sails built up out of crystalline shards with points soaring every which way into the sky."  

[An April 5, 2007 article on the project appear at archnewsnow.com: "Like so many cities, Hamburg is reclaiming its long overlooked and underused industrial waterfront on the River Elbe with the development of HafenCity, currently the largest urban construction initiative under way in Europe. The 380-acre redevelopment zone will be a mix of office, retail, residential, and cultural uses. When completed sometime around 2020, the district will have increased the size of the city center by 40 percent. A total of 19.4 million square feet of new construction is being planned, and much of it is being designed by a constellation of international starchitects (link above has details).
"One of the most dazzling projects - and the cultural centerpiece of HafenCity - is about to break ground - the Elbe Philharmonic Hall (Elbphilharmonie) designed by Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron. The design incorporates two distinct elements: a pre-existing brick warehouse topped by a new crystalline tent-like structure that seems to float above the industrial base. Sited at the tip of a promontory known as the Sandtorhafen that juts into the river harbor, the $313 million (€241 million), 1.3 million-square-foot public-private partnership development will include not only a new home for Hamburg’s NDR (North German Radio) Symphony Orchestra, but also a luxury hotel, residential apartments, conference center, wellness area, the Klingendes Museum (music museum for children), restaurants, nightclubs, and parking.
"Anchoring the project is Kaispeicher A (Warehouse A), a fortress-like, 635,000-square-foot “monolithic, earthy building,” as described by Jacques Herzog, designed and constructed in the 1960s by Werner Kallmorgen, and used for cargo storage into the 1990s. As they did at the Tate Modern in London, Herzog & de Meuron are transforming the trapezoidal-shaped structure to accommodate back-of-house facilities for the concert halls, the children’s museum, public amenities, and the parking garage.
"Perched on top of the warehouse and matching its footprint is the new, 667,000-square-foot glass structure that will rise upward into a series of wavelike peaks above the brick form below. The glass fašade, consisting in part of curved panels, some of them cut open, becomes a gigantic, iridescent crystal that catches the changing reflections of the sky, water, and city. 
"Mediating and separating the old and the new will be an expansive public space with an undulating ceiling and outdoor terraces offering visitors and concert-goers panoramic views of the city and the harbor from 120 feet above the river. 'It’s a new public plaza for diverse people, not only the elite,' Herzog explained at a recent New York press conference.
Nestled between the residential and hotel portions of the crystal tower is the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It includes a 2,150-seat main concert hall and a smaller 550-seat hall for intimate performances. Concert goers will access the main concert hall from the plaza by a striking grand staircase that Herzog called 'a complex, ceremonial route' to the foyer that wraps around the hall. Like 'floating ribbons,' branches of the staircase will lead into the main concert hall."]

Ehwa University in Seoul by Dominique Perreault

Ewha Women's University in Seoul, Korea, 2008, by Dominique Perrault

The most sensational project in the book is the Ewha Women's University in Seoul, Korea which was built in 2008 and designed by Dominique Perrault, who was best known for his Bibliotheque Nationale de France Francois Mitterand in Paris in 1996.

The book provides the following commentary:

"The black of the asphalt, the red of the track, the green of the scenery, though them all steaks a white fault line.  A fault, a slit, a furrow that plunges down a gentle slope to a depth of 20 meters beore climing out the other side up a broad stairway, reminding one irresistably of Courbet's Origin of the world.  Af first, our retinal sensations cannot gauge the size of this faultline, which is only fully appreciable once inside: giagnaitc, outsized, yet it barely scars the earth.  To each side an immense glazed wall the ridge of whih, though perfetly orthogonal, seesm to curve in a striking effect.  The metalfitments set around this mass of glass evoke music paper inscribed with strange, leaping scansions, while the cap nuts screwing them down stand for the endless vibrato of an appoggiatura.  Housing 22,000 students in its 75,350 square feet..., flights of stairs strike out inside into the space, ballast that forestalls any latent sense of vertigo.  Then follow five floors: classrooms, amphitheaters, auditoriums, crossroads, footbridges.  As night falls, the fault line is suddenly illuminated and transforms into a gigantic comet of light and color.  A sort of proclamation of 'non-architecture' and a perfect illustration of a strategy of concealment, Ewha Women's University is also perhaps where geography takes its revenge on history."

Sun Building in Seoul by Morphosis

Sun Tower in Seoul, Korea, 2008, by Morphosis

Deconstructivism is represented by Massimiliano Fuksas's Paliano Gymnasium in Italy in 1985 and by Morphosis's Sun Tower in Seoul, Korea in 2008.  

1985 Building by Fuksas

Paliano Gymnasium in Italy by Massimiliano Fuksas

"If the opening salvo seems to have been fired" by Fuksas," others also favored battered walls, sloping floors and windows, off-kilter pillars that make th ehead spin, destabilization, fragmentation and negative polarities."

Click here to order the book from amazon.com for 66 percent off its $24.95 list price.

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