exploring architecture and landscape through photographs

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Mines, histories, mountains

SANAA, Zollverein, Essen.

SANAA, Zollverein, Essen.

This SANAA (Kazuye Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) building lies on the edge of the post-industrial site of Zollverein in the Ruhr. Zollverein is a former coal washing plant now become Museum. Rem Koolhaas’s long escalator transports you from the ground to the upper storeys like a lump of carbon on a conveyor belt. The building retains its machinery, its dark structures and cavernous interiors, an ambient coal black. Descending through the museum is an archaeological journey. Each floor introduces earlier historical times; the visitor passes through contemporary photographs of new communities, factories at work, factories during wartime, Third Reich propaganda, flora and fauna, stone heads. If you wish, you can descend further into the old mine, once progressively modern.
SANAA’s contribution to this re-industrialized World Heritage site is, by contrast, a pale concrete cube. Its bold square windows cut through walls and roof to flood the interior with light and bounce it back on the surroundings. The architecture has a simplicity and rawness that seem to project a perpetual newness, one of the aspirations of Modernism. The building’s relatively recent history is that the SANAA design won the commission for the Zollverein School of Management and Design, construction starting in March 2005, the completion date June 2006.
Trying to compose a photograph: the scale of the building is monumental in comparison to neighbouring domestic architecture yet indistinct against the changing winter sky, sometimes blending into light grey clouds.
SANAA designs have a correspondence with the qualities of mountains. (See the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.) This analogical, possibly allegorical, connection points up their collaboration with the photographer Walter Niedermayr whose work explores alpine landscape, its dynamic of light, space, the effect of human interaction. His photographs of the Zollvereinschule assimilate its lightness, emphasizing a play between appearance, visibility and disappearance.
Cover of 2007 Hatje Cantz publication, unfortunately out of print at the moment.

Cover of 2007 Hatje Cantz publication, unfortunately out of print at the moment

© Walter Niedermayr. Recent work, The Aspen Series, 2013

© Walter Niedermayr. Recent work, The Aspen Series, 2013

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RGB in Leòn

Mansilla and Tuñon borrowed colours from stained-glass images in the cathedral Santa Maria de León to anoint the façade of MUSAC. Graphic, rather than hagiographic like the figurative images delineated so clearly in the windows of the cathedral, a digitalized scheme of abstract rectangles exiles panegyrized figures and their moral lessons. RGB (red,green,blue) is an additive colour model that applies to computer screens and to stained-glass.

MUSAC. Mansilla & Tuñon.

The interior space, I usually try to go inside buildings, seems to expand and contract and there is a noticeable tactility in the surface of the walls. I think it is concrete but I experience the interior in a state of distraction, perhaps it is stone. Inside there are lessons, not moral guidance, but art that asks questions – flickering images by an East European video artist that tell three stories, mothers who assume different roles and attitudes. At times a group of relatives form a choir and sing about the mother, voicing their demands, needs and expectations. What is a mother these images ask the viewer. All of a sudden I don’t know. Yet I am one.
Sunlight shining through La Madona in the Cathedral’s rose window oscillates across faces and pools colour on stone. Holding her bolt upright child, she is a model of beauty and motherly good, and she wears blue as an insignia of divinity. I am not like her.
In MUSAC a secular red light falls through the cafetería windows and stains my fleshly face as I stuff it with cake. Back outside, Mansilla and Tuñon’s colour model seems, like the interior, to fuse polarities. At once vibrant yet contemplative, something spiritual seems to linger in an image that is non-prescriptive.

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Modernism is yellow, modernism is red and today the sky is blue

Centro Cultural Niemeyer, Avilés

If postmodernity, in its postindustrial sense, is a place then it can be seen in Avilés.  The imperatives of socio-economic re-vitalisation gave rise to an Oscar Niemeyer extravaganza. The centre of culture, a neo-modernist design, conjures images of the Niemeyer-designed city of Brasilía completed in 1960, and especially, Lucien Hervé’s black and white photographs of the project. Herve’s photograph of Brasilia, 1964.  A photograph that accompanies recent articles about the Centro Niemeyer seems to chime with Hervé’s space age vision, small figures against extra-planetary UFO forms. However, today’s photograph is in colour and promotes a less extra-territorial, slightly more everyday vision. Paul Richardson’s article Guardian 2011.  The Centro Niemeyer seems at once futurist and historic. Niemeyer intends the centre to be “open… to all men and women of the world.”  This ethic derives from the universalizing imperatives of modernism, a tenet springing afresh from a time before things became complicated, pluralist.  Simple shapes, in keeping with a modernist beauty of pared-down form, are composed upon a vast expanse of blonde concrete, previously post-industrial plain.  Spanish national colours meet the painter’s primary palette, seeming more like the hues forged in the early twentieth century as part of a new modernist mode of representation, a revolutionary strategy that sought to liberate humankind from the élitism of classicism.  Here, there is red, yellow and blue, as seen in the painting of Piet Mondrian and the design of Theo van Doesburg, rather than contemporary colour model RGB. The building’s colours flag a tradition of radical art.  It must be art: to endorse this idea a reclining woman poses, the artist’s model – what other subject would best support the vision of the artist of that previous time and the availability of leisure in this time? Perhaps she is a post-industrial model.  Cadmium yellow and a languid female form – the sky is naturally blue.

In Brasilía a maverick red dust blows in and around its white palaces.  The surrounding savannah, invisible in the monochrome images of Hervé and Burri, marks and measures the architecture. Traces of the ordinary inscribed in the dust disturb the super-earthly image of the monuments. Vehicle tracks cut across the grand sweeps of urban design. Footpaths in the red earth lead on and past, as always.  The red in the Centro Niemeyer is an orderly rectangle in a curve.  A dome, a banana, a tower, figures picked clean on a ground that seems as white and resistant as bone.

Photograph by Charlie Meecham

After Avilés the weather began to change. The strong light that I expected of a Spanish summer dispersed, commandeered by the jet stream and re-deployed in Northern Scotland.  Diffused light is an easier proposition technically but I missed the shape-shifting capacity of shadows, part of the landscape disappeared.

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Stadttor – “ein Highlight der modernen Architektur in Düsseldorf”

Stadttor, Düsseldorf

Stadttor is a combined use building designed by the architects Overdiek Petzinka and Ptnrs, near the Gehry building in Medienhafen. It was completed in 1997. This era of architectural highlights encouraged a game between visibility and invisibility, where buildings seemed poised in a liminal space between image and materiality.  The surfaces are slippery, at once transparent and reflective.  The facade appears as illusion, a trompe l’oeil, a haunting, and this brings to mind Rheinhold Martin’s book “Utopia’s Ghost.”  You can see him talk about postmodern architecture and its relationship to the “vexed figure of historical redemption” here.
The  building houses offices which serve the Ministry of North Rhine-Westfalia and management consultation companies. The cafes and shops in the atrium are accessible to everyone but as it was Easter Sunday, the businesses were closed.  The parkland outside attracted people.  It was a family day. It was mainly sunny but even in the rain families posed for photographs, Stadttor in the background. A group played catch with boiled eggs around the topiary. If someone missed a catch the eggs would smash on the grass.

After, we went to eat at Curry. Curry is a fast food joint opposite the restaurant Gehry’s but a much greater culinary distance exists between the two.  Curry appeared to have three or four mains – Wurst with tomato ketchup, Wurst with curry sauce and Wurst with something else that I forget. Curry doesn’t really get curry. The curry sauce is tomato ketchup with curry powder scattered on the top and therefore something of a disappointment to a regular to Bradford’s curry houses. Having said that, the Wurst is second to none and it is worth walking past Gehry’s and heading across the road.

I was asked if the photograph above was superimposed. It is, rather,a single exposure pinhole on 5 x 4 sheet film. The negative has been scanned but no intervention has been made with Photoshop except to remove a fragment of broken egg.

Photograph by Charlie Meecham

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Around Medienhafen

Easter, Düsseldorf

We stayed at Courtyard in Medienhafen.  It was cheap, perhaps because it is a business hotel and it was Easter.  They gave us a chocolate bunny which we ate on a walk around the other side of the dock.  This was the side that our hotel room overlooked, not the architecture of Gehry, Alsop and Chipperfield but the view of cement silos and woods, family boats moored in a scruffy dock.  Beyond, in our ninth floor picture window, modern barges slid into frame, travelling the Rhine. Below, a half empty car-park and, nose pressed against glass, the dark glamour of the Hyatt Regency,  frequent destination of taxis, occasional limos and rolling matching luggage.  Flood plain fields stretched towards the art nouveau villas in Oberkassel our furthest point, walking in the rain.  We returned along Hamburger Strasse, straight, long and functional, a contrast to the bourgeois curves of Oberkassel. It was a long stretch passing by a giant skeletal building, broken glass, guttering and boarding, but groups of people still gathered at the station opposite to take the tram.  There were working factories nearby and cafés supplying Würste and Brötchen and Coca-Cola. Fresh red graffiti on a new manufacturing unit read USE YOUR BRAIN.

Hyatt Regency top right

Sign building. Architects – Murphy/Jahn

Hamburger Strasse

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Around the margins and in the gaps left by design-led redevelopment lie areas which indicate where the finance failed. Marked by mounds of moved earth, roads to nowhere and encroaching scrub these terrains create unplanned plazas throwing light up to illuminate contemporary architectural facades, their millennial colours and CAD aesthetics. These are unmapped places where communicating lines of old roads are cut through, severing the novel from the old and habitual. Industrial processing with its dust, hum and growl is over there now; cities have been drawn and quartered. The makeshift soon moves in to the transitional space between two times, extemporising, ready to squat but able to scarper one way or the other.  The emerging ad-hoc is, in contrast to the architecture, unspectacular. This is a place made up of things cached or simply hiding beneath notice, a place which provides a chair, violets or a shelter smelling damply of vegetation and old newspapers.  It is a geographical location where you can sit by a circle of burnt ash and contemplate what Sudjek might call capitalism’s last architectural hooray. This is where the boom ends – not with a turn of fortune but among trickling piles of sand.

Medienhafen, 2012. Photograph by Charlie Meecham