With Niemeyer, Another Part of Le Corbusier's Baleful Legacy Dies

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is dead at 104. He was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, who I hold to be one of the most sinister intellectual frauds of the 20th century. Le Corbusier was principally responsible for the mid-century fad of brutalism, which encouraged architects to compose buildings from giant, prefabricated slabs of untreated reinforced concrete. No attempt would be made integrate the buildings into existing city or landscapes. They would be plopped down like the used, soiled Legos of a race of alien giants.

In the hands of talented architects, brutalist buildings might occasionally display deeply obscured hints of elegance or wit. In the hands of hordes of epigones (and budget-conscious city planners), brutalism resulted in a plague of anonymous, inhuman bunkers that quickly crusted over with mold and rust stains. In other words, Brutalism brought the charm and elegance of Stalinist industrial encampments to Western capitals. Here's a quick quiz: Is this sad, stained, crumbling structure the Great Hall of the Democratic People's Assembly in some Eastern European country, or is it a priory in France?


Here's the answer. Sometimes only a British reactionary (in this case, Theodore Dalrymple) can do justice to a pompous, crypto-totalitarian twit like Le Corbusier:

Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.

André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.

    ...Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:

    A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many).

Now, Niemeyer's not in the same league. Although influenced by Le Corbusier, he was capable of designing buildings of beauty (the headquarters of the PCF, for example). But he has to take responsibility for the inhuman monstrosity that is Brasilia, a sprawling wasteland of rectilinear concrete slapped down in the middle of the jungle. Its residents scurry for cover amid its gigantic, broiling public squares. And Brasilia's here to stay, since it was quickly added to the UN's list of World Heritage Sites, which is a very good reason not to take that list very seriously.

Giant Serious Cheap Shiny Books

The other day, I was passing a bookstore and noticed a huge book on Gothic architecture, sculpture and painting (g) for only €10. Next to it was a similar book on Rome, and then one on Egypt. All were published by the h.f. ullmann (g) publishing house, and all cost only €10. I leafed through the Rome book: plenty of full-color illustrations, diagrams, and charts, plus text. 'Hmm', I thought, 'looks pretty solid. And even if I don't like it, it's only €10'. So I bought it, and spent a few hours dipping into it.

The next day, I returned and bought all the other €10 Ullman books I could lay my hands on. They're beautifully put together and laid out, with at least 2-3 illustrations on each page. But what's especially compelling for a Bildungsbürger like me is the text: richly detailed essays on every major aspect of the book's subject, reflecting the latest research. If you sit down and read one, you will be rewarded with a well-judged, thoughtful, comprehensive take on, say, tapestries or Roman canal building, replete with quotations from contemporary artists, authors and thinkers. German thoroughness and historical sophistication at its most inspiring!

Considering the thousands of hours of labor that went into these minor masterpieces of the bookmaker's art, I have no idea why they're being practically given away for only €10. But as long as that's the case, I can strongly recommend you snap them up.

Communists, Baby Extinct Animals, and Factory Explosions

What do they have in common? On Saturday, I saw them all. First I went to the Neander Valley (Neandertal in German), where the remains of Neanderthals were discovered in 1856. Most of this picturesque valley has been turned into a handsome nature preserve.

Large parts of it are off-limits, though, because they've been made into enclosures for the kind of Ice Age mammals the Neanderthals might have hunted or eaten: the Wisent, or European bison, the Tarpan, or European wild horse, and the Aurochs (German Auerochse), a kind of Eurasian ox that is the ancestor of all modern cattle. The wisent is not extinct, but vulnerable; there are colonies of them all over Europe. The last aurochs was killed in Poland in 1627, and the last Tarpan died in the early 20th century. The animals in the Neanderthal Valley are the product of selective back-breeding by German zoologists Heinz and Lutz Heck. In the 1920s, they attempted to re-create the aurochs and tarpan. The results are what we see today -- plausible, but of course not genetically identical with their deceased ancestors.

Here are a few photos of wisents, tarpans, and aurochses (including young'uns) in that order:

Wisent Sleeping

Curious Wisent

Tarpan Foal

Tarpan Mare and Foal 1

Aurochs with Medium Length Horns

Aurochs Calf 1

To see a few more baby animal photos and views of the Neandertal (as well as the majestic, Brueghel-esque Spring Landscape with Defecating Wisent), just drop by the online photo gallery

Now that the nature buffs are satisfied, we can move on to something a bit more sociological. If you went up to this pleasant-looking woman...

Christian Schura German Communist Party Poster

...grabbed her by the lapels, and yelled: "Why, you're a...a...a...Communist!", she would answer "Na, und?" ('Yeah, so what?'). She is the candidate for the DKP, or Deutsche Kommunistische Partei. She represented the party (g) in the local council of the working-class Duesseldorf neighborhood of Eller. She is now running for a position in the state government from District 41 in Duesseldorf's working-class east. Her slogan (Konsequent antikapitalistisch) means, roughly, 'Seriously anti-capitalist.' The vote is 9 May. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In case you're asking why communists would be fielding candidates in fashionable, wealthy Duesseldorf, the answer is that Duesseldorf is not all fashionable and wealthy! On the way back from the Neander Valley, you ride through Gerresheim*, a working-class suburb. Dominating the landscape is the former Gerresheimer Glassworks, a huge glassware factory (one of the biggest in the world) that once employed 8,000 people. After a storied history, the factory was shuttered in 2005 (g), and is now being carefully dismantled by a Dutch demolition concern. Here's one part of the remaining factory, which seems to have suffered some bizarre explosions:

Gerresheimer Glashuette 1

Gerresheimer Glashuette 2

Continue reading "Communists, Baby Extinct Animals, and Factory Explosions" »

Witzelstrasse Industrial Park Video

I'm off to Brussels for the weekend, but before I go, here's something for the aesthetes of decay out there.
I added some soundtrack music to the slideshow of the abandoned Witzelstrasse trade park and made it into a six-minute movie. Click here to play from the blip.tv site (big file, slow load), or right-click download the raw .wmv file here and play it full-screen (recommended!)
More information after the jump.

Continue reading "Witzelstrasse Industrial Park Video" »

Reclamation of A Trade Park

Witzelstr. 55 is the address of a mixed commercial and industrial trade area in the middle of Duesseldorf that was entirely abandoned in mid-2002.

Since then, lots of interesting things have been going on there. I'm working on a more ambitious project, but until then, here is a slideshow of images taken in October 2007, April 2008, and August of 2009. However, I recommend that instead of watching this glorious decay through a little window, you follow the link below to my Picasa photo album, and run a full-screen slideshow.


My Husband Was Torn Apart by a Frenzied Mob!!


Eija-Riitta Eklöf Berliner-Mauer's* moving tribute to her...uh, 'late' husband:

"We have been together now for many years, spiritually if not physically. Like every married couple, we have our ups and downs. We even made it through the terrible disaster of November 9, 1989, when my husband was subjected to frenzied attacks by a mob.

But we are still as much in love as the day we first met. We may not have a conventional marriage, but neither of us cares much for conventions. Ours is a story of two beings in love, our souls entwined for all eternity."

Yesterday, I heard a fascinating interview (g) with  Eklöf Berliner-Mauer on my public radio station. Strongly recommended!

Continue reading "My Husband Was Torn Apart by a Frenzied Mob!!" »

Art Bunkers in the Country

If there's one thing German architects, engineers and designers love to do, it's take abandoned industrial sites and convert them to "civilian" use without destroying their original utilitarian design. In the fields southwest of the German town of Neuss there once stood the Hombroich Missile Base, a NATO base where Pershing and other missiles were stored. The base was decommissioned in 1993/94, and a local collector named Karl-Heinrich Müller decided to buy the land it was located on, as well as some adjoining territory, and begin building a refuge for artists, writers, and scientists in which low-lying minimalist buildings would complement the rolling pastureland. The first result of this ambitious project was the Hombroich Museum Island, a sort of outdoor museum in which the art is displayed in unobtrusive red-brick buildings set in a gently-landscaped wetland.

Another result is the Missile Base (Raketenstation in German), a collection of odd-looking buildings which sort of emerges unexpectedly from the rolling pastureland (since all the barbed-wire fences surrounding the original missile base were removed). Some of the structures, such as the watchtower, and hangars, have been left in their original locations. Others have been modifed into residences for visiting artists and scientists. Large earthen dams break lines of sight and create tiny out-of-the-way alcoves, like the "one-man house" guesthouse for visiting artists.

Entirely new buildings and sculptures are being planned and built, so the place changes each time you visit it. In 2004, the Langen Foundation building, designed by Japanese minimalist Tadao Ando, was opened. This angular masterpiece refers wittily back to the missile base's original use: the walls are undecorated concrete, and you enter the museum by opening a heavy gray "blast-door" and descending two flights of steps to an underground "bunker." The main part of the museum is sunk about 15 feet into the earth, and consist of two large rectangular galleries set at right-angles to each other.

However, the museum itself is anything but gloomy; light streams in through through large expanses of clear glass. The entrance conducts visitors through an entrance arch, and along an enormous reflecting pool that surrounds half of the main building, which looks like a shimmering clear-glass box. Compared to the building, the artwork on display is pretty modest. The heart of the museum's collection is the bequest of the Langen family, and consists of 20th-century painting (Kenneth Noland, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Andy Warhol, Max Ernst), and Chinese and Japanese scroll painting. The current exhibition, Divine Images in East Asia, features about 30 small-scale representations of Jain Tirthankaras, Hindu deities, Buddha, and some Bodhisattvas. 

The slideshow has are a few pictures of the museum building, the missile base, and the surrounding landscape, which is dominated by the rather attractive Erft Canal (g). Enjoy!

German Joys Review: Branford Marsalis and the Duesseldorf Symphony

Last night I saw a concert at the Duesseldorf Tonhalle, home to the Duesseldorf Symphony Orchestra.  The program (g) was Ravel, ter Veldhuis, Glazunov, and Scriabin.

But before I spend a few words on that, I thought I'd talk about the building itself, the Duesseldorf Tonhalle. Built in 1926, it was once the world's largest planetarium.    The problem is, a planetarium dome is a terrible thing to put over an orchestra -- it reflects sound in ways that create "ghost knocking" effects at points within the building. 

People somehow lived with this until 2003, when the local government hired the Dutch acoustic-consulting firm Peutz and the architects at Hentrich-Petschnigg Partners to find a solution.  The solution they found, shown in a diagram from from this article (g/sub) in the journal Bauphysik (Construction Physics), is below.  I don't know exactly what the arrows mean, but it looks cool, doesn't it?


The dashing engineer/architect duo coated the inside of the dome with a layer of acoustically-transparent metal panels (they hide the red portion in the above diagram).  The panels conceal a complex network of reflectors which solve the acoustic problem.  Hanging from the top of the dome, in a circular opening about 15 feet wide, are a series of shiny, bepimpled oval-shaped metal objects. 

All of it -- the rhomboid panels covering the entire top of the dome, the metal eggs clustered at the apex -- glow with an ethereal aquamarine light.  The overall effect is extraterrestrial.  I wouldn't have been surprised if the eggs had slowly descended and opened to reveal glistening, Giger-esque creatures.*  And the acoustics are damn good.  I've seen several concerts in the pre-renovation Tonhalle (which was prettier, since the interior of the dome was coated in burnished wood), and the sound is now clearly better.  Although the friend I went to the concert with heard some creaking noises coming from the panels.  The aliens, probably.

Oh, where was I?  The concert!  That's right!  First up was Part 2 of Ravel's refulgent Daphnis et Chloe Suite.  A difficult piece, but they pulled it off pretty well.  Not to carp or anything, but I thought the brass was a bit too dominant. Then came something completely different: the 'Tallahatchie' Concerto for saxophone and orchestra by the contemporary Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, or Jacob TV for short.  Jacob TV, a committed tonalist, started in rock music, but now straddles the line between pop and classical music, sometimes creating elaborate multimedia shows.

What's your take on contemporary classical music that sounds pretty, you're asking?  Happy to oblige!  I try to be ecumenical when it comes to the tonal/atonal debate.  Let a thousand flowers bloom -- composers should use whatever medium calls to them.  Immediately dismissing tonal contemporary music as 'reactionary' is just snobbery.  On the other hand, a lot of it's pretty dull. I can think of many tough, spiky contemporary pieces that are more soulful than any given stretch of Michael Nyman tootling.  Birtwistle, Maxwell-Davies, Ligeti, and Stockhausen at his best come to mind.  Not to mention Anton Webern, the ineffable diamond-cutter.  Every music lover should wear a black armband on September 15 to commemorate his accidental shooting at the hands of an American soldier on that day in 1945.

But back to ter Veldhuis.  The 'Tallahatchie' concerto was pretty to listen to, in a film-music way.  The first movement, a slow, dreamy evocation of a river's rhythms, featured a spare, yearning solo line above shimmering chromatic string chords. The second movement was a series of moto perpetuo motives for the saxophone with syncopated accompaniment in the orchestra.  It held my interest, but didn't really grip me.  Too Nyman/Glass-esque, and with the signature faults of those composers -- no real tension between the soloist and the orchestra, and insufficient thematic development. 

The next piece was a German premiere of a saxophone concerto by Glazunov which I'd never heard of, and which was pleasingly autumnal.  Marsalis played with a wonderful quicksilver tone and just enough well-judged vibrato to tingle the spine.  He played a bebop piece as an encore, with spontaneous accompaniment from a bassist in the orchestra. 

The piece de resistance was Prometheus, Poem of Fire by that fascinating nutcase ScriabinPrometheus, his last work for orchestra, isn't performed very often, because the full version actually calls for a "light-piano" which illuminates the concert hall with fields of particular color during the performance.  Scriabin himself enjoyed the gift of color synasthesia -- the perception of sounds as colors.  Thanks to the renovation of the Tonhalle, it was actually possible to realize the piece.  Different sections of panels above our heads did, in fact, light up in various colors during the tone-poem.  And during the finale, the entire audience was bathed in intense white brilliance.  Scriabin has always been a bit too confused and soupy for my tastes, but I have to say, it was a pretty impressive experience.

Overall, it was an adventurous program.  If you live anywhere near Duesseldorf, you should absolutely make the trip to the next concerts on Sunday and Monday.  After all, when's the next time you're going to be able to experience a "light-piano"? 

* What happens when the aliens descend? I, of course, would have been the guy who sits, transfixed by the eerie spectacle, while the other concert-goers run screaming for the exits.  This would either result in me being accepted into the aliens' sticky-but-fascinating community, or flayed by their razor-sharp molybdenum tentacles.

Germany is Shining!

A few years ago, the BJP, a political party in India, ran on the slogan "India is shining'.  Then I guess India stopped shining, since the BJP got creamed in the election. 

But Germany is still shining.  With shiny new buildings, that is.  The signature of recent German architecture is clinically voluptuous brushed steel and glass, with a weightless-looking design that creates lots of open space and light. I'm sure these buildings have been made possible by ultra-cool recent advances in building fabrication techniques, but unfortunately I can't tell you what those might be. 

One of my hometown favorites is the Duesseldorf Airport, which was rebuilt in the late 1990s after a most regrettable  incident (G).  Soaring arc-shaped columns, endless expanses of glass inside and out, and an entrance hall that manages to be inviting and monumental.  Since you can see the entire entrance hall from almost any point within it, there's no way to get lost. 

The Stadttor ("city gate") office building is also a gem: it seems to float like an elegant ocean liner of local enterprise:


I wasn't too impressed with the new Berlin Central Station, since it's basically a gigantic shopping mall, and there are plenty of those where I come from.  However, I granted it some grudging respect when I alighted from the subway platform deep underground and realized that you could look all the way to the canopy above the top platforms, hundreds of meters above.  The local and long-distance trains all criss-cross within the station itself, on tracks that seem to float.  A bit like those movies with futuristic "spaceports" with ranks of hovering landing pads.

The latest wonder is BMW-Welt, or "BMW-World":


This crystalline chrysalis just received this rave from the IHT's architecture critic:

I feared that the building itself - a luxury showroom that could double as a theme park for car fetishists - would be a monument to excess. But then the glittering forms of the BMW Welt building appeared, and immediately rekindled my faith in architecture's future.

Set against a backdrop of hulking factory sheds and 1970s office towers, the building weaves together the detritus of a postwar industrial landscape, imbuing it with a more inclusive spirit. Its undulating steel forms, suggesting the magical qualities of liquid mercury, may be the closest yet that architecture has come to alchemy.

Designed by Wolf Prix of the Vienna-based architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, BMW Welt - or BMW World - joins an impressive list of high-profile architecture projects by German car companies in recent years, including Zaha Hadid's BMW factory in Leipzig and UNStudio's Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

Whether from a passion for well-built machines or a more self-serving interest in architecture's ability to promote an aura of technological sophistication, the auto companies are underwriting buildings that combine a stunning level of structural refinement with a flair for formal experimentation.

Slideshow here.  [h/t bro.].  I'm no architecture critic, but I know what I like.  Unlike gigantic slabs of concrete from the 1970s, I can see these buildings aging well.  They might look dated in 20 years, but they's still be crisp and elegant and exhilarating. May dozens more of them get built.