Monday, July 27, 2009

At the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, I had a Howard Roark moment.

Photo by PictFactory (Creative Commons License)
I was at the top of the world. I stood on a thin metal parapet, the landing of a narrow staircase supported on the roof of the building. I clutched the delicate iron framework and could feel the ripple of the heavy concrete mass underneath, and the earth from which it rose. The vast horizon, with mountains on one side and the sea on the other, made me dizzy, and the warm sea breeze made me unsteady, so I held the metal more tightly.

And I thought this was divine. Architecture is the attempt by human ingenuity to reverse the process of atrophy in an expanding universe and this building on which I stood was a masterpiece and a milestone. It represented shelter and audacious idealism. It was carved and sculpted by a giant. Surely this must be forbidden and shunned by all religions; for it was intoxicating and I felt like I had sinned.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Tuesday, 14 July 2009, Seung-Jin, Emily, Gary and I celebrated, along with all of Paris, the 220th anniversary of the supremely influential French Revolution.

Photo by Seung-jin Ham

I awoke from the kind of deep sleep in which you dream of many things, losing all sense of time and place. It was dawn and I was in a small room at an inn in Portbou, Spain.

It was Monday now and the next train into France would leave at 9:30am.

[to be continued... maybe]

Barcelona: a city said to have been founded by Hercules 400 years before the building of Rome; Antoni Gaudí’s city; a city brimming with elaborate, vibrant, boisterous Catalonian spirit; and a city in which I knew no one and had no place to stay when I arrived at the train station at 11pm on Saturday night.

Getting There

Barcelona had never been part of my itinerary for this summer. When I found myself stranded at Belfort, forced to lodge in a cheap hotel for the night, I considered the option. Perhaps it was the annoying but very catchy song from the movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona that did it. In any case, I found next morning that because it was Saturday I would have to wait till the afternoon to get a train to either to Paris or to Ronchamp where I half wanted to return for another day. Incidentally, there was a train leaving very soon for Avignon, a train that required no reservation, and one whose final destination was a place called Port Bou. I diligently checked my Eurail map and found Port Bou to be a small beach town just south of the French-Spanish border. Barcelona looked so close from there.

So I spent the day reading the last few hundred pages of Les Miserables on the train.

I was thinking of spending the night at Port Bou but when on my arrival at 8pm I inquired about the next train to Barcelona, the lady at the counter urgently gestured to me, indicating that I should get on the train right opposite us. I did not have a ticket and asked if I could buy one but she wanted none of that. She was very intent: “This is the train to Barcelona. It’s leaving NOW! You have to go now!” And so I got on.

And now as we rolled down into Spain, with mountains on one side and the endless sea on the other, the ambience changed. People were speaking more loudly, and in a different language that sounded more organic with the rolling of the Rrr’s, and there was more laughter. And luckily, the conductor when he came to check our tickets didn’t peruse the list of countries on my Eurail pass.

Before Sunrise

The train pulled into the Barcelona Sants station. The reassuring thing about underground train terminals is that they all look similar -- I could just have been getting off an RER train in Paris. As I emerged into the station, I saw a sign pointing toward a McDonald's. It gave me a strange sense of orientation in a new place. I was in a world I knew well, even if I didn't speak the language.

Perhaps it was a good thing I didn't know then that the information booths in train stations in Spain can be unreliable and frustrating. For now, I just followed the advice of a man in some kind of uniform who said I would find hostels and hotels if I walked out the station and toward a certain direction for ten minutes. I knew not to be alone this late so I tried to keep close to a couple who were also walking in the same direction with their luggage. Barcelona, though, was full of life and lights, and the voices of joyful people. It was a Saturday night and groups of dressed up young people were walking by. I arrived at the

Mies and Gaudi

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friday, 1pm: the next train to a small village called Ronchamp was leaving in an hour from the Paris Gare du Nord. I had thirty minutes to pack for that trip, and possibly others.

Visiting Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut would suffice as justification for a day of unexcused absence from work. I had run into a group of Princeton students on my way back from a shisha place the night before, and together we had set off for an establishment known as Social Club. As a consequence I was unable to get up in time for work on Friday. The other kilo interns had departed for Amsterdam for the weekend and would not be going to work either. So I—in the spirit of a true KGS alum—decided to take the day off.

I had looked for an itinerary that didn’t require a reservation, so I just stepped into the train and by 6:30pm I was in a small town called Lure, waiting for the shuttle that would take me to Ronchamp.

Finally I landed in a small village in the middle of nowhere: what was Le Corbusier—forger of rules for a new machine architecture, and conceiver of utopian urban schemes such as the Plan Voisin—doing here. While the man calls for regulation and standardization, his architecture transcends that. It is sculptural, harmonious, thoughtful, and serene. It denies mass-production and repetition. It embraces the individuality of the artist, and acknowledges human inhabitation. That is what draws me to Le Corbusier: his unrelenting conceptual idealism and his built works complement each other. To study one in isolation is misleading. The five points are not enough; they need masters such as Gaudi and Horta and Corbusier and Mies to articulate them. This idea undermines some precepts of modernism—such as the belief in a supposed International Style—but it redeems modern architecture.

The chapel was outside the village itself. I walked uphill for 20 minutes on a completely deserted pathway. The setting sun was brilliant and formed bright yellow outlines on the grassy horizon. Bees were buzzing, and it smelled like spring. It reminded me of the journey of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings.

I reached the top to find that the gates had been shut at 7:30pm. That explained why I was the only person for as far as I could see. On the bright side, I had the chapel all to myself. I walked around the boundary wall, catching glimpses of it. It was symbolic of my quest to become an architect: alluring but elusive.

I saw hills of fresh mud, which was the landscaping for the new addition that will soon be constructed there. It is a Renzo Piano project and has been the subject of much controversy. I entered the construction site, deserted as it was, and climbed a large hill to get a better view of that fleeting wonder.

The sun was setting now and I began to wonder where I would spend the night. A car came along from the other side of the hill and a man began to lock the gate to the construction area. This would have locked me in so I called out to him. He was kind enough to wait for me and let me out. I asked him if he was going downhill and if I could go with him. He turned out to be a surveyor for Piano’s project. On our way down, Denis—that was his name, if I remember correctly—explained how complicated the project is: the Fondation Le Corbusier wants the chapel to retain its quality of being visible at the top of the hill from all sides, so Piano’s project will be as hidden as possible. There are constant deliberations about things such as old trees that must be preserved, forcing the new design to accommodate them. When you’re talking about names such as Corbusier and Piano, he said, everything is a very big deal.

It turned out he was going to Belfort, the closest real city to Ronchamp. I would either need to find a train back to Paris or look for a place to spend the night in the vicinity, and in either case Belfort would be a good place to head to. And so he dropped me off at the Belfort train station.

Friday, July 10, 2009

In a blog which has to do with Le Corbusier, and which is called works-in-progress, it is fitting to post some sketches from my carnet.

I want to get this out of the way before I write something about Ronchamp and Barcelona. Yes, Barcelona!

We start with everyday objects. Missing here are the trash can studies. I want to do a whole series on them later on, with some thoughts about the significance of their design.

The Paris Metro monitor has screens that allow the driver to ensure everyone has boarded before he or she closes the doors. Sometimes they close the doors anyway, crushing old ladies' shopping carts.

On my way back from Germany, I noticed the drastic change in object design. Straight perpendicular lines gave way to ornate curves.

Often, when I take a break from AutoCAD and Illustrator at work, I look through magazines and books from the library and sketch. Drawing is the act of making a mark, but it is first a form of seeing, or reading. Even the most widely known buildings and objects can be better understood when read through drawing.

And here, finally, are four of the five classic orders. Apparently, all architects should know these. Even though I think that is silly, I still drew them because I was curious and because Andy would say (that Paula would say) that it is good to know and understand the rules before breaking them. And Ed would say (that Claude Perrault would say) the same.