Archive | April 2013

Paolo Soleri – Vietri Sul Mare

Paolo Soleri - Vietri Sul Mare

Factory in Vietri Sul Mare, Paolo Soleri, Italy, 1958


Tribute to Paolo Soleri 1919-2013

Paolo Soleri died April 9 this year, as you can read in this New York Times article, and I feel it is a fitting tribute to show my holiday snaps, taken last year, of the ceramics factory he designed and helped build in Vietri Sul Mare, Italy. At the time I was asked to review Conversations with Paolo Soleri, and I decided to visit one of his earliest buildings, seeing that we were in the area.

I have to say that I had incredible difficulty with the book; I found it somewhat impenetrable, pretentious and cult-ish. A positive exception was the essay by Lissa Mc Cullough, which translated Soleri’s ideas in plain English. As I tried to work my way through the interview with the man himself, however, I would only occasionally find an interesting nugget of information or insight, but was hugely put off by his obscurantism and the vocabulary he had invented for himself. It was just as if he was using language to create a distance, and to lend himself an aura of mysticism in the process. The other side is of course that he was very early in his assessment of the ecological damage technologically advanced industrial societies are causing, and it is also true that unlike many visionaries he did actually physically build stuff. The message that we have to change our ways radically in order to live as part of nature, rather than in opposition to it, still stands and I decided to leave the review for what it was.Vietri_01

His vision can be best appreciated at Arcosanti, the living community he built out in the desert in Arizona. What is less well known, though, is that one of his earlier buildings is in Italy, a ceramic factory he built in the 1950s in Vietri Sul Mare, close to Naples. The factory is an interesting run-up to ideas which he would develop later and at the same time you can still clearly read the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright in it, for whom Soleri had worked.

The outside is a series of towers made of locally fired clay pots, sitting on a concrete base in which ceramic plates are encased. Apart from advertising the products of the factory, and perhaps referencing Parc Güell by Gaudi, it is a clear example of his penchant for experimentation with materials. I do not think that the facade comes together as a composition, and I do not think it has much to do with the context in which it sits (funny that!), but it is intriguing nevertheless.

The best moment of the building is when you enter it and step onto the shop floor inside, though. You suddenly find yourself in an elongated top-lit atrium space,  with the floors spiraling down around it, to a floor covered with stacks and stacks of ceramic plates, vases, garden ornaments, cups and whatever else. The columns are shaped like trees, and the branches spectacularly angle out to hold up the ramped mezzanines. A combination of Frank Lloyd Wright and a Gothic cathedral under the guise of practicality. The idea behind the spiral was that you start the production process at the top and the ceramics slowly work their way down, – aided by gravity – to be sold on the floor below. If the angled floor is practical is another issue, but it results in a fantastically bold space which earns Soleri to be called a great architect in my book. I wish you all the best, Paolo Soleri, wherever you may be.


Denys Lasdun – Bethnal Green

Denys Lasdun - Bethnal Green

Water tower? Plant? Who knows – but delicious!

Albert Speer & Leon Krier (again)

Albert Speer & Leon Krier (again)

The architecture of Albert Speer was recently qualified as ‘rather elegant’ by Mr. Leon Krier in a lecture at Yale University. (picture: Welthauptstadt Germania)

Albert Speer & Leon Krier

Albert Speer & Leon Krier

Leon Krier has written a book on Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, in which Krier offers an appraisal of the ‘quality’ of the architecture of Speer and plays down his role as a war criminal and close friend and aide to Hitler. The book is a re-issue of a book published in 1985 with the more distasteful passages taken out, as the Wall Street Journal explains. The de-ideologization of architecture is a dangerous post-modern tendency.

The book is advertized on the publisher’s website (Monacelli Press) as follows:

“Krier candidly confronts the great difficulty of disentangling the architecture and urbanism of Albert Speer from its political intentions. Krier bases his study on interviews with Speer just before his death. The projects presented center on his plan for Berlin, an unprecedented modernization of the city intended to be the capital of Europe.”

The first issue I would like to address is the misguided notion that somehow it is possible to separate architecture from politics; in other words that you can assess the relative aesthetic merits of architecture in separation from its historical and political context and, perhaps more importantly, separate its analysis from the ideological aims of those who commissioned it. As Giedion points out in his essay on monumentality in the 1950s, the problem with neo-classicism and its monumentality had become its association with oppressive regimes. The megalomaniacal architecture of Soviet social-realism was, in fact, stylistically very close to the neo-classicism of the Third Reich. All you needed to do is replace the swastika for a hammer and sickle and no one would know the difference. The regimes were extremely close in both form and content; Neo-classical signs to validate universal repression and genocide. Neo-classicism had reached a point of moral bankruptcy, in the same way as Western civilization and its Enlightenment tradition had to face its denouement. The notion of disentanglement and recuperation of neo-classicism is not commendable, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, it is outright dangerous and misguided.

The question of recuperation, and by extension of what buildings should look like in the future, is encapsulated in the second part of the quote; “the unprecedented modernization of the city intended to be the capital of Europe”. At this point I start to pull hairs out of my head in indignation. Unprecedented? What about Paris, the boulevards of Haussmann and the Palace of Versailles? What about Rome? Our history is replete with self-aggrandizing urban plans of despotic rulers. Go read a book you silly person working at a publishing house!

What is perplexing here is the use of the word ‘modernization’. The term for me has not only a technological and materialist connotation, but also a humanist one. You cannot, in my mind, achieve true modernization when technological advances are being used to oppress more people, to kill more people and to kill them faster, or to destroy the planet in a more efficient manner. That is not modernization but mental illness. I have said it, to call the plans of Albert Speer for Berlin ‘modernization’ is to completely lose your moral compass.

I can not wait to read the book in full and pass on my judgment.

Robinson in Space

Robinson in Space and London by Patrick Keiller are brilliant films, witty and acerbic, showing the urban decay and the effects of Thatcherism on the UK. In it, the lead character Robinson visits places of significance in the lives of writers and historical figures and in passing comments on the economy and the decline of industry. A fitting tribute to late Mrs. Thatcher.

Interview with Hal Foster

hal fosterThis interview with Hal Foster and the review of his book ‘The Art-Architecture Complex’ explores the theme of architecture as an increasing visual spectacle and the links and commonalities between the art world and architecture. Even though I do not think a convincing way out is offered by Foster to the irrelevance of the architectural profession and the so-called avant-garde, it is an interesting and engaging discussion nevertheless.

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