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Context and continuity

Minding the Gap: a symposium for notable architects to reflect upon the relation between new designs and hystorical urban fabric

The Getty Conservation Institute now has a major programme to advance research and thinking about the preservation of modern architecture worldwide, both as a laboratory of the ‘hows’, testing model approaches to restoration (such as that now under way at the Eames House and Studio nearby) and as a think tank for enquiries about the what, when, whether and why.

As part of that more philosophical enquiry, a panel of architects was recently invited for a day-long discussion of questions surrounding the insertion of new work in the historic fabric, Minding the Gap.

Everyone ran true to form. Rafael Moneo, in scholarly mode, allied his interventions in the historic townscape with Gardella, Ernesto Rogers and the postwar Italian movement for continuity. Denise Scott Brown provided a set of deep situational analyses for recent work whose eloquence far outstripped the increasingly shallow actual design results of the Venturi office.

Richard Rogers politely dismissed the matter of history, asking us to respect instead the subjective notion of ‘place’ − a convenient idea which seems to grant permission to ignore context entirely, except as the designer intervening chooses to define it.

Jürgen Mayer, as spokesperson for the next generation, flipped the question off altogether, showing himself determined to produce the same building with the same ornamental wave forms whatever its function, site or context. The ubiquity of his work in the Republic of Georgia comes close to establishing a new national vernacular that will require its own conference on context in the next century.

More interesting was Thomas H Beeby’s discussion of recent work − by Gehry, Piano and himself − that essentially completes Burnham’s plan, a century later, for Chicago’s waterfront park; an important reminder that the urban context is not a matter of mimicking facades but of respecting volumes, rhythms of movement, patterns on the ground, and the character and scale of the empty spaces between.

RIBA12661_5__copy3900

Econimist Complex by Alison and Peter Smithson

Two points of reference kept on returning. One was Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist complex, which manages to stay sympathetic to the pattern of street and walls around it with structures at a totally different scale and disposed on a totally different mat.

The other example, even more persistent in the discussion, was Asplund’s extension to the Gothenburg courthouse, dating from the late 1930s. Scott Brown reminded us that Asplund had served at least three different polemics even in her own lifetime, being presented to students in the ’50s as a model of modernity, a little later as historicist, then as a cipher of postmodernity in the ’70s.

That changing reception seems right. Seen across the square it remains a startlingly ambiguous work, and one, given its tortured decade-long design history, in which political compromise suddenly looks like a design virtue. But bear in mind that the interior is decisively modern in its every aspect. Only the judges’ offices are relegated to the tight windowed front facing the square.

The public enters to stand trial, indict their neighbours, or file papers through a courtyard that leaves the authority of the Classical behind, vaguely reflected in a great glass wall and barely visible from the three floors of open space in the new building. The exterior may talk to reconciliation with the figure of Gustavus Adolphus - whose statue stands in front of it, and who founded this city to make an empire − as well as to the fascist members of the city council who kept on asking for changes.

But the inside talks to a mannerly and respectful civil life at every turn, to the law as an instrument of social hygiene, and to democracy as something averse to judicial podiums, thrones and all design that reinforces hierarchy.

 

CREDITS

Drawings:

RIBA12661 credit as RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections

RIBA20599 credit as RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections

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