Monday, December 12, 2011

Herzog and de Meuron: William Tozer, ‘Character Lines: Herzog and de Meuron’s CaixaForum,’ Monument, issue 89 (February/March 2009): 82–89.

The new Caixaforum building by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog and de Meuron shares its site with an historic existing building. The removal of this building would undoubtedly have reduced the construction cost of the project, and little more than the original facade remains. However, the dynamic relationship between the two types of architecture creates a potent composition.

Rusted steel forms the facade of the new building, and its orange shade of brown sets up a visual relationship with the faded terracotta and brick of the original building, without resorting to the familiar conservationist device of matching materials. The form of the addition makes a similar allusion to the original building, extrapolating the pitch of the gabled roofs into forms that pitch and crank in three dimensions. The ornamental quality of this form, and the surface perforations with which it is detailed, perform an analogous role to the surface decoration that adorns the original building. Increasing the height of the building establishes a less diminutive relationship with its contemporary neighbours, and the greenery treatment of the adjacent elevation of one of the neighbouring buildings reinforces the connection of the abstract building form to its context. The language and materiality of the new facade is carried through into some areas of the interior—such as the subterranean auditorium—which is otherwise composed of a contrasting vocabulary of white and steel elements articulated in rectilinear, curvilinear and folded geometry. Within the original building the interaction of the interior with the exterior takes the form of visually neutral frameless glazing, which does not match but is proportional to the removed traditional fenestration. Above the level of the original building, however, the new building envelope takes the form of orthodox black-framed window openings. This gesture seems more convincing where it assumes a relatively neutral rectilinear form, rather than deferring to the geometry of the rusted facade, such as in the stairwell. Plain white surfaces are largely reserved for the predominantly rectilinear walls and ceilings of the galleries and ancillary spaces, but are also applied to the more overtly sculptural curvilinear staircase. The installation of lighting into the underside of this staircase—rather than illuminating it from the adjacent walls or floor as is the case elsewhere in the building—somewhat diminishes its sculptural quality. Folded geometry is deployed in some areas of the gallery walls, but most extensively in conjunction with the raw steel sheeting to the ceiling of the external undercroft of the building.

The undercroft space is the most dramatic spatial gesture of the project, and is reminiscent of the architects’ earlier Barcelona Forum (Monument 64). It creates an outdoor public space connected to the street and adjoining square, providing cover from rain or harsh sunshine for snaking queues of visitors. As with the earlier project, however, it seems curious that the programme of the interior of the building does not interact more with this space—an engaging spatial experience left largely uninhabited. This space opens onto open squares to both the north and south of the building, the former of which is framed by the wall of greenery described above, serving to appropriate this square more directly into the spatial ordering of the building. Internally, the spatial distribution could be described as a series of stacked open-plan floor plans, the lower of which have been given something of the character of landscapes through changes of level and meandering circulation. These open-plan spaces are punctuated by the stairwells, which create dramatic voids through the section.

This building is clearly part of a recent trajectory of Herzog and de Meuron projects that also includes the aforementioned Barcelona Forum, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis. The departure from the rectilinear geometry that characterised their earlier work has alienated many of their previous architectural admirers, but it has been argued by this author (Architectural Research Quarterly 12) that the partisan division of architects along lines of geometry stems from the accepted conception of modern architecture as rooted in issues of function, whereas fine art provides a more convincing explanation. The minor reservations about the Caixaforum expressed above to some extent stem from the fact that it is more difficult for architecture to convincingly function as art due to the way in which it is perceived by comparison to other mediums such as painting and sculpture. Herzog and de Meuron’s earlier buildings possess ambiguities between found object and designed object, and between function and art, allowing a degree of latitude to their perception as art objects. These ambiguities have become clear divisions in the more recent projects, and the success of these buildings is diminished to some degree at any points of contact between them that are less than perfectly handled.

Project images available here:

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