Pure form (Quintessentially)

There’s still something of the naked ape about man when you put him next to, or inside, certain modern structures. More than merely sculptural forms or places of shelter, they transcend their function and become a kind of totem for what we wish we were. Think of the black monolith that appears throughout 2001 A Space Odyssey – the inscrutable object that apparently brings intelligence to Neanderthal Earth. It is the pure essence of a technology we can’t comprehend, the badge of modern civilisation. Within its simplicity and blackness lie all possibilities. Also sprach Zarathustra.


A radical new skyscraper being planned for downtown Zagreb, designed by Croatian architects Hrvoj Bakran, Drazen Plevk and Zdravki Krasic, doesn’t so much recall as replicate on a much larger scale the black monolith of 2001 A Space Odyssey. The 160 metre high, slender jet-black minimalist building will tower over an unremarkable landscape like an intergalactic visitor. In Zagreb it will be the tallest building in the city, and the public excitement around the plans couldn’t be greater if it came with the promise of alien advanced intelligence for all in its proximity.

The sinister sheen and geometry of the 2001 monolith has inspired more than just architects: you can see it in the work that Hedi Slimane produced at Dior Homme and in Peter Saville’s book and album covers and installations. Its purity is as much about its lack of colour and reflectivity as its form. Pure black or white buildings strip things down to form and magnify their impact.

As Vicky Richardson, editor of the architecture and design magazine Blueprint says: ‘It’s a pared down reductionalism rather than minimalism; an anti-design statement. Featureless black and white facades make a statement that they – unlike so much gratuitously iconic architecture – are serious, restrained, contextual and not trying too hard. It’s a rejection of self conscious architecture.’

OMA’s Dubai Renaissance tower was conceived as ‘anti-icon,’ according to OMA’s Rem Koolhaas. Though this self confidently blank, white, 200 x 300 metre monolith lost out in competition to Zaha Hadid’s Dancing Towers and won’t be the central feature of the Business Bay in Dubai, plans are going ahead with it on another site. Dubai, where every new piece of architecture is all singing, all dancing, would seem the most radical context in which to reject self conscious architecture. Thankfully the Dubai Renaissance’s gimmick (to revolve) has been dropped after Koolhaas admitted it was a novelty with an eye on the competition. The resulting tower will be eminently more powerful in its restraint.

The use of white in architecture is nothing new, of course. It has a functional pedigree in that it reflects the heat of the sun, something that gives Santorini and many other Greek towns their gleam. But a number of European contemporary architects have gone beyond Mediterranean function, most notably Portugal’s Alvaro Siza, whose elegant modernism is often celebrated with him hailed, according to Chris Twaddle, of London based architecture studio kennedytwaddle, as ‘the architect’s architect.’ As Twaddle, one of the UK’s rising stars of modernist urban design, says: ‘Siza uses white as a response to climate, but it’s the clarity that it gives his buildings that’s magical. His work shows that “colour” is only one of the many elements that make a scheme successful.’

Siza’s Santa Maria Church, built in the early 90s in Marco de Canavezes in Portugal, is illustrative of how the practicality of white in a hot climate can become transcendental. From one end it appears to be a simple whitewashed concrete construction of three tall windowless  columns, while from the exterior of the altar end, a smaller column attaches to a larger one with a sweep to the rest of the ‘box’ of the building. Although the windows, where they exist, appear small in scale, they are cut into the curves in such a way that they flood the inside white stucco space with light reminiscent of a Hammershoi painting. As fellow architect Marc Dubois puts it: ‘It’s a space which assigns a sacred dimension to the light.’ Siza’s use of white strips things down to pure form. In a similar way, Delugan Meissl’s new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, which is much more playful and angular, and looks inherently ‘Porsche’, could have appeared overbaked with an over reliance on texture or glass, but with so much white on it, it’s pared back. Equally, plans for Daniel Liebeskind’s Creative Media Centre, to be completed in 2010 in Hong Kong, detail a building with sharp, aggressive points, slashed horizontally with windows, tempered by a calm white surface. Both of these projects share a sense of futurism, something that the use of white has always signified. New fabrications are also being used to accentuate the sci-fi element: The Seeko’o (meaning ‘glacier’ in Inuit) Hotel in Bordeaux has been clad in Corian, a material more commonly used for ultra sleek high-style interior surfaces.

The UK architect David Chipperfield works repeatedly in pure white. His studio design for sculptor Antony Gormley in London is blank and necessarily industrial (Gormley needs the kind of space that any light-to-medium industry would require) but resonates with more impact than that of a mere factory: the punctuation of windows (or rather the lack of punctuation) makes the frontage more sparse, the roof is in a geometric saw-toothed pattern and the inner walls are seamless, like those of a gallery.

Chipperfield’s background includes work on shopfittings for the likes of Issey Miyake and Joseph in the 80s, when minimalism was all, and the focus was on both stock and the rarified air between that stock. His own brand of reductionism has carried over into his architecture today. ‘I think that “icon architecture” has a certain danger,’ he says. ‘Everything has to look spectacular, everything has to look like it’s changing the world, even if it’s not really doing that much.’ Chipperfield is leading the move away from icons and ego.

The plans for his Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate are at once eyecatching and restrained. It has a discernible dialogue with its environment: there is a maritime feel in the building’s sail-top silhouette. Though nowhere near as literal as something like the crazed Vasa Museum building in Stockholm with its masts, wooden construction and slanted slate roofs, there is still an echo of the majesty of big ships sailing around the Kent coastline. ‘We are trying to make something that’s abstract and contemporary on the one hand but completely inspired by its own task and function,’ says the architect. Similarly, his Gormley studio plays artfully off the Kings Cross warehouses surrounding it, but is focused on its purpose – a place in which Gormley can sculpt.

Pure black is more commonly used on smaller, but still sensational, projects. David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the live/work site of artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, is one of the most celebrated buildings in London’s burgeoning new look East End. It too has the impenetrable look of the 2001 monolith – its brickwork has gone incognito behind thick black anti-graffiti painting and its windows are reflective with no apparent frames visible from the street. It sits one block back from Bethnal Green Road, quiet but ominous, like the architectural equivalent of one of Mark Rothko’s Black-Form paintings.

Simon Conder has built two beach houses on the eerie Kent no-man’s land of Dungeness and the first of these, finished in black rubber, has brought as much attention to the area as did artist Derek Jarman’s similarly black, but traditional, fisherman’s cottage, a short walk away. Conder’s structure is a modernist take on the ramshackle homes that line the beach, but its intense, vulcanized blackness makes it the most dramatic structure on the coast. In many ways it’s the inverse of Siza’s white – there are environmental issues to consider on Dungeness, and many of the traditional cottages are black from weatherproofing with pitch. Conder takes the image and accentuates it without turning it into a cartoon. That said, there is something delightfully fantastical about the house, sitting on the pale shingle as if it had been dropped there by a tornado from a weird parallel Kansas.

The use of pure black or white has a trickle down effect. Two of Cazenove Architects’ UK projects have been on small scales, and used dense black exteriors but also colour. Their Abbey Children’s Centre has some of the dandy, diagonal flair of mid-century modern on top of a low-rise strip of rooms, painted black but with a door panel of hot pink and windows of sunflower yellow and aqua. Their offices for Lee Valley Regional Park Authority are black but with prominent angular windows working on horizontal, vertical and skewed axis. Both buildings find their strengths in the core weight of the use of black.

Reductionalism isn’t without its problems or controversy. It can be challenging. It can be unnerving. Last year saw the completion of work to reinvent the façade of Edward Durrell Stone’s landmark building at 2 Columbus Circle in New York. The work, which was carried out as part of the conversion of the building into the new home for the Museum of Art and Design, has been condemned as ‘the rape of 2 Columbus Circle’ by the City Review’s Carter B. Horsley. The original 1964 structure was an undeniable folly – a mixture of Venetian palazzo elements in odd, stretched proportions, and almost entirely windowless. The new building has a façade of bands of glass, arranged in lines that appear to read, ‘HI”. It’s an unremarkable building. Inelegant. But the former structure was remarkably unpopular. Why? Arguably because it was unsettling in the context of midtown Manhattan; it did have a marvellously sinister tone – its blank Vermont marble facades suggested a Moorish mausoleum.

Author Tom Wolfe was one of those who defended the old building, and blames its fall in part on the rise of Ephemeralism in architecture, which he claims ‘arrived in 1994 with Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris… embracing transparency with plain glass walls, voyeurism and branding – making the exterior design remind you of the enterprise within.’ Ephemeralism and Reductionism are almost polar opposites. Ephemeralism would appear to be a perfect fit for big business in big cities, while the latter is a far bolder school of pure vision.

What’s happening in Zagreb, and in Dubai, would suggest a shift away from transparency, voyeurism, branding and, of course, ego. It might be challenging, scary even, but then these are challenging and scary times.


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