Karl (re)Marks - The Karl Sharro Blog

Karl (re)Marks - The Karl Sharro Blog

Architecture, Politics, and general discontent

And now for a completely different take on the world!

What's wrong with towering ambition?

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Sun, January 03, 2010 20:01:22
This is a historic day for mankind, a new era in the story of skyscrapers begins with the completion of Burj Dubai expected to be around 818 meters tall. It is almost a kilometer long of flats, offices, hotels and commercial space breaking every single record and in the process pushing construction technology to new realms. Rather than celebrate this achievement, most critics have treated this as an opportunity to kick Dubai while it suffers from a serious financial crisis, spewing all kinds of venom against its ambition and desire to push the boundaries. It is no surprise that these poisonous attacks are coated in the language of environmental concerns and social justice, we have become accustomed by now to this type of low-aspiration and reactionary critique masquerading as progressive thought. But those sour grapes should remember that history is not written instantly no matter how hard they wish Dubai to fail monumentally. If anyone had written New York off in the 30s and predicted that the depression meant its end, they would have been completely wrong. The city prospered again, and so will Dubai.

A proto-typical attack on Dubai came from Ben Macintyre in the Times, predicting that 'towering ambition always comes before a fall'. Bollocks to you Mr Macintyre, this kind of pseudo-biblical nonsense has no basis in reality, it is only the result of wishful thinking and animosity towards progress and ambition. Let me hasten to add that Macintyre is not alone in attacking Dubai, almost every single commentary on Burj Dubai is laden with tales of doom and gloom and warnings of imminent collapse and historic failure. Quite why western commentators get such a kick out of Dubai's predicted fall is beyond me, it's as if every single one of those wise sages and peddlers of the apocalypse have their brains hooked up to a giant Matrix-like machine that thrives on tales of disaster and sucks the soul and ambition out of them. It might also be writing their articles for them for all we know, there is very little difference in style and content in this flood of schadenfreude.

Part of this venom being dished out by Schadenfreude Central is of course pure good old Arab-bashing. How dare these camel-riding desert dwellers have the temerity to attempt to modernize their society and build ambitiously? The signs are always there, masquerading as concern for immigrant workers and the environment. A few months ago, Johann Hari wrote about the Dark Side of Dubai in the Independent. Yes, Dubai unites left and right in the UK against it, both the Times and the Independent drool at the opportunity for some Arab-bashing, guilt-free . Hari, the enlightened progressive, summed up Dubai's history: 'They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. What should they do with it?' Obviously in his mind, they should have remained as they were, and probably handed the money to the west to spend it wisely. The rulers of Dubai of course had other plans, Dubai today is a thriving metropolis that is buzzing with people from all over the world and it's their energy that drives the place.

This image horrifies western commentators. Mass immigration as a recipe for economic success? Shock, horror, imagine what would happen to Europe if this was allowed to happen here? More Africans and Asians coming in with their strange cultures and ways of life and threatening the old order! Dubai induces anxiety in the contemporary western mind because it seems to be a place with no history and no culture. This is certainly not true, but Dubai insists on looking towards the future and keeping its history and culture in museums. A few decades ago, Europe was doing the same, but nobody there has any appetite left for modernity anymore, and they insist that others shouldn't fulfill their appetites either.

Of course Dubai has its problems, but what society progressing at such a fast speed doesn't? And why would we assume that Dubai is devoid of social dynamics that would allow it to solve these problems and become better? Talk to any of the immigrant worker in Dubai, and I have spoken to many, and they will tell you that despite all the hardships they endure, Dubai is still their only way to make a living. Most of the workers who come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have nothing to do if they go back to their countries and would rather take their chances in Dubai or elsewhere in the Gulf. This is of course unfair, but to claim that they are slave laborers is a myth perpetuated by cynical western commentators. The only way out of poverty for them is for their countries to develop aggressively in order to provide the job opportunities that they deserve. Western countries don't seem to be supporting such a path of development, effectively asking poorer countries to be content with their lot. At least in Dubai they can get a living, and there are signs that all Gulf states are taking the issue of labor rights very seriously.

When it comes to Dubai, most people chose to see it through its outlandish signs rather than for what it really is. They dwell on the artificial islands and the enclosed ski slopes, and reduce the city to its most visible spectacles. This is like saying that Paris is the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral or that London is Kew Gardens and the London Eye. But Dubai is a city with 1.5 million residents and should not be reduced to a few landmarks. Dubai's inhabitants wouldn't trade it for any other place, and there is a sense of pride that brings everyone who lives there together. Admittedly, it's not for everyone, but so is Manhatten. Who are we to make moral judgements about people who live in Dubai if they are content with their lives? Such moral sense of affront stems from an old fashioned conservatism and narrow-mindedness, using progressive language to mask deeply-held biases.

Back to Burj Dubai itself, it's a truly stunning building to contemplate, emerging out of the sea of tall buildings around and dwarfing buildings that are in themselves skyscrapers . You have to be really lacking in imagination not to be impressed by it, and I expect the experience from the inside will be more impressive. People who fail to be impressed by it are usually the same type of people who complain that mankind should have never visited the Moon. Dull, banal minds that thrive on their own lack of imagination and keeping their horizons firmly restricted to the ground. The rule book on designing skyscrapers had to be thrown out with almost every aspect of tower construction and design being reinvented, from structure to lifts and air-conditioning. It's a really remarkable accomplishment, and had we been living in a different time this would be celebrated for the human achievement that it is. Instead, we have to get used to the whining and moaning from bitter western commentators and Arab 'intellectuals' who've absorbed the lessons of low-ambition that are fashionable now in the west and are busy regurgitating banal 'observations' about why Burj Dubai is a pointless edifice. I for one will celebrate this great building, and I can't wait to visit the next time I'm in Dubai.

Dubai may not be perfect, but it's certainly buzzing with energy and ambition, characteristics that cities like London and Paris could do with today instead of fiddling around with lame schemes dreamt up by witless bureaucrats with no imagination or spine. Like all great cities, Dubai will bounce back from its problems to surprise us again and again. As I look at the slender profile of Burj Dubai rising elegantly to the sky, I pity those who lack the imagination and to feel excited about it. As Oscar Wilde said 'we're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' There's no shame in that.

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Renzo Piano @ St. Giles Court: The Biggest Lego Set in the World

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Fri, July 03, 2009 13:32:38

A couple of early construction images from Renzo Piano's mixed-use development at St. Giles Court in London, fantastic engineering but very bad architecture. Before the horrible cladding was applied, the building shells, a mixture of concrete and steel framed structures depending on use, looked very elegant and rational. Then came the architect....

RPBW's description of the project is an exercise in how far semantics could be stretched before they snap: "the project is part of a complex urban patchwork of medieval streets, modern buildings, and traditional urban blocks." No it's not, it's the largest Lego set in the world, the designers are using color in this childish way to simulate variety and freshness. It doesn't work.

The project reveals how distinct and separate aesthetics and structures have become in contemporary architecture. Designing facades has become the equivalent of dressing up dolls, with no relationship to the spatial and tectonic aspects of the design. In this case, Renzo chose fancy summer ball dresses for his latest set of dolls.

Renzo's experimentation with ceramics has been a complete failure so far, it didn't work in Potsdamer Platz and doesn't work over here. Renzo is trying return materiality to modern architecture, but the harder he tries the more plastic the ceramic looks, St. Giles Court is the most plastic so far.

The pathetic lack of innovation in architectural technology especially when it comes to cladding systems has reduced this aspect of building design to two aspects: keeping the water out and meeting the ridiculous European codes for thermal performance of building envelopes. Anything else is a bonus. This is precisely the approach followed with the design of St. Giles Court, it's a direct translation of the codes with mathematical precision that governs even window sizes. Apply color, and presto! Bad design of the year award beckons.

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The Return of Primitivism in Architecture or Godzilla's Furball: MOS and P.S.1 Afterparty

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Thu, July 02, 2009 18:02:46

The winners of this year's MoMA and P.S.1's Young Architects Program, MOS, titled their project 'Afetrparty'; 'Wake' would have been a far better description. The deceased is Modern architecture and all that it ever represented: ambition, experimentation, industrial techniques, and rationality. 'Afterparty' is the antithesis of all those concepts: random, reactionary, patronising and furry. P.S.1 had paved the way for this abomination with last year's winning entry 'Public Farm' by WORK architecture company, an exercise in autarky wrapped in a text whose level of naivety is hardly matched outside a Miss America contest. The trend can only intensify in the coming years, although it is hard to imagine anything more dreadfully reactionary than 'Afterparty'.

According to the New York Times the project is 'a mix of what could be described as cones, domes, smokestacks, primitive huts, towers or industrial chimneys.' Primitive hut would have done: the project's main distinguishing feature is its primitivism that, like biodynamic agriculture, represents a yearning for pre-modernity masquerading as radicalism. The project is so imprecise and accidental formally and organisationally that it is completely open for interpretation: this is the Rorschach Test of architecture, a three-dimensional accident of shapes or a giant furball thrown up by Godzilla after a night of rampage in a hippie market.

Michael Meredith of MOS said the structures were meant to evoke the fading factory vernacular of the P.S. 1 area in Long Island City. “We’re interested in building typologies,” he said. They must have tried very hard to resist showing this interest in 'Afterparty'. Rather than evoking the 'factory vernacular' the project is symptomatic of America's ending love affair with industrialisation. For the second time in the space of a few decades America is losing nerve and turning to imported ideas from Europe for inspiration, the Green assault has truly began in the US. Three years ago it would have been really hard to find advocates of sustainability outside Hippie communities in Nevada, now architects are competing really hard to learn the New Speak of the environmentalist dogma.

The connection between declining production and the recession has still not been grasped in America, so it's not strange to see MOS trying to pass off their cheap knock-off of a primitive village as a thoughtful response to the economic situation. There is still talk of an 'economic party' and an 'economic hangover', isn't it fun how eco-geeks always try to use words like party and hangover to pretend that they are cool? It still hasn't dawned on American intellectuals that financial hyper-activity is not equivalent to productive economic activity, never mind they are still willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, let them eat biscuits. The result in architecture? MOS's masterpiece, a monument to garage sales and Sunday markets across the land, where the fetishistic value of recycled materials is elevated above real innovation in architecture.

The architects are obviously free to present whatever design they come up with, the real blame falls on P.S.1 and MoMA for encouraging and supporting this trend towards reactionary architecture and celebrating it as good architecture. This is not a one-off, it's a trend that started with last year's project and is bound to continue as long as architects will continue to pursue this obsessive form of self-harm that is passed off as 'environmental responsibility'. Solving challenging economic and environmental problems requires innovative thinking and advanced technologies, not the escape from modernity that is represented by projects like 'Afterparty'. Let's interrupt this assault on Modernity before it escalates into a full return to primitivism.

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Comment on Cedar Island by Carlos Haddad

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Wed, March 11, 2009 10:43:57

I've received this comment from Carlos Haddad on my Cedars Island blog, I'm publishing it here instead of in the comments section:

Some reclamation projects have proven their feasibility as a matter of fact. It is unfortunate that when we think of reclamation, we think Dubai, which is completely false. Monaco, USA, Bahrain, the Netherlands and Hong Kong just to name of few. Land reclamation as it stands is not sacrilege, but how it is carried out.

Some reclamation projects are feasible. This of course depends on what attributes are given to feasibility, but financially speaking, palm jumeirah was an unsurpassed success.

The problem with this cedar island is not the shape, and not just the environmental impact.

Before I continue, and just to calm some raised eyebrows, yes the environmental impact is going to be horrific. Two reasons:

1. Shape of the cedar island, as it is shown, is going to have a negative impact on the wave action and in consequence the water quality on the immediate shoreline.

2. The marine life is going to be affected and the water quality between those cedar leaves will be next to poor.

Feasibility: the master plan shows middle rise buildings and villas with a lot of green spaces. As soon as Noor runs some figures:

- cost of reclamation

- The geological nature of the sea bed ( I assume it is mostly rock).

- cost of extracting soil, or alternatively the cost of transporting soil from far away distances

- depth of the sea bed (I am not sure how deep it is but it is definitely deeper than the gulf)

Then and only then among other things, Noor will start changing the master plan because the revenues will not be enough.

Slowly medium rise building will become high rise buildings and green spaces will shrink in size so that more built up areas cover the development. Still, the price of land will be very expensive and unaffordable by many Lebanese. Since the cost of land will be expensive, third party developers will build expensive apartments and villas.

Only the ultra rich will afford this. And since the current Lebanese law allows only Arabs (I am sure if all Arabs or certain nationalities):

- the law can either change to accommodate the ultra-rich westerners (which Noor will find more feasible in broadening the spectrum and profile of buyers)

- Or only Lebanese and Arab nationals will live there.

Either way, this will be the city of the rich, the castle surrounded by water and access by the exact replica of Palm Jumeirah bridges.

The cedar island will create jobs? So will other development project in Lebanon if the same amount of money is invested inland rather that off shore.

Developers are only interested in offshore developments away from the politically turbulent landscape of Lebanon? All what was needed was feasibility studies and a sound portfolio to convince developers otherwise. At least, we should have tried.

Maybe that is the intention. An island for the playful bourgeoisie, in the country but away from it. Privileges but not responsibilities. Back to the 19th century escapism where ideal cities are created away from the seemingly unsolved reality.

And that IS the problem.

I am not sure about the “radical” ideas that Hezbollah dropped. Tayyar is another story, since their slogans were easy to make for the Christian paranoia (2005 electorial program), but practice fell under the fatality of the establishment.

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ManTowNHuman: The Fountainhead Rewritten by Jeremy Clarkson

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Tue, March 10, 2009 17:54:31

Best description I ever heard of our manifesto: "The Fountainhead re-written by Jeremy Clarkson." Thanks to Charles Holland, the director of FAT, for that. I couldn't have thought of a better way of putting it myself. Second prize goes to Justin McGuirk in the Architects' Journal, who described ManTowNHuman as the "anti-sustainability manifesto". No link for that, you'll have to buy your own copy of the AJ for the pleasure.

Holland meant it as a critique, of course, but it's still a brilliant line. Back in October, I spoke on a panel with Holland's colleague from FAT, Sean Griffiths and I actually thought he was quite good as a speaker and he stood up for the freedom of architects. Admittedly, their stuff is a bit flippant, but those aren't heroic times. Perhaps the recession will sort that out, someone will realize that we will need genuine development and big ideas instead of messing around the edges.

Holland got everything else about us wrong. I don't think I've ever been called a conservative before, but there's a first time for everything. His grasp of politics is very shallow, but you can't expect nice white middle class boys to be Renaissance Men, that would be too old fashioned. Still, thank for the quote, Charlie Boy.

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Frank Gehry's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Sun, July 13, 2008 19:28:27

This year's Serpentine Gallery pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, is near completion. The structural frame and the timber and glass panels that form the pavilion are in place, and when I visited on Saturday workmen were busy laying down the tiling and putting finishing touches to the auditorium-like space under the timber structure.

The pavilion seems to be a nostalgic return to Gehry's earlier work, particularly the use of exposed timber structures and the random angles of the planes that form the "roof." It is still an impressive structure, and certainly Gehry has taken more risks than previous architects in having a completely open structure. If the weather continues to be like this in London, he might regret this. However, the gesture clearly shows the thought that has gone into the space, with multiple levels and an auditorium feel to the space.

Several architects in the past have treated this as a purely sculptural exercise with no particular attention to how the space works as a whole, and this I must say is this pavilion’s strongest point. This remains to be verified when the pavilion is completed next week, but the shaping of the ground plane and the enclosure seem to work together spatially. Various architects in the past have been tempted to deal with the pavilion as 'decorated shed,' Gehry breaks away from that.

One distinctive feature of the pavilion is the unnecessarily heavy timber structure. Made up of heavy timber beams that are tied together, it contrasts with the slender panels suspended from this heavy frame at different angles. Gehry claims different sources of inspiration, but it seems a suitably idiosyncratic gesture and works well in reality.

More to follow next week.

Visit http://www.karlsharro.co.uk/ for more articles on architecture.

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Frank Gehry in the Park

ArchitecturePosted by Karl Sharro Fri, July 11, 2008 14:49:52

Caught Frank Gehry on television two days ago talking about his design for the Serpentine Gallery. Many are saying that it is Gehry retvisiting his past, the gallery certainly looks like Gehry of old. It's hard to judge from the images and the TV footage, but expect an update on this soon, I will try to go there this evening. Gehry's first building in the UK is definitely something to look forward to.

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