Bloc 10 Housing, Winnipeg, Canada by 5468796

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review / Published in November 2012

The question of affordable housing lurks, the recurring bad dream of contemporary architecture. The difficulty of building dwellings simply and well imparts a night terror to many of us, and we are unable to deny its sepulchral truths in the days that follow.  The Art Nouveau era—much like the similarly sinuous boom of the last decade—were times of splendidly urbane apartment blocks, or villas in city or countryside brimming with lush ornamentation and restless surfaces.

But at the end of the First World War, the profession turned as one (in Continental Europe, at least, where destruction was most concentrated) to the problem of affordable housing.  Whether the German debate about existenzminimum, Le Corbusier’s speculations about the house as a “a machine for living,” to the prototypes, both good and bad, tested at Stuttgart’s 1927 Wiesenhofsiedlung, new housing forms to repair a blasted Europe were the heart of the Modern project.

Half a decade into this global recession, there is scant evidence of the profession rising from its fluffy bed of Aestheticism Nouveau to again confront the creation of mass housing that people can actually afford. In Canada, au contraire bien-sur: Frank Gehry’s recent presentation of a staggeringly dense cluster of three calypso-ing condo towers for Toronto’s Mirvish family; a Foster’s team under Nigel Dance opening Vancouver’s muddled Jameson Tower (amazingly, the mega-firm’s first constructed high rise apartment building); and in the same city, BIG from Read More

I. M. Pei: Mandarin, Brahmin, Mover + Shaker

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in September, 2012

Following the life and impact of IM Pei: the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession

There is a world of difference between the two Chinese-born architects who have won the Pritzker Prize. 1983 winner Ieoh Ming Pei left China as a teenager for studies in the US, graduating directly into a dozen-year spell as in-house designer for prominent New York developer William Zeckendorf.

Accordingly, Pei’s work is corporate in character (leavened by loss-leading cultural complexes) and only rarely, and almost guiltily, Chinese. The 2011 Pritzker Prize went to Wang Shu − whose work is tactile, hand-shaped, at times surreally idiosyncratic, but also linked to Chinese traditions in ways the roots-seeking Pei never understood. Shu’s Pritzker win can only be read as a pointed rejoinder to Pei’s cohort of global corporate firms.

Pei should ultimately join his former teacher Walter Gropius near the front of the long line of most over-praised architects of the 20th century. But he is important for other reasons: crucially, as the first non-Western architect to rise to the peaks of the global profession. That ascent is worth examining, because it says much about both the profession, and this architect’s managerial acumen − his major legacy.

Pei’s father was manager of the Bank of China’s Canton branch when the Chinese civil war broke out (forcing him to bundle the two-year-old Ieoh Ming off to refuge in Hong Kong); … Read More

A light touch: Bing Thom’s Library in Surrey BC, Canada

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in March 2012

Daylight and books are often regarded as incompatible, but this library in Metro Vancouver is a poetic and scientific sculpting of light that animates a dramatic interior

Architects have come to view natural light as a generic commodity, not a precious animator of architectural form. One of the many unintended effects of this era of sustainability is to strip sunlight of the spiritual and synthesizing qualities that it held for designers right up to the time of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and instead to consider it as mere illuminating photons or trickles of electromagnetic energy, like power from a plug. Beginning with Saint-Denis, Abbot Suger’s medieval doctrine of lux continua, the integration of light into public buildings has served symbolic as well as practical purposes, but lately it has been reduced to yet one more interchangeable item on energy management checklists.

However, the ability of sunlight to partially heat buildings is − architecturally speaking − one of its least interesting qualities. Thanks to ray-casting three-dimensional computer programmes for design and rendering, architects have, ironically, never been better able to predict how their creations will respond to the arc of sunlight, but never at so much of a loss about just how to put light at the necessary centre of form-making. Day-lighting has been reduced to a dismal science.

To say that Bing Thom Architects’ new central library for the Vancouver suburb of Surrey is obsessed with … Read More

Montreal, Canada – Exhibitionism: To ‘show’ or to ‘tell’ architecture that is the question

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in December 2010

A complex game of showing and telling architecture in Montreal:

At the peak of the millennial building boom, architects were desperate to design large museums and art galleries. With the diminished expectations of the great recession, architects are now desperate to have mere exhibitions in them.

The explosion of interest in architectural exhibitions – from both our profession and the wider public – was the subject of a late-2010 colloquium sponsored by the Mellon Foundation at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). The gathering brought together museum professionals, architects and historians to explore the intellectual terrain of how to transform buildings, public spaces, and most of all, architectural ideas into cogent exhibitions of interest to diverse publics.

Several dozen curators and critics from Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland, UK and the US gathered on the neutral ground of a grey and leaf-strewn Montreal, awaiting its inevitable entombment by snow. To summarise vastly, the Montreal debate was between ‘show’ and ‘tell’; that is, more traditional architectural exhibitions which mount showings of drawings, models and photographs, versus a more recent tendency to construct elaborate thematic narratives heavily reliant on video and wall texts, lots and lots of wall texts. The exhibition curators most associated with the latter tended to spit out the word ‘monograph’ as if the gravest architectural sins are shows or books highlighting drawings and photographs of actual built work by a single designer or firm.

The ‘tell-ers’ … Read More