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At this angular and elegant house in Mexico, one architect

pays tribute to another
For an architect who prides himself on the rigour of his buildings, a wall covered in gold leaf
might seem out of place. But when Alberto Campo Baeza – who is based in Madrid and
makes serene structures in glass and concrete – was asked to design his first building in
Mexico, he saw it as an opportunity to express not just his own style but to pay tribute to
another architect who influenced him: Luis Barragán.
A Mexican who died in 1988, Barragán is widely regarded as one of the great architects of the
20th century. A modernist who, unusually for a big name, focused on residential projects, he is
known for houses where unadorned exteriors belie the brightness within. At his Casa Gilardi
in Mexico City, a yellow corridor leads to a swimming pool surrounded by high blue walls,
with a red pillar plunging into the water. At the top of the stairs in his own house, now a
Unesco World Heritage site, the rough stone stairway leads to a gold panel on the wall. He
wanted to create buildings full of surprises, where the contrast between simplicity and
lavishness heightens both. After all, as he once put it, “Where do you find more eroticism than
in the cloister of a convent?”
Campo Baeza’s Domus Aurea (Latin for “golden house”) in Monterrey, built in conjunction
with a Mexican firm, GLR Arquitectos, carries a similar hint of luxurious monasticism.
Behind its white façade, a small courtyard leads to the house itself, containing two double-
height spaces. For the most part an exercise in studied plainness, the interior gets a warm glow
from a wall of gold leaf, illuminated by a slant of light shining through a clerestory window. In
keeping with its outward modesty, the biggest indulgence is hidden on the roof: a swimming
pool with a view of the mountains.
Simon Willisis digital and design editor of 1843
Driverless technology will change how vehicles look.
Simon Willis talks to the designers who are rethinking
their interiors
At Volvo’s design studio in Gothenburg, the boards where they post inspiring ideas used to be
covered in cars. Now they’re covered in houses, boats and gadgets. “It’s the most exciting
period in the history of car design,” says Robin Page, Volvo’s chief interior designer. “A new
world is being opened up.” The reason? Cars that drive themselves.
Autonomous cars introduce three big changes. The first is what you can do in a car when
you’re not behind the wheel. Volvo’s prototype driverless car, the Concept 26, has screens that
fold out from the doors and seats that recline flat, like a first-class aeroplane cabin for people
who want to catch up on email or take a nap. Ford has patented a design for an in-car screen
covering the windshield. “The car is becoming a kind of ‘third space’,” says Hartmut Sinkwitz
of Mercedes, “a hinge between home and office.”
The ideas are getting more radical. “If you don’t have to drive, you can indulge in
experiences,” Page told me. “We’re thinking about making our interiors escapes from the city,
taking you into the mountains or forest with projections, scent and sounds.” He’s also thinking
about flexibility. On boats the space is often multipurpose. “You can have six people sitting
round a table which then turns into a bed.”

The second change is safety. Driverless technology will cut accidents by more than 90%.
“That means you don’t have to build cars like tanks, with crumple zones and bodywork full of
airbags,” says Dale Harrow, professor of vehicle design at London’s Royal College of Art.
This year, he is launching an interdisciplinary department, to mix his students with architects
and furniture-makers. “We’ll see more glass in the bodywork, as in modernist houses, and the
lightweight materials you get in contemporary furniture: seats made of pale plywood or
moulded carbon fibre. You could ride along in an Eames!”
The third factor is branding. “Interiors will be the main difference between carmakers,”
Harrow says. “As well as a competition of materials and quality, this is about how the car
enables you to occupy your time.” He even designed a vehicle that doubled as a gym. “A
friend likens car design to dog breeding,” he says, “a series of gradual improvements. Now
we’re inventing a new species.”
Simon Willisis digital and design editor of 1843
There are millions of tonnes of plastic floating in the
world’s oceans. But, as this table at the London
This table is rubbish – or at least it was. Its smooth surface is inlaid with thousands of tiny
fragments, carefully arranged by colour to achieve a fine gradation from white to dark blue
fanning out from the centre. It looks like a contemporary take on a 19th-century specimen
table made by a designer from an imperial nation and decorated with exotic wood or stone
from all corners of the empire. It’s true that the material was gathered from around the world.
But there is no marble or mahogany here. This table, called the Gyro, is made from recycled
ocean plastic.
It’s the work of Brodie Neill, a Tasmanian furniture maker, and is Australia’s entry at the
London Design Biennale, which runs at Somerset House until September 27th. Earlier this
year Neill teamed up with a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania, Dr Jennifer
Lavers, an expert in the environmental consequences of plastic pollution. It is estimated that
there are as many as five trillion bits of plastic floating in the sea. Through an international
network of beachcombers Neill began collecting debris washed up on shores from Tasmania
to Hawaii, in order to make a piece of furniture which would highlight the environmental
problem and encourage the idea that, far from being worthless garbage, the bottles and bags
littering the tideline can be a valuable resource.
He is one of a growing number of designers at both the high and low ends of the market using
recycled materials. Last year, the clothing brand G-Star Raw launched a collection made of
plastic dredged from the sea, and Adidas has made trainers using discarded fishing line. This
year at Paris fashion week the Dutch company Viktor & Rolf showed dresses made with old
scraps of fabric. Ikea has launched a range of furniture for 2017 made from recycled wood and
plastic, including old Ikea packaging and waste from its own factories. You can even recycle
the plastic from your home into a raw material using a machine developed by Dave Hakkens,
a young designer from the Netherlands.
Neill began upcycling waste in 2008, when he made a sculptural, sinuous chaise longue called
Remix (above) from reclaimed plastic, plywood and chipboard. The tiny particles that he
chose for his new table are among the most nefarious in the sea. Small enough to be ingested
by even the tiniest fish, they leach their toxins into the bloodstream, and thereby into the food
chain. “Plastic doesn’t break down, it just breaks up,” says Lavers, who began specialising in
this area after a research trip to the Midway atoll, which bears the brunt of the Great Pacific
Garbage Patch, an island of plastic created by ocean currents. “It also acts like a sponge,
sucking up other pollutants such as heavy metals. Over 25% of marine fish have chemicals in
their blood from this stuff.”
Neill has turned something deadly into something decorative. The surface looks cosmic, like a
galaxy’s disc or a solar system. And while from a distance its tones are smooth, up close you
see all the colours on the spectrum: reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues. The problem was
how to use this found material with precision. Sometimes the colour of a bleached piece was
only revealed when you cut into it. Then there was the chemical variability. “You can’t
identify what kind of plastic it is when it’s broken down into these tiny bits, and you don’t
know how old it is. And different plastics melt at different temperatures, so you can’t fuse
them together with heat.” Neill decided to create hexagonal tiles in 32 different sizes from
resin, in which the plastic particles are set. “It’s a kind of terrazzo,” he says, referring to the
composite originating in 15th-century Italy, where artisans began using scraps of marble or
quartz to make finely speckled floors.
After being shown in London, Gyro will go into the collection of the National Gallery of
Victoria. While he hasn’t set a price for it, the tables he makes for retail start at around £4,000,
his one-off pieces as much as ten times that. Collectors’ items, though, are more effective as
talking points than as a means of putting waste to good use. He hopes that the terrazzo design
from his table could be used in more commercial products like work surfaces: from a sea-
borne poison to something to eat your dinner off.Simon Willisis digital and design editor
of 1843~~~
Building work once done by human hands can now be done by
machines. That, as Jonathan Glancey explains, opens up new
possibilities for architects
In a workshop south-east of Stuttgart’s city centre, builders can fly. Here, programmed by
students at Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD), drones buzz
around like purposeful bees, fetching and carrying long threads of carbon fibre spun by a robot
in the middle of the room. Bit by bit, and without the help of a single human hand, the drones
shape these strands into a structure.
The workshop is run by Achim Menges, a German architect and the founder of the ICD. He is
at the forefront of the rapidly evolving field of robotic architecture, in which robots make not
only the components of buildings but also assemble the buildings themselves. This approach
offers two advantages. The first is that it saves money and time. This year in Vienna, Coop
Himmelblau, an Austrian architectural firm, will use robots to help build a new hotel tower,
the machines lifting and welding the panels that form the building’s exterior into place. Wolf
D. Prix, the architect behind the project, estimates that robots could reduce construction times
and manpower by as much as 90%, which gives architects more freedom to create.
In California, Ron Culver and Joseph Sarafian have developed an unlikely method of making
intricate structures out of concrete using robots and Lycra. Traditionally, concrete is formed
using hard moulds; for each different shape you want to generate you need a different mould.
But in Culver’s and Sarafian’s system, the concrete is poured into Lycra sacks stretched by
robotic arms into any number of different shapes. Once set, the pieces are bound together
using 3D-printed joints. The technique allows them to add complexity without cost.
The second advantage is that robots open up entirely new methods of design and fabrication.
In Zurich, Matthias Kohler and Fabio Gramazio, who in October 2016 opened a new robotics
laboratory, have been demonstrating how cheap, recyclable structures can be built from low-
grade material without mortar or adhesive of any kind. Their Rock Print project, developed
with the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a tower of glass
pebbles held together by nothing more than thread woven by a robot. The machine, guided by
an algorithm, lays down the thread in a pattern so precise it would be unachievable by hand,
over which the pebbles are then poured. This is repeated layer by layer until a tower emerges,
bound together by nothing but string. Its structural integrity has more in common with lasagne
than with a conventional building. It’s a process that might one day be used to build quickly in
Menges is employing robots to draw on the beauty and economy of nature. Working with
biologists at the University of Tübingen his team analysed the fibrous structure of the wing
cases of potato beetles. Then, with engineers in Stuttgart, he developed a robot which wove
together threads of transparent glass fibre and black carbon fibre to mimic that structure. At
the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2016, this method was used to create a series of
hexagonal canopies which gradually came together to form a fan of lightweight vaults
spreading around the ornamental pond in the museum’s central courtyard. By combining that
robot with the drones at his workshop, these fibres can be carried across voids to create
bridges, as though created by a mechanical spider.
What robots weave they can unweave. “Future buildings constructed on these principles”, he
says, “could be taken down, recycled and re-assembled in new forms. We could have
buildings that grow when we need them to, and disappear when redundant without wasting
material and without messy and environmentally harmful demolition.”
He is also using robots to exploit how materials behave. His HygroScope, an exquisite, vault-
like composition made of maple, was inspired by the way spruce cones open and close. He
harnessed the mechanical potential inherent in wood itself: how it changes shape as it absorbs
and exudes moisture. Precisely how a piece of wood responds is governed by its grain, so
Menges used robots to scan and then mill more than 4,000 uniquely calibrated parts. The
resulting structure featured apertures made of thin wooden flaps which curled open or closed
uniformly, without any mechanical assistance, as the humidity in the air changed.
In 2014, his team built a pavilion out of beech that mimicked the strong but lightweight form
of sea-urchin shells. Robots made 243 geometrically unique panels, just 50mm thick,
including the 7,600 joints holding them together. “This gave us 605 cubic metres of space
from just 12 cubic metres of local hardwood,” he says. Just as environmentalists talk about
food miles, he talks about “building miles”. “We can use locally sourced materials
economically for advanced design. There’s no need to ship steel from half way around the
What next for this intriguing revolution? Maria Yablonina, born in Siberia and trained as an
architect in Moscow, has been developing mobile robots in Stuttgart for her doctoral thesis.
“One can imagine a building site,” she says, “inhabited by multiple robots – a family of robots
– working together.” The paradox is that it has taken computers and machines to do what
spiders and pine cones have been doing since long before there were architects.
Jonathan Glanceyis an author and critic
Home is where the bark is
Most houses could be spruced up with a bit of greenery
but some architects have begun to embed living trees
within the structure of their buildings. Jonathan Glancey
branches out
Vo Trong Nghia was born in 1976, a year after the Vietnam war ended. During that 19-year
conflict, napalm bombs dropped by United States aircraft petrified great tracts of forest around
Phú Thùy, his hometown. Some of the remaining trees fell victim to Vo Trong’s poverty: he
earned money by selling them for timber.
“You have to survive,” he says, but he felt guilty: “that’s why I need to plant again.” His
yearning for absolution is reflected in his remarkable yet simple architecture, which has
reintroduced nature to Ho Chi Minh City. Here, just 0.25% of the urban fabric comprises
green space (compared with 27% in New York). Vo Trong’s Tree House (below), a modest,
low-cost and readily reproducible residential project, is shoehorned between run-of-the-mill
modern buildings in Tan Binh, one of the most densely populated districts of the city.

Laying down roots

Vo Trong’s Tree House
MAIN IMAGEb.e.architecture’s house built around a gum tree in Vaucluse, Sydney
The house is made up of five concrete boxes – small pavilions – clustered around a courtyard
and screened off by sliding glass doors. When these are open, rooms and courtyard become
one. Discreet bridges connect the bathroom and bedrooms on the upper floor. The concrete
boxes double up as planters, each nurturing a local weeping-fig tree. As the trees’ foliage
spreads, it forms a green canopy over the courtyard, creating a shaded, temperate space usable
all year and abounding in greenery and birdsong.
“The Tree House”, says Vo Trong, “is a device to connect people to nature. It is a miniature
park, and if we can build lots of houses like this, then we can make the whole city a big park.”
With the commissioning of an entire Tree House-style housing estate by the Phuc Khang
Corporation, a property-development company, as well as a Tree House-style student hostel
for FPT University, Vo Trong is attempting to transform Ho Chi Minh City. He may well have
hit upon a way of greening crowded cities worldwide.
Growing trees inside buildings might seem whimsical, but in a way branches and bricks fit
comfortably together, for trees have formed the essence of at least two of the greatest
approaches to architecture: Classical and Gothic. The tree trunks that supported the earliest
buildings were refined into the marble columns of Greek and Roman temples, while Gothic
cathedrals celebrated their close relationship with woodland both in their glade-like naves and
their elaborate stone vaults, which resemble the intertwined branches of trees.
In Modernism notions of abstract geometry replaced nature as the prime source of inspiration,
yet architects working in a strictly modern idiom have managed to include trees within crisp,
linear designs. Stefano Boeri has completed two “Vertical Forest” residential towers (below)
in Milan’s Porta Nuova Isola district. Apartments here are rather like tree houses, but with all
mod cons and views across one of Europe’s great industrial townscapes.

House plants
Stefano Boeri's “Vertical Forest”
The concrete balconies of Milan’s Bosco Verticale have been reinforced to bear the weight of
considerable vegetation, and wind-tunnel tests have been carried out to ensure high-rise trees
planted on these will remain upright in unforgiving storms. But there is no great secret to, or
difficulty in, building in the company of trees. Planting in pots restricts the growth of the trees,
although they will need pruning. The planters are lined with waterproof membranes and
polypropylene grids designed to keep errant roots away from walls and damp at bay.
Boeri has chosen a wide variety of slow-growing deciduous trees. These include cherry,
Persian ironwood and holm oak, with maple and beech, which require less sunlight, on the
north sides of the towers. The advantage of these – aesthetics aside – is that during winter they
allow sunlight and a degree of natural warmth to enter the apartments, while in summer their
dense foliage will keep homes cooler than they would otherwise be. Boeri believes that air-
conditioning ought to be necessary only on the hottest days. The trees will also help soak up
odours and pollutants, filter particulates from car exhausts, muffle unwanted sounds and, for
those sitting on their balconies, go some way to reducing exposure to harmful ultra-violet rays.
There will always be those who will find buildings decked out in trees a kind of betrayal of
pure architectural forms. But natural curves can be used to counterpoint sharp modernism. In
the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, b.e.architecture, led by Broderick Ely, have incorporated a
mature lemon-scented gum tree into a renovated modern house overlooking Sydney Harbour.
The tree is the dominant feature of the house, animating its strict geometry, creating a
delightful indoor-outdoor dining room and spreading its canopy over rooms on the upper
floor. Neither client nor architect saw the tree as an obstacle. Instead, they conceived a creative
and harmonious relationship between trees and architecture.
There is, then, both precedent and a particular logic in combining trees and buildings. And,
unlike so many current proposals for sustainable architecture, intelligent buildings such as
these are both peaceful and genuinely green.
Jonathan Glanceyis an author and critic


One of the most inventive young architects of his generation is working on his most
important project yet. But can he fuse his playfulness with the demands of enduring
One of the most inventive young architects of his
generation is working on his most important project
yet. But can he fuse his playfulness with the
demands of enduring design?


One of the most indelible sights of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was “MegaFaces” by
Asif Khan. This kinetic installation depicted millions of selfies, turned into 3D reliefs by
11,000 illuminated tubes, which moved in and out as they adjusted to the contours of each
face. There were no heroic heads of state, stern Olympic-committee members or flint-faced
athletes: these were digital images of citizens from 30 Russian towns and cities blown up
bigger than the face of the Statue of Liberty. Sponsored by MegaFon, a Moscow-based
telecoms company, the installation attracted 3.2m people. It was dubbed the “Mount
Rushmore of the Digital Age”.
“MegaFaces” (below) marked out Khan as one of the most inventive young architects and
designers of his generation. Now his talents are about to be stretched. This summer it was
announced that Khan is joining forces with the acclaimed modern architects Stanton Williams
and the conservation architect Julian Harrap to design a new home for the Museum of London.
Their proposal was chosen from a shortlist of six, including one from Bjarke Ingels, who is
designing Google’s new headquarters in California.

Set within and below the long-abandoned Smithfield General Market, a forgotten wonder of
Victorian engineering, the project will demand great ingenuity. While the design has yet to be
fully developed, the winning proposal incorporated spiral escalators leading from a great
Victorian dome into a subterranean world of exhibition galleries (below), some of which face
glass walls with underground trains scurrying past. There will be a sunken garden and event
spaces weaving together subsidiary buildings. This museum will aim to catch the pageant of
London’s long history, mixing old and new. It promises to be the polar opposite of a white-
cube gallery.

From the moment he started his own practice in 2007, Khan has been a talent to watch. Born
in Forest Gate, south London, in 1979 to two social workers from Tanzania and Pakistan, he
trained at the University of London’s Bartlett school of architecture and the Architectural
Association. Then, rather than looking for work in an established studio, he set up shop in
London’s East End.
He began with a plethora of small-scale yet colourful projects: a beach café on Britain’s south
coast; a cook’s apron for Paul Smith; a catwalk set under a swivelling, sparkling aluminium
mobile for Osman Yousefzada’s 2009-10 autumn-winter fashion collection. He made lamps
fashioned from tiny, fish-shaped plastic Japanese soy-sauce bottles, and elegant, minimalist
furniture. “He’s very open-minded,“ says Paul Williams of Stanton Williams. “His ideas have
a poetic quality. He draws inspiration from very many sources. He showed me how his
thought process worked by dripping ink into a bowl of water – a simple gesture, but inspired.”
In 2012 he captured the design world’s attention when he co-designed, with Pernilla
Ohrstedt, Coca-Cola’s pavilion at the London Olympics (pictured top). It was made from
more than 200 plastic pillows which, when touched, played sounds from sports events
recorded for Mark Ronson and Katy B’s Olympic anthem, including heartbeats, squeaking
shoes and arrows hitting their target. It was a building that doubled as an Olympic audio tour.
He also blogged for Vogue during the games. Here was a designer in tune with how different
media have blurred, from architecture to fashion, music and communications. “All this created
the impression that he was a Thomas Heatherwick type,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of
London’s Design Museum.
But pavilions and installations are not the stuff of great architecture. Khan’s seriousness is best
seen in a thoughtful extension of the playground of Chisenhale primary school in Bow, East
London, completed this year (below). His two children – he is married to the Japanese-born
architect and photographer Sakiko Kohashi – are pupils there. With precious little space to
play with, Khan shaped an elevated timber and steel structure, with slatted walls, rising from a
hill of rubber-tyre chips in the existing playground. Children climb up into this elegant and
relaxed space by rope ladder and slide down. This was a modest project, but it conveyed a
sense of precision, economy and delight.

Significantly, Hélène Binet – a photographer favoured by serious British architects – was

commissioned to capture the work on film in black and white. Her pictures lend the design
gravitas. They also reflect the way an earlier generation of ambitious young architects, the
British Modern Movement of the 1930s, used the best photographers of the day to capture
their early work, from animal enclosures at London Zoo to Cubist-style houses. This imagery
helped them to win bigger commissions and even international acclaim. Whether Kahn
follows them will depend on one thing: how he fuses his playful sense of invention with the
altogether weightier demands of enduring architecture.
Jonathan Glanceyis an author and critic
As he turns 70, Nicholas Serota is about to open a major extension to Tate Modern.
Fiammetta Rocco assesses his legacy to date
As he turns 70, Nicholas Serota is about to open a major
extension to Tate Modern. Fiammetta Rocco assesses
his legacy to date


Tall and crisply clean, Nicholas Serota cut an incongruously well-ironed figure the first time
he took me tramping through the grime of the disused former power station then known as
Bankside, now called Tate Modern. Yet even in 1992, before anyone realised how the gallery
on the south side of the Thames would change both London and the art world, Serota seemed
to dominate: the Turbine Hall will be here; the exhibition galleries there. He still dominates at
70, curled up in a small office across the river and serving tea in white china cups.
We are talking about the new-look Tate Modern, which will be nearly two-thirds bigger when
the Switch House, its ten-storey extension, opens on June 17th. “What London is getting is not
an extended Tate Modern, but a new Tate Modern,” he begins. “Because the way the building
relates to the city will change. The way people will now engage with it will change. And what
they encounter will change.
“You will arrive suddenly into the heart of the Tate – because the distance between the new
entrance and the Turbine Hall is exactly 25 yards.”
Precision is one of Serota’s most visible qualities. Vision too, though at first that was obvious
only to a few. In 1988, when the trustees of the Tate were searching for a new director to
succeed Sir Alan Bowness, the short-listed applicants (including two arguably better-known
curators, Norman Rosenthal and Julian Spalding) were asked to submit a seven-year scheme
for the galleries. On two sheets of A4 paper, under the title “Grasping the Nettle”, Serota set
out his vision. Listing the areas that needed to be overhauled, he concluded that Tate was
loved but not respected. He got the job and changed that.

Serota will be remembered for three things. The first is that he has moved contemporary art in
Britain to centre-stage in a way that it never was before Tate Modern opened in 2000. The
small contemporary offshoots in Dundee, Hastings, Margate and St Ives would not have
happened if Tate Modern had not led the way. Secondly, he has helped move Tate (and other
museums have followed) away from being temples to art and towards becoming instead
forums of discussion, didacticism and debate, centres of engagement as strong as public
libraries were in the 19th century.
Third, he has placed Tate Modern at the vanguard of a movement to promote private
sponsorship of the arts in Britain: the government and local councils provided just £58m of the
£260m cost of the new extension of Tate Modern; the remainder came from a wide circle of
charitable foundations and private individuals. These include hedge-fund moguls such as
Noam Gottesman and Emmanuel Roman, shipping mavens such as the Chandris family and
bankers such as John Studzinski, who in the past 15 years has committed over $10m to Tate.
More than just milking the rich, the shift has proved how well suited the public-private idea is
to the modern age: in Germany, where culture is almost completely state-funded, museums
feel under no pressure to broaden their appeal, so they don’t; in New York, where they are
pretty much entirely privately financed, policy is dominated by wealthy trustees to the
exclusion of almost everyone else.

But it is a fourth element which may make his influence most lasting. When Tate Modern
opened, contemporary art was still overwhelmingly an American and north-west European
affair – and mostly male and white. Few recognised that Modernism was in fact many
modernisms, with artists in eastern Europe developing a vision of their own in the 1960s just
as artists in Japan were doing the same; or that countries such as Benin or Sudan were
producing world-class artists like Meschac Gaba and Ibrahim El-Salahi who hold their own
against those from London or New York; or that there were women like Louise Bourgeois or
Yayoi Kusama who created amazing work all their lives but became household names only
when they were in their 70s. Most people become more narrow-minded as they grow older;
Serota, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Camden Group of London artists and his
Master’s thesis on J.M.W. Turner, is just the opposite. His ever-widening horizon will be his
enduring legacy.
Not everybody is a fan. Some regard him as cold, calculating and too close to the art dealers
whom Tate Modern has made rich. But his influence is undeniable, for his creation has
become the benchmark for curators everywhere. In 2013, on my first visit to the newly opened
Shanghai Museum of Art, Li Xu, the chief curator, gazed across the polished airport runway
of a floor and said: “I wanted it to look like Tate Modern.” In late March, when Qatar
Museums was choosing the architectural shortlist for its new Art Mill, the Gulf’s first major
museum of contemporary art, the first thing a group of visiting foreign curators was told was:
“It will be twice as big as Tate Modern.”
Fiammetta Roccois culture editor of 1843 and The Economist
A retrospective in Los Angeles
examines the architect as artist
LAST YEAR, AT a press conference for an architecture prize in Oviedo, northern Spain, a
journalist politely asked Frank Gehry the question that many of us would like to ask him. How
does he respond to the critics who accuse him of making “showy architecture”?
Gehry, who is 86 and, these days, a rather wizened version of his former self, simply extended
his middle finger.
The journalist’s question echoed some common criticisms of Gehry: that he is self-serving,
that his buildings are indifferent to their usage, that they are humdrum boxes adorned with
cheap and flashy effects—the coloured undulating metal surfaces of his Experience Music
Project in Seattle, for example, allegedly inspired by a smashed Stratocaster. In short, the
criticism runs, Gehry thinks he is an artist.
It is a view that Gehry reinforced last week. At a press conference before the opening of a
retrospective of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he described an early
visit to Delphi with the artist Ed Moses, where he realised that his mission was to do what
Greek sculptors had done with bronze: “to create feelings, hopefully good feelings, hopefully
feelings that are uplifting…Whether you’re an artist or not, I don’t care what you call us, I
think we’re all in the same boat.” But as everybody knows, a building is a collaboration
between the architect and his client, between a huge team of partners, office staff, contractors
and planners. What sense does it make to cling to the idea that it is an expression of one man’s
will and vision?
The LACMA showcase is, on one level, a hagiography for Gehry, whose studio was deeply
involved in the curation and exhibition design. He wasn’t meant to interfere, but the curator
Stephanie Barron has divulged that, in every meeting, “Frank just happened to walk in and sit
down”. The show presents his output, from his early houses and studios in the 1960s through
to as-yet-unrealised proposals, almost entirely through maquettes, drawings and photographs.
There is a marked lack of documentation of what these buildings feel like from the inside, of
how they engage their inhabitants and visitors. The videos on show, which might have
presented walk-throughs of some of the buildings, instead mostly consist of panning
slideshows of exterior photographs. Interactive CGI is now standard fare in architecture, but
the exhibition is dominated by scribbled sketches on paper and models made from card and
foam. Is this how Gehry sees his work—as sculpture, drawing and photography destined for a
The evidence suggests so. Gehry cites the influence of the painter Giorgio Morandi, whose
images of jugs and bottles are studies in volume. That is an interesting way of looking at, say,
Gehry’s famous Chiat/Day Building in Venice, California (1985-91), which assembles several
distinct volumes, one in white concrete and another clad in rusty red steel, alongside a giant
sculpture of binoculars by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
A chronological series of thematic sections, running from “Elementarization-Segmentation
(1965-80)” through to “Singularity-Unity (2010–15)”, show Gehry’s progression from a
deconstructionist punk—his use of inexpensive materials like chain link fencing and
corrugated metals being a case in point—to the designer of outlandish profiles that ripple and
curl, as with the 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Showiness, for Gehry,
equates to drama; Chartres Cathedral (which he has repeatedly acknowledged as an
inspiration) is showy, but that is scarcely a criticism. Gehry rails against banality, and by using
cheap materials he shows that drama in architecture need not only be for the rich.
The exhibition’s themed spaces are arranged around what the curators suggest is Gehry’s
central concern: urbanism. In one sense this only supports the charge of egotism: when an
architect gets as powerful as Gehry now is, he graduates from making mere buildings to whole
cities. But seen more generously, Gehry’s “showy” buildings deliberately create logos for
cities and neighbourhoods that could use a little rebranding. His titanium-skinned
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, lauded as the most important building of the last half-
century, is a perfect example. Its impact on the economy of this formerly overlooked Basque
city generated a neologism in urban regeneration: “the Guggenheim effect”.
This theory of deeply buried altruism is supported by recent reports of Gehry’s pro bono
involvement in the redevelopment of the cheerless Los Angeles River. Mayor Eric Garcetti,
said Gehry at the press conference, invited him to consider how the river could be turned into
Los Angeles’ own High Line, referring to New York’s miraculous transformation of a derelict
railway track. After considering the environmental and economic possibilities for the river,
Gehry became convinced of the project’s capacity to lastingly reconfigure the entire city. “If
we do it right,” he said, with characteristic bravado, “it will make the High Line look like a
little pishy thing.” Sometimes a city needs an ego like Gehry’s.
Frank Gehry Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to March 20th 2016
Jonathan Griffinis an art critic based in Los Angeles
Superseded by elevators in the tall buildings of the 20th century, stairs are once
again becoming architectural centrepieces. Tom Vanderbilt looks at the best, from
Sydney to San Francisco
Superseded by elevators in the tall buildings of the 20th
century, stairs are once again becoming architectural
centrepieces. Tom Vanderbilt looks at the best, from
Sydney to San Francisco


Wandering not long ago in the delightful complex of museums in Turin’s 19th-century
Anatomical Institutes Building, I made a thrilling architectural discovery: the stairs.
They were simple: a standard “parallel” arrangement of worn marble steps, with a black
wrought-iron balustrade and a wood railing buffed smooth by a long procession of student
hands. On a small landing, there was a chessboard-like motif inlaid in the floor, and an arched
window bay spilling a shaft of moody light onto the ochre walls. I paused briefly in this simple
but elegant space. How many chance meetings had taken place here? What ideas had come
from these impromptu colloquia? How many flirtations had been attempted, how many gazes
strategically averted?
Go to any historical architectural site of any significance – from the palace at Versailles to the
Mayan temples and pyramids in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala – and witness the
commanding role played by stairs. Then as now they were functional, but in the lavish
attention paid to their design one could sense something greater. “The staircase is charged
with symbolic force,” writes Oscar Tusquets Blanca in “The Staircase: The Architecture of
Ascent”, “representing power, hierarchy, mysticism.”
In Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra building – the place where, as Walter Benjamin phrased it,
“Imperial Paris could gaze at itself with satisfaction” – the grand, sweeping staircase was the
primary stage. Patrons were not merely ascending to their boxes, they were climbing through
society before an audience that had gathered to watch their arrival (mirrors installed at the
bottom allowed a quick wardrobe check). And any viewer of “Downton Abbey” knows the
crackle of illicit excitement when Lady Mary or the Earl of Grantham come sweeping in
“below stairs”, or when a member of service other than the butler or valet is fleetingly spotted
on the first floor.
But in the tall buildings of the 20th century stairs became an architectural afterthought,
relegated to dark corners and drab corridors. What happened? The elevator, of course: the
grand staircases of the past were replaced by gleaming elevator banks. Staircase design itself
came under a host of new regulations intended to improve accessibility and safety. As
Tusquets Blanca notes, Garnier’s Opéra staircase would be “illegal on at least seven grounds”.
In Britain, regulators have set a maximum of 190mm for the riser height and a minimum of
250mm for tread width on public staircases, as well as rules about consistency.
Despite the regulatory burden, stairs are making a comeback. In Herzog & de Meuron’s recent
expansion of the Tate Modern, the architects exceeded the tread-width requirement on their
bold concrete spiroid – not for safety’s sake but to promote slowness and sociability. Some of
the steps are so wide that they create generous platforms for sitting. On the Tate’s website the
staircase is listed as a “new place to meet and relax”. Companies are rediscovering the well
designed, centrally placed staircase as a place for social exchange, adding couches and even
meeting rooms to oversized landings to help promote spontaneous interchange and help break
down “silos”. At the St Louis-based biotech firm Sigma-Aldrich, internal research found that
the installation of an open, three-storey central staircase led to a 156% increase in employee
encounters (and at least one new product idea).
Stairs have also become a central element in “active design”, the health-minded effort to
restore some of the physical activity we spent so long engineering out of our lives. In Seattle’s
Bullitt Centre, a landmark of sustainable design, an almost unheard of three out of four
occupants choose to take the stairs, thanks to their warmly inviting materials, the sweeping
views of Puget Sound, and the not-so-subtle behavioural nudge of keeping the elevator hidden
out of sight. A study of Harvard alumni showed that walking up eight flights of stairs
improved life expectancy more than walking 1.3 miles a day.
Apple, in its cutting-edge stores, so fetishises interesting staircases that it has patented their
designs. As the story goes, an idea for a staircase made largely of steel by the engineering firm
Eckersley O’Callaghan evolved – “really through Apple’s determination”, James O’Callaghan
has said – into one made of glass. Today, at the stores in New York’s Soho and the new
flagship shop in San Francisco, customers take a set of gossamer glass risers to reach the
Genius Bar, lending the experience a subtle sense of ceremony – like reaching for “higher”
knowledge. Indeed, the act of physically ascending, psychologists have found, can make us
more forward-looking. In one study, people who had just climbed stairs were more likely to
take a larger deferred cash reward than an immediate smaller one. People coming down did
the opposite.
Staircases are once again being presented as something to show off, not to hide. In Frank
Gehry’s design for the University of Technology in Sydney, the sheer monumentality of the
staircase – enclosed in a snaking, faceted sculptural flow of polished stainless steel – seems to
suck visitors in. At the Ampersand Building in London, the Paul Cocksedge Studio designed
the world’s first “living staircase”, a four-storey spiral made of steel and American white oak,
whose balustrade is ringed with almost 600 plants in a “flying” garden, as well as open spaces
for “reading, drawing and drinking tea”. Try doing that in an elevator.
Tom Vanderbiltis an author, most recently, of “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of
Endless Choice"