Tuesday, May 30, 2017

to a poet

I'm currently working on a longer post on Bernt Nyberg and while doing some online research I happened on Arkdes' online archive of Nyberg's drawings and models. unfortunately so far few of the listed items have made it online but among the ones that have I found a drawing for the entrance stair and canopy of his Department of Anatomy and Histology Building (currently referred to as the Josephson Building and belonging to the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences) in Lund from 1965. last year I went by the building for the first time and was immediately struck by two things: first the almost medieval relationship between the entrance stair tower and the neighbouring building to the south east and secondly the way the stair feels both haphazard in detail but entirely planned in the whole. not that the detailing feel haphazard in an unconsidered way, I probably should refer to it as loose fit instead; it is a whole with improvisations where everything is ruled by a main theme

the first thing to say is that seen from the front the stair tower is entirely separated from the main building, both tectonically and in materiality: the main building shows a laconic acceptance of the programme in that it is a white-rendered brick building with repeated fenestration that doesn't in any way try to seem more interesting than it actually is while the stair tower seems to be a picturesque collage of slabs of different materials, not entirely unrelated to neoplasticism. there is an argument to be had that the ninety degrees indentions at the corners of the main block makes it seem like it too is composed of several slabs but even if that is the case the slabs the stair tower is composed of are much more pronounced.

moving down in scale we have the entrance porch and canopy. now we're suddenly quite far from neoplasticism but when looking closer at the different elements it is quite noticeable how everything is constructed from, well, not slabs but from distinctly flat elements: there are timber boards, flat steel barrs, copper sheets etc. there is one obvious exception, the concrete stair, but that is also clearly separated from the building and belongs to the earth instead.

one significant characteristic of the porch – though one most users of the building probably won't notice until after a long while, if they notice it at all – is that the whole thing is cantilevered off the stair tower. it would be so incredibly easy to just put some short legs under the construction but there are none. the only places it actually touches down are the handrail of the stair – added by Nyberg in 1967 – and the ramp at the back which wasn't added until 1983, after Nyberg's passing, to increase accessibility. so if you take a look at the drawing there is actually no point of the porch that ever touch down.

after a while you realise that the fact that the construction doesn't touch down is symptomatic as none of the major elements of the porch actually connect to each other either; they're always connected by secondary elements or interrupted by some other part. so you have a thin flat timber roof that rests atop T-shaped steel beams (ostensibly made from two flat steel bars connected at a right angle) but before the roof meets up with the wall of the stair tower it's interrupted by a copper gutter resting on the same beams (and which at the front lets the water just fall straight onto the ground but at the back is connected to a rectangular drainpipe). in the same way the T-shaped beams aren't actually resting on the paired uprights at the edge of the porch, that would be way too obvious a construction, instead the beams lie on top of steel brackets made of folded flat steel bars and these brackets also serve as the distances for the paired uprights. and the original railing, a flat steel bar folded into the shape of a rectangle, are connected to the uprights by the same kind of bracket, only smaller. the floor of the porch is made from timber boards resting on further T-shaped beams which are in turn resting on the steel cantilevers connected to the stair tower. originally the Ts, and the boards along with them, made a ninety-degree turn at the back folding up to make a waist-high back wall where the ramp now starts.

as I said the only part of the construction, related to Nyberg, that touches down is the handrail from -67 and that's only with one upright, and in a very odd way: the upright isn't just secured on top of the stair but turns ninety degrees and follows the stair to spill down the riser like some kind of slow-moving liquid.

this became a lot longer than I had at first intended but since my first visit I have been fascinated by how just a few materials – timber, steel, copper – in even fewer shapes – basically a rectangular cross-section of different proportions – can combine in unexpected ways to create what can only be considered some kind of built poetry.

acknowledgements and further info:
most information on dates and the different alterations are from Lennart Lundberg's 2003 thesis in art history Arkitekten Bernt Nyberg och modernismen –en studie av konst- och musikvetenskapsinstitutionens byggnad "Josephson" vid Lunds universitet which although it, from the perspective of a practising architect, has some flaws is useful on the timeline of the building and the different changes since its completition

Sunday, April 16, 2017

drops in the river

here's a post I started years ago but never got round to finishing, that is until I started reading the reprint of Nairn's London and read this quote in his description of the Monument 'the view makes most sense to a stranger in that – unlike most London views – it shows how the city is completely formed by the river yet has turned its back on it'. this brought to mind another city, at least partially, formed by a river:
on new year's eve 2012 a friend asked me what was the highlight for me that year. I instinctively replied that it was swimming in the Rhine through Basel.

I'm fully aware that I had been happier at other moments that year, that I had had more fun, felt more alive and been more excited at other times. I also know there are several other things – most other things, really – that had had a more profound effect on my daily life than those few occasions I drifted in that river looking up at the city around me. but had I felt more at peace with the world and my place in it? probably not. and then I'm more at peace with the world than I've been in a very long time.

of course being on holidays had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring and knowing a new exciting job was waiting on my return home had something to do with it.

it was something more than that, though. something about lazily seeing the world going by, of changing perspective and suddenly being in the thing you normally cross over going somewhere else, that was incredibly relaxing. and the city of Basel has done almost everything right helping people use that great resource of theirs.

I remember my first visit to Basel, three years prior: a friend and I had been on a study trip going from Milan via Como, Bellinzona and Chur looking at beautiful architecture and sublime landscapes. the trip ended in Basel where we had a day to take in all the sights we wanted to see and as the city is littered with interesting architecture we set about it with gusto: driving here, taking a tram there, walking this way and walking that way back. in the end we had managed to rack up an impressive amount of sights – in hindsight I barely understand how we managed to fit it all in while it still felt like a fairly relaxed day – but that time the Rhine was just something we happened to pass on our way somewhere else.

a year later I was back, visiting another friend that had moved there in the meantime, and I realised that far from just being something you cross a lot of the life in the city actually circle around the river; be it the harbour, the medical companies and factories occupying long stretches of the riverbank or the people having a beer out by the river during the evenings.

yes, I know, of course the river as a piece of infrastructure is one of the main reasons there is a city there to start with, but I have never been in a city where the water hasn't been turned into either just a piece of infrastructure or something picturesque you look out on while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. in Jönköping, my hometown, the lake Vättern is somewhere you can go swimming in summer and a provider of horribly cold northern winds throughout the rest of the year, in Stockholm the heavy traffic on lake Mälaren is routed south of the city leaving the huge expanses of water in the city centre as a picturesque element elevating the prices of apartments while rendering the inner city incredibly cumbersome to get around. but in Basel you have people swimming in the river only 50 meters away from a fully loaded barge, you have that same barge passing the beautiful, current-powered, ferries at a right angle: you have the utterly contemporary and the antiquated and the picturesque co-existing side by side in a way that resembles the city itself.

in this way the quays on the Kleinbasel side with their steps leading down to the water lets you witness the new and old, the beautiful and the ugly as well as leisure and labour all at the same time.

it must be said that the reason we missed most of the river on my first visit was because it is only really on the northern shore, in Kleinbasel, that the city connects with the river. in Groβbasel there is a higher and steeper bank and long rows of houses that hide the river from view in the central parts. the upside of this, from the point of view of the locals at least, is that a lot of the tourists will miss this beautiful stretch of the shore, merely seeing it from one of the bridges or, if they're splashing out on accommodation, while having dinner in a fancy hotel restaurant.

but the residents do flock to the river during summer days: bobbing along in the river – using water-tight bags for their belongings as flotation devices – or having a picnic on the stairs leading down to the water. I guess it makes sense that it's on the northern shore that the city connects with the water as Kleinbasel is traditionally more working class than Groβbasel. and now that things have changed, when connecting to a body of water is suddenly desirable to the middle and upper classes there is the risk of going down the route that London seems to have taken, where the riverside seems to have been taken over by luxury developments, Basel on the other hand have upgraded the quayside making sure it's still a public amenity and all along the river is still used for transporting goods and people. no use is forcing the others out, instead they're all co-mingling – seemingly happily. in a way I guess Copenhagen have tried something similar in the way they've built their harbour baths, but they are only tiny spots in a strait, in Basel it's a stretch of water all through the inner city dedicated just to swimmers.

if I were to guess the fact that the river is harder to reach on the southern side is a huge part in the fact that different uses can co-exist as the natural conditions for swimming is missing along the Groβbasel shore so that whole side of the river can be reserved for traffic while the northern two fifths can be turned over to recreation.

the city seems to have done some work to the quayside infrastructure over the last decades which has turned out great (it seems the only reason anyone could possibly have to complain is if you're a drummer wanting to practice the bongos, but in that case I think the rest of the people there are thankful for the ban).

of the cities I've visited Basel is the one that most successfully relates to the water it's situated at; and still I entirely missed the river on my first visit. but I'm not sure it's just a negative thing that tourists miss some spots, at least not from the perspective of the locals.

well, in all honesty we've got something similar here in Malmö, at least in parts of the city: first there's the long sandy beach and the open-air baths at Ribersborg as well as the promenade with steps leading down to the water at Västra hamnen but they're on the outskirts of the city, and Västra hamnen is a very expensive part of town. thankfully that hasn't stopped people appropriating the promenade there and a lot of people from other parts of the city go there for a barbecue and to hang out on summer evenings but compared to Basel it is still peripheral and like in most cities the productive uses of the sea are spatially separated from the recreational ones. so in Ribersborg and Västra Hamnen the sea is a picturesque recreational amenity (and occasional cause of harsh climatic conditions) while in Mellersta and Norra hamnen it's still just infrastructure if, admittedly, picturesque at times. of course you can argue that this is the luxury of having a lot of water, you don't need uses to juxtapose, but I can't help but to think that the city is actually poorer for it.

let's end with a photo of the sun setting behind Groβbasel, a perfect view at the end of a summer's day.

Monday, January 16, 2017

overcome with light, pt. 2

I have just read Johan Mårtelius' essay Längs bokens rygg (Arkitektur (Stockholm), no. 4, 2006) where he mentions the progression from darkness towards light connecting it both to the entrance sequence in Isak Gustaf Clason's Nordic Museum and to the line 'Från mörkret stiga vi mot ljuset' (From the dark we step towards the light) from the Swedish version of The Internationale.

Mårtelius also mentions that the third, modernist, wing – directly in front as you come up the entrance stair – wasn't added until 1932 so originally you were facing a glazed opening with a door leading straight out into the even brighter daylight outside. I hadn't actually thought about it like that, and find it a little disappointing that if you follow that reasoning there is a distinct spatial direction to your progress: you do not see the same spot in a new light but encounter something actually new instead. even though that too works as a spatial metaphor for learning I'm actually quite happy that third wing was added so quickly - it makes the building a bit more didactic and explicit but it also adds something by forcing you to enter and exit in the same way (well, there are other ways of entering and exiting but they are more obviously secondary so don't really matter that much to the entrance sequence).