Architecture Heals

heal |verb| become sound or healthy again

 If God made Eve from the rib of Adam, He made the Portuguese from the rib of the Atlantic. Our roaring ocean gives the coastline a dramatic beauty that has made us a country of adventurers, poets and Biblical fishers. But you must constantly reign in your love for all that aquatic splendor. As our poet Sophia de Mello Breyner once wrote “as beautiful as each thing is / it holds within a suspended monster” (“Ocean Floor”).

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Through osmosis, we quickly learn the key to survival in agitated waters: deep fight. When a wave comes and is too much, resist the urge of flight. This will only result in the tough tumble of a wave breaking heavily on your back. You’ve got to face it. Go deep. Dive as low into it as you can. Stretched underwater, you’ll feel its shape roll over your body like a triangular wheel as it curls into itself. When you come up, it’ll be behind you. If another wave comes on its tail, dive again. A set of big waves is always followed by a set of small ones. When the small ones come, you can leave. Until then, dive, dive deep.

During my years of law school, there was a constant trickle of Italians coming to Lisbon for a year of architectural studies, something our country is renowned for. We may not have an economy able to buoy lots of major architectural projects (like Switzerland does), but out of the 36 Pritzker Prize winners (the Oscars of architecture), 2 are Portuguese: Alvaro Siza in 1992 and Eduardo Souto de Moura in 2011. On their tails is a whole generation of high-quality contemporary architects. Not bad for a tiny county of 10 million. Back in college, while I’d drag around my massive compendiums of laws, the Italians would slave over their glycerin soap maquettes. They were used to a tamer beast than the Atlantic, so we would teach them about waves. And with them, I learned to look at architecture for the first time. To look with eyes that see.

In 2003, I did my own year abroad in Milan. My father had just passed away and it felt like an unending sequence of massive waves – too close and too many. In the fight or flight dichotomy, diving deep was clearly the task at hand, but I needed a minute to catch my breath and no one seemed to know where the pause button was. Then some friends invited me on a road trip to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. I discovered there that architecture can heal.

Renzo Piano's Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

The Beyeler Foundation is an art gallery designed by the blue-eyed Renzo Piano. A decade down the road, I have a mental snapshot of the red stone facade baking in the expanding light. A whimsical lime green basin at its feet, tapping on the window just beyond which hung Monet’s enormous Water-lily Pond. It was all so serene. My lungs were filled with air at last – the relief I had so desperately sought. I was back there recently, amidst this very happy phase in my life, and yet the effect was the same. The Beyeler’s beauty was not a fluke – it was objective.

Architecture is not just a backdrop to our buzzing bustle. It has the power to uplift or oppress the human heart fueling all that activity. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle in the large neutral demilitarized zone of routine. But occasionally it succeeds at addressing us at the level of our deepest desires – our thirst for beauty, love, belonging, justice. At those moments, that immovable building can move us, an amazing thing indeed.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

A few weeks ago, I visited a very different Renzo Piano museum on the outskirts of Bern: the Zentrum Paul Klee, dedicated to the namesake Swiss artist. Fit into a curvy landscape is a playful squiggly iron facade. You can Google it all you want, but actually experiencing it will awaken even the most dormant of us. I’m no technical expert in architecture – just a sensitive inhabitant – and am always uncertain about a building until I’ve been inside. Under the curves of the ZPK, I felt just disoriented enough to go through the gallery spaces in subtle tension: uncertain of how the space was going to satisfy my needs as a museum-goer, but trusting it would. A sense of direction begins to form only when you let go of pre-conceived notions of how such a space should behave and let it speak to you in its own language. As you become open to its innovative dynamic, you slip into a fresh state of mind. Automatic reactions abandoned. What better state of mind to engage with Paul Klee’s artwork, no?

If – like the ZPK – some buildings are designed to place the inhabitant in a positive state for the activity to be undertaken there, others have the opposite effect. Some are so self-absorbed that anything else taking place in their vicinity feels like an afterthought. I call these diva building. Although I recognize their often innovative value, they wear me out if I have to deal with them for too long. I much prefer a more discreet approach. Luckily, the Vitra Campus provides a little of both and they compliment each other like salt and pepper.

Vitra is a Swiss design powerhouse owned by the Fehlbaum family. Known as the Vitra Campus, it’s factory/ warehouse/ design museum/ showroom in Weil am Rhein, Germany is an excellent example of how the Swiss not only have stellar architects, they also commission stellar architecture. This architectural fairground was born out of an unpredictable combination of circumstances: a fire, a visionary new Chairman and lots of financial clout. The original factory was razed by a fire in the early 80’s, with insurance coverage for halted production of only 6 months. Instead of a bland re-construction, Vitra’s Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum commissioned the well-known British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to build 2 new innovative factory buildings. The only hitch was that the factories had to be up and running when the coverage expired. Despite the impossible deadline, they pulled it off and, with it, the first starchitect buildings were in place at the Vitra Campus.

Frank Gehry's Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

For someone who is presently trying her hand at a new career, Fehlbaum’s story is pretty inspiring. He toyed with other professional paths and only really committed to the family company when he was 36. But his vision made up for lost time. Having built-up one of the most complete chair collections in the world (“had me at hello” anyone?), Fehlbaum wanted Frank Gehry to build him a new gallery for it. Since this was to be Gehry’s first European commission, he needed a bigger carrot, so Fehlbaum upped the ante with a new factory and entrance building to seal the deal. Fehlbaum has an eye for talent. It’s no coincidence he was a member of the Pritzker jury for 6 years and that 6 out of the 7 burgeoning architects he commissioned to build on the Vitra site later became award winners in their own right. Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, as it is now called, is all white rowdy volumes – way too distracting for a museum, in my opinion. It juxtaposes quite sharply (pun intended) with its neighboring buildings, but that’s surely not a coincidence. Although each building on the campus is it’s own, it’s also inevitably a reaction to those that surrond it.

Tadao Ando's Conference Pavillion

Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavillion

SANAA's playful factory facade.

SANAA’s playful factory facade.

One such construction is the Japanese Tadao Ando’s concrete conference pavilion – also his first European commission. Fehlbaum had the initially reticent Ando flown in when the cherry blossoms existent on the site were in full bloom, knowing that these trees have a magnetic appeal in Japanese culture. Ando not only agreed to the project, he built a powerfully discreet conference center positioned so that no trees had to be cut down to accommodate it. Gehry, on the other hand, had all of the cherry trees in the vicinity of his museum cut down so they wouldn’t clutter its facade. He was also none too happy when Ando designed a long narrow pathway leading up to the conference center that ran across the length of Gehry’s building.  This pathway is narrow and oblique with a purpose – it is intended to prepare those heading to meetings by inviting reflection. I watched a passing group as they walked its length and, in effect, their conversations were broken-up. Of course, most of the people walking through here are probably German or Swiss. Us Southern Europeans would probably just walk all over the grass.  As for the other building of Japanese design, the newly opened SANAA factory is sleek and playful with its shiny white curtain-mimicking façade and oval shape. A pleasure to walk by.

The inside of Zaha Hadid's Fire Station (top floor).

The inside of Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station (top floor).

For all its shortcomings, Gehry’s gallery is certainly not more of a diva building than Zaha Hadid’s infamous fire station. I’d heard the stories of the firemen protesting about the open plan bathrooms and impossibly slanted walls, but only when I tried it out for size myself did I give them the credit they were due. I felt lastingly dizzy. Every wall is tilted in some odd direction. I wondered why the bathroom’s paper dispenser had caught my eye so. Then I realized that it was the only thing with right angles in the entire construction. Hadid deserves all of the recognition she has received. She is an incredible innovator and her designs are beautiful, but the Vitra Fire Station – her first commissioned work (despite all the recognition given to her designs) – is totally unfit for purpose. How can you fight fires when you feel sea-sick? Thank God it is no longer a functioning station. My guide at the campus confessed she’d once run into Zaha Hadid at an ArtBasel conference and asked her if she knew people got dizzy inside the building. Apparently, her response was a terse “they’ll get used to it”.

Alvaro Siza's red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid's fire station at the end of the road.

Alvaro Siza’s red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid’s fire station at the end of the road.

Before you get to Hadid’s building, you have to walk past my compatriot’s warehouse. Alvaro Siza’s construction with its red brick façade is incredibly understated. So much so that Siza has been accused by some of missing an opportunity to shine. Instead, the architect wanted to mark a discreet presence in an already visually noisy campus. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside, but you can see it’s very sophisticated in the details. It requires, however, an unrushed engagement to be fully appreciated – something like getting a conversation started with a wise, but grumpy old man. The only attention-calling element in Siza’s design is the white iron walkway that connects his building to Grimshaw’s aross the road. It’s oddly elevated and has a complex mechanism to bring it down on days of rain when it is actually needed. The reason for this becomes apparent only upon close inspection – if the Portuguese architect had put this walkway cover at a normal height, he would have totally blocked the view to Hadid’s Fire Station. A telling detail of an inconspicuous design.

Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus

In between these larger constructions, you’ll also find tiny design delights such a Jean Prouvé’s gas station, Buckminster Fuller’s dome and Renzo Piano’s one man hut called Diogene. But the building that most takes my fancy is Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus. It looks like an utterly confusing mound of sliced black houses and is thankfully set a bit further apart from the remaining buildings just so you can take it in. This showroom for Vitra’s products is clearly anything but quite, but unlike Gehry’s and Hadid’s constructions, its agitated playfulness is completely fitting to its purpose. The shapes and light frames found within set-off Vitra’s products in an intimate yet fanciful way. The slightly odd workings of the building within make you feel like you’re inside a treasure trove. Sounds good for business if you ask me.

But for all my architectural ranting and raving, nothing can substitute your own experience of walking in, over and around these buildings. And thank God for that. I wouldn’t want to detract from anyone else’s exchange with them. Perhaps one day you’ll need some uplifting and, if nothing else, I’ve given you somewhere to go in this corner of Switzerland. Looking up and around you can fill your lungs with air. And that can be life saving.

A Neuchâtelean Archi-tour – now doesn’t that sound fancy?

creation |noun| the action or process of bringing something into existence

Writers shouldn’t paint, at least that’s the moral I took away from the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. But if they can’t be stopped and you feel exceedingly pressured to showcase their artwork, at least do us the favor of getting a world-class architect on board. You owe it to us to give us something aesthetically pleasing to look at! So my sincere appreciation to the folks that snagged Mario Botta for the gallery where the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s artwork is permanently on display.

I had already gathered from my investigations that this fellow wouldn’t have been the liveliest of dinner guests. Not only were his literary works mostly philosophical crime stories and macabre satire plays, but he also considered a story finished only “when it took a turn for the worst”. And not in a witty Oscar Wilde kind of way. As for the sole difference between humans and wild animals, humans – he said – pray before they commit murder. Perhaps these statements can be better understood if we recall that the author was 18 when the Second World War broke out – although Switzerland was, as always, neutral and therefore not directly involved.

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David Bowie in front of some unfortunate Bowieart.

The inclination of certain celebrities to self-express through painting is a wonderful thing. Truly. All my support goes out to Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé, Steve Tyler, Michelle Pfeiffer, Slash and Josh Hartnett who all claim to paint. If, however, samples of your tinkering happen to slip into the public arena, please don’t expect us to like it just because you clobbered the Nazi’s in World War II… or you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have the highest number of covered songs in the world… or you are the very embodiment of glam rock and London’s V&A Museum has recently inaugurated a box-office-record-breaking retrospective of your career. (To be fair, Winston Churchill’s work is discreetly displayed at his Chartwell studio and is not too bad, but Dylan’s horrendous tempera tantrums were recently exhibited at none other than the Palazzo Reale in Milan (http://www.halcyongallery.com/news/bob-dylan-at-the-palazzo-reale-milan) – explain that! Bowie’s unfortunate pieces have their own website and brand (Bowieart: http://www.bowieart.com/default.asp), where it is abundantly clear he takes his art a lot more seriously than I do.)

As for the artwork of the decidedly less famous Dürrenmatt, Francis Bacon was dark, as was Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Hieronymus Bosch. And I love them. But their work is to Dürrenmatt’s, like truffles to turds. I can’t shake the feeling that Botta may not have been an admirer of Dürrenmatt’s paintings either. After all, for a space meant to showcase the man’s artwork, all of the tributes in the design are to elements of his literary output.

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The cave-like gallery of the Centre Durrenmatt, complete with skylights and door to the exterior.

With such harsh views, you may be inclined to avoid that stark climb up the Neuchâtelean hills to where the Centre Dürrenmatt is perched. But please don’t. Thanks to Mario Botta, it is a beautiful space with incredible views that are decidedly less harsh than my own about the elaborate wall stains within. Dürrenmatt’s work may be hard to swallow, but at least it has given occasion to some truly remarkable architecture. Beautiful things can spring from bad beginnings.

I am a sucker for good contemporary architecture and the Swiss are surprisingly skilled at it. (I say surprisingly, because industrial ingenuity seems more in Swiss character than aesthetic genius.) Le Corbusier may have preceded the coining of the phrase “starchitect”, but Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (think Tate Modern, the Beijing Olympic Stadium), Peter Zumthor (think Therme Vals, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel) and Mario Botta (Saint John the Baptist Chapel, Spa Tschuggen) certainly came just in time for it. Being fans of architecture and spas, the Swiss have even given rise to a new niche – spachitecture!

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The theatrical balcony suspended over the valley and Lake Neuchâtel.

My first impression of Neuchâtel was marked by the rich yellow hue of the Jura stones found everywhere in the historical center. It’s as if the sun’s dying light perennially lingers on their façades. Back in the 19th century, a visiting Alexandre Dumas said the town looked like a toy sculpted out of butter. In contrast, Botta’s design for the Centre Dürrenmatt is in black slate, a tribute to the author’s dark outlook on life. And just as his literary work digs into the depths of the human soul, so does the space created by Botta resemble an unexpected cave carved into the heart of the mountain. The visitor feels protected and yet illuminated by the light that mercifully pours in from above. The crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the balcony suspended high over Lake Neuchâtel. Botta called it a stage, the visitor the protagonist.

As I stand out on that balcony gazing down at the vast lake, I feel certain you cannot look at something that breath-taking day after day and not be profoundly affected by it. And yet this beauty failed to permeate the exhibited artwork. Surely, Dürrenmatt must have loved that lake, the Jura mountains beyond it, the green pastures that frame it. Otherwise, he would not have chosen this spot to live. Yet such was the strength of his angst that he chose to dam himself up in it.

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The dam-like wall that delineates the gallery space and supports the balcony above it.

Botta’s design seems to reflect this same perception, with the massive valley-facing wall that both delineates the exposition space and buttresses the balcony. “When I am inside the space,” he said “I also feel the emptiness of the valley, I feel the lake, the city. The wall is like a dam: it holds back an internal energy against the outside world.” Curiously, Botta cut out a door smack in the middle of this dam, as well as vast skylights. This leaves the visitor standing in an exhibition space that is far from the dark empty pit felt in the artworks. The combination of these elements (light, lake and door) make Botta’s building a space of hopefulness – despite the sharp torment of Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre. This is fitting. It gives us a more complete picture. Man cannot live without hope – and that is what, I believe, distinguishes humans from wild animals.

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