[From the summer] – At Lafayette and 1st St sits a wedge shaped building similar to the Flatiron. This building, without the patronage and protection afforded the Flatiron, has has additions and subtractions and a few billboards stapled on, but the result is this bow-like extension, pointing north and culminating in, somewhere inside at the tip of the cafe, a microwave.
The term ‘contextual’ can be used in a number of ways to describe a piece of architecture. Material choice, scale, type of program, essentially any shared aspect between two buildings becomes the frame with which they are compared. During a study abroad semester in Barcelona I had to look at a public library designed by RCR Arquitectes from Catalonia, looking specifically at how it was situated in context. It strikes a contrast with its surrounding by almost any measure. Rhythm, color, material, fenestration, all work to differentiate the library from the apartments on either side. Given the courtyard layout of the block, this contrast continues to the interior of the block. My initial reaction was negative, colored by personal experience in a high school which was a poorly executed Mies van der Rohe copy. This experience put me off to black galvanized steel modernism. What this example, this library has, which cannot come through in photographs, is a reward for repeat visitation. I visited the building a number of times, and on each occasion picked up on new details such as the creased ribbons adding a delicate touch to the courtyard. Sometimes the best way to respect context is to provide contrast.
A quick walk in Washington DC tonight revealed an absurd sight with preparations taking place by the convention center for imminent demolition and construction.
The two story structure is braced externally by steel, and the windows and doors are boarded up with plywood, plywood that has been pasted over with images of pristine wooden doors and shutters. A storefront around the corner has similar treatment.
Last summer’s G8 Summit in Northern Ireland had a small controversy surrounding similar treatment of vacant storefronts covered with images of well stocked and bustling places of commerce. The label Potemkin Village refers to lore about a Russian general (Potemkin) embellishing conquered cities to further impress the conquest to Empress Catherine II.
I visited the World Trade Center site today, which is still mostly under construction. The PATH station looks like post-war London Brutalism, a crude version of something Alison and Peter Smithson might have designed in the scarcity of the late 1940s and 1950s. The Calatrava Station, which will replace the existing temporary structure, is looking as menacing and interesting as it ever will with only the beginnings of the precious while cladding installed. The Freedom Tower is looking a bit dirty, and is just as easily appreciated from afar. I’m not sure how much has been value engineered out of that building, but the details are not memorable. Between that and the $24 entrance fee to the memorial, it begs the question how we can justify a private developer operating on hallowed ground while pitchforks were raised at the suggestion of an Islamic Community Center a few blocks away.