RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship Winner

I am glad to be back with excellent news! I have been recently awarded the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship for my proposal entitled:

‘On the Move: An Architectural Model Exploring Transportable and Improved Living Networks for Nomadic Communities’


[Image available here]

The project aims to examine the relationship that nomadic people develop towards their natural and built environments and how this bond, expressed through mobile, domestic architecture, outlines a different understanding and appropriation of space than that developed by contemporary stagnant groups.

The study will focus on Europe’s fastest – growing minority: the Roma. Despite being present in Europe for centuries, Roma and Traveller groups continue to remain on the fringe of both Eastern and Western European societies, surrounded by boundaries that seek to physically force them apart from their neighboring communities.

Aiming to address this sensitive and highly debated social and spatial phenomenon, the study proposes the revival of the nomad caravan under the concept of a modular, structural network of pavilions that caters to the basic needs of the travelling community in terms of utilities and collective interaction. The focus will lie on the design of a self-sustaining architectural organism on wheels, a nomad village that can adapt and reconfigure itself according to the available environmental resources, while providing a robust structural framework, drafted in accordance with the Roma aesthetic outlines.

Additionally, the research envisages the rethinking of key concepts at the core of architectural theory and design. The focus on temporary, adaptable, shared spaces challenges the sedentary predisposition specific to Western architecture and its affinity towards grand, enduring structures. Laura’s approach is driven by the idea that architecture functions as an ideology in built form, that homes are more than just fixed dwellings, more than just sheltering devices: they are tools that enable the communities that use architecture to carve their identities and redefine visions of themselves and their collective subconscious.

The main objectives are:

  • to better understand the architectural/spatial needs of Roma within their current living situations;
  • to identify and analyze temporary forms of habitation which exist in several Roma camps across Romania;
  • to encourage the implementation of sustainable and inclusive nomadic housing solutions tailored to Roma people needs, preserving their cultural diversity and creativity;
  • to encourage intercultural dialogue and active inclusion of Roma within the European Social and Urban space;
  • to enable non-Roma to become familiarized with the European character of Roma culture

For more information, please visit the RIBA website.

Lebbeus Woods – Walls of Change

‘Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no “sacred and primordial site.” I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then “melt into air.” I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know your name. Nor you can know mine. Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.’  [Woods, Lebbeus (2002). War and Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. pp. 1.]

[Images courtesy of http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, 1994]

Quotes selection from BLDGBLOG Interview:

‘Woods: I think there’s not enough of that thinking today in relation to cities that have been faced with sudden and dramatic – even violent – transformations, either because of natural or human causes. But we need to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move. No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented. It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do. But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction. Of course, being an architect, I’m very interested in the specifics of that direction – you know, not just a verbal description but: this is what it might look like. ‘

‘Maybe it will be great – but it’s not enough. I think architects – at least those inclined to understand the multi-disciplinarity and the comprehensive nature of their field – have to visualize something that embraces all these political, economic, and social changes. As well as the technological. As well as the spatial.
‘To me politics means one thing: How do you change your situation? What is the mechanism by which you change your life? That’s politics. That’s the political question. It’s about negotiation, or it’s about revolution, or it’s about terrorism, or it’s about careful step-by-step planning – all of this is political in nature. It’s about how people, when they get together, agree to change their situation.’

‘I think, you know, architecture should not just be something that follows up on events but be a leader of events. That’s what you’re saying: That by implementing an architectural action, you actually are making a transformation in the social fabric and in the political fabric. Architecture becomes an instigator; it becomes an initiator.’

‘Well, look – if you go back through my projects over the years, probably the least present aspect is the idea of property lines. There are certainly boundaries – spatial boundaries – because, without them, you can’t create space. But the idea of fencing off, or of compartmentalizing – or the capitalist ideal of private property – has been absent from my work over the last few years. I think in my more recent work, certainly, there are still boundaries. There are still edges. But they are much more porous, and the property lines… [laughs] are even less, should we say, defined or desired. […]

Probably the political implication of that is something about being open – encouraging what I call the lateral movement and not the vertical movement of politics. It’s the definition of a space through a set of approximations or a set of vibrations or a set of energy fluctuations – and that has everything to do with living in the present.

All of those lines are in flux. They’re in movement, as we ourselves develop and change.’

Full interview available here.

Montage and Narrative References

1.  Sergei Eisenstein

[Montage Theory]

‘Alexander Nevsky’ + ‘Battleship Potemkin’

The concept of montage is defined by the action of fragmenting reality and then reassembling it under the principle of a conflictive order. By juxtaposing two contrasting, disjointed elements a new meaning is created, something that transcends them both and the reality from which they arise.

2. Dziga Vertov

[Man with a Movie Camera]

The camera becomes and extension of the human body which orders chaos in a coherent sequence of images. Convinced that Marxism was the ideal scientific tool of analysis, perfecting vision implied the shift form a subjective to an objective deciphering of the world.

3. Lev Kuleshov

[The Kuleshov Effect]

Technique which demonstrates the inherent power of montage as a primary tool in the manipulation of the viewer’s perception. According to Kuleshov, cinema consists of fragments and it is their combination rather than their content that is essential in evoking and triggering different emotions. His original experiment consists of using the same shot of the character’s face, frozen in a neutral emotion while editing it next to different objects he appears to be glancing at: a girl in a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman. The audience interpreted the three situations as expressions of sadness, hunger and lust.

4. Gordon Cullen

[Serial Vision]

Described as the pedestrian experience of the urban space, which can be recorded sequentially by means of drawings, diagrams and photographs. Each movement along the path unravels different views which add to the sense of anticipation and drama.

5.  Bernard Tschumi

[The Manhattan Transcripts]

‘The Transcripts are about a set of disjunctions among use, form and social values. The non-coincidence between meaning and being, movement and space, man and object is the starting condition of the work. Yet the inevitable confrontation of these terms produces effects of far-ranging consequence. Ultimately, the Transcripts try to offer a different reading of architecture, in which space, movement and events are independent, yet stand in a new relationship to one another, so that the conventional components of architecture are broken down and rebuilt along different axes.’

Delirious New York : A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978)

Delirious New York – A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan represents an insightful evaluation of Manhattan as an urban and architectural test-ground, a laboratory for the invention and implementation of the fundamental theories and visions that determined the metropolitan life style reach its current mythical status. In 1978 when the book was released, the confidence in Manhattan was shattered by a period of financial turmoil.

A reminder of its past glory was promptly needed, and Koolhaas had the answer: a ‘retroactive’ manifesto celebrating carefully selected stages in its evolution ever since its discovery in 1609 up to the present day.

Referring to himself as ‘Manhattan’s Ghost Writer’, Koolhaas closely observes the Metropolis’s relentless metamorphosis: from ‘an unformulated theory’ as an initial response to the instinctual vanity imposed by the Grid’s blocks, to the cathartic realization that ‘the culture of congestion’ is a cure as opposed to a malady. As a result, all those attempting to provide antidotes to its mega-polis status end up absorbed in the vortex of its ambition and speed. The remarkable thing about New York is precisely its cannibalistic tendencies to ingest its past in order to give birth to the future.

Koolhaas pays tribute to the physical delineation of the grid by implementing it into the structure of the book on a metaphorical level and referring to it as – ‘a collection of blocks whose proximity and juxtaposition reinforce their separate meanings.’ What the five different ‘blocks’ underpin through their temporal and spatial leaps is that individuality and segregation can lead to a symbiotic level of coherence – ‘Prehistory’, ‘Coney Island’, ‘The Skyscraper’, ’The Rockfeller Centre’, ‘Europeans’ are part of a whole portraying an glorified Manhattan in order for its accomplishments and imperfections to become yet more apparent.

The first chapter – ‘Prehistory’ – delves into the stringent need to mythologize the story of a glorious past suitable for a triumphant present. The author focuses on an ‘embryonic’ Manhattan, starting with its discovery in 1609 and the subsequent transplant of a utopian Europe – a radical procedure which Koolhaas labels as ‘a theatre of progress’, a perpetual domination of barbarism by refinement through ruthless eradication of past evidence. Thus, the concept of ‘lobotomy’ gets ingrained into Manhattan’s subconscious, becoming the leitmotif in its further stages of evolution. The implementation of the Grid in 1811 indicates the same amnesic behaviour, the same indifference to the existing topography driven by an insatiable need of spatial control, of dominating the irregular – in this case, rough nature.

However, the apparent success of this two-dimensional discipline in taming a primitive plan by imposing its utilitarian aims, will fail on a three-dimensional level. The strategy of thought behind the Grid’s configuration was labeled by Koolhaas as a ‘negative symbol of the shortsightedness of commercial interests’ which trades the element of design and creativity for convenience. This subjugation can only instigate and fuel the vertical ego of each block, and generate, finally, a three-dimensional anarchy.

The reader is subsequently introduced to Manhattan’s first volumetric experimentations, with the antithetical, yet complementary tandem: the needle and globe, referred to as ‘an archetypal contrast that will appear and re-appear throughout Manhattan’s ever-new reincarnations’. London’s Crystal Palace and the Latting Observatory are the incipient, crude answers to the insatiable need for innovation as spectacle, for liberation through the avoidance of the Real.

The discovery of vertical ascension technologies such as the elevator sparks within Manhattan’s inhabitants a sense geographical self-consciousness and provides the island with an additional means of escape: ‘mass ascension ’. As Manhattan evolves from a city to a metropolis, the need for Pleasure becomes imperative. Koolhaas focuses his study on Coney Island – ‘an incubator for Manhattan’s incipient mythology’,’ the finish line for a weekly exodus’ – as the perfect environment for social experimentation, for the implementation of the ‘technology of the fantastic’. In order to survive as a resort and provide unlimited means of temporary release as the antidote to the frantic urban life-style, Coney greets the reservoir of people flooding its beaches with an over-dose of hyper-real, mutating into the opposite of Nature. The Artificial becomes the main attraction, counter-acting the metropolitan theatricality with the ostentatious and finally, the grotesque. As Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland materialize, each more flamboyant than its precursor, Coney needs to keep feeding its visitors their weekly dose of super-natural by introducing a series of outlandish scenarios and mechanisms that will later shape Manhattan itself. Excess is the lead word and, if ‘Coney Island is the World’, then everything is deemed to eventually implode and return to basics. The Sodoman fire is nature’s way of purifying the ground the human being mutilated for its own superficial, ‘innocent’ pleasures as labeled by Koolhaas. The cycle of life is complete: after creation, evolution and extinction comes rebirth – Coney Island is redeveloped as a series of parks and promenades.

After a period of technological breakthroughs, the elevator meets the steel frame, making way for an utopian theorem, formulated in 1909 – an expression of the ambitions lingering in the collective subconscious – according to which ‘any given site can now be multiplied ad infinitum to produce the proliferation of floor space called Skyscraper’. Each of these artificial sites is defined independently from all the other, treated as a virgin territory with its own destiny which can accommodate any desired activity. The Skyscraper promotes unity in form but fracture in meaning, in programmatic cohesion, becoming a ‘stack of individual privacies’. As Koolhaas explains, the Skyscraper represents the meeting of three urbanistic revelations: ‘the reproduction of the world’, ‘the annexation of the tower’ and ‘the block alone’, each individually analyzed by the author and subsequently integrated into a ‘glorious whole’.

As the culture of congestion intensifies, so does the latent need for escape and spectacle, a void hunting the collective subconscious caused by Coney’s sudden extinction. However, the restrictions imposed by the grid’s delineation, generate a vertical race, won in 1911 by the 100th floor building -‘a mammoth structure, towering into the clouds and containing within its walls the cultural, commercial and industrial activities of a great city’ – the Hybrid is born.

Furthermore, the infinite interchange of programmatic layers within a neutralizing shell pinned down by Koolhaas as ‘Architectural Lobotomy’ means ‘less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity’. The segregation of form from function, of the container from the contained as well as the extrapolation of this procedure on the internal realm of the building – ‘the vertical schism’ – generate a collection of islands within an island, of ‘cities within a city’, each rivaling for recognition and individuality. The ‘Forest of Towers’ tested in Luna Park by Thompson has been successfully transplanted to Manhattan in both aesthetics and spirit.

The introduction of the 1916 Zoning Law emerges at a moment when awareness is raised upon Manhattan’s frenzied growth pattern which cannot be disciplined anymore by the rigorous grid. Consequently, a series of ideologies follow, experimenting with the control of chaos. Through his acclaimed renders, Ferris unconsciously develops an innovative formula aiming to manage the vertical explosion by prioritizing natural light and ventilation, promoting ‘the city’s infinite growth without endangering its legibility, intimacy or coherence’. By taking his conceptual experimentations and variations on the Zoning Law to a further scale, Ferris produces the first concrete image of the final assembly – the ‘Mega-Village’ as Manhattan’s inevitable destiny and ‘The Ferrisian Void’ – ‘an architectural womb that gives birth to the consecutive stages of the Skyscraper in a sequence of sometimes overlapping pregnancies, and that promises to generate ever-new ones.’ The dream of never-ending creation of endless realities continues.

Koolhaas focuses in the next chapter on the cannibalistic instinct as the epitome of Manhattan’s evolutionary approach ‘featuring all the strategies, theorems, paradigms and ambitions that sustain the inexorable progress of Manhattanism’. By closely following the reincarnations of the Waldorf-Astoria and the Empire State Building, a summary of the phases of Manhattan’s urbanism in a period of 150 years unfolds. What will destruct the hotel is the ‘paradoxical tradition of the last word’ it had zealously pursued and which eventually translates into it not being a Skyscraper. Regeneration is imperative and the site is ready to add another layer to its invisible archaeology. The Waldorf-Astoria is demolished and replaced by ‘a skyscraper surpassing in height anything ever constructed by man’ – The Empire State Building referred to as ‘the last manifestation of Manhattanism as a pure and thoughtless process, the climax of the subconscious Manhattan’.

The Rockfeller Centre represents the conscious phase of the collective experiment, ‘a masterpiece without a genius’ as a result of all key ideologies, strategies and theorems Koolhaas has introduced the reader to by this point. One of these is Raymond Hood’s ‘City of Towers’, disputing the 1916 Zoning Law – which cannot control the bulk of Manhattan’s buildings, but only their shape – by proposing larger sites within the same block to be reorganized into various configurations. By expanding the concept to greater areas of the metropolis, Hood plans a gradual metamorphosis into ‘The City under the Single Roof’ and consequently ‘The City within a City’ by strategically inserting the so-called ‘Mountains’ as confluence nodes that exceed the limitations of a single block and that, through their colossal size – ‘absorb and interiorize all traffic’.

Thus, the paradox of solving congestion by generating more congestion arises. In 1929, the Crash brings along a climate of uncertainty that simplifies the expectations to be met by The Rockfeller Centre, solidifying its conceptual integrity and theoretical clarity. From ‘a financially reasonable enterprise’ it becomes purely speculative – a collection of ideologically separate projects that meet on the same site, ‘exposing an archaeology of architectural philosophies’.

‘The Metropolis is perfect’. This is the sentence that concludes Rockfeller’s success and that synthesizes the calm before the storm, i.e. the European invasion.

Ever since its discovery, Manhattan has been treated as ‘an urban canvas, exposed to a constant bombardment of projections, misrepresentations, transplantations and grafts’.
Koolhaas chooses to follow in this final chapter two protagonists of the era on their quest to reclaim, impose on and appropriate Manhattan: Dali and Le Corbusier – Surrealism vs. Modernism. They are both consumed by an ardent obsession for Manhattan and plan to conquer it: Dali by interpretative appropriation and Le Corbusier by proposing to literally destroy it. If Dali keeps the metropolis physically intact, Corbusier delves even deeper into his fixation by searching validity for his New City through the actual eradication of New York.
Koolhaas is restless in detailing Corbusier’s character as the villain that, haunted by its own victims and paranoiac tendencies, creates The Radiant City as a final blow aimed to annihilate the essence that lays at New York’s restless expansion – congestion. As a result,’ He creates an urban non-event that New York’s own planners have always avoided’. Redemption through Modernism is a tactic that lastly turns against its own creator.

The author dedicates the appendix to his own vision on how the Metropolis should continue its experimentation and reinterpretation of the Culture of Congestion by embracing its modernist ethos and its retroactive revelations. Furthermore, he encloses four speculative proposals – ‘The City of the Captive Globe’, ‘Hotel Sphinx’, ‘New Welfare Island’ and ‘Welfare Palace Hotel’ – as ‘a fictional conclusion’ meant to concentrate the essence of the product Manhattan has become , a ’conscious doctrine whose pertinence is no longer limited to the island of its invention’.

The book is a compelling read, a strategic collection of episodes belonging to a complex and particularly dense historical past. Nevertheless, it concludes on a predictable note, representative for most theoretical books: a New York grounded in the reality of facts, buried under a ‘mountain of evidence’ sets the foundation for Koolhaas’s archaeological reverie and subsequently his scenarios for impossible fantasies.