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The Grand Tour

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“a cultural tour of Europe formerly undertaken, especially in the 18th century, by a young man of the upper classes as a part of his education” … is as good a definition as any.

Such tours would begin with The Louvre in Paris and perhaps take in a couple of the French cathedrals such as Chartes and Rheims en route to Italy and Greece that were the real cultural destinations. Highlights would be the assorted architectural treasures of Rome, the architectural treasures and the towns of Florence and Venice, and of course the The Acropolis. More adventurous souls might venture as far as Istanbul. After 1883, adventurers could return to Paris on the Orient Express.

Impressions and thoughts could be recorded in diaries and journals but scenes could only be permanently recorded by sketching or painting. Doing so required 1) the ability to identify and observe something worthy of recording, 2) powers of analysis to extract and synthesise it and, of course, 3) the skill to depict it. These three skills were probably as unevenly distributed as ever but were still far less rare than they are today. Not only that, making a sketch or a quick watercolour was regarded as a pleasant way to pass the time and not as some onerous task.

In 1886 the first camera was marketed to the general public and since then all the attention has been on the physical recording of scenes. Identifying something of worth, analysing what you like or found interesting about it and having the technical skills to communicate that in an image are how we now evaluate photography. Sketching and watercolouring survived as an elite pastime not just in Henry James and Edith Wharton novels but an upper class pastime even today. Travelling is expensive time and sketching or watercolouring while travelling is not something done by the time poor.

It takes little time and effort to take an photograph but it also takes little thought. Today’s image glut masks a poverty of information. The information in a sketch will have gone through a process of selection and synthesis that most of the information in a photograph will not have. Nevertheless, the selection of a viewpoint, framing an image and decising a focus are still creative acts of composition and synthesis. Even overly contrived renders involve similar decisions despite suffering from pretensions to art.

If the processes of selection and synthesis are present, then there’s no reason why a person couldn’t take their laptops and Sketchup to Istanbul. But they don’t. The mindset favours uniformed realism over informed abstraction and moreover, doesn’t think there is anything to be learned from observing and depicting things that already exist. This is the problem. There may or may not be anything to learn from the things themselves and there’s no guarantee the appropriate things will be learned anyway, but there is still much value in training oneself to observe and synthesise visual information, even if the depicting part is easy. 

Sketching and watercolouring tours still exist today and and many a guide will take you and your sketchbook around Europe. It’s not uncommon for architects of a certain age to travel with a sketchbook but it’s difficult to know if this is 18th century elite affectation or 20th century architect affectation. My money’s on the latter.

Despite the growing popularity of cameras, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was to document his early travel observations with a combination of sketches and watercolours but it’s his southern European travels and the idea of carrying around a sketchbook that lives on in the architect imagination. Architects did it with a soft pencil and watercolours became the stuff of hobbyists and artists. The 20-year old Charles-Édouard began his four-year travels in 1907. He didn’t venture that far as far as grand tours go but he did find things that interested him and he drew them. le corbusier travel sketch will get you there. I like the callouts. These sketches are not trying to be art.

Like many other aspects of his career, his Acropolis sketch in the header is typical of what many architects living the dream still aspire to come back from vacation with. But apart from honing skills of observation, synthesis and depiction, how much was there to be actually learned from the Acropolis? It’s easy to say it was while sketching the Acropolis that Charles-Edouard was forming the idea that “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” and I’m sure more than one person already has.

In passing, this definition makes no mention of a user. If one were to ask “For whom then does architecture exist?”, this definition implies it exists only for the person who observes it. The suspicion here is that if one learns architecture via a process of visual enquiry only, then we shouldn’t be surprised if definitions (and actual buildings!) are presented in terms of that. Despite pockets of resistance, this is basically what we have. 

Another unfortunate legacy of the grand tour and sketching is that the skills honed by sketching, though good ones, are limited to only the visual characteristics of buildings. We have yet to overcome this legacy. There’s little sign anyone wants to.

Another person, possibly even LC himself, has probably said that his sketching inspired him to put together some articles that would market the new architecture as having the values of the old. Entasis can’t have impressed him for, ingenious though it is, entasis is difficult to see and impossible to sketch. It was never going to be a part of the new architecture. Light and shade however …

The last time I heard of an architectural Grand Tour was when I was an undergraduate and three people from my year went off to Europe one summer. They probably took sketchbooks. I seem to remember their itinerary as very much the 19th century style of cultural monuments in France, Italy and Greece but peppered with more modern architectural monuments such as Ronchamps.

But what would a Grand Tour of today include? Even if undertaking a grand tour was something an architectural student of today even thought to aspire to, what would it include? What buildings might a student of architecture think about perhaps wanting to visit for real and in the expectation of possibly learning through observation something of value? 

Obviously, there are as many possible grand tour itineries as there are histories of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe tours no doubt exist. It’s possible to visit Venice and see everything Carlo Scarpa did there or, as I did, visit Milan and take in as many Asnago Vender buildings or Rationalist architecture as possible but these tours wouldn’t cover much ground. At the other extreme, a ZHA or OMA tour might take you around the world but it would still be thin pickings. The reach of these mega-commercial practices was thought to result from globalization (and thus good) but we now know it was a side effect of the neoliberal economy (which isn’t). These businesses have buildings scattered around the world but comprehending their output in its totality and ubiquity is discouraged.

Buildings exist as isolated events and even then only until the next one arrives in the sense of “coming online”. This expression “coming online” is another example of the language of representation being used to describe the very real event of a building being completed. It further erodes our capacity to distinguish fiction from fact. To further confuse things, a building’s online presence now begins well before its actual completion, making the online coming online more important than the actual coming online. 

To heighten the absurdity, a Generic Starchitecture Tour could visit the most-remembered-at-any-given-time buildings of starchitect-figureheaded commercial global architecture firms. Now we’re going places, but unfortunately they’re all much the same. Here’s my picks. The pre-internet era is now represented by Guggenheim Museum and Sydney Opera House. Nothing else remains, not even Ronchamps.

What’s left is a selection of whatever hasn’t yet dropped out of our memory. Everyone’s selections will be different, but much the same.

Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan
Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China
Bilbao Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France
Abu Dhabi Louvre, Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Interlace, Singapore, Malaysia
CCTV Building, Beijing, China

This list is not very thrilling. For all the attention each of these buildings may have attracted individually, that is all they have in common. There’s no perception of excellence shared. The last two are the only two that have anything resembling a reason for existing. This is not a list of buildings anyone would ever plan a tour around even if they had the time and money. If it’s architectural titillation you want, then you may as well go to Beijing or Dubai. And people do.

• • •

The Misfits’ Grand Tour

There’s nothing wrong with an architect considering how a building is going to look and understanding the mechanisms of this via direct observation and sketching. Equally though, there’s nothing wrong with an architect using a combination of knowledge and human empathy to understand how the non-visual attributes of buildings will affect those who have to use them. With this in mind, I’ve put together the following list of buildings, each of which have something beyond the visual to offer. You can visit each of them and sketch them if you want but you’d be missing out on their most important characteristics. We’ll start in Japan.

Mitsui Building 1974, Nihon Sekkei, Tokyo, Japan

At first glance this looks like many other office towers from the 1970s but for one important difference. Curtain walls are called curtain walls because the glazing panels are hung from the floor slabs but this tower has the glass hung inside the frames of the curtain wall glazing panels. This means that plastic deformation of the glass over time will not cause distorted reflections. Somebody thought that was important. This is entasis for our times, and no less worthy. You can’t draw it.

The Industrial Bank of Japan 1974 Tōgō Murano, Tokyo, Japan

This building is more than the sum of its parts. The polished granite fillet where the wall meets the pavement is sketchable, but you’d have a difficult time showing that the footpath is actually the same granite but unpolished. The building has of strong statements such as the smooth blank wall with a single idiosyncratic window, cantilevers that reveal nothing, smooth walls contrasting with textured ones, polished and unpolished granite and strong planes with wilful curves and cutouts yet the overall impression is of dignity and quiet. You can sketch this building but it will stay inexplicable and you won’t want it any other way.

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]

[30 August 2019: I looked for this building last time I was in Tokyo but a bigger, lesser building now stands in its place.]

Pasadena Heights 1973, Kiyonori Kikutake, Mishima, Japan

This building hasn’t aged as well as the above two. The quality that’s impossible to sketch is the integrated geometry of the plan and section, and how they work to create a building where every apartment has dual access and a toplit courtyard. Every apartment also has a large surface area because only side walls and part of the ceiling and floor are shared. This has advantages for ventilation in summer but probably produced unacceptable heat loss in the first winter of the First Oil Shock. All these things are related and, if you visit The Mat Building post, you’ll see I still hold out hope for this typology.

[c.f. Humanity for ArchitectsThe Mat Building]

Tokyo Olympic Stadia 1963, Kenzo Tange (with Yoshikatsu Tsuboi), Tokyo, Japan

These two stadia are very photogenic but you’ll have a hard time sketching the taut and complex curves while hinting at the structural forces that create them. Internally, it’s a case of every structural member being significant – you’re better off with a photograph.

[c.f. Unsung Hero : Yoshikatsu Tsuboi]

[Next stop, Italy!]

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca 1958, Asnago & Vender, Milan, Italy

At first I thought the name of this project curious because, in Italian, an isolato is a person spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society. To me this seemed to refer to the careers of Asnago & Vender who did their own thing, mostly ignored by Gio Ponti and Casabella, and the Milano Polytechnic set, and couldn’t possibly.refer to the building itself which is very much in tune with its place and this is mostly due to Asnago & Vender also having designed the buildings on either side of it (as well as the one on the far corner of the block.) It turns out that, without overthinking it, isolato can also just mean “block” – thanks Carlo! 

You could sketch the facade of this building but you’d have to be very good to capture the slight changes in the window heights and the spacings between them. This elevation is not a rhythm but rubato. It quickens (or does it slow?) towards the corner to approximate the window shape and gap on the corner opposite. It’s totally visual, and done for the sole purpose of knitting the building into its context. If you can capture all that in a sketch then I admire your patience and skill but you’re better off just standing and looking and wondering why someone would think that was a worthwhile thing to do and what would our cities be like if every building just reacted in similar ways to what was already there.

[c.f. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender]

Casa alle Zattere 1956, Ignazio Gardella, Venice, Italy

There are wonderful things happening inside this building and, one day, I’d really like to find out if those slightly angled interior walls in the front reception rooms actually do have the effect of guiding people to look in the direction of Palladio’s Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore across the Giudecca Canal. If so, then Gardella had an unparalleled sensitivity not only to what walls could do but how to make them do it. He also had a way with windows as these next few sketches show.

Gardella gave a lot of thought to making this boxy modern speculative building fit into its surroundings and he did so admirably. This building cannot be sketched in isolation from its context and you can only observe it properly in context through binoculars from from the opposite bank or when passing by in a vaporetto. Neither of these methods are condusive to sketching so, once again, you’re better off taking a photograph if you must, and wondering why someone thought this was a necessary thing to do, as well as the economy of means with which it has been achieved. I’ve seen one of the front apartments available for short-term lets.

[c.f. Architecture Misfits #18: Ignazio Gardella]

Montedoria building 1970Gio Ponti (w/Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli) Milan, Italy

Ponti used similar glazed tiling on other buildings in Milan but with this one he came closest to making a building resistant to time. Asnago & Vender had already perfected flush mounted glazing but Ponti’s contribution was glazed ceramic tile cladding that resisted ageing.

The long elevation has some volumetric light and shadow stuff happening but, on all elevations and whatever the weather or season or time of day, the angled indents and protrusions on these glazed tiles make the flat surfaces shimmer. It is beautiful. This is not texture for the sake of it. Half a century on it now seems decadent. Again, we find it difficult to conceive architects once thought things like this important.

[c.f. Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti]

Since we’re in the north of Italy anyway, we’ll head for the Cote d’azur next.

E1027 1926, Eileen Gray, Cap Martin, France

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray]

Walden 7 1975, Ricardo Bofill, Barcelona, Spain

This is undoubtedly a very photogenic building and, though complicated, has many sketchable views, nooks and corners. The Spanish sun casts magnificent shadows on the exterior and graded light within. The geometry of organization is astounding but the fact this building is social housing constructed on time and within budget and using conventional technologies makes it a modern wonder of the world. There are apartments in this building available for short-term lets. You can either break or start your tour here.

[c.f. The Landscape Within]

• • •

We miss such a lot when we see architecture only as masses.
We miss out on such a lot when we see architecture only as masses.
We are denied such a lot when architecture is defined as mass play.

The net result of defining architecture as mass play has been to lower our expectations of it.