RIAS makes the connection
A host of top speakers at last week's annual Scottish architecture convention in Stirling looked at various connections, including the relationships between past and present, natural and artificial, and linking infrastructure to the city. Zoë Blackler reports
This year's RIAS convention, which had the theme 'Making Connections', continued its tradition of attracting architects of international stature. Farshid Moussavi headed the bill, along with Adam Caruso, Dominic Williams, Norway's Gudmund Stokke and Latvia's Gunner Birkit. The connections they explored were various.
Farshid Moussavi, who with partner Alejandro Zaera Polo runs Foreign Office Architects, presented what must be one of the most talked-about projects of the past year, Yokohama Ferry Port terminal.
The quest for beauty had no part to play in the design process, she told the audience in Stirling's Albert Halls. Rather, the elegant sloping, twisting structure had 'grown' out of the complex geometry of passenger circulation patterns.
FOA's approach was described by Moussavi as something of a 'third way' - neither the simple mimicry of nature, nor its opposite, the rejection of natural forms in favour of a rigid linear geometry.
Instead a more subtle, complex representation of nature has become possible following huge advances in information technology. This 'synthesis of the organic and the rational' was at the heart of the project, resulting in the seductively complex, but internally coherent, geometries that underlie Yokohama.
An equally crucial connection for Moussavi was the integration of infrastructure and architecture. Again, she described an 'alternative way', rejecting the polar opposites of an infrastructure that merely serves the city and one that seeks to dominate it. The ferry terminal, with its rooftop public space connecting the city with the waterfront, demonstrates instead, she said, 'how infrastructure can be seamless with architecture and urbanism'.
After the unquestionable success of Yokohama (which would be a Stirling Prize contender if it fell within the EU), FOA is applying its hi-tech approach to a new project in Barcelona. The seaside park, currently under construction within an area earmarked for regeneration, will include three auditoria for music concerts and draw visitors down to the water's edge.
A series of dunes forms the basis of the project. Although they 'may not look so very different from the picturesque alternatives, they are in fact grown out of very rational decision-making. Rather than drawing dunes as we would imagine them, we started to prepare dunes based on functions, ' Moussavi said. The final dome forms, which will house the auditoria and create wind breaks as protection for planting, were again 'grown' from complex mathematics.
The slope of the site provides connections with the water, drawing visitors to it. And colour-coded paths following the typography of the dunes form connections between the auditoria. The paths are constructed from moon-shaped tiles, which 'like a conveyor belt can grow into different lines without breaking'.
Like Yokohama, Narud Stokke Wiig's new international Gardermoen airport in Oslo (in conjunction with Niels Torp) also relies on structure to guide passengers around what can be a complex, disorientating building type.
Gudmund Stokke identified the biggest challenge in the design of the terminal as the creation of a form that was sufficiently simple.
Stokke insisted it be so simple 'that the man in the street could say fiI could have done thisfl.'
Beyond that, the building had to be essentially humane, to create an atmosphere that 'makes people feel safe but also excited'. And it had to reflect a quality of 'Norwegian-ness', 'so that foreigners feel they are arriving in Norway and Norwegians feel like we are coming home'. As such, the building strives for openness - to reflect how Norwegians see their society - relying on a carefully coded use of natural materials and a craftsmanship in the detailing.
Stokke placed particular emphasis on the building's tactile quality, specifying that handrails should be a pleasure to touch and the columns so smooth they feel 'like stroking the inside of a woman's thigh'. The result is to give the building a translucent 'quiet' quality that draws on the dramatic Scandinavian light to create ambiance, while throughout the building its form guides users through it, aiming 'to make signage superfluous'.
This theme of structure as signposting was repeated by fellow Norwegian Arne Henriksen, but on a smaller scale. Henriksen, who presented a series of transport projects - bus shelters and provincial train stations - agreed with Stokke that 'architecture should be there to take care of people, to guide them simply in the right direction'.
A third Norwegian, Ketil Kiran, talked through his country's programme to employ young architects to create 'interventions' or 'installations' - resting places, information stands, viewing platforms - along some of Norway's oldest routes through its dramatic countryside. All the projects were small, modest constructions, but designed to enhance and emphasise the character of the place and help tourists feel connected to the landscape, the country's most valuable draw.
In complete contrast to Moussavi's heightened rationalism, Gunner Birkit's inspiration for the Latvian National Library in Riga developed out of images at the heart of Latvian folk memory.
Birkit calls his approach 'organic Modernism', or 'organic synthesis', pressing the case for an architecture that reflects the significance of place and context over an emerging architecture that he fears: 'a significance free architecture that only appears to the sense'.
Birkit welcomes symbolism, seeking 'metaphorical connections' so that you can 'tell what the building is all about - from the face you should be able to tell what is inside the body'.
The form of the library developed from the shape of a mountain - a symbol of the Latvian quest for freedom, which is deeply set within the folk culture. The metaphors continue, in the vertical stripped pattern of the windows symbolising birches, Latvia's national tree, and the roof forms derived from folk architecture.
Adam Caruso and Dominic Williams both discussed connections with history and the past. For Williams this meant the creation of a modern exhibition space within the 1930s Baltic flour mill on Tyneside, while for Caruso it was helping established communities re-place themselves in the present and future.
Caruso St John's recently completed project in Kalmar, Sweden, for the renewal of the town's central public space is a good demonstration of the practice's 'quiet architecture', Caruso said.
Despite the town's declined importance - it had been strategically important in the 17th century - its people decided the square still had a civic and ceremonial role to play and chose to restore it as an open public space, rather than build on it. The practice insisted on banishing cars from the space, replacing roads with paths and reconstituting the original field stone paving.
Another Caruso St John project, still embryonic, is the transformation of an old tram depot in Cardiff into a 'new kind of contemporary arts space'. The first stage was completed last month, culminating in the publication of a book, to be released at next month's Venice Biennale.
The book provides an inventory of the varied spaces within the tramshed - their lighting and particular characteristics - so that curators and artists can begin to think about how they might use the spaces. The shed contains some existing print workshops, which may remain, so that the first shows might be designed to engage with them.
And in his description of the Walsall Art Gallery, Caruso described how it helped residents forge new, revised connections with their neglected town. In another 'quiet' example, carefully placed windows within the gallery walls allowed visitors to reframe their view of Walsall, and reassess it as equal to the framed masterpieces on the walls.
Williams, meanwhile, explored the process behind the evolution of his Baltic project, from his competition-winning proposal to the final result. While the historic flour mill provides the shell for the project, the reworked spaces within it explore modern ideas about exhibiting and facilitating art.A democratic approach towards the organisation of spaces within the building, which gives as much importance to the quality of spaces for administrators as visitors, and brings the building, still deeply connected to the past, into the 21st century.