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WAF highlights: from the gulag to Disneyland, all human life was there

Paul Finch
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The 10th World Architecture Festival, which took place in Berlin last week, was a stimulating event and a huge source of both knowledge and inspiration, says Paul Finch

As WAF’s programme director, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But the generous compliments paid on-site in Berlin and in subsequent messages of support have been wonderful – especially since we were celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. The contribution of UK architects was significant, as entrants, speakers and judges.

I was particularly struck by a conference session I chaired comprising Charlotte Skene Catling and Andrew Whalley, discussing architectural performance. The extremes of architectural activity were perfectly illustrated: Charlotte discussed her role as design director in respect of a production of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, staged in one of the few extant gulags left in the former USSR.

The extremes of architectural activity were perfectly illustrated

There were seven performances only, in a ‘venue’ comprising two buildings and the space between, one for ordinary prisoners, one for ‘specials’. Different scenes took place in different parts of the camp, with the audience as much observed as observers. Given Fidelio’s plot, based on political imprisonment and the horrors of incarceration, the location could scarcely have been more appropriate. What was particularly poignant was the involvement of former gulag occupants, family members and, extraordinarily, a woman who had been born in it.

It needed a high degree of both empathy and creativity to overlay a design proposition on this performance idea. What made the experience architectural was the unusual degree to which it required people to move through space, not just singers (usually fairly static in opera productions) but audience members, too, at one point occupying the former cells as if they were the prisoners.

Movement through space, and time, provided a connection to Andrew Whalley’s presentation of two Grimshaw projects. The first was the Fulton Street transport hub in New York close to Ground Zero, where a one-year project turned into a magnificent interchange which in the event took 11 years to deliver. The incorporation of glass art by James Carpenter, in the form of a light-reflecting dome and oculus, has helped to transform what had previously been a thoroughly dispiriting experience.

Fulton Street Transit Center in New York by Grimshaw

Fulton Street Transit Center in New York by Grimshaw

Source: James Ewing

Fulton Street Transit Center in New York by Grimshaw

His second example involved transport for pleasure, rather than commuter necessity. It also involved Disney working jointly with an architect to create a new ride complex (architects usually do ancillary projects such as hotels). The project in question is the Tomorrowland feature in Disneyland Shanghai, where visitors speed in and out of an Eden-style structure and roof Grimshaw proposed, producing a sectional experience rather than the usual flat ground. Again, designing for people moving through space, in this case on a variety of levels and at very different speeds, to put it mildly.

Tomorrowland (29540301031) jeremythompson

Tomorrowland (29540301031) jeremythompson

Source: Jeremy Thompson

Tomorrowland

Two other sessions by UK speakers connected to this idea. Nick Tyler of University College London, a musician who is also the Chadwick Professor of civil engineering, explained how the brain responds to stimuli in the environment and what the implications might be for the way we think about designing urban space. The extraordinary ability of the human brain to both register and anticipate makes it like some sort of super-computer; this is just as well since, as Tyler pointed out, for most of human history we existed in savannah conditions: wide open spaces, big sky, and few vertical features. It doesn’t sound like New York.

Finally, Paul Bavister of Flanagan Lawrence gave a fascinating presentation abut the way sound moves through space/volume, explaining among other things why some music sounds so good in certain spaces. He also explained how site-specific music has been commissioned since we can now analyse digitally what would work best. Architecture: all life is truly there.

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