Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sometimes You Just Get Lucky

Sometimes you have to plan an architectural pilgrimage well in advance. Like purchasing tickets for a tour of Philip Johnson's Glass House nine-and-a-half months ahead of time. But sometimes it is the unexpected architectural encounters that end up being the most interesting. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Say for instance you are visiting Switzerland on a whim on a free day after some business meetings in Italy, you have enjoyed a couple of hours of James Bond-like driving on narrow, guardrail-less, switchback Alpine roads, and you come around a bend toward Simplon Pass on the way back to your hotel in Italy, and, wham, there it is...

I happened upon the Ganter River Bridge between Brig, Switzerland, and Simplon Pass, which leads back down to Italy. The stunning concrete structure was designed by the Swiss engineer Christian Menn and completed in 1980. At 2,224 feet total length and a main span of 571 feet, it is the longest bridge in Switzerland. A sort of hybrid concrete girder and cable-stayed bridge, Wikipedia says it could be an example of a type of bridge known as an "extradosed bridge."

I do not recall where, but I have actually seen photographs of this bridge in the past. But I definitely never expected to see it on this particular drive! What is not evident in any of the photographs I had seen before but is clearly evident when you drive across the bridge is that it does not span straight across the valley. Instead, the approaches from either side form a kind of S-curve with the main span in the center, making for a more dynamic and delightful drive through the mountains. Unfortunately, the light was fading and it was getting late in the day with a long drive back to my hotel or I would have tried to spend some more time exploring the bridge and its environs. I really wanted to walk across it, but there were no sidewalks or shoulders on it, even though there were places to pull-off at the end of each approach.

There is something amazing to me about the integration of the natural and the man-made, especially in "extreme" environments such as the Swiss Alps. I suppose that there is something romantic about idea of unspoiled nature, but I almost wonder if to see nature is to, by definition, defile it. On the other hand, I have always enjoyed those natural places where man has touched down and shown his hand lightly, respectfully, gently.

This bridge is an example of that gentle hand amidst stunning natural settings or phenomena, but there are many examples in the world, and a few spectacular ones that I have had the privilege of visiting myself: Machu Picchu, impossibly perched atop the Andes in Peru, with its exquisite stone buildings echoing the profiles of the mountains themselves; or the Pantheon in Rome, which turns a beam of light into a real, physical entity as it streams through the mighty oculus to illuminate architectural details almost two millennia old.

I am sure this is the designer speaking in me, but I do believe that architecture and design have an opportunity to frame the natural world in an important way. By doing so, the respectful man-made work acts as a foil by which to reflect on the natural in a new light. After all, saying what something is is only one way of defining it. Another way is to show something in opposition so as to definite it by what it is not, in order to call the defined out as something different, special, set apart.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My First Niemeyer

I never imagined that my first opportunity to see an Oscar Niemeyer building would not be in his native Brazil, but instead about 5000 miles away in Europe. But as many times as I have tried to get there, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Brazil. However, I was recently on a business trip to Italy and had the chance to visit a Niemeyer project outside Milan.

After two days of meetings near Forte dei Marmi, Italy, a colleague and I drove about two hours north to Milan on our free day. After visiting the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and the Pirelli Tower downtown, I asked my friend if he would mind taking a small detour to see Niemeyer's Mondadori publishing house headquarters east of the city. After all, I said, "I am a total architecture dork"--and Niemeyer is one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, the building is situated in a sort of suburban highway neverland where it was impossible for us to stop and get out to photograph the building. But we drove around the building twice and tried to look as close as possible. The building, which dates from the early 1970s, seemed to be in pretty good shape from what I could see. The building is notable in part due to its massive concrete arcade which conceals a glass-enclosed office block behind. Adjacent to the office block are the auditorium and support spaces. The entire composition sits on large lake, surrounded by parking and landscape.

Although I was disappointed not to be able to stop and contemplate the building in depth, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the concrete work, even while driving past. The concrete arcades were really impressive, seeming quite light and airy, and the black-glass of the office block did not distract from the composition as I had expected. The massive arcades provided the real poetry to the project, much like Niemeyer's earlier work in Brasilia, such as the Alvorada Palace, Planalto Palace, and Supreme Court buildings. All of these project express a sort of structural heroism and playfulness, but in the vocabulary of Modern architecture, which I love.