Presence & Absence: Carlo Scarpa, Querini Stampalia, & Water

July 23rd, 2009 § Rob

Where is ground level after all, where is terra firma? Hard to tell. Instead there is a strange sensation of hovering in a zone of water and sky as the earth drifts somewhere in the mix.  – Michael Cadwell

[all references and images are taken from Cadwell, Michael.  Strange Details.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.]

The Querini Stampalia Foundation by Carlo Scarpa is a powerful reminder of architecture’s capacity to embody particular qualities without necessarily being literal.  Querini Stampalia was originally a family palace built in Venice during the 16th that was converted into a small foundation devoted to “promote study of useful disciplines and nation and foreign knowledge” (12).  After a series of damaging floods in the early 1900’s, Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to renovate the ground floor in anticipation of future flooding.

exterior of the Querini Stampalia Foundation

exterior of the Querini Stampalia Foundation

What’s exiting in this work is Scarpa’s understanding of water as an unsettling force – as a medium caught between the solidity of the earth and the volatility of the sky.  Water is at once dependable and volatile – it is present like the earth, but in constant flux like the sky.  And as Cadwell points out, Venice embodies this precariousness.  “In Venice, buildings do not spring from the earth – they tether themselves to the mud below, or they hover above it” (8-9).  This aquatic quality, this precariousness, pervades Querini Stampalia through details that unsettle and keep us on edge.

Ground Floor Plan

ground floor plan

For instance, the main entrance to Querini Stampalia is a small footbridge leading from the adjacent campiello directly into the ground floor foyer.  Seemingly simple, the bridge is slightly eccentric so that the entrance to Querini Stampalia lies slightly below the campiello.  So even before entering the building, Scarpa calls into question the solidity of the ground that is so precarious in Venice.  The bridge drops us below the established ground line and brings us closer to the water below.

entrance bridge

entrance bridge

Inside the main gallery, we find a similar articulation of conflicting levels and an unsettling ambiguity regarding the location of water and ground.  First, the gallery steps down from the entrance foyer, bringing the floor even further below the ground line outside.  There are three columns in the space, but none of them align to establish a firm ground line.  Finally, the floor is detailed for floods and wraps up the sides of the wall to define a waterline.  Without being explicit, Scarpa places the visitor somewhere beneath the water, but where exactly is unclear. “So we are up to our ankles.  The grass outside [in the courtyard] is above this line, but no matter, the water rises to our shins” (25).  These waterlines all undermine any sense of a solid ground, but instead locate the room somewhere between the ebb of the tide.  And though the gallery anticipates water and its presence can be felt throughout, the most unsettling part is the lack water and the lack of any reference to establish where that waterline actually lies.  The gallery gives hints and suggests possibilities but provides no assurance.  Instead it lies somewhere in the middle.  Water is absent, but its presence is felt throughout.

Main Gallery Looking Towards Garden

Main Gallery Looking Towards Garden

conflicting levels within the gallery

conflicting levels within the gallery


Virtually there

May 29th, 2009 § Chris

A decade ago , the dream of virtual space  was about to be realized, or so it seemed. Videoconferencing promised to eliminate the need for travel; the “glove” and VR  glasses were ubiquitous features at malls as were  elaborate 3D simulation pods. I remember architecture students at the time speculating about the end of architecture–who needs  spaces for conferences,meetings, social interaction when all that can be done virtually. Oddly enough as the web has grown , virtual reality has become less about hardware and  more about software ie  social media 2.0. Seems virtual reality is getting more virtual. One major exception is the military use of  virtual reality to wage combat at a distance.

Unexpected consequences are emerging :

On its face, it seems like the less stressful assignment. Instead of being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, some pilots and other crew members of the U.S. military’s unmanned Predator drones live at home in suburban Las Vegas and commute to a nearby Air Force base to serve for part of the day. They don’t perform takeoffs and landings, which are handled overseas. But the Predator crews at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada “are at least as fatigued as crews deployed to Iraq,” if not more so, according to a series of reports by Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony P. Tvaryanas. The [reports] also showed that Predator crews were suffering through “impaired domestic relationships.”

Why is this? Part of the problem lies in what Tvaryanas calls the “sensory isolation” of pilots in Nevada flying drones 7,500 miles away. Although there are cameras mounted on the planes, remote pilots do not receive the kind of cues from their sense of touch and place that pilots who are actually in their planes get automatically. That makes flying drones physically confusing and mentally exhausting. Perhaps this helps explain the results of another study Tvaryanas published with a colleague in May, which examined 95 Predator “mishaps and safety incidents” reported to the Air Force over an eight-year period. Fifty-seven percent of crew-member-related mishaps were, they write, “consistent with situation awareness errors associated with perception of the environment” — meaning that it’s hard to grasp your environment when you’re not actually in it.

Aaron Retica  New York Times December 14, 2008

Although these studies were limited, it does conform to our sense that seeing is not being. By working with concepts, plans, sections  and other instruments, Architects are constantly looking at the third dimension as an equivalent of the other two. We move around, through designs, we make models, hold materials in our hands, look at architecture spatially. This effort to “be” in the world to inhabit “the flesh of the world” as Merleau-Ponty famously wrote about the third dimension,  joins the haptic with  the visual, or so we hope.

Over the past decade the explosion of design publications, print and digital, and the advances in 3D rendering have placed a premium on the image. One hallmark of our times is architecture as a spectacle; if it looks spectacular it will get press, regarless of it’s virtues or weaknesses. This creeping emphasis on the visual brings us back to the virtual. If pilots are losing their minds because of the loss of the environment and architecture is reduced to image–at least in publications, shouldn’t we give pause to how we consume and produce architecture.

It’s interesting that computer models, as wonderful a tool as they are, do not replace physical models. Could the touch, texture, light qualities and spatial nuance of physical models be what allows us to “grasp the environment’ in a way those pilots can’t? And as abstract as a plan or section is could it be that at a fundamental level these kinds of drawings allow  metrics and order of the environment to be cognated, something the drone pilots were missing.

Image by sklathill

Are physical models still valuable as architectural tools?

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Preservation of Shanghai’s Traditional Architecture

May 1st, 2009 § Jack

The perimeter of the original walled city of Shanghai is still evident from aerial photography. The city wall was initially constructed in 1553 during the Ming Dynasty to protect the fishing village from Japanese pirates who were pillaging the coast. It is quite unusual for a village of such little importance to have an extensive city wall as the one that was constructed. This construction is testament to the strategic location of Shanghai on the Huangpu River just south of its convergence with the Yangtze River. The city wall was 8 meters high with a total length of 4.8 km.

After Shanghai became one of the treaty ports in the second half of the nineteenth century new urban development occurred to the north and west of the walled city. These European and American developments were referred to as the Concessions. Foreign residents in the Concessions lived and operated under their own governments and were exempt from Chinese law. The native Chinese population withdrew to within the city wall and the area became know as Old Town. The traditional Chinese character was preserved within the wall while the new architecture of the concessions was of a European style with traditional Chinese accents.

The city wall was eventually demolished and the moat was filled after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The wall was replaced by two curving roads, Renmin Lu to the north and Zhonghua Lu to the south. Replacement of medieval city walls and moats with modern ring roads was a common occurrence in twentieth century Chinese cities. Nowhere is this as strongly recognizable as in Beijing, where the square city wall was replaced by the Second Ring Rd in the 1950’s.

Location of original Shanghai city wall shown in red

Location of original Shanghai city wall shown in red

Locational of Beijing city wall and its southern extension

Locational of Beijing city wall and its southern extension

Today much of the architecture in this portion of the city retains the traditional scale and density of Old Shanghai. Many of the buildings are well over 100 years old and are in deteriorating condition. Electricity has been brought to the structures as evidenced by all of the overhead power lines, but most of the structures lack plumbing. Public latrines and sinks are located along the lanes. This lack of infrastructure and the low rise/high density nature of the neighborhood have created a truly active street life. Shops and markets line the lanes and the distinction between private and public is blurred.

Traditional housing within city wall

Traditional housing within city wall

Traditional housing within city wall

Traditional housing within city wall

Currently there is much debate on how to handle these historic neighborhoods in quickly expanding Chinese cities. Activists are now speaking out against the widespread razing of the traditional urban fabric and are pushing for preservation. Preservation in the strictest sense is not a feasible option since much of the fabric is in such squalid condition and the needed infrastructure improvements are overwhelming. Turning the area into a “museum” is not a solution either since it would merely preserve the structures and not the active civic life.

Traditional building of Old Town

Traditional building of Old Town

Portion of neighborhood being razed

Portion of neighborhood being razed

With its transition from a production economy to a consumer economy, China is realizing its great potential as a tourism destination – both to domestic and foreign visitors. This opportunity has not been missed in Old Town with the development of Shanghai Old Street, a new shopping district created in the traditional architectural style complete with Starbucks and Pizza Hut.

Shanghai Old Street - modern recreation of traditional structures

Shanghai Old Street - modern recreation of traditional structures

The preservation/development situation in Shanghai is considerably different than in Beijing where the medieval urban fabric extends across the whole city and is quite expansive (although quickly disappearing). Since Shanghai was a village until fairly recently its area of old urban fabric is rather small and concentrated and is definitely of a manageable scale.

In any case it will be interesting to see how Shanghai responds. We will certainly have our answer within the year as the Shanghai World Expo 2010 site is a short walk to the south of Old Town.

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Material Behavior 1

April 22nd, 2009 § Chris


According to the placard outside this church in Davos, Switzerland, seven hundred years ago the builders built the steeple true and straight. Soon after the tower was complete it started twisting clockwise. Why did it twist?  Another blogger jokingly suggested the  Coriolis effect was to blame (think water down a drain and  hurricanes). If that had anything to do with it then all the twisted steeples of Europe  would rotate in the same direction. Apparently not. Theres as much  clockwise rotation as there is counterrclockwise. Another theory is that all these steeples were twisted “by design”, built this way. that’s a tough one to prove, especially since  these steeples have all been rebuilt/restored and the non of their cladding is original.

Apparently the green wood structure as it dryed and shrank , was the culprit behind the rotation of the steeple in Davos, (from the on-site information). Plausible? Without seeing the structure it’s hard to envision.  A pastor in New Jersey speaking of his own church steeple problems suggested another possibility: after a tremendous  wind storm,  the tower had to be replaced, he said, because it had become twisted. The possibility of external wind forces  contributing to the twist is compelling because it allows for clockwise or counterclockwise results while not discounting the internal force resulting from shrinking timbers. Sunflowers are a good example how twisting might be the result of two simple “forces” one internal and the other external. Sunflower seeds grow at a certain rate according to  genetic instructions (internal forces) As they grow they bump into each other and are forced into a twisting geometry (external forces).

The steeple at  L’Eglise du Grand Marchin, Belgium was one of the 40 or twisted steeples of Europe before it was destroyed in a fire. Despite it’s obvious “flaw”, when it came time to rebuild in the same timber technique, a decision was made to match the “flaw”, to transform it into design. A remarkable moment where material behavior is transformed into architectural “language”, the syntax is now purely synthetic, denoting something it is not : a twist formed through time, material, and force. Perhaps this is more proof that the twisted steeples of Europe were never intended to be so.





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March 9th, 2009 § Jack

To understand recent transformations in Shanghai it is critical to understand the short history of the city. Here is a brief summary:

History of Shanghai

Prior to the 1842 Treaty of Nanking ending the first Opium War, Shanghai was a rural fishing village along the Huangpu River. As part of the treaty concessions, Shanghai along with the four other coastal cities of Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Guangzhou were selected by the British to become treaty ports. The British and Americans were quick to develop the fishing village of Shanghai into the “Paris of the East”. Exempt from all local laws the foreigners were able to create a city in a western style. By the 1900’s the international image of Shanghai’s financial success became The Bund – the waterfront boulevard along the west bank of the Huangpu River. The hotels, banks and trade houses along the Bund were designed by foreign architects and in the neoclassical style popular at the time in Europe and the United States. To the Chinese populace The Bund also became a symbol of foreign dominance.

The Bund 2009

The Bund 2009

The Chinese began developing various plans to reclaim the symbolic heart of Shanghai as far back as Sun Yat-sen’s initial plan of 1919. Many plans have involved the undeveloped east bank of the Huangpu River, known as Pudong (Pu referring to the Huangpu river and Dong meaning east in Chinese), but these plans for Pudong were considered too ambitious and the focus remained on Puxi, the area of the existent city. Attempts to create new civic centers Puxi all ended with results less than hoped for and these new developments were unable to unseat The Bund as Shanghai’s symbolic center.

In the mid 1980’s China as a nation began to open itself up to foreign investment with the Open Door Policy. The opening of the nation to foreign investment followed the three decades of isolationist policy under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Eyes turned again to Pudong and in 1990 this area of farmland and villages was named a Special Economic Zone (S.E.Z.) by the Chinese Government. China now had its chance to redefine the global image of Shanghai.

View of Pudong in 1990. The Bund in foreground.

View of Pudong in 1990. The Bund in foreground.

Pudong was divided into several development areas with Lujiazui, the area directly across the river from the Bund, designated as the new financial hub of China. A team of French urban planners hired as consultants suggested three closely placed signature towers surrounded by many secondary high rise buildings would be a winning formula for developing a memorable skyline. Since one of the major ambitions of the Pudong development was to create a new symbolic image of Shanghai, this plan had great promise to city officials.

Pudong viewed from The Bund 2009

Pudong viewed from The Bund 2009

Visiting Shanghai I found it hard to perceive the scale of the recent development and growth of the city. Everywhere I traveled there seemed to be buildings under construction, new overhead highways and recently completed bridges across the Huangpu, but I was only seeing portions of what was happening. Even from the top of the World Financial Center the scope of the city’s growth was obscured by overcast skies.

View of Puxi from World Financial Center

View of Puxi from World Financial Center

Finally when visiting the Shanghai Planning Museum and seeing the city model I understood the scale of the transformation. I was overwhelmed by both a sense of excitement and fear. Excited by the transformations and everything new in the city and a fearful that the city is growing too quickly and perhaps blindly.

Shanghai Planning Museum

Shanghai Planning Museum

Thomas J. Campanella , “The Concrete Dragon” (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2008) was referenced in writing the above entry on the history of Shanghai.

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How Can Architects Help Our Communities?

February 20th, 2009 § Karynn

On December 17, 2008, the AIA New York launched its Not Business as Usual initiative in an effort to unite the architecture and design community around issues relating to the current economic crisis: a slowdown in new projects, downsizing of firms, current projects put on hold, a lack of positions available to recent graduates. An “Opportunities Fair” to be held on February 25 will bring together representatives from community organizations, non-profits, schools, and training programs to share information about volunteer opportunities, continuing education, and other opportunities. This made me think, how can architects and architecture firms contribute to our communities during this economic crisis? Certainly we can offer our professional services pro bono, but we can also offer non-professional skills that would still greatly contribute. Might we volunteer at a food bank or repair a rundown school? Could we clean up our parks or run for the cure? Could we get inventive and create volunteer opportunities that might also draw on our skills as designers and experts of materials?

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PBN: Keeping Architecture Relevant in the Business Community

February 6th, 2009 § Karynn


Sometimes we only learn that we’ve been written up in a newspaper or magazine after a call or an email from a friend of the firm. This morning, we received a tip that 3six0 appears in the most recent issue of Providence Business News. It’s a recap of the Rhode Island AIA awards from December (3six0 won two!), but we still highly value PBN’s coverage because it introduces our work to those outside of the architecture community. Thank you PBN for your coverage and for keeping architecture relevant in the business community.

Graphics from


Travel Journal of China

February 6th, 2009 § Jack


I have recently returned from an extended 26 day trip to China. I made two earlier trips to China in 2004. On the previous visits my travel was limited to the three major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing due to the shorter time period of 10 days each trip. This time I was able to visit some of the more remote cities and locations missed on the previous trips and revisit Beijing and Shanghai to observe the epic changes there in just 4 short years.

The many contradictions and struggles within China today are compelling. A rich culture dating back to ancient times transitioning into the modern era at a speed and scale that has never been witnessed. What happens in China, the third largest country in the world with 20 percent of the world’s population, will undeniably shape the immediate and distant futures of us all.

On this blog I will be posting a travel journal of sorts with photographs, observations, sketches and other miscellaneous information from the trips. Labeled on the map are the cities and villages visited while in China.


Architecture as symbol

February 2nd, 2009 § Manuel

Over the last week we all shook our heads in frustration at the excesses of Wall Street and the banks that we, as taxpayers, are supporting.  We heard of corporate jets, billions in bonuses and an $87,000 area rug.

This all made me think of the streets of Buenos Aires after the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001.  Nearly a year after the protests quieted, these pictures captured the collective frustration of the Argentines as expressed on the canvas of architecture.  Old, new, local and foreign: the banks in Buenos Aires had been attacked, vandalized and covered with graffiti.  The graffiti accused the banks of robbery and even murder.  Architecture essentially became a proxy for failed government intervention and a symbol of fiscal malfeasance, and as such bore the brunt of the populace’s anger and frustration.  In response, banks were forced to board up all their doors and windows, only allowing entrance through a door (often steel) that was heavily guarded and equipped with a metal detector.  The banks, so often rendered in an architecture of strength, transparency and brilliance were suddenly forced to recede into an architecture of conflict.


Lady snears in front of Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires


Citibank in Buenos Aires

Last week we posted about the authenticity of materials and by extension of architecture.  The underlying idea that architecture can embody meaning and breed comfort points to the symbolic power of building.  Buildings express our yearnings and our fears – an expression in built form of a collective will.  One might say that the architecture of the last decade has been characterized by optimism, flamboyance and even excess.  This begs the question of what our response will be to the stark economic and social climate that we face.

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The Truth About Materials

January 28th, 2009 § Chris

From the New York Times, January 28, 2009

And in Florida, not far from the Palm Beach clubs where Mr. Madoff wooed some of his investors, George L. Theodule, a Haitian immigrant and professed “man of God,” promised churchgoers in a Haitian-American community that he could double their money within 90 days.

He accepted only cash, and despite the too-good-to-be-true sales pitch, he found plenty of investors willing to turn over tens of thousands of dollars.

The offices were beautiful, and I was told it was a limited liability corporation,” said Reggie Roseme, a deliveryman in Wellington, Fla., who lost his entire savings of $35,000 and now faces foreclosure on his home.

This brings to mind  the question of authenticity. Ponzi schemes, shams that we can believe in, until the truth comes out, prey on our desires and weaknesses. Our willingness to rely on  appearances  for signs of  authenticity (The offices were  beautiful) points to questions about  architecture’s  role in such deceptions.

It’s been said that  ”Art is a lie that tells the truth” . The history of architecture, reflects an ambivalence about “truth”. Architecture operates like language, representing but not necessarily embodying, and  architecture is a  constructed embodied, materialized phenomenon that is primarily experienced. We read and experience architecture simultaneously. Geometry, space, materials, tectonics  order form, form an order which we would hope is revelatory, engaging and celebrating  our humanity , rather than deceitful, obscuring and controlling.

The predominance of vision has effected the way we think about  materials. As more and more communities employ “stampcrete” and if they can’t afford that, “stamphalt” in public spaces, the erosion of values is painfully obvious. The attitude of “as long as that stuff looks like brick, it’s OK” is exactly what got the ponzi scheme victims into trouble. Actually all the use of fake materials is sort of like a ponzi scheme–you simply put the day of reckoning off until the whole thing fails and at great expense you end up doing what you should have done the first time around.  Materials carry memory, and the replacement of materials with facsimiles destroys memory, with it the hard won truths and values of  our society. As an example I’ve posted two images of bricks one of painted stamped asphalt and the other of 19th century brick pavers.



The inadvertent marks of the makers, of the hands that handled the wet clay can be seen in the lower image, the memory of the lives that made these bricks. The moss growing between each brick  reveals an unanticipated symbiosis  of inert and living matter. the bricks, slightly uneven gently accommodate  the pushing of tree roots below without cracking or failing. The stamphalt has none of this capacity to hold time and life–no capacity for memory and for that matter, imagination. The fact that it is unsustainable and unrecyclable is no coincidence. Whenever we remove the dimension of time and the capacity to remember from materials, we fall prey to appearances and hidden costs, not only economic and environmental but cultural and societal.


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