Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"ARCHITECTONICS : The Technology of Poetry" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Architecture throughout the ages has been driven by a three tired agenda. High architecture from the Renaissance to the “Chicago School” was driven by similar agenda. There has been a continual battle against false styles that impale a fashion from the past upon modern technology in a manner that hides the true technology under stylized decoration. What you see is not what you get! This commercial, false style is known as effetism. Over history there has been a concern with new materials and technologies and there has been a concern with contemporary problems and issues. These three concerns have been the agenda of modern architecture.

Reform and Activism:
First, there has been the continual battle against false “styles” and fashions that employ motifs, details and pseudo technologies derived from previous eras and promoted commercially using the profession as a mere mercantile vehicle. Whether it was Frank Lloyd Wright in America, or Le Corbusier and Gropius in Europe, or Michelangelo in the Renaissance, this battle against effete practices has marked the sustenance of architecture. The armies of the mercantile architects, supported by academic theory, have been a formidable challenge in every age. This battle has given modern architects a mission, an identity and a cause. [Image One: India House front Facade]

Social Issues and Problems:
Second, Architecture with a capital “A” finds its relevance by addressing the contemporary societal problems of its time. City planning has been at the forefront for millennia, along with fortifications for defense. With urbanization mass housing in congenial neighborhoods became a focus. The creation of open spaces and public domains, relevant to the creative association and interaction of social groups, has been a contemporary focus. In the Sixteenth Century Italian architects were looking for “the ideal” whether it was in the form of the human body, a country garden estate or a city design. This often led to the generation of prototypical people, perfect templates for urban designs and idealistic gardens (Leonardo da Vinci’s Ideal Man and Ideal City). In Persia it resulted in a search for the perfect world which is an analogue of paradise expressed in carpets and gardens (Persian Gardens; Mogul Char Baghs, etc). In our own era, the search for solutions for the masses of people crowding into cities and living in hovels, without any public open spaces has been the focal point. Architects like Jose Lluis Sert, who initiated the first urban design course at Harvard; Kevin Lynch who sought the mind’s orientation within large urban complexes, or the Team Ten group who called for “the humane” in the form of urban spaces and places all herald this cause. Green or sustainable architecture has emerged as a Twenty-first Century issue. A range of new, urban building types have been addressed in the past century ranging from railway stations, airports, factories, stadium, towers for housing and offices, schools and corporate buildings. New building types in urban settings often demanded and exploited new technologies.

Third, architecture has always sought out the most relevant technology. This has been true from the Gothic era where “flying buttresses” of stone were exploited to their maximum; to the Nineteenth Century Expositions where steel and glass were exploited aesthetically; to present day steel frame towers and post-tensioned flat slabs. Whether it was James Watt building spinning mills in the early Nineteenth Century or Eiffel creating long span exhibition halls or Paxton exploiting glass and steel or Roebling exploiting tension structures or the “Chicago School” of architects reaching for the skies with their steel frames, architects have always used technology to push their cause forward. Spanning the longest distance with the least structural mass seems to be a feat for an architect that carries a tinge of Olympic success. Maillart’s bridge over the river Arve challenges one’s spirit. Carrying the heaviest loads with the lightest structure is another arena of unspoken competition. From this competition evolved stone columns and beams, domes that became ever larger, vaults, arches, buttresses, steel frames, shells, geodesic domes and tents! All of these employed a range of “new” materials and techniques to attach them together. Technology is where architects merge with engineers into one indistinguishable profession. Together they faced challenges of “buildability” and efficient processes to bring new technologies into mass production. Discoveries and improvements in stone cutting; mortar; water proofing; cement formulas; steel; glass; plate glass; sealants, paint, cladding, tensile steel and ferroconcrete have all been answered with new expressions, one more poetic than the next. [Image Two: View of Maillart’s Bridge over River Arve]

These three agenda operate hand in glove! They are not searches one embarks on as three separate paths which will miraculously rejoin together. A holism in resolving urban conundrums through integrated technological solutions is the journey. But it is a journey and a search for beauty, for lyricism and for poetry. Workings through the medium of “things” architects seek the immaterial! It is a step outside of materiality where architects create the transcendental!

Technology drives architectural forms and character. Walter Gropius and his community of artists and industrialists through the medium of the Bauhaus saw materials, and the technologies that shape form and join them, as the key to design for to modern living. The nature of wood, must guide the search for what wood wants to be. Chicago architects studied the behavior of steel frames in composing their towers. The structure qualities of steel tell us what steel can do for us. Antonio Gaudi studied the flow of forces within a possible structure by hanging string networks upside down and seeing the shapes they would take on their own and used these natural configurations to pattern his large works. Frank Lloyd Wright exploited the “cantilever” to achieve a sense of freedom and flowing space. Pier Luigi Nervi exploited buttresses and shells to create poetic grand spaces. [Image Three: Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport]

The marriage between poetry and technology sets architecture aside form plain old engineering! Architects like Calatrava in our time; Pier Luigi Nervi; Ove Arup; Frie Otto; Paxton; Eiffel; Watts; etc., traveling back into history blurs the distinction between architect and engineer who were artificially separated through “specialization” and “professionalization” in the French polytechnics and the Ecol des Beaux Arts in France.

Today engineers and architects are struggling to work in an integrated manner with one another. New systems and materials have emerged which are bringing about a fusion. In my own work we are evolving a language from flat slabs; roofing systems and enclosure envelopes that create a relevant, expressive architecture. Many architects, working closely with engineers and high-tech vendors, are doing this. Three materials systems come to my minds which are shaping my work:

The workshop at the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies is an example of close cooperation between an architect and an engineer. In this structure I first prepared an intuitive design of how I wanted the structural members to be placed. Then my engineer, Bal Kulkarni, worked with me on the gauges and diameters of the steel tubes and the kinds and sizes of welding and bolts based on my designs of fastenings. We played back and forth and finally settled upon a solution. Then we put it for vetting with the Client’s structural engineers and added cross bars for side wind loads and we stabilized the joint between the columns and the floor connections. We created a ninety meter long by eight meters high photovoltaic wall to the south that both generates electricity and filters light through the jaali-like wall cutting the cost of lighting drastically. Our design for the new indoor air-conditioned stadium at Ahmedabad is another tour de force in the exploitation of steel and tensile structures in the roof canopy. Image: [Image Four: View of the Workshop at SIMS]

The Flat Stab:
At the multi-storied Tain Square we explored the flat slab where previously only concrete frame structures had been used. The idea is to allow each home owner within a labyrinth of apartments to move and layout their own room plans. At the Suzlon World Headquarters we worked on an 8.4 by 8.4 grid with 1200 diameter concrete columns. This resolved both the parking grid in the basement and allowed the use of open-landscape modular office systems within the main halls. [Image Five: View of Tain Square]

At the Kochi Refineries Limited we introduced the idea of aluminum louvers to shield a glass wall office building from the blazing sun. We were inspired by the traditional wood louvers in Kerala temples and palaces. The system keeps the hot sun away form the building envelops and results in a savings of energy used for cooling. It also reflects sunlight up to the interior ceilings, saving on the lighting costs. [Image Six: View of Koichi Refineries Limited]

Glass is a complex material that can be used with films, by laminating two pieces and by providing an air gap between two sheets that reduces heat gain and glare. Low E glass cuts heat gain in one sheet. We have exploited glass by facing the vast areas to the North and North-east; by shading them from sun with louvers and through the application of films, laminating and toughening. [Image Seven: Interior View of SIMS Workshop]

Roofing Systems:
Steel roofs are becoming more common in our vocabulary. In areas of heavy rain fall, like Bhutan and in the Western Ghats we have found a new solution for water proofing. New laminated aluminum sheets with insulation are changing the way we address elementary shelter problems. It is impacting on the way we express ourselves. [Image Eight: Aerial View of Ahmedabad Stadium]

Exposed Concrete:
I have always tried to use exposed reinforced concrete as a pure aesthetic material in my buildings. But the construction profession finds it difficult to produce the kinds of finishes we get in Japan or Europe. It is simply a matter of discipline. The vibration must be right, the additives correct and the shuttering and formwork must be clean and well supported to prevent sagging. [Image Nine: View of MUWCI Administration]

Cladding Systems:
ACP sheets are an easy, relatively inexpensive and fast way to complete a building. [Image Ten: View of Stair Silos at SIMS]

The Challenges:
All of these materials offer exciting solutions and creative potentials. Yet the vendors are slow to come on board our journey. When one bends glass there often are small bubbles; plate glass bulges out from the frame creating wavy surfaces and one still finds marks on toughened glass where clamps were used. Many suppliers can not give the colors one wants in the LEED rating one needs. Roofing suppliers are ignorant of LEED ratings of their materials, have ugly ridge joints and employ a very limited vocabulary of sheets, ridges and sofits. Sanitary fittings are difficult for our plumbers to fit and even the toilet seats are complicated to attach and expensive to replace. Suppliers of structural steel tubes and sections are limited and what is specified, though in the catalogue, may not be available. Foreign suppliers are not dependable in their lead times and a few totally fail in delivery.

Integrating our Industry
What we lack is backward and forward integration within the industry. Our vendors are still “dalals” or traders! They are just picking something up in China, and selling it, “as it is” in India. They should be working out how the material joins with itself in different corners and shapes! They should be exploring how it is actually applied on sites and how it attaches to other building components. They should be working on the water-proofing problems where their materials join others. They should be interested in how their systems behave in the Indian sun and chilly nights, and how it connects to the main structure allowing it to expand and contract! But they are not interested. They can not meet their demands. They are just trading and selling items picked up there and sold here. There must be a dialogue between our traditional materials and our new materials and methods. Sandstone cladding can be fixed to a wall in a number of ways. Dry or wet? Stainless steel or brass? A wet-dry combination? Who knows the truth? It can be integrated with aluminum louvers and wood fenestration. [Image Eleven: India House Louvers]

One Stop Shop
In Latin America an architect is a designer, an engineer, and a contractor! The clients come to one place and the product is delivered to the users according to performance criteria. We have to learn from that system where all of the “buildability”, performance, economic and aesthetic considerations are rolled into one. [Image Twelve: Interior of Ahmedabd Stadium]

*Christopher Benninger studied Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Architecture at Harvard, where he later taught. He founded the School of Planning at Ahmedabad in 1971 and the Centre for Development Studies and Activities in Pune in 1976. He has prepared the Capital City Plan for Bhutan and is now building the Capitol Complex there. The Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta; the Suzlon World Headquarters; the International School Aamby and the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies are recent works. Benninger has won the Architect of the Year Award 1999; American Institute of Architects’ Award 2000; Golden Architect Award 2006 and Great Master’s Award 2007.


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