Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

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[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

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Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

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[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

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The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

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[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

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New Representations in Japanese Architecture

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Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture examines the way Japanese architecture is presented in graphic presentations. It covers the last twenty years of architectural design in commercial, civic and domestic fields. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn designs, plans, cross-sections, isometric elevations, 3D renderings and frames of CAD – alongside hybrid forms. These drawings are not rough sketches, working drawings or technical blueprints; they are representations made specifically for public display. They are pared down to their essence, conceptualised and aestheticised. There is an emphasis on clean space, elegance and clarity and a preference for schematic presentation over realism, as is common in the field. The layout of this book emphasises the clarity and sparseness of much Japanese architectural design.

Meystre discusses advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to drafting, including hybrid techniques and physical models, all viewed from the perspective of the digital age. There is a discussion of photographs of miniatures, an innovation from the Twentieth Century still used. Meystre notes the artistry of the photographer of models, commenting that frequently in Japan the photographer is credited with more creative input and control of these photographs than the architect or the builder of the model. As one would expect in a book dealing with architect presentations, there are no photographs of completed buildings. The author’s interviews with architects Ryūe Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima and others inform his discourse, with quotes illuminating views of practitioners.

The author notes that there is a generational change in Japanese architecture, which determined the 20-year limitation to his study. “One notable phenomenon of the recent history of Japanese architectural criticism is that whereas architects such as Kazao Shinohara, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki wrote intensely and regularly throughout their careers, their younger colleagues have been very discreet regarding their theoretical positions.”

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[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, My Vision for Tokyo (2009) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In the last two decades, information technology has also radically altered the way architecture is presented and understood by creators and public. Meystre notes that the increasing sophistication and flexibility of imaging technology has allowed architects greater flexibility and permitted experimentation that would have been costly, difficult or time consuming previously. One example is the use of radically reduced-scale images, which has become more commonly lately. “There is no limit to zooming within a window. The upshot is that digital lines, intrinsically, have no scale. […] The result is a common tendency among many architects to make the lines of their drawings spiderlike, to the point of invisibility.”

Use of computers has allowed the development of multiple isolines – hypothetical lines linking positions sharing a common property, such as height, light, temperature, barometric pressure and so forth. The lines map not structures or physical features but qualities. These linear matrices are accurate in visual terms and which produce images that are almost unrecognisable (almost arbitrary) when compared to conventional plans and come close to abstraction. Isoline projections can act as aids to contemplative thinking, in that they disrupt our standard assumptions about what a built structure is and reveal unseen and unconsidered aspects of it, prompting us to think in unexpected ways.

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[Image: Ryūe Nishizawa, Hiroshi Senju Museum, Karuizawa (2013) © Ryūe Nishizawa]

The question of how Japanese these presentations are is reflected in the way designs are seen and discussed. In the Japanese language, words describing space have value connotations: omote is “front surface” and “superficial” (something similar to the use in English of “façade”); ura “hidden side” and “authentic”; yami “near darkness” which limits persons and objects in darkness to a level where they are sensed rather than seen, has its origin in the Shinto concept of intuition; yūgen (noun and adjective functioning as an epithet, attribute or noun) meaning (variously) “remote/enclosed/profound/calm/dark mystery/secrecy/depth”, of Buddhist origin, has multiple aesthetic and spiritual attributes. Thus the Japanese ascribe associations and an attendant codified hierarchy of values to their spatial vocabulary.

Hideyuki Nakayama, Maison O, in Hideyuki Nakayama, Sketching, 2010, p. 103

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2010) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In practical terms, Meystre suggests this attachment to yami qualities of muted or dim light is reflected in a partiality towards depicting architectural spaces in light that is generally less intense than that encountered in typical Western presentations. However, Meystre goes on to point out that in Japanese architectural practices most cardboard models are made in white and photographed (or altered digitally) in ways that generate over-exposure. This apparent contradiction between a preference for muted light and overexposure in photography is not resolved by the author.

An oddity of the language used by new architects in Japan is the use of kawaii, “cute”, in the vocabulary of design. The term is usually used in relation to low art, animation, manga and discussion of attractiveness, especially in relation to animals and young women and girls. Kawaii in architecture is about ornamentation of plans through use of plants, decoration, furniture and moveable items.

Junya Ishigami, Maison en rangée, Tokyo, 2005, in JA n°66, 06 2007, pp. 54-55

[Image: Junya Ishigami, Row House, Tokyo (2008) © Junya Ishigami]

When these objects are included in illustrations they are necessarily miniaturised, those enhancing their kawaii quality through reduced toy-like, dream-like or charming appearance. This charm offsets the sparse clinical appearance of plans. Another reason the Japanese is linguistic or conceptual; inclusion of small utensils in Japanese designs – something Western designers usually omit – is partly due to the Japanese distinct conception of furniture. Kagu means “utensils for the house”, not differentiating from tables, beds and cutlery. Thus, for the Japanese, there is no threshold between the larger items and the smaller ones – which generates kawaii – whereas Western architects perceive firm qualitative differences between a vase and a table a Japanese does to a lesser extent.

Practicality and reality are not addressed in drawings, as is usual in such schemes. Like painters who cover their under-painting, ruler lines and adjusted positions with a final layer of paint – thereby concealing the secrets of their art – these architects show their final position as clear, unaltered and almost inevitable. There is a section which shows parallels between recent architectural projections and ukiyo-e colour woodblock prints. New designs even quote classic prints, linking illustrations to revered art. There is an essay about the genealogy of prominent architects of the last century and the way influence has been transmitted between them.

There are limitations to the book. The author intends this book to survey new aspects of architectural imagery from Japan rather than familiarise us with any single project. Dimensions are generally not included and rarely are settings or surrounding structures shown in designs. Although examples of approaches discussed in the text are shown, the priority is the overall survey of graphic representation rather than a close reading of any single image or project through a concentrated body of text and illustrations. (Many of the captions within illustrations are illegibly small, as we are not expected to read images in search of specific information.) It might have been illuminating to have a single building presented through various illustrations emphasising particular qualities.

Readers are left somewhat in the dark as to how effective the illustrations are at conveying an accurate or useful impression of the proposed structure. While Meystre is very good at presenting and explicating modes of illustration, he does not assess the efficacy of any of the modes nor of specific examples. Without that expert assessment, we – as lay readers – are left uncertain as to the usefulness and efficacy of the modes that are characteristic of recent Japanese illustration. Surely, functionality is one aspect that may be if not the primary then certainly a significant matter in our understanding of the material illustrated here.

Overall, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm offers a refreshing perspective on architectural presentation, giving a well-researched grounding for an analysis of recent developments and current trends in Japanese conceptualisations of architecture. It will also be of use to those interested in Japanese visual and linguistic culture.

 

Oliver Meystre, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture, Park Books, 2017, hardback, 240pp, 165 col. illus., English version (German version available), ISBN 978 3 03860 054 1

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

African Modernist Architecture

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[Image: Hotel President Yamoussoukro, (1973-9), Yamoussoukro, Cote d-Ivoire. Source: Wikimedia]

Decolonisation is not a simple subject and even its most basic points are a matter of fierce ideological debate. What is agreed is that independence is not a clear matter of binary opposites: a colonial possession does not become a fully autonomous state with the raising of a new flag. Independence is a process of negotiated detachment.

In a time when even the appearance of “cultural appropriation” sends ripples of guilt and moral opprobrium over alleged transgressors, it is good to be reminded of a period when cultural actors actively sought out foreign influences to solve practical problems. In the 1950s and 1960s a wave of African countries that had been the possessions of European states gained independence. Upper echelons of new independent governments wanted to make a clear break and to assert national confidence. Prominent public buildings of the new republics would be distinct not just from their colonial past but also from local traditional and vernacular idioms. New materials, new forms and new priorities would inspire the local population; they would also make a bold statement to foreign visitors. Late Modernist architecture would be the template for Africa just as it had been for developed nations worldwide.

With the spurs of new resources, international loans and nation pride, a building boom took place in African countries in the 50s, 60s and 70s. African leaders found Late Modernism provided a conveniently neutral style in states that were ethnically and religiously diverse. Indeed, the very heterogeneity of the states left the newly independent states with a need for neutral civic architecture to bind together groups with disparate traditions. African Modernism is a large book of over 600 pages that examines landmark examples of Modernist architecture in five Sub-Saharan countries that gained independence in the wave of decolonisation of the 1950s and 1960s, namely Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia. The book focuses on public buildings such as schools, universities, libraries, parliamentary buildings, markets, hotels, offices and flats.

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[Image: Kenyatta International Conference Centre KICC (1966-73), Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Wikimedia.]

The authors explain that relatively few black African architects had been trained by the early-independence period, so the primary architects of the period were European and Israeli. Israeli architects had experience of building in a hot sunny climate and were seen as fellow pioneers of independence from colonial power. Many of the architects came from the former colonial powers but there were also many Scandinavian architects. Even when European architects were commissioned, it was not a case of remote architects designing standardised buildings to be imposed upon African cities. Tropical Modernism was a branch of Late Modernism which was developed to respond to the challenge of construction in equatorial climates. Direct sunlight is limited by the use of brise-soleil, louvres and overhanging ledges that cast shade; intense heat is mitigated by open areas and perforations that allow air to circulate; large areas of glass are avoided. Concrete is the preferred material as it is resistant to rot and parasites. (In Zambia it is brick.)

It is too easy to dismiss the wave of building as vanity projects of dictators and generals. Some projects were undoubtedly unwise, hubristic or overbearing. There are photographs of ten-lane highways in Cote d’Ivoire entirely bereft of traffic, typical of the grandiose folly that is the country’s underpopulated capital. The country’s first president decreed that his rural home village would become the nation’s new capital and a lavish building programme turned Yamoussoukro into an outsize ghost-city full of landmark buildings.

Many of Africa’s new buildings did directly benefit ordinary people. New airports and hotels encouraged tourism and international trade; schools and universities provided advanced educational environments; infrastructure projects provided power and transport links that invigorated local economies. A number of these buildings were designed or built during the transitional phase, when colonial authorities prepared for independence by spending on civic infrastructure.

The book contains one section for each of the countries which includes a brief essay and a timeline discussing history and circumstances pertinent to the country. Buildings or complexes are given 2, 4, 6 or more pages each. Essays discuss different aspects of architecture in Africa. Specially commissioned photographs show buildings as they exist today – chosen in preference to photographs of the structures when they were pristine – and we see environments that are lived and worked in. Some of them are dilapidated and others are just in need of a coat of paint; a few are abandoned and close to ruin. The Pyramide Abidjan (1968-73) – a giant pyramid bisected by a Brutalist concrete block – is a dramatic and disastrous failure. Partly empty, poorly maintained and impractical, the building will no doubt be demolished. The temptation to use such failures as symbols of national decline is undercut by the examples of similar buildings in full use and cared for. The spectacular Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan (1963-70) (with its palm trees, swimming pool and wood-panelled lobby) looks like a lost fragment of 1970s jet-set glamour.

[Image: St. Paul’s Cathedral (1980-5), Abidjan, Senegal. Source: Wikimedia]

There is a melancholy aspect to some of the optimistic designs that have become anachronistic in the light of later poverty, strife and terrorism. The former American embassy in Accra (1965-9) is a model of welcoming openness, raised above the ground on tapered concrete pillars over an open-air seating area, surrounded by a lawn. Security considerations mean that embassies nowadays are fortified bunkers bounded by fencing and anti-traffic bollards. The buildings of Zambia bear witness to the burst of prosperity the populace enjoyed before a slump in copper prices impoverished the country and dispersed urban populations back to the country in search of work and food.

Senegal favoured a distinctly French form of Late Modernism, in line with its close affiliation with the mother country. President Senghor (in office 1960-80) had an aesthetic policy to promote a native Senegalese Modernism that would feature asymmetric parallelism, hence the abundance of triangular forms in Senegal’s architecture. Other unique developments include student accommodation inspired by mud-brick buildings of traditional villages. Photographs of an outdoor market in Nairobi show the stalls, vendors and buyers in riotous profusion. We see street vendors with their carts outside a ministry buildings, children playing football below apartment buildings, multi-coloured washing hanging from concrete balconies.

The variety of forms, materials and languages in these buildings epitomise Modernism that adapted to African resources, skills and traditions. This approach is now being superseded by less inventive contemporary architecture, which uses the brute force of expensive air-conditioning, standard designs and uniform materials in buildings which are increasingly homogenising skylines around the world. African Modernism is a unique record of a period when Internationalism meant optimism and when Africa played host to ingenious and elegant architectural solutions. It is a fascinating social record of African life of recent decades, as well as being a book full of beautiful and memorable images.

 

Manuel Herz (ed.), African Modernism, Park Books, 2015, flexi-cover, 640 pages, 909 colour and 54 b/w illustrations, 246 plans, €68, ISBN 978-3-906027-74-6

Alberto Giacometti

“Three recent catalogues have been published by Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, Tate and Gagosian on the subject of the art of Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Giacometti worked in sculpture, painting, drawing and – to a lesser extent – printmaking. The Tate catalogue includes Giacometti’s sculpture and paintings; the Zürich catalogue focuses exclusively on Giacometti’s sculpture, principally original sculptures rather than the bronzes cast from them; the Gagosian catalogue gives us new photographs of classic sculptures by the artist.

The catalogue Giacometti was published for the retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern (10 May-10 September 2017). The selection is representative and many excellent pieces are included. There are early works: the plaster and stone portrait heads, post-Cubist plaster carvings and marble carvings influenced by Cycladic art.

Around 1928 Giacometti formulated his Surrealist style, which combined his sensibility for plastic form with a sense of drama. Using combinations of multiple materials, the artist created violent, unsettling and mysterious psycho-sexual dramas…”

Read the full review online on 3rd Dimension website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2018-03-13-alberto-giacometti-exhibition-catalogues-reviewed