The order of chaos

Norman Foster versus Frank Gehry

Art critic and publicist associated with "Just", "Culture" weekly, "Culture" Parisian "Culture" and "Gazeta Wyborcza". Author of the books "The Surrender of the Arsenal", "Artist's Mythologies", "Art from Day to Day", "Java or Dream".

Large geometric shapes cut into the old buildings of cities, often giving rise to fear that new architecture is only aggression and chaos. Norman Foster, one of the world's most famous architects, consciously opposes chaos and patiently builds spatial order. Nevertheless, the famous Frank Gehry praises chaos: in his works he uses the dynamics and beauty of disorder. In the creative cacaphony of the languages of architecture, these two architects are the most distinctive.
In the old part of Warsaw, at Piłsudski Square, the Metropolitan building - an office and retail centre designed by Foster - was erected. The building made of steel and glass has a light body, full of gentle curves. The inner courtyard with a fountain in the middle is open to all. Full of shops and cafes - it is a part of the square, i.e. public space. The ultra-modern office building harmoniously fits into the atmosphere of the old buildings. Although the architect uses a completely different language of forms, he managed to establish a dialogue with the neighbouring Grand Theatre and European Hotel. With his work, Foster proves that the new architecture does not have to blast the traditional urban space. It can complement and enliven it.

Norman Foster, nominated by Elizabeth II Lord Foster of Thames Bank, an architect entrusted with a particularly prestigious task in the construction of British cities, was born in 1935 in Manchester as the son of a worker working in an aircraft factory. He served in the aviation industry. Some critics claim that Foster's fascination with the world of streamlined aluminum machines remained for life, that he should have remained in the design of hangars, because his architecture is not meant for people.
Foster's architecture stems from Le Corbusier's idea that the house should be a "living machine". - precise and functional. Foster came into contact with his works and thoughts when he was still sitting in the Manchester City Library as a boy. He was also enchanted by Frank Lloyd Wright and his "organic architecture". - inextricably linked to nature. While studying at Yale, Foster learned, as he recalls, to appreciate the traditions of European culture from an American perspective, that is not only what is connected with industrial civilization, but also the old cities, the styles of the old epochs.

Foster's great works, such as banks in Hong Kong and Frankfurt am Main, art centres in Norwich (England) and Nimes (France), a complex of office buildings in Duisburg (Germany), the Faculty of Law of the University of Cambridge, the greenhouse of the botanical garden in Llanarthne (Wales), the reconstruction of the British Museum in London and the Reichstag in Berlin - all belong to the so-called high tech architecture trend. Here, technology does not serve the purpose of taming nature. Complicated and flexible, the building combines with its natural surroundings and old buildings.
In Foster's view, the "machine for living" is incomparably more complex than in the pioneering times of new architecture in the first half of the last century. For Le Corbusier, the structure was based on a concrete and steel frame, a system of horizontal columns and horizontal beams and slabs.
The headquarters of Hong Kong - Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong (180 m high in 1986), considered one of Foster's most important works, is made of steel masts with huge bridges stretched between them at various heights. Inside, diagonal, powerful beams run through many floors, fastening the elements of the structure. The vast expanse of space opens up in many directions. From the terraces and galleries there you can see the whole city. During the day, the skyscraper stands out against the background of Hong Kong's piled up city as a monumental symbolic figure full of technology - the incarnation of the power of civilization. At night, it flashes with thousands of lights and resembles a giant light Chinese lantern. The intricately combined tones of steel become invisible.

Some critics use the term "global" to describe Foster's architecture. This does not mean that the creator simply erects "international-style" objects in different parts of the globe. Foster carefully looks at the environment in which his home is to be built. He is always curious and inspires.
For Nimes, the old town of Provence, he designed the art centre Carree d'art, which houses an art gallery and library (1993). In the area covered by the center stood already well-preserved Roman temple from the first century BC. - In order not to overwhelm it with his work, Foster plunged five of the planned nine floors of the new building into the ground. Its aboveground part was maintained on the scale of La Maison Carree. The creator gave the architecture of steel and glass a classic character. The wide glass panes reflect the Roman colonnade as if it were a mirror. An intimate square with tables and benches was set between the ancient temple and the high-tech work related to it. It connects the old and new tissue of urban organisms.
In all his projects, Foster pays special attention to the link with the natural landscape. His design for the National Botanical Garden in Wales (1998) is oval in shape (95 m long). Situated in a basin between green hills, it resembles a typical Welsh lake.
The tallest European Commerzbank building in Frankfurt (1997, 260 m high) was built by Foster in a green city centre. He founded large gardens on terraces high above the ground. Foster also tries to provide his buildings with a natural airflow and to open the interior to sunlight. This was particularly important in the project to rebuild the German Reichstag. The fact that an architect from another country was chosen to reconstruct a building of such great importance for German history is a testament to Foster's recognition as a master of modern architecture who is at the same time able to establish a dialogue with history. The famous Reichstag, whose arson enabled Hitler to come to power, was called "the cradle and grave of German democracy". The old seat of the Foster Parliament was to be given a new content.

The architect did it, among others, by erecting a huge glass dome over the meeting room. Under its vault he placed galleries, from which voters - in accordance with the law guaranteed by the constitution - observe the speeches of parliamentarians. Through a glass canopy, daylight comes in, which, reflected by hundreds of mirrors, brightens the interior. Here it is a symbol of reason - as this symbol was understood in the Enlightenment according to Goethe's last words: "More light!".

Glue from the catastrophe

A few years ago, the news spread that we will have in Warsaw the work of a world-famous architect - a museum of contemporary art. The project was to be prepared free of charge by Frank Gehry. It is difficult to say how realistic these hopes were.
Frank Gehry, an American born in 1929 in Canada, is also called - as Foster is - the greatest architect of our time. He is admired by those who, above all, value freedom bordering on madness in architecture, who see the power of architecture in breaking down forms, a kind of aesthetic catastrophe.

Gehry's best-known work, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997), was called "a pile of scattered scrap" by one of the critics. Perhaps Gehry himself wouldn't mind the term. He once said, referring to the sculptures of pop-art representatives Jasper Johns and Donald Judd: "If they can create beauty from rubbish and scrap metal, why not take it to architecture? However, the bent, torn, sticking out of the sky solids that make up the building in Bilbao do not have the matter of rusty iron. They are covered with titanium sheet metal, the sheets of which have been arranged in such a way that they produce a quiet, disturbing rustle in the wind. This is also a challenge: architecture breaks its silence, sounds. Colourful reflections form on the titanium surface of the building. A disaster of forms turns into a jewel.

When working on his new work, Gehry uses objects many of which can be found on the shelves of his atelier: bent plates, wires, nets, stones, rags, solids with various shapes and profiles cut out. From the arrangement of these elements, from their contrasts, collisions and accumulations, the architect creates spatial compositions that are to be transformed into a building - a theatre, a museum, a bank. In this process, Gehry also uses computer simulation - he precisely defines the dynamics and power of expression of curves and solids. The meaning of his works is often not nice - contrasts can be razor-sharp, but the razor-sharpness is studied here like a step in a ballet that exercises for years.

Anything is possible in Gehry's architecture. In the facade of the office building of the advertising agency Chiat/Day/Mojo (Venice, California - 1991), he built a three-storey binoculars, approximately three storeys high. Another work of his, the Nationale - Nederlanden headquarters in Prague (1995), was called the Dancing House because the restless silhouette of the bank gives the impression that the building has to run somewhere. At the same time, this self-centered, chimeric architect creates masterpieces of logic and functionality - such as Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Vitra Design Museum in Weil on the Rhine.
Gehry's houses often look as if they're falling apart, making them a deconstructive architecture for critics. One of them wrote: "This aesthetics fits perfectly with the increasingly disintegrating culture to which we belong. In his statements, Gehry expressed similar thoughts: "There are no rules, no division into what is right and wrong. I'm confused about what's ugly and what's pretty.
Enchanted by the decay of Gehry's forms, he still erects, one after the other, buildings that are expressive and, in his own way, highly logical. He himself is the proof that we do not belong to the "increasingly disintegrating culture". There is also Foster and many other architects who adopt a creative and approving attitude towards culture, both new and old.
Fortunately, architecture is not governed by constructivism or deconstructivism. At the same time, there are different concepts of spatial order. This creates serious opportunities for the creation of diverse and good architecture in the rapidly expanding cities, including Polish ones. The only thing we do not know is whether these opportunities will be used.
Tekst: Andrzej Osęka Źródło: "Wprost" nr 51/52 2003
30/07/2005     Redakcja
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