Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Architect's Lecture

1. Light streaming into Grand Central station, New York.
One of the great things about living in a large metropolitan area is the opportunity for cultural events that just don't happen often enough in smaller places. Yesterday I rode the train into downtown Denver to take advantage of one of those events: a lecture by Finish architect Juhani Pallasamaa. (I blogged about Pallasamaa May 21, 2009, citing his book The Eyes of the Skin as one of the great theoretical books about architecture.) Not exactly a household name, Pallasamaa is one of the most influential architects you've probably never heard of. His books have somewhat of a cult following among students. He is certainly well-connected to the world of architecture. He is currently in the United States after being invited to live at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West for a season. And he allowed in his opening remarks that he was pleased to be speaking at the Denver Art Museum because Daniel Liebskind, architect for the DAM, is his son's godfather.
His lecture last night was "Materiality and Light." He spoke passionately about the life that light brings to architecture. We can't see anything without light, of course. To Pallasamaa, light has a nurturing quality that more than aids vision. It shapes, changes, and establishes architecture. In a sense, light feeds architecture just as it does plants, landscapes, and people.
Coincidently, I just finished reading Grand Central by Sam Roberts. It is a facinating story about the architecture of Grand Central station in New York as well as the engineering, financial, and social influences that shaped it. A photograph that stands out in the book shows light streaming through lofty arched windows over the main waiting room. It is a classic effect of light making space palpable. Sadly, this is an effect that no longer exists at Grand Central. Construction across 42nd Street has forever blocked the sun. This fact, pointed out in Grand Central, had me thinking about light and architecture. I was primed for Pallasamaa's lecture. He did not disappoint.
2. Light modulating color. Casa Gilardi by Luis Barragan, Mexico City.

3. Light creating contrast. Salk Institute by Louis Kahn, La Jolla, California.
One of the interesting things about attending a lecture that you don't get from reading a speaker's books (Pallassamaa has authored thirty) are the little anecdotes that emerge. During the Q&A a member  of the audience asked Pallasamaa for his thoughts about the building we were in. After railing against the penchant of modern architects to be too enthralled with novelty and too frenetic with form, it would be interesting to hear his answer. After all, Liebskind is about as novel and frenetic as architects can get. But, still, this architect was his son's godfather.
4. Light and shadow. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 
"Daniel," he said, "is a very good friend. When we first met in 1979 I knew, after exchanging a few sentences, that this man was a genius. But I didn't know in what field." The audience wondered if it should chuckle at this.
"Now, after more than thirty years knowing him and seeing his work" he continued, "I still think Daniel is a genius. And I still don't know in what field."  At this observation, delivered dryly,  the audience let our a real laugh.
5. Light, shape, novelty. Daniel Liebskind's DAM (left) and his
Museum Lofts (right).
6. Dappled light. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.
Pallasamaa was equally perspicacious when asked about living in the Frank Lloyd Wright studio.
"When I visited this country for the first time years ago, I loved the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I thought he was a genius. But I didn't know why. Now, after living at Taliesin for four months, I still think he was a genius. But I still don't know why. He had a natural genius, unforced by grand theories. He just created naturally, without apparent effort."
7. Light, color, and depth. Ronchamp chapel by Le Corbusier.
Pallasamaa interprets architecture through a lens of feelings, emotions, and metaphysics. If you haven't yet discovered him, find a copy of The Eyes of the Skin and see architecture in a new way.

1. AP
2. Ulises00
3. TheNose
4. Osvaldo Gago
5. Frank Vanbetlehem
6. John Fowler
7. Sanyambahga

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