Things Are Looking Up With Stile Liberty!

Two years ago, E and I had the great fortune of spending a month in northern Italy taking in the Stile Liberty masterpieces there, as well as many of the anonymous-but-still-magnificent fabric buildings that fill the cities we visited. Our primary method of transportation was the original one: walking. In doing so, not only did we attempt to destroy ligaments and tendons, and in the case of E, discover old-but-previously-unknown sports injuries, but we also had an opportunity to observe architecture from all distances and at nearly every scale.

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What became more and more apparent  to us was the disappointing lack of scale and depth that contemporary architecture utilizes. Or more accurately, ignores. As we power-viewed block after block, mile after mile, in complete agony and ecstasy, we were shocked and appalled at how mundane and banal contemporary architecture has become. Mind you, this shock was not because of what we were seeing, but rather, we were comparing architecture seen here to what we know and experience in other environs. (More on that “knowing” in another post).

The Stile Liberty, Stile Floreale, or Italian Art Nouveau is an extension of the Classical Tradition and as such we were viewing the progression of the “humanist” architecture, frozen in that moment in time. And the details were so sumptuous, so supple, that the only way to describe it really is through metaphor: what we saw and experienced in artistic detail on buildings 100+ years old, is the functional equivalent of finding a computer in an archeological dig.

Let me explain that a little better: Given what we know now about how architecture and urbanism affect our daily existence, THIS kind of architecture and detail might as well be from the future. By that I mean, IF buildings are designed to maximize the human experience and promote health and welfare (AS THEY SHOULD BE), and given what we now know about the way our built environment impacts us, architecture going forward from this knowledge, that is to say architecture of the FUTURE, would be designed following the details seen here, from the PAST. And so finding these buildings in neighborhoods over 100 years old, is the equivalent of finding something futuristic, or more accurately, designed to help humans in the future, in an archeological dig.

I have always been aware of the lack of detail, the lack of depth, the lack of scale in contemporary architecture. Hell, I think everyone is to a certain extent, while not always able to put a finger on it. But these beauties made it all more depressingly conspicuous – what with how they all contribute to the built environment, all work to celebrate their place, and all add visual delight to users and passers-by. All replete with architectural ornament.

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After marking the “must see” buildings, we would take a cab or public transit to the most remote mark on the map (at least remote from our hotel) and begin walking back. What happened though, which wasn’t expected, was that we were continually drawn down streets and around corners by a glimpse of something great. Before long, it became a game between us to find the most interesting architecture first, but part of the fun was that it seemed impossible. We were constantly finding something new and interesting. CONSTANTLY.

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More to the point (of this article at least), it wasn’t just a matter of being drawn down the street and then doing the dance of trying to capture as much of the building’s facade as possible in a single photo while negotiating traffic, locals, parked cars, dog shit, and street poles or lamps. After getting the “overall” shot, I was continually and inevitably testing the patience of E drawn across the street right up to the face of the building by some element or another, and what I discovered in those moments is what you see in these photos. It gave me the chance, or perhaps the eyes, to contemplate the elements that make the difference between good architecture and bad architecture so discernible.

That difference comes in the delight of interacting with architecture not just from multiple distances and observing its multiple scales, but also its multiple angles. So many different ways to view a single building, not the least of which was looking directly up! To be fair, contemporary architecture tries to do this on occasion, but generally only as what I call, a “single move.” In other words, if the building engages from multiple angles, and encourages the viewer to walk around it, it fails miserably on the other measurements: multiple scales, details, proportion, ornament, texture, materials, etc. It is a single move, and to use an analogy from figure drawing, it is akin to simply portraying the shadow of the model. Compelling from one perspective or two, but ultimately banal.

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So this is my demand for the world and our goal at MGLM: Architecture which operates at all scales, speaks (nay, sings!) across all distances, employs ornament and detail, draws the viewer closer in wonder and delight, and contributes beauty to the fabric of its environment.  Can you dig it?

Post Script:

The AIA has a current social media campaign that is identified by #ilookup and attempts to elevate the profession by talking up the lofty ideals and efforts of architects. But how is the general public supposed to be inspired or encouraged when the contemporary tripe that is constantly built is nothing worth looking up at, much less looking up to?

Traditional Khmer Art

Now that the Mayans were proven incorrect and the world hasn’t actually ended, we thought a post on some architectural art we commissioned might be nice. Coincidentally it is of the mythical Hindu god Kala, who, according to legend, consumes all living things during the advent of winter. If you subscribe to the myth, Kala is currently consuming the northern hemisphere. Southern hemisphere – you’re next!

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Above is a sketch one of MGLM’s principals generated during a trip to Cambodia in 2011. Two MGLM principals were there to discover construction techniques and develop relationships with artisans and contractors to execute designs we completed pro bono for the Charitable Education Organization and NGO, PEPY. They are a great organization that is doing essential work in Cambodia. If you know anything about Pol Pot or the history of the country, you know how important their cause is.
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Carved onto a significant number of lintels in many of the Cambodian Temple Complexes around Siem Reap, Kala represents change. In a way, it is the Cambodian version of the Latin maxim: Carpe Diem. It is a reminder that all things come to an end, so we should appreciate and make the most of the time we have. The sketch is an interpretation of a couple different lintels, and draws heavily from the most intricately carved temple buildings at Banteay Srei. The pink/red sandstone allows for incredible detail. In the sketch, the stylized curls going into Kala’s mouth represent the world. They are covered with the traditional Pnhee Plueng – the Fire Flower. The rest of the carving also utilizes the fire flower motif.
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While in Cambodia, our fantastic guide introduced us to an artisan school which is hard at work keeping alive the traditional Khmer arts. It is located at a Buddhist Temple and run by a very well respected monk, with whom, and his head artisan, we had the honor and pleasure of an audience. The story of the meeting we’ll save for another post. We gave them the sketch and, through our guide who translated everything, described how we would like it carved in wood, and what its dimensions should be. We left there assured of how highly skilled the artisans are but not sure how the carving would turn out.
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You can imagine our delight when this arrived 6 months later! The piece is perfect. The shipping cost was not exorbitant, making this something we are pursuing further.
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The detail and depth is amazing as is the care for its overall quality. We have plans to commission a number of other carvings, and we are also accepting requests. Please feel free to contact us if you would like to take advantage of this amazing resource, but more importantly, help keep traditional arts alive.
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