EXPANDED SKINS AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF ‘THICK DESCRIPTIONS’
What does an architect from Mumbai take with him to Basel? As pointed as this question is, the broader concern is we are located in a world that is global and expansive, yet rooted to locations, geographies, and ideas in some ways. We no longer can talk of the Global and Local as binaries or as terms that begin with a letter in the upper-case; these are conditions of being and existing with many overlaps and exchanges. A practice like that of Rahul Mehrotra’s is an interesting case in point since not only is his early career based in the complexities and contradictions of a city like Bombay of the 1990s, but he is someone who, for long, holds an academic position and runs studios in an American university, but has also built in locations outside Bombay/Mumbai, outside India. Where does then a studio like RMA draw its references from, and how does it respond to the many locations it thinks from? It is beautiful that an intellectual, a practitioner, can actually hold the ability to think from many locations and multiple sources in a world where conservatism and narrow thinking is taking over.
Having opened up this question of drawing from multiple sources and building inspirations from a carpet of experiences, it would be important to understand a key strand that may be weaving these multiple imaginations and experiences into a comprehensible pattern of designs and architectural articulations. The Virchow 16 building on the Novartis campus in Basel is a good example to take some of these thoughts further.
Retro Geiser in his essay Soft Thresholds published in the book on this building begins his description and discussion on the building thus: “The project [the Novartis campus in Basel] is shaped by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s strict master plan — the newly established urban grid, the consistent block size, arcades along the main axis, and a shared height of the eaves — which, over the last decade, continuously ruled the transformation of a former industrial site into an urban ensemble. Virchow 16, as RMA’s building is officially named, marks the north-eastern edge of the campus, facing the riverfront. At the moment of its completion, the structure consisting of laboratories and offices is standing without its projected context in an area that still lacks definition and will likely be developed in later phases of the campus construction ... ... The northern and southern façades of the building, which will eventually face its future neighbours on
campus, consist of solid concrete walls — dyed in yellow ochre by adding stone from local quarries — interrupted by two glazed segments. The monolithic, enclosed character of both exposed elevations provides a degree of privacy for the adjacent workspaces, but more importantly defines the continuation of the streetscape and, inside, allows for a distributed placement of small circulatory and mechanical cores that decisively shape the organisation of the plan. The eastern elevation is fully glazed to create a sense of breadth and to provide unobstructed views of the Rhine. And finally, the western and most public face of the building is located adjacent to the small square. Wrapped in a green façade that will change its appearance throughout the year, it mediates between open space and a highly controlled laboratory and office environment. Pierced by six large-scale windows, the façade suggests a vertical continuation of the garden and softens the threshold between public and enclosed spaces. The design of the green wall undoubtedly profited from the insight gained through previous commissions RMA realized in India. It draws particularly from the KMC Corporation Office in Hyderabad, which emphasises the continuing relevance of traditional cooling devices such as humidified surfaces or a façade screen made of hydroponic, climbing plants. In collaboration with landscape architect Günther Vogt, Mehrotra perfected the system of the double skin as a seasonally changing, performative ‘living curtain wall’ that modulates daylight and provides a natural screen.
At first glance, it might seem as if this layer of greenery was only applied to the exterior of the building. However, a closer look at the
section of the project reveals that the vertical garden of the façade further develops inside the project and operates as connecting tissue that blurs the boundaries between nature and abstraction, between interior and exterior, between circulation and gathering spaces, offices, and laboratories. Reminiscent of the terraced court at the base of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s Ford Foundation Building in New York (1967) and laced with paths and places to pause and informally gather, an interior courtyard stretches from the fourth level to the roof. Similar to the atrium, but more expansive in its impact and complex in its spatial character, this concentration of verdant tropical growth — an interior, hanging garden — connects diverse parts of the building and provides not only the office floors, but also the fully enclosed lab environments with fragments of a surprising simulation of nature. A curious mixture between the poetics of Oscar Niemeyer’s Casa das Canos (1951) and John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel (1976) atrium, in which “capital — and power — begins to look friendly and warm, and natural,” Mehrotra offers an interior environment that has the capacity to join what ordinarily remains separate.”
Geiser establishes well the interlocking spheres of action and influence this project is shaped by — the site; Mehrotra’s own experiments as a contemporary architect from India; and the architectural themes that concern our fields of practice today. The architect then — in this case, Mehrotra — clearly becomes the sutradhar, the key narrator who weaves many stories into an architectural script.
The building sits within a campus where earlier interventions by iconic architects from different parts of the world have generated a context; at the same time Virchow 16 is in a zone that is yet to develop. Mehrotra has be conscious that he will also generate the context for future responses. The building by Mehrotra opens up the conversation on Context rather than taking a position of one or another kind of response. The architecture of this building addresses four directions with four thoughts, and responds as well as invites responses. In that sense the building sets out a conversation rather than strictly responding to ‘’context’’. This conversation set up within the building is also a set of imaginations and experiences travelling from other RMA projects in other contexts. In this way, contexts have become a network rather than the particular sense of site, location, view, or climate. Contexts and responses are travelling to address and generate new context-conversations. An experiment and experience from a corporate building in Hyderabad travels to a campus for research and work in Basel now. Thematics or technologies that may have had beginnings in some other programme or location and condition grow into newer stories, or merge into other stories in this building, and may travel further elsewhere. A sense of architecture that defines context through its flânerie!
To go back to the question we began with, it would be interesting to ponder over the accumulations and adjustments that an architect shapes architecture through. A city such as Bombay/Mumbai is not clearly defined by one or another particular architectural lineage or style, or one that shapes its physical fabric adjusting to conditions of growth, migrations, and financial shifts. Therefore, the idea of context remains on shifting ground all the time — the shifting ground is then an important challenge and not something to be denied precisely because it is not easily measurable. Mehrotra’s deep and very critical engagement with Mumbai — as a concerned citizen, a young architect, a prolific writer and researcher on urban issues, and very active on the development of conservation ideas and policies — is something that has surely shaped his practice. He often builds a very difficult but important relationship through a layered reading of his important essay ‘Kinetic City’ — between the ideas of concern and research for a city, and the nuances and conditions that shape the architecture of buildings he
designs. Virchow 16 is surely a building that is influenced by Mehrotra’s career in Mumbai, but also his concerns with ideas of building typologies and architectural languages in a growing but difficult economy like India. The inside-outside binary with which buildings have often been discussed and described is often today a regressive handle to discuss architecture — as neither people nor architecture divides itself so starkly within an inside and an outside. An important trope for architectural and social sciences in the 19th and large parts of the 20th century, this division essentially today blurs into interstitial zones that osmotically flow and bleed across spaces or work, action, and ideas. Mehrotra, especially in his design for this building, actually focuses on the shape and geography of these interstitial zones — the façade, the atrium, the stairway. The façade is not the patina or a cover-skin for enclosing the ‘inside’ — but it is actually the expanded skin which is now much more of a ‘thick description’. The atrium with interconnected levels and terraces or the stairway are not simply visual or physical passages of movement, but indeed the spaces that anchors the public life of the building otherwise focussed on technical and scientific production. The four façades are not only creating, and responding, to the site and the streets outside, as we discussed, but they also create the many possibilities of negotiating, responding to, the outside from the inside of workspaces. The thickened façades or the expanded atrium are also locations where hierarchies of work environments come into question and can be re-organised, as one sees Mehrotra working on this very pointedly in his design for the KMC building in Hyderabad, India.
The workspace from the streamlined corporate to the scientific laboratory avatar is denaturalised from its typological imagination and reproduced as a site for public and intellectual engagement. Whether it is the inside-outside between workspace and street, or it is the inside-outside between work cabins and common spaces within the building — in both cases, the blurring of strict division is architected. The details of façade design and construction become a clear area of investigation and investment for the architect’s studio in this case. The integration of plant-life as a natural micro-ecosystem - on the façade, as well as inside within the atrium spaces and terraces is an important design decision that shapes the ideas and life central to this building design. Images of the building in the early days when it was just completed, and the plant life was only just introduced, to the time when it starts taking over and defining its own geography, one realises how the built volumes take on a meaning with this introduced nature-ecosystem. Within this scheme and network of affairs an artist is invited to create yet another layer of micro-worlds — the video installations titled ‘Amorphous Color Rain’ by Pipilotti Rist, in which an array of colours is projected from the ceiling onto the dark stone floor below, creating collages of organically fluctuating puddles of a mysteriously animated liquid. These floating collages that comprehend surface and depth simultaneously create not only a new realm of imagination within the building but add another dimension to the idea of work, creation, and production. The building now is not only about scientific investigations, discussions, and solutions, but also about the measure of nature, the wildness of life, the strangeness of creativity, the play of human perception, opening up a new world for itself. Talking of ‘kinetic cities’, and now taking the earlier conversation to another realm with his work with Ephemeral Urbanism, Mehrotra brings the ideas and essence of some of this to architecture — where spaces become kinetic, and notions of architecture move into ephemeral realms.
PIPILOTI RIST’S ‘AMORPHOUS COLOR RAIN’
(Because) she has more passionately than anyone before her breathed life into cool video art, Pipilotti Rist is renowned and popular worldwide. Born in 1962 in Grabs, St. Gallen, she lives in Zurich. On completing her studies in Vienna and Basel at the end of the 1980s, she immediately embarked on her multimedia forays into space and mind that offer aesthetic, physical and mental adventures to all those who join her. She has always perceived electronic devices as extensions of her body, conversely declaring in 1988 that “Our eyes are cameras that run on blood.”
In the mid-1990s, Rist liberated her images from the rectangle of monitors, projecting them onto walls, animating corners, ceilings and floors, and activating places rarely occupied by art, especially in more recent architecture. On being invited to the Venice Biennale in 2005, she created the video ‘Homo Sapiens Sapiens’, an Arcadian landscape populated by two young women. As large as Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, it illuminated the entire arched ceiling of the late Baroque church of San Staë. The artist illuminates outdoor spaces as well, for instance, in ‘A la belle etoile’ of 2007, projected on the square in front of the Centre Pompidou to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of that institution. For the award ceremony as recipient of the Zurich Festival Prize in 2013, she blanketed the entire south façade of Villa Wesendonck and parts of the surrounding park with her moving images, additionally seen as rippling reflections in the pond in front of the building.
Rist demonstrated her mastery of the extravagant gesture in 2008 in her riveting installation ‘Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At the same time she is incurably democratic, investing equally painstaking care and humour in small interventions that make an unexpected appearance in the spatial hierarchy. Thus it is that we may come upon an intimate piece staged in a toilet, animated bottles in a hotel bar or a miniature video in a bookcase. As far as she is concerned, nothing is out of bounds for art; there are no places that cannot serve as artistic terrain.
For the lobby of Virchow 16, Rist has created two differently dimensioned video installations titled ‘Amorphous Color Rain’. Two units concealed in the ceiling project an array of colours onto the dark stone floor below like organically fluctuating puddles of a mysteriously animated liquid. For once we are invited to step into the limelight without being censured; for once we are told ‘please be touched’ instead of ‘do not touch’. When the colours rain down us, we ourselves function as the picture support; we see our bodies and even our shadows become part and parcel of the pictures incarnate. The experience is reinforced through the presence of others, for instance, when research colleagues see one another bathed in images, enjoying an artistic experience that invites a brief hiatus from ordinary, casual behaviour.
Pipilotti Rist met with Rahul Mehrotra several times in her studio in Zurich and on the construction site of Virchow 16. In the course of their intense conversations, Rist sensed a great affinity with Mehrotra’s declared commitment to the ethical question of responsibility. He invariably takes an empathetic approach to the specific social, economic and cultural context of
the site of his intervention in order to make the best of it.
Rist also took great care in devising a response to the givens of the architecture in Virchow 16. In both of her installations, she decided to foreground the motif of verticality, in a sense echoing the vegetation planted by landscape architect Günther Vogt. The latter climbs up the outside of the main façade like a second skin and also hangs down from the ceiling in the third-floor atrium. Mehrotra has designed a long and extremely performative horizontal lobby that affords a view of the Rhine landscape at the other end of the room, the moment one enters the building. At the same time, however, a wide staircase placed in the room celebrates verticality. A great deal of daylight streams down into the space from the windows of the spacious stairwell and the loggia on the floor above.
The natural environs and the incidence of light plays a crucial role in all of Mehrotra’s architecture, much like the coloured light and natural landscapes or cityscapes of Rist’s oeuvre, in which figures escape into dreamily expanded identities. Rist shatters the confines of entrenched perception; she has devised a visual syntax based on collective memory and (day)dreams, whose grammar includes dissolves, distortions and variations in distance. Shots taken from high overhead zoom into the most intimate of miniscule details. Everything is bathed in an ecstasy of colour and movement, often in breathtaking, slow-motion and almost always — though not in Virchow 16 — buoyed by a suggestive soundtrack that also plays with distance, at times reverberating from afar and at others trailing off into a soft whisper. Digital media are the tools of Pipilotti Rist’s trade as a painter, sculptor, musician and poet. Perception of her work often means subsiding into an alpha-like state of consciousness, the more so because she encourages relaxed and meditative viewing by frequently integrating her own designed and produced seating and recliners into her installations.
Video is Latin for ‘I see’. In an early video, we hear Pipilotti Rist saying, “I see. You see. I see you seeing. You see me seeing. I want to see how you see. You want to see how I see. You want to show how you see.” Seeing in her case does not refer to the eyes alone but to the entire body as a perceiving entity. Rist looks at the world not only through human eyes but also through those of a beetle, a sea urchin, a tulip, a cloud or an electron microscope.
She has positioned the smaller version of her ‘Amorphous Color Rain’ next to the entrance of the video conference hall, and the larger one at the foot of the stairs. Anyone using the lift necessarily walks through the larger projection. People are thus twice seduced into taking pause, namely on their way to and from work. Pipilotti Rist draws their attention vertically down to the floor, to the amorphous, slowly changing and bubbling shapes of the colourful ponds, inviting them to become immersed as they make their way across them. Just as we must walk through Mehrotra’s architecture to perceive the surprising wealth of its features, we appreciate Rist’s art only by literally succumbing to it with ‘hide and hair.’ Taking the usual detached pose of the viewer will not do.
Significantly, the room does not have to be darkened since Rist’s equipment is powerful enough without. Moreover, she delights in rising to the challenge of exploring the interaction between her aesthetically and semantically freighted light art and the bluish to reddish daylight or the yellowish artificial lighting.
While I am writing this text, Pipilotti Rist’s videos for her ‘Amorphous Colour Rain’ have not yet materialised. But we have talked about their character and the qualities she wants to lend them. Being located in a laboratory building, a site of research and development, invests Rist’s light art with even greater metaphorical impact as illuminating work that penetrates deep into matter. When I asked her about the verticality of the work as to relates
to her existential interest in gravity and weightlessness, in physics and metaphysics, she wrote, “Capillary action occurs in every family with the desire to dig deep roots into the earth in order to draw on the nutritious qualities of the water and to stretch shoots and leaves upwards toward the light. When the roots sleep, they dream of being squid flying through the clouds. We ignore fences but the truth is: our roots are seething. Homo sapiens sapiens can only drill down into the earth some 12km before the equipment melts. But the human imagination pierces this seething core.” Looking back on the 25 years spanned by Pipilotti Rist’s oeuvre, we note that she is equally driven by the conscious and the unconscious. She is acutely aware of being inseparably entwined in political, social, cultural and scientific developments, which, on the one hand, absorb her individuality and, on the other, profoundly motivate her own distinctive and illuminating visual idiom in studying and inventing art. Novartis Campus — Virchow 16
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