Sunday, 31 August 2008

A Team Sport

The Pritzker Prize is often regarded as the Noble Prize of architecture, and is awarded annually to a living architect "honouring his contributions to humanity and the built environment." In this interesting article, Witold Rybczynski seems resentful of the idea that Architects get all the glory when a building is complete, which is further endorsed by this prestigious award.

The author points out that buildings are the result of teamwork. Architects today work with armies of engineers and specialists responsible for everything from structure and electricity to acoustics, lighting and energy conservation. In addition, construction has become so complex that responsibility for design and building is usually split between design architects and executive architects, who prepare construction documents, supervise the building process, and often make critical design decisions on the building site.

The fact that architecture is a team sport is what makes buildings so interesting. Art is often chiefly the reflection of an individual sensibility, but architecture tells us something about the society that produced it, its technology, its values, its taste. In that sense, building buildings is more like making movies than creating personal works of art.

The Oscars are awarded in many categories including best picture, director, screenplay, leading and supporting actors, sound mixing, visual effects and the list goes on. Should the Pritzker Prize in the same way acknowledge the efforts of glass, concrete, steel specialist companies? Should they acknowledge the efforts of acoustic and lighting consultants? What about structural and M & E Engineers? Project managers and quantity surveyors? The CLIENT? Although there are different awards given from different organizations honoring those consultants, specialists and engineers; wouldn’t it be better for the building business to bring all those fields together under one umbrella, like the Oscar did in the movie industry, to strengthen the fact that architecture is a team sport?

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Ron Arad's Rotator

Here is The Rotator, a bathtub that can be rotated into a shower. Not really sure about the practicality of it, it does seem like lots of fun though. Click here for more of Ron Arad's cool designs.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Designer Yachts

I read in this post a very interesting sentence that is stuck in my head so much that I feel a strong need to write it down to stop repeating it to myself:

"Whether the polar ice caps melt or not, some of the world’s wealthiest people will remain stylishly afloat in their luxury yachts."

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Sea Reclamation

Here is what I thought an interesting way to protest against the ridiculous amount of land reclamation going on in our part of the world that is chasing away our delicious fish.

Danish artist, Nikolaj Recke extended the German coastline by 10 meters by digging a hole into the beach shore. The sand from the intervention was stored in a bag and placed as an exhibit in a temporary gallery held in 2006. A year later he dug another similar hole, only this time in the US. The stolen part of the US was sent to Europe by US postal service and was exhibited somewhere in Europe in a white bag.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

City of Silk

Construction has began on the incredible City of Silk (Madinat Al-Hareer in Arabic) which is located not far from Kuwait City, the capital of Kuwait. The project will require 25 years to be completed. UK based architectural firm CivicArts are teaming up with engineering giants Atkins and Kuwaity real estate company Tamdeen Group along with other legal, financial and technical consultants to realize this amazing development that might truley be one for the historic records book.

The city takes its name from the Silk Road, the most enduring trade route in history which connected Far East Asia with Europe through the Middle East. It is often stated that this route was opened with the unification of China under the Han dynasty at 139 BC, although some argue that it even existed 1000 years beforehand. It stretches around 6,400km and cuts through some of harshest deserts and around the highest mountains in the world. Since commodities were transported by caravans, it was relatively easy for pirates and thieves to attack which made them a major threat. The economies of scale, harsh conditions and security considerations meant that caravans rarely travelled through the whole route; instead they would stop at a town where other traders would buy their commodities and transport them to another town until it reaches the other end of the route. Thus many towns have flourished because of its strategic location along the Silk Road.

In addition to silk, people traded with gold, ivory, exotic animals and plants, but silk was considered to be the most remarkable of all the precious goods and hence the name of the road. In fact there were several routes that traders took from China to Europe and vise versa and not one single road as the name implies. The route reached its golden years in the 7th century during the Tang dynasty. After the end of the Tang dynasty and the rise of Islam started to affect Asia, trade along the Silk Road subsided. The rivalry between the Christian and Muslim worlds only helped in further diminishing trade along the route. However, trade relations resumed as Muslims played the part of middlemen after the end of the crusades. Sea routes to China were explored at this time, eventually holding a more important place than the land route itself as they became less profitable.

The Mongols took advantage of the conflicts between the Christians and Muslims and were able to split the Muslim empire and take control over central Asia up to the Mediterranean at the 13th century. The unification of those states under the Mongol Empire allowed for interaction between cultures of different regions. Once again the Silk Road was revived as it became a path for communication between different parts of the Empire, and trading was continued. However the decline of the route soon came as the Mongol Empire disintegrated, the Islamic Empire gained its power, the Ming dynasty took control over China, and most importantly the silk route by sea developed even further.

The Silk Road linked nations from China to Spain, Russia to Africa together, and the strategic location of Mesopotamia at the heart of this trade route enabled it to become a center of learning, prosperity, and well-being. For centuries, people of different faiths, nationalities, ethnicities and values met to learn, share, and explore new ideas in Mesopotamia.

This historic context of the City of Silk is so immense that it will surely shift the political and economic aspirations in the Middle East. The city is planned to accommodate 700,000 people (which is almost equal to the population of the whole Kingdom of Bahrain) and should create nearly 430,000 new jobs. It will take up approximately 250 sq km, roughly the same size as Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, and cost around $132 billion.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain have been enjoying their architectural boom for sometime. Perhaps because of the damage on Kuwait in the Gulf War and the political instability in Iraq, it could not enjoy that boom as it had to rebuild its infrastructure. But now Kuwait is ready to shift the investors' focus from the south end of the Arabian Gulf to the northern end as Iraq begins to attract attention.

The city will include a new bridge across Kuwait Bay called Jabir Al Kabir Bridge linking the city with the country's capital. A new Sea Port that will become a grand new port for Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. A new Airport that will become part of the global network of international cargo, passenger, services and information being shipped around the world. It will also include business, culture, and leisure developments surrounding a new National Park and Wildlife Reserve.

The cosmopolitan city will contain four city centers. Finance City will be the center of business, international trade, finance, and commerce. Leisure City will be the center for resort hotels and holiday retreats. Culture City is an attempt at restoring the region's reputation as a center for scholarly research, archaeological pursuits, and creative activities with the construction of art and historical museums for the visual and performing arts. Last but not least Ecological City will be located at the center of the City of Silk and will include a grand Wildlife Sanctuary and Nature Reserve. All of the four centers will be woven together with an intricate system of parks, gardens, lakes and ponds to create one integrated community.

Furthermore, the project will echo the historic Silk Road by building a rail network that will connect Kuwait to Damascus, Baghdad, Iran China, and surprisingly ISRAEL, as the country aims at increasing links between the two countries. If this project does see the light, it might very well mark a new beginning for a Golden Age for the Silk Road. The Arabian Gulf could very well accommodate the biggest centers of the world, Dubai at one end, and Kuwait at the other.

More info can be found here and here and here

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Olympic Fever

A Chinese family forming the Olympic rings at home.

The Beijing Olympiad is approaching its end after a spectacular and thrilling event. This Summer Olympics revealed the great capability of the People's Republic of China in leading the world in both the human race and the technical race too. This is demonstrated by the technology used in the grand opening ceremony, the construction of amazing venues, and the Chinese dominance in winning gold medals.

On another note this Olympics stands out perhaps as the media and public attentions were focused on the swimming events, in which numerous world records were broken. Perhaps most importantly is Michael Phelps new record for the most Olympic gold medals won at a single Olympiad by winning 8 races as well as setting a new record of 14 gold medals, the most Olympic gold medals won by an athlete. On another personal note it was great to see the flag of my country shine and our national anthem heard as Rasheed Ramzy gave the Kingdom of Bahrain its first Olympic gold medal ever by winning the 1500m running race.

That aside, I have to say that the highlight of the tournament for me as an architect was seeing history being written in two beautiful venues that can only inspire athletes to give their heart and soul to be crowned on such wonderful grounds. First of which is the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron (perhaps the only architectural firm in the world today with no website). The second venue is the Beijing National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube. Designed by Australian firm PTW Architects, the smooth bubbly cube sits perfectly in front of the Bird's Nest.

The Water Cube and the Bird's Nest during the opening ceremony.

However, despite the magnificence of the opening ceremony, I felt that the design theme for lighting the torch was not the most dramatic one I've seen. The ceremony took into consideration the importance of the human factor in most parts of the ceremony but neglected the most important moment that is lighting the flame. Although seeing a man run in the air around the venue and spend energy in order to light the cauldron is a testament to the importance of the accomplishments of human beings, it somewhat felt like a shallow move since the work is done mechanically by suspended wires and technical controls which takes away the thrill of the margin of error that accompany any human physical activity. Perhaps to clarify my point, it lacked the drama that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics had the moment the torch was lit. Antonio Rebollo, a Spanish archer comes with a bow and a single arrow, lights the arrow with the Olympic flame, stands firmly and confidently focused on one thing, and without any hesitance, shoots the arrow over the cauldron which lights up in flame, and during the whole time everyone was asking the same questions... Is he going to get it?? What happens if he misses?

Another dramatic moment comes to my mind is when Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani lit up the flame in the opening ceremony of the Doha Asian Games. The sheikh, or knight, is seen on top of an Arabian horse, an animal idealized in the Arabic culture, walking towards a steep and slippery runway. The knight approaches with full confidence and leaps toward the runway racing so high up the ramp to light the flame. Somewhere along the way the horse starts panicking, turning his head away, scared of the height and wanting to go back. Yet the knight reassures the horse that they are in this together until the end, and the horse hesitantly abide his knight. And then in an extremely theatrical scene, the horse slips, but the knight remains confident, and pushes the horse through the last 3 or 4 meters of the ramp reaching the top safely after a journey that showed all spectators what a close relationship that a man and an animal could have.

Here are some wonderful pictures of the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympiad.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Graphics of Calligraphy (4/4)

Integrating calligraphy with graphic design

Smoking awareness poster by Tahamtan Aminian, an Iranian graphic designer.

Although calligraphy may be a form of graphic design, the relationship between the two disciplines is being pushed to test new possibilities. This relationship is not merely limited to the creative execution of paragraphs, quotes and/or words as to impress an audience... calligraphy here is used as a design method which drives the artist in visualizing a concept as well as a design element that is fundamental in communicating an idea. Here you find Islamic calligraphy being used as an integral part for marketable representation in commercial and cultural industries.

This new integration of Islamic calligraphy into the graphic design of posters, book covers, brochures, logos and advertisements marks yet a new development phase of calligraphy in the Islamic world. As the art of Islamic calligraphy began with the Qur'an and literary works, moved on to figural representation, and arrive at the modern artistic movements, it is now beginning a new journey in the commercial world; a new trend that may have developed from Iran.

[The] brilliant calligraphic background in Iranian arts enabled the New Generation of Iranian graphic designers to present a new and different typographical attitude to the world. Typography is a website showcasing Iranian graphic designers dedicated to introducing this new style of calligraphy to the western world. Artists around the Arab world are beginning to experiment with this emerging style too, which can be seen in collaboration efforts between Iranian and Arab artists in websites like khatt.

Perhaps the best examples I've seen so far in this field are the posters of Mehdi Saeedi, an award winning designer. Here are few examples:

Posters for Islamic Design Exhibitions

Posters for Musical Festivals.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Graphics of Calligraphy (3/4)

Calligraphy and the influences of modern movements

Modern painting of Persian calligraphy.

In a post about Arabic calligraphy, the writer argues that Arabic calligraphy is largely ignored outside the Middle East and it did not enter the mainstream culture. A comment to that post raises an interesting point, that is Arabic calligraphy is seen quite often on the signs and buildings we see everyday in the newscasts about deaths in Iraq, and unfortunately, we see it on the websites of fundamentalist terrorist groups... right next to the videos of beheadings. In the popular subconscious, these sorts of images have been linked to the emotions we feel over what's going on in the Middle East lately, and... it's very unfortunate that this has happened.

In my opinion the reason that Arabic calligraphy as an art did not enter the mainstream culture extends beyond the religious and political association of Arabic calligraphy. It is because the development of Arabic calligraphic art as we know it today came as a result of a search for cultural identity.

As stated in a previous post, the desire of Islamic artists to create pictures was a current that proved to be too strong to dam. So it was inevitable that Arab artists would soon leap into the world of figural representation as the taboos began to loosen up. Since by this time churches have already been converted to mosques and vise versa, the cultural clash between the Islamic and European worlds have opened the gate for Arab artists to adopt European artistic movements and theories and apply them to local scenes found in the Arabian culture. Arabic artists have adopted the classical styles and were satisfied with going as far as the techniques of Impressionism lead them. However, Arab artists did not experiment with the more abstract modern movements such as Cubism or Surrealism until the 1950s. And when they did so, questions of Identity and cultural preservation started arising... especially at a time when Arab countries were fighting for independency from European colonization.

So as a response to the western invasion of the Arabic culture and social life, the 1950s witnessed the re-emergency of calligraphy as a way for establishing an artistic style that is clearly recognized as a local art. For this reason, it could be said Islamic calligraphy have been greatly influenced by the modern movements of abstract art, or the mainstream culture, instead of the other way around. This, in my opinion, caused Islamic calligraphy to be contained within the Islamic world because it still remains as an approach for the search of a threatened cultural identity.

That being said, Islamic calligraphy is starting to penetrate the mainstream culture lately. It is not until the 70s that the first exhibition for this new emerging style has been set up in Baghdad. Before that, there were individual efforts in experimenting with the mixture of calligraphy and modern art that does not necessarily feature Qur'anic verses, but poetry or literary works with themes like love and peace. As it gained popularity, exhibitions of this new style were arranged beyond the borders of the Islamic world, in Europe and the States. And now we can see Arabic calligraphy in the form of tattoos on people like the Portuguese football player Simao and the Swedish football star Ibrahimovic. Or as shirt designs like the one American comedian Robin Williams is wearing, which says "I love New York" in Arabic.

More info can be found here... and now here are some contemporary Arabic calligraphy works:

Painting by Hassan Massoudy of a quote by Al Hallaj which says: "My heart has eyes that see only for you, and it is completely in your hands." Note that the word "heart" is highlighted.

Another painting by Hassan Massoudy of a phrase by Khalil Gibran which says: "Will my heart become a tree laden heavily with fruit that I can pick and give to others?" The word "fruit" is highlighted.

Love and Hate by A1one a Persian artist/anarchist.

Love/Eshgh also by A1one, whose work represent the intergration of calligraphy and graffiti

A1one's solo show in Tehran, 2008.

Friday, 1 August 2008

The Graphics of Calligraphy (2/4)

The development of Figural Calligraphy

In a very interesting essay by Robert Hillenbrand studying the works of Jila Peacock, the author gives an introduction about the development of Arabic calligraphy that I would like to summarize here:

It could be argued that calligraphy has been less subject to... the dominance of ideas from outside the Islamic world than have all its sister arts, from architecture to painting, from pottery to carpets. And the main reason is the high regard that calligraphy is held throughout the Islamic world and its association with the Qur'an. The flexibility and curvilinearity of the Arabic script can employ symmetry, echo, antithesis and other devices which can develop in any direction. This is aided by the special features of the Arabic script which include the interplay between angular and curved letters, capacity to handle compression and prolongation equally, the absence of capital letters producing visual unity, ease of adaptation to large and small scales, accommodation of shifts from the baseline to upper register, as well as apparent characteristics of dynamism, energy and rhythm.

The delight of constantly expanding the boundaries of expression explains why so many contrived scripts were invented in the course of centuries... this began with purely abstract forms and patterns created by careful placing of individual letters or blocks of text. These attempts soon lead to more radical experiments with calligraphy... which involved figural designs or zoomorphic elements. The earliest attempts to do this is often debated but it is more likely to have been originated somewhere near the eastern Iranian world in the twelfth century. This tendency started with incising faces onto the thickened upper shafts of the tallest letters... these faces could be an eyebrow, an eye and a mouth with a neck below... now the shafts of the taller letters have morphed into legless bodies, they interact with unmistakable humor... patting each other on the shoulder... shaking hands... Thus the upper storey of the inscription is shot through with narrative while its ground floor spells out a message of good wishes and happy life.

The next step in the practice of bringing living creatures into calligraphy is related to a loosening of earlier restraints and seems to have originated in the Iranian world. This new mode was not a matter of script metamorphosing into living forms which are also readable letters, but of using script to delineate such forms. This practice established itself only relatively late in Islamic art, when the taboos outlawing religious iconography had lost some of their power... It developed in... Ottoman Turkey, India and Qajar Iran... [and] was known as early as 1458.

An example scanned from the book "The splendor of Islamic Calligraphy" showing an early fusion of calligraphy and floral decoration that soon lead to more radical experimentation.

A traditional example of zoomorphic calligraphy by Hassan Musa.

The first verse of Surah Al-Feel (The elephant, 105) which translates to: Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?

A hoopoe by Jila Peacock formed by one of Hafez poems, a Persian poet whose statue in Iranian literature is equivalent to Shakespeare in English literature.

Hillenbrand ends his introduction to the context of calligraphy with these comments that I thought were spot-on:

In many of these calligraphic images, one senses that writing is being pushed to its furthest limits so as to make it express unnaturally what it cannot do naturally... These arcane images offer striking evidence as to the slightly perverse outlets into which Islamic artists channeled their frustrated desires to create religious pictures. It was a current which proved too strong for Islamic orthodoxy to dam.

Source for essay link and more info can be found here