The Boldness and Ugly-Beauty of Communist Architecture.

For all the ills of their totalitarian brand of communism, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites engaged in some remarkable experimentation in architecture, producing some of the most fascinating and controversial buildings around. Depending on your perspective, they’re either something out of a science-fiction story, or an Orwellian, dystopian nightmare (perhaps a bit of both?). You decide.

In case it’s unclear, that’s the former headquarters of the Soviet Georgian Ministry of Highways. Charming.

While you’re at it, check out a selection of similarly strange buildings done in the aptly named “Brutalist” style. I find their ugliness to be rather charming for some reason, although I can’t imagine what a whole city built in such a manner would look like. Apparently, the only thing saving this bizarre displays of creative boldness (or madness, depending on your perspective) are practical concerns about money and urban planning.

Trellick Tower, London. At least it’s functional.


Singapore’s Amazing Super Trees

From CNN

Singapore’s latest development will finally blossom later this month, with an imposing canopy of artificial trees up to 50 meters high towering over a vast urban oasis.

The colossal solar-powered supertrees are found in the Bay South garden, which opens to the public on June 29. It is part of a 250-acre landscaping project — Gardens by the Bay — that is an initiative from Singapore’s National Parks Board that will see the cultivation of flora and fauna from foreign lands.

The man-made mechanical forest consists of 18 supertrees that act as vertical gardens, generating solar power, acting as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collecting rainwater. To generate electricity, 11 of the supertrees are fitted with solar photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into energy, which provides lighting and aids water technology within the conservatories below.

Varying in height between 25 and 50 meters, each supertree features tropical flowers and various ferns climbing across its steel framework. The large canopies also operate as temperature moderators, absorbing and dispersing heat, as well as providing shelter from the hot temperatures of Singapore’s climate to visitors walking beneath.

This is a remarkable achievement, and not surprising coming from Singapore: this quintessential nanny state is known for an authoritarian but highly efficient approach to infrastructure development, environmentalism, and social policy. Of course, that doesn’t mean other countries such as the US couldn’t pull it off, if we as a society were willing to make the investment.

Happy 126th Birthday to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The following comes form Huffpost:

Happy birthday to one of the principal shapers of our modern world, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Along with other post-World War I architects, such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), van der Rohe’s aesthetic came to define what “modern” looked like in the 20th century. The bare framework and open floor plan that van der Rohe frequently employed came to be known as “skin and bones” architecture, never employing even the slightest detail if it wasn’t necessary to the overall feel of the space. To see an example of his work, go to Google today and click on the iconic Crown Hall building.

Mies was not just an architect of physical spaces, but his own reputation as well. Despite not having a formal college-level education, the young man began getting his own commissions after successfully working under Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912. He even redesigned his name, adding in the “van der” and “Rohe” (his mother’s surname) prior to becoming the architect that we know and love today.

Even though van der Rohe created such iconic designs as the Seagram building in New York and the Farnsworth House in Illinois, it is was his ideas that were his greatest contribution to society. He famously told the New York Herald Tribune in 1959, “Less is more” and “God is in the details.” With those simple words, van der Rohe’s ethos would permeate not just architecture and modern living, but fashion, cinema and the culinary world, igniting a newfound love of functionality throughout the world.

Mies van der Rohe was truly an architect of the future, not just of structures, and his words still resonate today. His was arguably a style that will truly never go out of style.

Happy Birthday, Mies van der Rohe!

Below is a video related to the Google doodle that honored him:

And here are are a few examples of Van Der Rohe’s functional and minimalist designs:

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Toronto-Dominion Complex

The Farnsworth House, Illinois

You can find a list of his works here. I know modernism, especially of the Bauhaus school, isn’t popular with everyone (though what style is), but I personally don’t mind it.

How Architecture Can Impact Society

I don’t think most people realize the significance of city planning and construction on social and economic development. Obviously, good infrastructure promotes prosperity by linking people to one another, providing access to resources, facilitating industry and commerce, and more. But even the way we design neighborhoods and buildings, and how we utilize the space they’re built, can have larger consequences down the world.

The video below features a TEDx Talk by architect Mark Hammond, who discusses some of the subtle but profound ways that city design can help or hurt a given community. His discussion couldn’t be more topical, given that more people in the world are living in cities than ever before (a threshold that was only recently passed). How we accommodate this influx of people will be vital to the fate of billions. Like it or not, cities will be undisputed center of human activity and civilization, so it’s best that we learn how to best develop and run them.

As always, feedback is welcome.

Temple of All Religions

Russia doesn’t usually come to mind when you think of cosmopolitan or interfaith initiatives. But the country is in fact one of the most diverse in the world, with around 160 ethnic minorities and several of the world’s major religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In fact, the Russian Federation has the second largest number of immigrants in the world, after the United States (albeit most of them being from the former Soviet Union).

Sadly, despite this surprisingly multicultural make-up, there’s a nascent and widespread nationalist movement in Russia, which even includes Neo-Nazi elements. Racist attacks, including murders, are relatively common, including in cosmopolitan Moscow. The federal authorities have done little to appreciably reduce the incidence of this violent hate crimes.

Thankfully, many Russians are doing their part to push back against this unsettling development, and few have done so more uniquely than artist and philanthropist Ildar Khanov. His is by far the most creative project of it’s kind, as it is indeed the only one of it’s kind: an architectural wonder known as the Temple of  All Religions, also called the Temple of the Universe. It’s a marvel of both artistic and humanitarian achievement, and though it’s still under construction, it looks spectacular:

This beautiful complex combines the religious motifs of Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, with plans to add a total of 16 distinct cupolas to represent the world’s major faiths. Appropriately, it’s being constructed in Kazan, the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, a region in Russia known for it’s peaceful and centuries-long intermingling of many cultures and faiths (indeed, it bills itself as the 1,000 year-old crossroad between Asia and Europe).

Despite it’s appearances, the structure may not actually serve any religious functions (I’ve read mixed things), but is instead intended to double as both a cultural center and a residence of Khanov and his assistance. The Tatar Russian humanitarian is known for his efforts to combat drug addiction, alcohol, and a number of diseases, making the promotion of tolerance and understanding just the latest in a long line of humanist causes. Many of those he’s helped treat are contributing funds and labor to the Temple’s construction, though I’m not sure when it’s going to be finished (it’s been under construction since 1992).

Unfortunately, most of the information I could find online is in Russian, with the sole exception of an article in Columbia University’s School of Journalism:

For the past eight years, Khanov has been building the Church of All Faiths, a temple he hopes will house 16 different religions, an astronomical society, a puppet theater and a school of classical philosophy. Most of the worship halls are still under construction. Khanov, who financed the entire project himself, relies on donations of brick and glass from the people he heals, while patients he treats for drug addictions help with the construction. …

Khanov’s plan to include a Catholic cathedral equipped with a separate bedroom for the Pope, whom he says has already agreed to visit the temple, left some students skeptical.

“He really had me going until he started talking about a separate room for the Pope,” said student Dan Evans.

Others found Khanov’s regimen of two hours of sleep, three hours of meditation and one meal a day strange. His insistence that he sees UFOs and communicates with Jesus Christ was met with skepticism by still more members of the group. But some were impressed by Khanov’s dogged pursuit of his vision.

Kazan in general is a beautiful city, a gem at the heart of the massive Russian state:

It certainly defies the popular Western perception of dour and grimy Soviet-era infrastructure. Think of how many other wondrous places – just in Russia – that are similarly unknown.

Here are more images of the Temple: