Design Book: Mok Wei Wei: Works by W Architects

Mok Wei Wei: Works by W Architects

Mok Wei Wei has shaped a unique identity for his Singapore boutique practice W Architects. During a career spanning over three decades, the award-winning designer and one of Asia’s leading architects has built domestic and commercial projects that offer a unique hybrid of contemporary design needs and urban sensibilities, infused with Chinese traditions and grounded within a local context. Be it designing private homes, apartment complexes, museums or community centres, Mok’s buildings are spatially daring, they are ecologically aware and, best of all, are full of fascinating creative solutions for constructing in a tropical ever-evolving dense Asian metropolis.

Mok Wei Wei: Works by W Architects charts this exceptional career. Published by Thames & Hudson, this visually-engaging and insightful book documents Mok’s designs from the 1980s to the present day to include W Architects’ most significant work – the austere rock that is Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and the redesign for the National Museum of Singapore. Mok was raised as a Chinese cosmopolitan and schooled in architecture at the height of Postmodernism, and while Singapore forms the backdrop to most of the works featured here, his influence extends far beyond the city-state to the entire region. Written especially for the book, Mok calls for architecture to remain radical and to keep responding to the needs of our ever-evolving societies – words that feel urgent in an increasingly urbanised world.

Mok Wei Wei: Works by W Architects is published by Thames & Hudson.

Images: ‘The Oliv’ is an organic, textured, off-form planters juxtaposed with the sleek aluminium screens; ‘The Party House’ is a muted concrete structure cloaked by a stainless-steel curtain © Edwards Hendricks; at ‘ERC’ gentle ramps surround the central courtyard where mature conserved trees reside; ‘The National Museum of Singapore’ has a light-filled annex with views of Fort Canning Hill © Albert Lim K.S.; ‘Lee Kong Chiang Natural History Museum’ is a landmark within the National University of Singapore campus © Fabian Ong

New books celebrate the Bauhaus centenary and its legacy

I attended an art and design foundation course much like the famous Vorkurs run by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, a year-long requirement for all new Bauhaus students before they could progress to study in a specific workshop. In a similar way to how the Bauhauslers ran the famous art school a century ago, mine was a place that taught experimentation and encouraged abstraction, tasking us to find our own unique solutions. And it happened to be the finest year of my formal education. The specialist art school that proceeded, failed entirely to capture my imagination, lacking the free spirit, the magical weirdness of that original school. So, I left my paints, clay, tools and camera, and took up writing.

‘To have the gift of imagination is more important than all technology,’ wrote Gropius, reflecting the spiritual origin of the school he founded. And as the Bauhaus celebrates 100, a series of publications aim to explore the enduring legacy of this modest art school founded in 1919 in the quiet town of Weimar. Some are assessing the impact of the Bauhaus post 1933, as Bauhauslers emigrated to England and America and beyond. Others have re-published some of the original Bauhaus journals and documents. Together they tell a compelling story of the most famous school of design – a place of collective dialogues, progressive ideology, imagination and creative madness.

The Bauhaus was formed in response to the crisis and devastation following the first world war. It represented a collective voice desperate to forge a new world order. It was and remains so much more than an art school – it represents a significant cultural movement. The Bauhauslers championed the power of imagination and freedom of expression. They believed strongly in bringing the art of craft to industry, embracing architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity. They explored utopian ideas, celebrated the avant-garde and encouraged free love and creative madness – sometimes to the extreme. And long after they were forced to shut down, pressured by the Nazis who saw the progressive ways a threat after assuming power in 1933, as émigrés in London and Paris and New York, their dissident voices continued to be heard.

The first of the series of books takes us back in time for insight into the teachings, ideas and philosophies of the Bauhaus when it was alive with discussion in Weimar, Dessau and then Berlin. Lars Müller has collaborated with Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung for ‘Bauhaus Journals 1926-1931’ with edited voices of the key figures of the modern movement in art and design. Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gerrit Rietveld – all feature in this stimulating publication.

They address developments in and around the Bauhaus, the methods and focal points of their own teaching, and current projects of students and masters. The exact replica of all individual issues is accompanied by a commentary booklet including an overview of the content, an English translation of all texts, and a scholarly essay to place the journal in its historical context.

Accompanying this are four beautifully-republished journals from the ‘Bauhausbücher’ series, all in their original design. ‘International Architecture’ was the first to start the series with the school founder Gropius offering an illustrative lesson on the theories of the modern architecture movement of the mid-1920s. In ‘Pedagogical Sketchbook’ artist Klee expresses key aspects of the Bauhaus’ guiding philosophies, writing of his desire to reunite artistic design and craft in a tone that moves between the seeming objectivity of the diagram, the rhetoric of science and mathematics, and an abstract intuition.

Third in the series by Lars Müller is ‘New Design’ by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. He begins with a philosophical foray describing art as a figurative expression of human existence, questioning the prevailing hierarchy between painting and architecture, observing the future of his movement, neoplasticism – abstract painting which used only horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours. Lastly, ‘Painting, Photography, Film’ by Moholy-Nagy argues for photography and filmmaking to be recognised as a means of artistic design on the same level as painting. With some fascinating illustrations, the Hungarian makes the case for a functional transformation within the visual arts and for the further development of photographic design options.

All this was before 1933. With the closure of the Bauhaus school, most of its prominent members left Germany in search for new homes, and new schools to teach. They took with them their ideologies, which in turn evolved and changed with their new destinations. Two books explore this post-Bauhaus journey.

‘Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain’ by Batsford narrates the brilliant story of the giants of the international modern movement – Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer – and their brief émigré life in Hampstead, London before they moved to America. The story centres around the Isokon, the building by architect Wells Coats, where they lived and where they collectively pioneered concepts of minimal and shared living. Isokon’s apartments, restaurant and bar became a creative hub for writers and artists and designers in the 1930s and 40s. Authors Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund paint a colourful portrait of the notorious dinners here, as the Bauhauslers party and discuss advancing the world alongside local creatives – Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Peter and Alison Smithson, even Agatha Christie was a guest here.

Thames & Hudson’s ‘Bauhaus Goes West’ also explores the cultural exchange between these émigrés and their new adopted homelands. The general idea is that England wasn’t receptive to the avant-garde in 1933 – possibly a concept backed by the fact that there are few early projects of significance made here. Much like what we learn in the Isokon, author Alan Powers also challenges this notion, suggesting there was a provocative dialogue between the Bauhauslers and local young leaders of opinion here, namely Nicholas Pevsner and Herbert Read. The book follows their journey onto America, where the Bauhaus titans really flourish. Gropius prospers at the Harvard architecture school, Breuer gets to design great monumental buildings, Moholy-Nagy sets up a new Bauhaus school in Chicago, as husband and wife team Anni and Josef Albers shine at the brilliant liberal Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

We will never know if the Bauhaus would have such an ongoing impact on generations of creatives had the school not been forced to close in 1933. Yet what’s clear is that the discussions initiated in this small school of art and design in Weimar in 1919 evolved and enriched through a broader, international dialogue with artists and designers and philosophers and writers from London to Paris, New York, Tel Aviv and beyond. What is also clear is that the creative community could benefit from revisiting these journals, reading some of the ideas being weaved at a time that also was in the midst of crisis. As we navigate a new world, assessing how we can design for a more efficient and fairer world, we should tap into the spirit of this progressive movement – this school of thought.

Nargess Banks

All images are strictly © Lars Müller. From the  ‘Bauhaus Journals 1926 – 1931’, edited and published Lars Müller and Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung; and the re-published journals from the ‘Bauhausbücher’ series (1926-1931)

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Radical Essex: A complex county of raw beauty and modernism

‘Essex is neither part of East Anglia, nor one of the Home Counties; it contains both radical and conservative elements, and is therefore open to all possibilities,’ writes architectural critic Ken Worpole in Radical Essex. Sitting on the edge of east London, a rural refuge for much of the cockney diaspora, it certainly gets its fair share of crude stereotyping, and mockery – think The Only Way is Essex, spray tans and excessive makeup, bling cars and tacky bars.

There is, however, another Essex, one of raw rural beauty and elements of radicalism – in parts utopianism even, and Radical Essex is set to alter our views. There are the 1960s student halls at the University of Essex in Colchester, the bungalows at Silver End at Braintree, built by Francis Crittall and fitted with his famous steel frames, London Underground stations designer Charles Holden’s cottages near Maldon built in the 1920s and 30s, and there is the brilliant white crop of International Style houses at Frinton-on-Sea.

The initiative Radical Essex began two years ago with a goal to re-examine the history of the county in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture. ‘Essex is a complex county, judged solely by more misguided stereotypes than perhaps any other,’ explains Joe Hill, director of Focal Point Gallery one of the founders of the project. She wants to ‘celebrate the extremes of this innovative and experimental county. From early modernist architectural experiments to worker colonies and pacifist communities, the county has always demonstrated its ability to be self-guided in its desires – to seek, experiment and redefine.’

A book of the same name, edited by Hill and Hayley Dixon, charts the project taking the subject further to include new writings and the photography of Catherine Hyland – featured here. This is a fascinating read that sheds light on the region’s pioneering thinking, and it certainly reveals an exciting side to Essex worth exploring.

Radical Essex is available to purchase at Focal Point Gallery or online at Cornerhouse Publications

Images in order:
Clacton Pier, Clacton-on-Sea, 2016, 
Essex University, Spender House Ulting 2016, and 
Lee Over Sands. All photographs © Catherine Hyland, Courtesy of Focal Point Gallery

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SOS Brutalism explores the radical movement

Simple block shapes made of raw concrete – this is how brutalism has come to be defined. Yet behind these concrete buildings – some poetic and sculptural – lay a movement with strong principles. New brutalism was controversial the moment it emerged on the architectural scene in the 1950s. It deliberately set out to be hard edged and radical. Progressive social ideals informed much of its thinking. Ironically brutalist building design is often blamed for the failure of social housing. Trellick Tower in London, a masterpiece of social housing, was once dubbed ‘the tower of terror’ and is amongst the vilified. Yet at its best, brutalism was a heroic movement with highly progressive origins.

A new book SOS Brutalism, a Global Survey sets out to preserve its legacy and many of its buildings in danger of demolition. Initiated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt and the Wüstenrot Foundation, it studies the movement on a broader scale and within the wider context of time, ideology and location.

Brutalism’s theoretical roots were British and the term was coined by the architectural critic Reyner Bonham. His was a twist on béton brut, the French term for raw concrete and its use in design by the father of modernist architecture Le Corbusier. His 1952 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille is largely seen as a model for the new brutalism that followed. Made of roughly-cast raw concrete, the twelve levels house large apartments accessed from interior ‘streets’, which are raised up on columns replete with a roof terrace.

That same year Alison and Peter Smithson, the husband and wife team at the forefront of brutalism, translated some of these themes into their unbuilt design for the Golden Lane Estate in London. Here Le Corbusier’s internal ‘streets’ became exterior ‘street-decks’. Bonham wrote in 1955, ‘what characterises the new brutalism…is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.’

Following World War II opinions were divided as to what should be the architectural language of the new era – a new modernism to reflect new times and help rebuild shattered communities. The responses were mixed. In the UK, cheap pre-fabricated modular buildings went up quick and fast to create much-needed schools and hospitals with the domestic scene largely dominated by two-story detached and semi ‘garden suburb’ style homes. It was within this scenario that a group of architects, dissatisfied with existing forms of modernism, made a conscious decision to create socially-responsible buildings. Brutalism was about celebrating the heroic spirit of earlier modernist architecture.

Many of the architects believed humans should be at the centre of their design themes. Whereas earlier modernists were influenced by speed and technology – by boats, the motor car – many brutalists were inspired by humans, their interactions informed the design.

As post-war austerity gave way to the confidence 60s, brutalist buildings were commissioned across the nation as concrete ‘streets in the sky’. Great examples are the Royal Festival Hall and South Bank Centre in London, as well as Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens – both of which were completed in 1972. Robin Hood Gardens was a summary of these ideals. Here two blocks contained both flats and maisonettes, and with the absence of cars, residents were to use the ‘streets-in-the-sky’ thus encouraging social mixing and community creation. Sadly, the 1970s were an altogether different time and soon poverty, crime and vandalism made Robin Hood and Trellick posters for the failure of brutalism.

SOS Brutalism is large, informative and lavishly-illustrated. The book identifies and analyses some of the key brutalist buildings, 102 to be precise, around the world and is therefore a fascinating study of the movement, how it ended up responding to regional voices and concerns. Its roots may have been British, yet raw concrete became a global language of architecture in the 60s and 70s with a shared vision for re-inventing modernism.

With today’s fragmented societies, displaced communities and the widening gap between rich and poor, some of the more utopian brutalist principles feel relevant. It could explain the movement’s new-found popularity. Perhaps elements of its progressive ideology will invite a set of socially committed idealists to find a new language of architecture that engages with our current wider social issues, one that could help rebuild broken communities.

Nargess Banks

SOS Brutalism, a Global Survey is edited by Oliver Elser, Philip Kurz and Paul Cachola Schmal and published by Park Books.

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Richard Rogers reflects on his life in architecture

‘A Place for All People’ begins in July of 1971. Narrated by Richard Rogers, it is a passionate tale of a young British architect and his friend and colleague Renzo Piano, and their sheer surprise at winning the Centre Pompidou  competition with their brilliantly left-field entry which had at its heart Rogers’ philosophy of adaptability, affordability and colour. It lit up and brought cultural life to an otherwise run-down Paris neighbourhood. It also gave Rogers his career break.

Up until then, Rogers had been designing minor residential buildings. He writes of that moment: ‘Ruthie and I dashed around London collecting partners and passports – we had so little work on that people weren’t coming into the office – and made it over to Paris just in time to join the celebration dinner.’

The competition had been to design a cultural centre in this neglected urban area. Rogers and Piano’s flexible structure had at its centre a public piazza. The young architects’ vision wasn’t for a ‘temple for high culture’, but rather a more utopian one. ‘A public space for all people, he writes, ‘a place driven by social and political responsibility.’

‘A Place for All People’ is part autobiography, part cultural manifesto. It is a collage of Rogers’ life, his work and crucially his ideology – his utopian vision to help forge better, fairer societies through architecture and design. He writes ‘architecture is inescapably social and political’. For many who may question this in connection to his more commercial buildings, most notably the Lloyds Building in the City of London, a stark symbol of capitalism, he has this to offer: ‘[it] was designed as a flexible machine for a financial marketplace, but also as a carefully considered expression of those activities, designed both for the user and the enjoyment of the passer-by.’

Born in Florence in 1933 to atheist Italian parents – his father a doctor, his mother a potter – Rogers was exposure to culture, travel, ideas from a young age. The family fled to London and then Surrey just before the war and; his childhood a mix harsh boarding school years, less harsh day school and exploring Europe, mainly Italy before embarking on a career in architecture.

Like him or not – and there are many who form the latter group – Rogers is one of the most interesting living architects of our time. For he is unpredictable both ideologically and stylistically – never being stylised or finding that fixed signature style in the way of other ‘starchitects’ like Frank Gehry.

Study his most famous civic and public buildings: the Pompidou Centre to the Lloyds Building, Madrid Barajas airport and Heathrow Terminal 5. They all make their own bold visual statements yet share very little else. Unlike most architects who profess to being collaborative designers, Rogers work, from the start, has been about collaboration. It is about the wider thinking of his practice. It is more about the building than the architect. It is about responding to its place and the use of space. Perhaps this explains this absence of a signature style.

Throughout the pages of this engaging book, Rogers writes passionately of architecture’s role in shaping society. ‘Architecture creates shelter and transforms the ordinary,’ he writes. ‘Good architecture civilises and humanises, bad architecture brutalises.’ Once a radical thinker, even if his work may no longer reflect that, Rogers remains an idealist and an architect who has left his bold vision on the architectural map.

Nargess Banks

‘A Place for All People’ is written by Richard Rogers and Richard Brown and is published by Canongate Books.

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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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