Sunday, October 11, 2009

AE18: Urban Rust

Walking around the Lower East Side last week, this Orchard Street residential development designed by Ogawa/Depardon Architects struck my fancy, mainly for its bold use of Cor-ten steel on the party wall facades.

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[Orchard Street project by Ogawa/Depardon | photo by archidose]

Thinking of the use of Cor-ten steel -- weathered steel alloy with a protective layer of rust -- in architecture, what comes to mind more often than not are single-family houses and other buildings in desert and other rural locations. (This excellent post by BUILD attests to these qualities.) What does not come to mind are urban structures like the Orchard Street project or Matthew Baird's Town House (part of the BUILD post), though there are examples to be found.

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[Orchard Street project by Ogawa/Depardon | photo by archidose | inset rendering by architects]

Ogawa/Depardon's design is an excellent place to start some sort of investigation on "urban rust." Here its use in the nearly completed building is relegated to the primarily solid sides that follow the property lines, shared with the neighbors to the north and south. It's interesting to note how the initial design (inset) not only featured openings projecting over the adjacent building (via air rights, I'm guessing) but also covered more faces with the Cor-ten steel. An almost homogenous wrapper became two parallel planes that strongly demarcate the zoning profile. Nevertheless this material is a big improvement over similarly scaled "pencil" buildings in the area that use less inspiring materials.

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[Kavel 37 by Heren 5 architecten, 2000 | screenshot from architect's web page]

Heren 5's Kavel 37 (Plot 37, above) in Borneo, Amsterdam is an infill building that composes the whole front face in Cor-ten steel. But where the Orchard Street project is less than subtle, the perforated sheets here give a lightness to a material that typically feels heavy, especially when one thinks of Richard Serra's thick-walled sculptures. These sheets allow light to filter inside, and the operable facade allows the material do disappear in some areas.

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[CaixaForum by Herzog & de Meuron, 2008 | photo by m_granados]

Herzog & de Meuron's design for CaixaForum in Madrid, Spain can be seen as a melding of the above two projects. The use of Cor-ten steel is both monumental and perforated, heavy and light, wrapping multiple sides to become a counter-intuitive gesture: a steel box (apparently solid the way it is carved) sitting on an existing building that appears to float above the ground. Its contrast with the Patric Blanc wall is also worth noting, given that most photos present this plaza view as the image of the building. Where the first two pieces of architecture are buildings, this design comes across as monumental sculpture, though I'd be surprised if Serra appreciated it.

To find urban buildings clad in Cor-ten steel, not surprisingly one of the best sources is flickr, particularly COR-TEN Steel pool. Many artworks populate the now 1,700 photos, and a few buildings are featured repeatedly, such as CaixaForum and Steven Holl's 2006 School of Art & Art History at the University of Iowa. Many new-found gems are to be found, like CUBO's extension of Odense Universitet beautifully shot by cphark. The buildings that follow were discovered via the COR-TEN Steel pool.

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[Gazzano House by Amin Taha Architects | image source]

Amin Taha -- who apparently really likes Cor-ten, according to recent news -- designed the award-winning Gazzano House for a Conservation Area with warehouses and offices in London's Farringdon area. The six-story building takes advantage of its corner location, wrapping these two faces in a Cor-ten rainscreen facade that is punctuated by random vertical and horizontal openings.

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[Parkway Gate by Ian Simpson Architects, 2008 | image source]

Also in England, in Manchester, is Parkway Gate by Ian Simpson Architects. Three towers for student housing exhibit similar forms and facade patterns, but each uses different materials in the solid areas to create a unique identity for each and for variety on the skyline. Not surprisingly the Cor-ten-clad tower exudes a particularly strong presence, especially when it is reflected in the glass of the other towers.

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[Performers House Folk High School by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, 2007 | photo by martin8th | image source]

Finally, the Performers House Folk High School in Silkeborg, Denmark by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects benefits from an urban site open on all sides. Located in the town's historic and revitalized Paper Mill industrial area, allusions to warehouses, single-room schoolhouses and other typological buildings abound in the gable form rendered in perforated Cor-ten panels. At night, light ekes out through the holes in panels covering windows as well as, of course, any open windows.

Examining the buildings above, a few qualities about the use of Cor-ten steel in urban settings come to the fore: the material does not influence the form of the architecture; treatment of the material is limited to the orthogonal, sometimes cut for access of light and air; monolithic appearances prevail; the material is popular with the trend of random opening compositions; and the consistent finish is what binds these otherwise dissimilar buildings. Ultimately, I think the use of Cor-ten -- popular for a little while in corporate architecture in the late 1960s -- is seeing a resurgence because of Richard Serra sculptures (and maybe other artists producing works in Cor-ten, none I know about) and the desire of architects to align themselves with art, if unspoken or unconscious. I'm drawn to these buildings because they allude to an insusceptibility to the urban condition, to the dirt, wear and violence of the city that is more extreme than weather, to which the material is already protected from.