Architecture

Buzludzha Monument

Jason Kottke linked to this incredible photoset by Timothy Allen of the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria. It was opened in 1981 to celebrate the beginnings of organised socialism in the country 90 years earlier, and it is everything you’d expect from a thumping great monument to communism. From some angles it looks like a World War Ⅱ defence post, from above it resembles part of an Olympic venue, complete with oversized torch for the ceremonial flame, and to many people it’s as if a flying saucer landed on the hillside. A concrete flying saucer. To anyone who’s ever seen a Bond movie, well, that’s clearly a SPECTRE hangout, right there. Taking a closer look, the outside is decorated with a glorious relief of socialist slogans set in gigantic concrete Cyrillic lettering, a lot of which seems to be missing now.


Pictures from the Timothy Allen article, © him.

Inside there were mosaics celebrating the usual themes and noteworthy characters of international socialism, and in the ceiling above the debating chamber, a geometric hammer and sickle, surrounded with the call for the proletariat of the world to unite. Again, a lot of the interior has been stripped out by trophy hunters, vandals, or simply ruined by the weather. Needless to say, the monument isn’t being maintained by the Bulgarian government, and in 2011 they ‘gifted’ the entire structure to the Bulgarian Socialist Party, who hope to restore it someday.

In researching this article, I found a couple of other articles and photo collections on the monument, one by Arch Daily, and the other here on Kuriositas.

The Anywhere City

I love architecture. I love buildings — the art, the engineering, the design, the culture and history of them, and how they form en masse actually places that people recognise and form emotional attachments to; the design of cities, their growth, evolution and (perhaps sadly) eventual decline are all utterly fascinating to me. So I sometimes write about architectural stuff here, as it has a kinship in my mind with the design of type and lettering. I should warn you, this post is a bit of a rant, and because of the subject matter is a tad more political than normal. So, with that out of the way, we can proceed.

I follow a fair few architecture-related sites, one of which (and the most regularly and rewardingly updated) is Arch Daily. It’s basically a pretty damn fine site if you’re into architecture, featuring thousands of projects, new and old, innovative and traditional, and so on. One important thing I’ve noticed is that most of the larger projects being planned and built have a lot in common with each other, with innovation and traditional technique alike apparently reserved for the smaller projects. I’d actually go further and say these large projects are not merely similar but all subscribe to the same blank, unrelenting anonymity — an utterly uninspiring (if glittering and crystalline) mediocrity. Look at the renders below (from this article on New Chengdu City Center on Arch Daily), they could be anywhere in the world:


LA? Seattle? Tokyo? Osaka? Johannesburg? Frankfurt? Moscow? Almaty? Seoul? Beijing? Taipei? Mexico City? Sydney? Bangalore? Buenos Aires? Santiago?

We’re not talking about adherence to some new International Style here — these buildings subscribe to no ethos, no design principle, no philosophy. They are the safe, neutral buildings guaranteed to be approved by conservative planning departments wanting the skyline of New York, Chicago or Hong Kong at any cost, ignoring the culture, history and sense of place of the city they’re supposedly ‘improving’, and with little to no apparent understanding of the conditions that gave those cities their skylines. Oh sure, they’ll package up some significant buildings, a monument here, a couple of streets there, and they’ll be prettied up and photographed for the ‘culture’ section of tourist brochures, and meanwhile vast swathes of the city will disappear under motorways (labelled ‘boulevards’), office blocks (sorry, ‘towers’) and shopping malls (or ‘pedestrian-friendly traditional streets’) and dreary dormitory estates (‘upscale residential developments’). Then they stick some thin screed of greenwashing over the top and invoke the holy acronym of LEED and declare themselves satisfied.

At this point I probably sound like some arch-traditionalist, railing against the depredations of the modern world and all it brings, but that’s not my intention, or my point. My problem with these developments is that they’re being sold to rapidly-expanding cities around the world and aren’t being designed with the long-term life of those cities in mind. Cities like Chengdu have ancient histories and in some cases still have some of their original structure and urban fabric intact — architecture firms, planners, and most importantly, citizens need to recognise what’s valuable about the best and even the worst areas of their cities and think long and hard before approving any large-scale improvements. If this sounds like western cultural imperialism, the jumped-up western opinionist telling people desperate for an improvement to their lives that they should keep their barrios, their slums, their favelas and their cramped hutongs then perhaps it is. But then, I’m not the only one to say it and this isn’t to say those slum areas should stay slums, that they can’t improve or change on smaller, community-level scales. There doesn’t have to be an overarching project to demolish and replace them with some glittering arcology, instead, a longer-term effort to support the communities within them and prevent their control by gangs, just like what’s happening in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, including the infamous City of God itself:

For decades the favelas have been a deadly battleground, where thousands died in the turf wars of rival gangsters and drug lords. But two years ago - in anticipation of the football World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the government launched a new initiative. Since then the Police Pacifying Units (UPP), have moved into 12 favelas, freeing 150,000 people from the control of the gangs and bringing a new calm to embattled neighbourhoods.

You can watch the full report, ‘Peace in the favelas’ on Al Jazeera’s site.

While the Chengdu development appears to be built at the edge of the metropolitan area, giving perhaps the possibility of the city’s core remaining intact, there are a whole new set of problems as the city expands into wild areas and farmland. Earlier this year Václav Havel explained some of the problems this kind of expansion can cause, citing his experience of the changes to Prague in recent years:

What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.Václav Havel at Forum 2000, October 2010

You can see the effect of this round many British cities; instead of a boundary, the place tails off with business parks, warehouses, big-box stores, and strange areas of empty land, prevented from becoming wild, not used for agriculture, not built on, just waiting. There is nothing about these hinterlands that gives you any clue to where you are, not just which city, but which region and (road signs aside) even which country. Governments bang on about growth, endless growth, but very few people seem to ask what kind of growth it is we want. The kind of growth that turns our cities into this kind of anonymous emulsion of steel, glass and concrete doesn’t seem to be the growth anyone would choose, but the consequences of any individual action that bring it about are so far removed that effectively our choices are abstracted to boardrooms and cabinet offices, where we have little say. When faced with the Anywhere City, should you just shrug and accept it?

While Stocks Last

Me Design Magazine highlighted this fascinating project, While Stocks Last by designer Leandro Lattes; a massive collection of photos of Madrid, across two books, documenting the incidental details of the city; shop signs, intercom buzzers, bars, cafés and the like. I’m normally pretty wary of ‘found type’ collections as they tend to lack any kind of context, analysis or insight — or indeed any sense that they are curated, but what makes this different is the restriction to the one city, and the intent to document things that are likely to disappear without record. There’s very much the power of the collection going on with projects like this; individually the objects and scenes may have some interest, but all together like this they draw you in — the similarities and differences become compelling and before you know it you’ve lost an hour or two. Go and take a look.

The Concrete Quarterly

It’s been around for millennia, but concrete is a building material that pretty much defines the architecture of the modern era. The reconstruction efforts after the second world war really got the world interested in concrete in a big way — it allowed for rapid, economical construction of vast numbers of apartments, factories, malls, roads and more, and made tall buildings commonplace.

Of course, while not exactly a new building material, the uses we put it to often were. We know all too well the grey, crumbling monoliths, the remains of ill-conceived and badly built projects blighting our cities and towns, but too rarely do people celebrate the truly wonderful concrete buildings we have — from cathedrals to offices, shops and homes to soaring bridges, roads and basic utilitarian buildings, it’s an incredibly flexible and often beautiful building material. This is, I guess, what the Concrete Quarterly was designed to highlight. I’ve only read some of the earlier editions, but right from the first issue it talks of the diversity of uses of concrete; bridges, home developments and motorways all built with the stuff. Perhaps this variety is what’s influenced the design of the magazine over the years. Not until the 60s does it gain any kind of design consistency — in the 50s barely three or four editions are alike. Not that that’s really a bad thing, as some of the early covers are just gorgeous:


Incredibly lovely

I was browsing through wondering if I could spot any familiar projects, and lo, in the Winter 1962 issue there’s a cover article on Coventry Cathedral, one of my favourite buildings, which I’ve written about before here.


I think this was the first year with all four issues alike. That’s Coventry Cathedral on Issue 55.

Even within the same issue the headline styles vary considerably, and sometimes even the body type too. It makes for a slightly odd effect, but on the whole I think it works — it all ends up being rather charming. This one is wonderful on so many levels. Belgian Roads! What a subject!

It’s worth having a look through the archives as there are many beautiful photos in there. I was delighted to see some photos of Liverpool Cathedral, which I visited many years ago and loved right away — I gather it’s not really all that popular locally but I think it’s great. Perhaps I just like anything with lots of stained glass in it.


The Stilfontein Mine (1952), Liverpool Cathedral (1967) and Coventry Cathedral (1962)

Parking by Numbers

One of the sites I visit regularly (or at least, read the RSS feed of) is Arch Daily. I’ve always had a strong interest in architecture and I enjoy looking through the pictures of new building designs — even if they do often look unrealistically neat and perfect. It’s nice, then, to find actual photos of an actual built structure, and this one caught my eye for the rather predictable reason that it’s got giant floor numbers painted in bright pink Helvetica Neue on it. As so often happens I was reminded of something, this time another set of car park numbers that also caught my eye, the Futura-esque ones on the Brighton Marina car park just down the road from me. I also think I have a bit of a thing for the number 5.


Photo by David Schreyer, from this article on Arch Daily.


Picture taken near here by me. Still there on my old photoblog.

The New York Times in Turkish

This week sees the launch of a new Turkish-language edition of the New York Times’ International Weekly, distributed for free with the Sunday edition of Turkey’s Sabah newspaper. To advertise the launch, the newspapers commissioned this incredible animation - a typographic tour starting from Liberty Island, across various bits of Manhattan, very nearly making it over to Brooklyn before arriving on the Bosphorus with a gorgeous view of Istanbul rendered in type.

I’ve seen a fair few animations of the places-rendered-as-words variety, and more than plenty of the ‘kinetic typography’ kind, but this one is very nicely done — it hangs together beautifully, and the level of subtle detail rewards re-watching. The waves, rippling banners and flags are a lovely touch, just noticeable enough to add to the sense of place without distracting you from the overall theme.


I’d love a desktop-resolution still of this scene. This is taken from the downloadable movie.

There’s one especially lovely bit when the camera turns to show you the Brooklyn Bridge being created from type — definitely go and watch this one. It’s quite lovely, and thanks to @typographerorg (of Typographer.org, naturally) for sending me it.


Not the scene I mention, I won’t spoil that for you.

Third and Seventh

This has nothing to do with type (well, not much) but I found it so remarkable I want to post about it anyway. Alex Roman has created a series of CG images and short films, based on real places, with a remarkable level of realism and beauty. At first I thought they’d been filmed and photographed with some high quality HD SLR, and wondered at the air of hyper-realism some of them have, especially the second one in this set. The sound design and visuals are great, but the use of type in the videos is rather odd and to my eye adds a small, if jarring, discordant note to the whole project: I’ve come across people mixing upper- and lower-case and using extreme kerning before (not so much kerning as tangling in this case) and it’s rarely successful. Still, to harp on about that would seem churlish as the rest of the project is so good. Some stills below to whet your appetite, and the project website is here.



Shenzhen International Energy Mansion

At first glance, The Shenzhen International Energy Mansion looks worth posting about only for the name alone, it sounds like some Metropolis-style sci-fi update of a concierge-equipped apartment block of the early 20th century. It looks, however, like any other office tower found anywhere in the world. Its rather standard shape is in fact deliberate and it does have some interesting features, explained in a way by these remarkable infographics on this Arch Daily article. I say in a way because they’re clearly made to be as much decorative as informational - with that huge pixellated type and simple iconography they bring to mind 8-bit game interfaces and thanks to the West/East labelling, recent revivals of the style like that in DEFCON. Anyway, have a closer look, and you can see how the building is designed to at least try and reduce energy use.

Instant Hutong

Only yesterday I posted about cities, maps and dense architecture, and I find this on NOTCOT - Instant Hutong. It’s an art project to both record and to bring to people’s attention the traditional patterns of neighbourhoods, courtyards and lanes in Beijing - under threat from development (of course). When I saw the small picture on NOTCOT, I thought it was actually close-set lettering as the main streets appear to form natural ‘baselines’ in the dense pattern of buildings. Interestingly, one of the pieces in the project is a collection of name stamps, set with small chunks of the street pattern - bringing to mind the idea of the built environment as being part of people’s identity, a kind of language they use in interacting with the city and the world. To lose that language, the structures of the city, the place where you grew up, is to lose a part of your identity - not a particularly controversial or new idea, but definitely worth reminding ourselves of from time to time.


There are some more pictures here, on the Instant Hutong portfolio on Behance.

Bryan Christie Design

The Cooper Union Typography blog linked to some illustrations of New York storefronts by Bryan Christie. They’re lovely things, and remind me of this blog of London shopfronts, which I’ve written about before, sort of. Christie’s studio portfolio has a great collection of 3D illustrations and infographics, including this marvellous one of skyscrapers, which I love… You can order prints too. Tempting. Go and take a look.


New York storefronts, by Bryan Christie. Compare these photos of London shopfronts.