Champneys’ Champion

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This is the full version of a letter published in the Architects’ Journal (AJ) on Wednesday:

Letter to the Editor

I write as one bereaved. The privilege of pursuing scholarly activities in the John Rylands Library used to be one of the delights of being a citizen of Manchester. Lloyd Evans Pritchard’s refurbishment of the original building has revived the fabric, but the new planning arrangements introduced with the latest ill-advised extension suck the life out of Champneys’ building. New visitors are robbed of the original entry sequence and the full drama of the ascent to the splendid reading room. Throughout this spatial and constructional masterpiece, Champneys’ purpose designed furniture stands idle, mourners at the new visitor centre experience to which their home has been reduced.

While many may mistake the building’s Deansgate frontage for a church, they all recognise that it is a building of significance and quality. The new entrance suggests nothing more than yet another banal retail space, perhaps a failing department store. The formica-effect panelling which clads the archive perhaps indicates a kitchen showroom? The ground floor of the library is, indeed, a retail space, with souvenir shop and café (in a city already awash with cappuccino!), the latter animated by its cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition with the entrance to the new magistrates’ court. Perhaps this represents a further attempt at outreach – (an asbo might include a compulsory session reading medieval manuscripts?) – or is its just a by-product of the vagaries of contemporary masterplanning.

Retreating from the goldfish bowl exposure of this space, the visitor reaches the atrium for the new vertical circulation which at least has some generosity about it, although the decision to cover the rear of the original building with a white wall with deep reveals seems a lost opportunity to explore the construction. Now serving as internal windows, no direct sunlight will play across the windows in this surface, blank eyes behind the hollow mask. Unfortunately the multiple levels of the atrium also affords the opportunity to observe furthers infelicities in detail, where the soffit of the staircases went unconsidered, where wire mesh provides unconvincing closure at the base of the glazed top floor, and – outside – where an upstand to the paving that edges the original building provides a convenient place for cigarette butts.

The dire situation of this ensemble has two consolations. The first is that the construction of a neighbouring commercial development (offcuts from Libeskind’s aborted spiral extension at the V & A?) will do much to obscure the extension, although rather perversely it will perhaps also make the new entrance to the library even harder to identify. And secondly, as is evidenced by the Quay Bar’s impending demise (described on pages 12 and 13 of the same issue) one can be fairly confident that, given the short lifespan of the previous addition, the new extension to the library will soon meet the same fate. Manchester’s genius loci can be alarmingly unsentimental!

Eamonn Canniffe

(Link to John Rylands Library website)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Museum

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The long awaited rehousing of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome, by Richard Meier is a sensitive solution to the problems of a difficult site and a precious historical object. Although slightly heavily handled in parts the sense of durability is palpable. Of particular merit are the small public space with a fountain (already a popular meeting place), the evocative use of channels of water running along and over the travertine walls, and the steps and platforms which provide new context for the facades of the historic churches on the site, San Rocco and San Girolamo.

By all published accounts the interior is an exercise in clarity and light, despite the intrusive quality of the exterior’s glass louvres. However, visitors are at present denied this experience of the masterwork of Roman sculpture because of the misconceived exploitation of the building to celebrate the Roman fashion designer Valentino. A building which cost the City of Rome much in money, time and controversy but which represents an urban triumph is treated with no more care than a suburban outlet mall. Obstacles are created of the entry sequence, and the appreciation of the Ara Pacis itself is impeded by the serried ranks of mannequins. The terminating backdrop to the altar is even hung with mannequins staring blankly into mirrors, which gives the visitor some clue as to why this desecration has been tolerated.

The self-absorbed vanity of the Roman cultural elite always had a problem with an American architect building ‘within the walls’, and through Valentino’s exhibition (which would be improved by being located in a purpose designed space) they have the chance to insult all the ‘brutti stranieri’ who love Rome and contribute so much to its maintenance. The question needs to be asked – is their heritage safe in Roman hands?

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Horologium Augusti

De Carlo’s Il Magistero

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De Carlo’s Il Magistero: a case study in continuity?

University of Manchester Ph. D candidate Hacer Basarir’s project concerns the conservation of walled cities and their key elements through reuse. Her research includes three case-studies, and she has just completed the fieldwork for one of them by organising a research trip to Urbino, Italy. She interviewed the relevant authorities in Urbino and carried out on-site investigations regarding the interventions by Giancarlo de Carlo, especially his famous project Il Magistero, the University of Urbino School of Education (1968-76).

Hacer’s graduate studies are supervised by Eamonn Canniffe (e.canniffe@mmu.ac.uk).

Edgar Wood Flyer

Event at Long Street Methodist Church, Middleton, 6-9 September 2007

Andy Marshall writes: Just to let you know that I have a photo exhibition of Edgar Wood buildings commissioned by Friends of Long Street Methodist on at Long Street Methodist Church in Middleton between the 6 and 9th of September. Hope you can make it. We also have a heritage skills event with demonstrations by traditional joiners, roofers, metal workers and stone masons. Please find attached a flyer with details.

Ten Years After

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September 2007 marks ten years since the death of Aldo Rossi.

The continuous process of urban history was a theme which was developed in Rossi’s The Architecture of the City. Published in Italian in 1966 and translated into English in 1982, the book presented a tough critique of the modernist city, but used marxism to argue for an almost fatalistic adherence to the zeitgeist. Rossi proposed that architecture stood outside the fluid tide of history, dependent for its power on the qualities of its geometry and accumulation of patina through its survival over time. This placed great emphasis on the collective experience of the city, and consequently reduced the individualising tendencies of the unique monument, creating a significant focus in this analysis on the issue of permanence in architectural typology. Rossi’s text distinguished surface appearance from context, the atmosphere of a city being apparently replicable without any comprehension of the typology from which it was built, although this division would be a phenomenon which would bedevil the broader reception of his own work that was decades in the future. Mistrustful of the subjectivity of proponents of contextualism, his rationalism sought an architecture and urbanism which was less apologetic about its presence, but which acknowledged that time would transform it, that it would, as it were, domesticate the urban intervention through use. The ambiguity of this position in relation to the temporal dimension contrasts with the fixity with which contextualists appropriated a past point in history.

Illustrated is the Piazzetta Croce Rossa, completed by Rossi in 1988, is a small urban space in the centre of Milan, on the major thoroughfare of Via Manzoni, and adjacent to the opening of Via Montenapoleone, and therefore in the middle of what has become the fashion quarter of the city, and one of the most important centres in this global industry, the so called quadrilatero d’ oro, the golden block. The urban space sits above the Montenapoleone Metro station with entries and exits to and from the station disposed around the space, but the centre is focused on a symmetrically arranged space, lined with two rows of trees, benches and street lights. On the axis sits the Monument to Sandro Pertini (named for the President of the Italian Republic 1978-85), in the form of a cubic block faced in the same pink and grey Candoglia marble as is used on the duomo of Milan. Ten metres square the cube is blank on two sides, with the third featuring a bronze clad water spout in the form of an equilateral triangle, with a long horizontal slot in the facade above. The fourth side, which faces towards the opening of Via Montenapoleone, is open and consists of a set of oversized steps up to a viewing platform. The monument’s elements refer to a number of examples of Rossi’s personal iconography, and therefore to his general typological collection of forms as expressed in previous works. So the cube in Milan refers to the cubic sanctuary at the Modena cemetery, and its conjunction with steps within the form to his competition design for the Monument to the Resistance at Cuneo (1962). The triangular fountain was another familiar motif, first used in the courtyard of the De Amicis school at Broni in 1969-70. The oversized steps, as a form of auditorium had been used in the courtyard of the elementary school at Fagnano Olona of 1972. Most users of this space would be unfamiliar with these works, but would be familiar with the conventional, everyday sources in the cityscape from which Rossi himself distilled his preferred forms. The monumental flight of marble steps, however, would be familiar to most Italians as the compositional basis of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument in Rome, the national shrine but also the spectre that haunted the country’s twentieth century architecture. Its offspring sits in miniature in Milan, denuded of its iconography and its steps or seats awaiting the unfolding of a more quotidian urban drama.