Skimming through the records of human history is sometimes eerily like reading Lemony Snicket’s ‘A series of unfortunate events’. Not a lot, it seems goes in our favor. There is war, poverty, disease, natural calamities, death, and an insurmountable amount of pain- so much is constantly pushing us down. So many stories of decades of blood, sweat, and tears, are passed down across generations. They’re all we’ve got to understand the hardship and strife that so many lived through.
Architecture is a collection of these stories. While it does not hold the power to eradicate the pain of any of these things, it can certainly alleviate it, uplift a re-written culture. As Churchill put it, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”.
1. JEWISH MUSEUM- DANIEL LIBESKIND
75years ago, Germany found itself on the wrong side of history, holding a dark and cruel position. Today, it strives to rebuild its image, one that faces the aftermath of Nazism headlong and acknowledges that its Jewish citizens had important roles to play in its history. Libeskind’s design was the key in creating a sense of social and cultural belonging for German Jews.
Developed from an abstracted Star of David, zig-zagging across the site, each segment is a different narrative. The entry to Libeskind’s extension is through the underground corridor of the original museum, bifurcating into 3 routes- Jewish German history, Emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust. Walking in, the emotional complexities of the interior, literally and symbolically are apparent. Devoid of windows and following a theme of cold, grey, concrete walls, the museum recreates the feeling of despair and helplessness of persecuted Jews. Small shafts of light pierce through cramped courtyards, paths leading to dead ends; trapping you like a mouse in a trap – an accurate sentiment of the time.
One of the most powerful spaces, however, is a 66- foot void running through the building surrounded by the same bleak walls, a sliver of light escaping from the slightest of slits. The extension ends with the haunting Garden of Exile, a jungle of concrete pillars, wrapped in plants, set free by the openness of the sky above.
The genius of this design is its unconventionality. It makes you feel something- fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. It doesn’t merely allow you to see suffering, it forces you to experience it yourself, albeit to a smaller degree and with no threat to your life.
2. THROUGH THE LENS OF FAITH- DANIEL LIBESKIND
The Auschwitz concentration camp and its torture is not the one that can be easily forgotten. Architectural historian Dr. Robert Jan van Velt’s ‘The Evidence Room’ is a carefully curated proof of the horrors of what he calls “the greatest crime ever committed by architects”. Through blueprints, bills, survivor’s drawings, photographs and artefacts, Van Pelt was able to piece together a dark truth that such a dark, systemic genocide was facilitated by deliberate organized architecture- be it wall hatches, gas shafts, cramped underground chambers. Although the camp was blown up by the Nazis during the end of the war to hide such convincing evidence, it couldn’t conceal the architecture’s grim role in one of the largest mass murders in history.
‘Through the lens of faith’ was a temporary exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, a homage to the camp’s 75th year of liberation. Comprising 21 colored portraits of camp survivors set within 3 m tall vertical steel panels, Libeskind’s exhibition revealed the power that even temporary designs hold, invoicing and liberating pain. The panels line up along both sides of a path leading to the museum, arranged to mirror the stripes of the prisoners’ uniforms. While the inner surfaces hold stories of pain and hope, the exterior mirrored surfaces reflect the surrounding open grounds, symbolic freedom. On the same grounds where architecture as a means of cold-blooded murder, it has also become a symbol of hope and freedom, and a reminder of the dangers of misplaced power.
3. HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL PARK- KENZO TANGE
World War II had the entire world at a standstill, wreaking havoc on each other, destroying everything in its path. The aftermath of the atomic bomb released on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are tremors still felt today. It wiped out thousands of lives and forever altered their history and culture.
Heavily inspired by Corbusier’s modernism, Tange combined it with Japanese symbolism like the parabolic sculpture to show that a destroyed Hiroshima could rebuild itself without forgetting its roots. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was Kenzo Tange’s way of helping Hiroshima move past the trauma. One of the rare 1950’s relics to survive demolition, it is an important link between the past and the present.
4. EICHLER HOMES- JOSEPH EICHLER
Although he was not an architect, real estate developer Joseph Eichler had revolutionary ideas about whom his houses were for- anyone who could afford it, no exceptions. The 1950s were not a great time for African Americans. Specific laws prohibited the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) from providing them with loans. Homebuilders caught helping them get a loan or even buy a house in their development, risked losing their FHA funding for the whole tract. Although emancipated, segregation was still prevalent, equal rights a mere dream.
Joseph Eichler’s ‘California modern’ homes were not only beautiful but also racially inclusive. With characteristic low, gabled roofs, open-plan interiors, he brought modernism to a community that was often relegated to the ghettos. In a time when people of colour, especially those of African descent, ostracized and told where to live, he remained a strong advocate for fair housing.
Although not considered overly popular among the masses, his designs broke down real estate racial barriers. While other real estate agents refused to sell to minorities, Eichler made it his mission to do the opposite. After selling a house to his first black clients, following massive protests from the neighbourhood, he went door to door and offered to buy back their houses. Not one ended up selling.
5. SOUTH CHICAGO
One of America’s earliest industrialized cities; it is home to some excellent pieces of architecture. North Chicago’s skyline is adorned with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Willis (Sears) Tower and Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower, and many more. South Chicago, however, is a whole other story of neglect. Despite housing gems like Saarinen’s D’Angelo Law Library or Studio Gang’s Lavezzorio Community, South Chicago is constantly pitted against its northern counterpart.
What is seen as a predominantly black area, filled with crime and violence, is merely an ignored part of the city? It has intentionally been side-lined and that reflects in the living and working conditions of the city. Buildings are being demolished and residents giving up and leaving altogether. In a rare victory for south Chicago, The Green Line station at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue was spared the axe and since 2016, the intersection has been revitalized through mixed-use, retail, and transit-oriented development- a small win with big consequences.
6. ONAGAWA CONTAINER TEMPORARY HOUSING- SHIGERU BANU
Japan is no stranger to earthquakes and tsunamis-recurring events embedded deep into their history and culture. During these times, destruction of property is common and the framework for recovery is put up quickly. But what happens when the land around you not only breaks you down but also stops you from getting back up?
Onagawa’s lack of flat land renders it difficult to put up temporary relief shelters, essential for post-disaster rehabilitation. Shigeru Banu’s container housing design uses 20-foot shipping containers, and stacks them in a checkerboard pattern, allowing in light and ventilation. Each house is provided with basic furniture, including coveted storage spaces and sizes ranges with family sizes.
A centrally located community center and market offer communal gathering spaces. Ringed in by the shipping containers, the community center is made of white shipping containers, topped by a plywood gable roof while the market is protected from the elements by a tensile roof. Such a design allows the temporary housing complex to still function as it would in its permanent cities, retaining a sense of normalcy while allowing its displaced citizens to build themselves back up.
7. MAIDAN TENT
What drives someone to abandon the only home they’ve ever known to battle dangerous unaided journeys by land and sea? Safety and dreams of a better life bring with it ‘migration trauma’. A safe tent may cater to their physical needs for shelter but what deals with their psychological needs?
The Maidan tent was aimed at improving the psychological welfare of refugees fleeing from war, persecution, and hostility. The underlying motive was to address an aspect often disregarded in conventional refugee camps- mental health. For quite some time, the answer to the architectural refugee crisis has been to offer some basic shelter and hope for the best.
Leo Bettini Oberkalmsteiner and Bonaventura Visconti di Modrone with support from the UN International Organization for Migration, came up with a design that dealt with alienation and disorientation, common themes that come with new territory. By creating a communal area, a sense of community is allowed to grow.
The first tent installed in Greece accommodates 100 people. An aluminium frame, covered with water and fire resistant textiles, is flexible and modular. It is easily installable and can be converted to accommodate a host of activities. Its deliberate circular form attempts to foster inclusivity, inviting all towards a community to embrace and be part of a new culture.
8. MANNHEIM REFUGEE CAMP
Refugee camps are usually bareboned, primitive shelter facilities, a stereotype long due for a change. The Germany’s University of Kaiserslautern saw its architecture students go out on a limb to make that change happen.
Their design of a wooden community center for one of Mannheim’s refugee camps aims to build community relations among its residents. The center with its characteristic lattice screen façade took 3 months to build and employed refugees and local building companies to do so.
Not only did the proposal change how refugee camps are viewed but it also provided its inhabitants with the opportunity to participate in the construction equipping them with practical skills and a sense of purpose. With so little control in their hands, these refugees were given the chance to be a part of building and shaping a part of their future, no matter how temporary. In this case, the design was not just smart but sensitive, empathetic, taking care not only of architecture but also of its users.
9. ARANYA TOWNSHIP- B.V.DOSHI
India with one of the largest population is yet another victim of the economic divide. Poverty is widespread and the wealth gap only seems to be getting bigger. Why do the poor live in cramped houses while the rich live in grand lavish villas? B.V Doshi’s design of the Aranya Township took a stab at such blatant gentrification.
Through his implementation of incremental houses- basic half-built ones which allowed the owners to expand as per their circumstance- he was able to cater to the housing needs of a major swath of India’s population. His urban planning saw the construction of a central commercial spine with clusters of homes, organized according to broad economic brackets, co-existing in a single township. Although equality was the ultimate goal, he understood that gentrification was and is a direct result of society’s attitude and until that changed, an ideal urban utopia would be a failure. But he forced India to look past the superficial divides it had created and blindly followed to see that it was all a matter of perspective.
10. PACHACAMAC SITE MUSEUM- LLOSA CORTEGANA ARQUITECTOS
The Pachacamac museum is a beautiful link between Pre-Hispanic architecture and its surrounding landscape. It is a classic example of treating heritage with respect while incorporating modernism. Through its design sensitivity, it also helps young Peruvians find footing in terms of their own identities- the old doesn’t have to be torn down or disregarded to make room for the new.
At the heart of the design is the relationship it shares with its topography. The structure is folded to reflect earthquakes inspired by Pachacamac itself, the Incan god of earthquakes. The Sanctuary of Pachacamac is a place of worship defined by its heavy scale true to its Pre-Hispanic roots. In contrast, the museum’s lightness allows the traditionality of the sanctuary to exist without infringement from the museum itself. It treats the sanctuary as an active exhibit. It bows down before its environment revealing itself only once one is standing in the meeting plaza. Until then it’s just the rugged landscapes of Lurin dotted with a few of man’s creations.