The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Monday 13 September 2010

Manuel de Sola-Morales: A Matter of Things (2008)

A book review by Stephen Gingell

“Turning the city into a metaphor is a distraction at best, there are no theories beyond the city itself”

The book comprises some theoretical writings by de Sola-Morales and others, interspersed with a review of his work in practice between 1988 and 2005. The book is well illustrated but could benefit from a larger format/larger photographs. It traces the development of his ideas from a fairly conventional viewpoint to his own, individual and occasionally mischievous stance.

De Sola-Morales is a Catalan architect who came to prominence during Spain’s cultural and economic renaissance. This was fostered by the return to democracy, growing regional autonomy and culminated in the urban regeneration of Barcelona for the ’92 Olympics. Barcelona became the model for the urban revival all over Europe.

He identifies a “rupture” between architecture and urban design and traces this back to a CIAM conference in the 30s. Architecture and city planning diverged, one becoming primarily visual and aesthetic and the other, technical/geographical. He works this gap. Working seamlessly between the two now distinct and often-conflicting disciplines.

His approach is neither an abstract technical one or purely aesthetic. Instead he is interested in the tangible be they things of significance or insignificance, hence his title – “A Matter of Things” with all their rich complexity of buildings, roads, railings, signage and scaffolding.
He does not lament the passing of the traditional city with its visual order and hierarchy. He has an optimistic outlook:

“Cities are not becoming uglier, (but are) growing (visually) richer.
Though formal relationships are less common the City is not in retreat to cyberspace, there are more places and more contact.”

He does not avoid the metaphorical all together – but uses it advisedly when referring to the city as surface, as a skin. Every wrinkle is worthy of scrutiny and can be of equal importance when determining how a site should be treated. This is his “Urban acupuncture”: small interventions, which create a ripple, not comprehensive development. Embellishments like the sinuous canal side bench and installation in the Netherlands. Where does this surgical insertions begin and end?

He displays distaste for the cult of personality in city building and architecture, taking the view of the traditional city as the result of limited types, means and forms largely unconscious in their shaping:

“Architecture..(should be) anonymous…cities grain should be punctuated by key buildings”

“attracting attention with architecture is less and less interesting. In today’s city the work of the architect cannot stray into the illusion of his or her mirages”

This self -effacement becomes almost a fetish in his urban housing blocks squeezed into the cramped historical centre of Alcoi, Spain. There is no outward show – partly as this is an urban infill with little opportunity for display but where there is, the palette is limited. One window type punched into simple render lights all rooms regardless of their function.
As mentioned in my introduction the format of this book doesn’t allow for sumptuous photography but perhaps that does not matter? De Sola-Morales is more interested in the process, rather than the individual signature buildings and their display in journals. These views of Alcoi show this. They are what they are: highly serviceable, pragmatic and restrained. One gets the impression again from Alcoi that “fuzzy edges” and raw finishes (which work well in the Spanish sunshine) are what he is about. The story is incomplete and is open to future embellishment in the way that cities traditionally have been.

The Alcoi development shows De Sola-Morales’s confidence in allowing things to be prosaically what they are -“complication is the short sighted refuge of many urban projects.” In his Leuven station, Belgium, the program emerges from a rigorous analysis of movement of overlapping and competing circulation patterns: pedestrian, cyclist, train, bus and private vehicles.

Turning to roads in particular they are now the domains of the city engineer. We think of them as traffic management systems and have forgotten that they were once the edges of other things. They would have changed their nature and dimension along their length rather than what they now tend towards, a continuous and uniform conveyor.

His proposal for the Genoa Express Way, though not conforming to tradition is a formal abstract architectural composition. Inserted catheter like into the old fabric of Genoa – (an extension of the body, surgical analogy which we have seen earlier) - this would have been a radical insertion providing the relief of 21st century infrastructure to this historic core.
His intention was, that it would allow the continuing functioning of the port rather than a banal tourist conversion as he describes its alternative fate.
The earlier writings and projects in the book cover somewhat familiar territory. The idea that we should work with the city’s grain and be broadly contextual is now orthodoxy. At the time of writing (early 1980s) these ideas would have still been emerging and tested in the neglected cities such as Barcelona.
But follow the road out, away from the certainty of the historic core with its fine grain and incremental changes to the “territories without a model.” De Sola-Morales sees the city as spreading tentacles almost infinitely. He sees continuity from the centre to periphery- a hierarchy of roads, which extend out beyond the city limits. These connect to the next urban centre, and by doing so give everywhere an urban sensibility - even low density rural locations.
This is where I feel a step change in the book – a development of original ideas. He is marking out new insights as he travels out into these new territories. He describes it as a slick- but an interesting one. He argues that the city is conventionally seen geographically as a series of concentric rings with a diminution of form and interest at the periphery.
In recent decades there has been an emphasis on the centre at the expense of the periphery. But these new territories are important. Many people live here and never leave here. The centre is done, but the periphery is uncharted. It provides new opportunities for material things and new opportunities for expression. Up until now it has mostly been left to filmmakers to imagine and make visual sense of this new frontier.

He does identify one important ordering principle of this zone: namely the sprawl is an attempt to distance one self from another – development acts as magnets which repulse in their attempt at privacy- creating a coherence of the void – the opposite figure ground relationship to that of the traditional city core.

His views are refreshingly optimistic when balanced up against the conventional ideas of “sprawl.” However it is difficult to see how this view could be whole -heartedly embraced on a small island with deep attachments to the idea of a green and pleasant land. It has more of the flavour of the vast dusty and seemingly limitless interior of Spain or the Hispanic USA.
Interestingly the book does not feature any of his projects built or unbuilt within this “slick.” Perhaps as this is a region unvalued and unseen no one would commission an architect to build anything of merit here.

Before my summing up I would like to outline a few of the techniques in de Sola-Morales’s “toolkit.” Again we have the deployment of the scalpel. He is the surgeon who cuts and crops though city fabric to show continuity. He does not wish to encompass a site but will slice through the arteries and networks of the city almost perversely to imply their continuity. Remember for him the city, suburbs, exurbs and beyond are part of a continuum, a boundless mesh some times dense and tangled and sometimes-flung open.

“The choice of the working field in clipping the city is the most substantial act of all projects in the city”

The second technique is the drawing of a long section in an urban project. This allows you to think of the ground plan, elevation, topography and use all at the same time.

Thirdly, and finally a technique and an observation. Within the gridiron city such as Cerda’s grid of chamfered blocks in Barcelona the introduction of the diagonal (for example from the southwest corner to the northeast corner)“scans the grid” - revealing its extent by implying its planar form. This aids navigation and frees the diagonal desire line.

In conclusion de Sola-Morales’s standpoint is one of humility and pragmatism. Architects have the capacity to add and enrich but not to solve. Architecture should not be heroic, ideological or about engineering society - a dangerous ambition. His approach is not about comprehensive redevelopment but surgical insertions.

There is no fundamental difference between design and theory in his work. Theory does not exist above and beyond practice. His projects “do not believe in Leon Krier or David Gosling, in Christopher Alexander or in Colin Rowe.
Even though, of course, they take some few elements from each of these models, they are operative and pragmatic, an ethic that is more professional than ideological, for they are distrustful of principles and highly appreciative of results.”

Here is a short film about Manuel de Sola-Morales's Transparent Building in Porto made by Year 3 students at msa

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