Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Three Best Buildings in Ouagadougou

With all of the previous post's photographs, I'm splitting the post from Ouagadougou in two, this is the second part. In a city which overwhelms with astonishing architecture, here are what I thought were the three high points of the city's many intriguing buildings, in order of how I saw them.

I. Banque Commerciale du Burkina

Like many self-aggrandizing works of architecture, this astonishing office block is a chapel dedicated to the often-bizarre pseudo-colonial politics of the Trans-Sahara.

The Commercial Bank of Burkina Faso is one of the more prominent and permanent relics of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi's (however you like to spell it) various forms of intervention into Burkina, as part of a wider strategy to wield influence across Western and Central Africa at the height of his power in the 1980s and 1990s.

This resulted in this cartoonishly eloquent building, its body a pair of concave wings, tiled in two shades of greenish-blue, ribbed by an order of sharp-pointed fins which faces Ouagadougou's main commercial thoroughfare. The single most remarkable element is unquestionably the four robot-headed corner circulation wells, cubed where the rest of the building is curved, with protruding porthole windows where the rest of the façade is fronted in columns of tiny balconies, which are not not juliette-terraces off the offices but ornately-formed mechanical spaces to house external air conditioning units—this is not the only example such small external shelf-balconies without direct door access).

What's all the more incredible to contemplate is that this building was not designed or built in 1977 but was opened by Qaddafi personally in 2003, the chipped tiled exterior is barely ten years old(I find this still hard to believe and wonder if this building was built at the banks' founding in 1988 and that Qaddafi opened some other, newer building elsewhere in the city; such is the dearth of contemporary architectural history scholarship on the city that I haven't been able to work this out).

II. Grand Marche

One of the most important civic spaces in Ouagadougou is also one its most contrasting, and therefore all the more astounding. In a city which is characterized by pastel-painted pseudo-mud-brick post-modernism, one of the country's largest buildings is predominated by a magnificent brutalism: in its size, shape and material it appears straight off a state university engineering quad, from the fenestration orders shading tiny square windows, to the rest of the enclosed space articulated in the red brick of a community college library.

But most the space is not enclosed: the market's true triumph is the soaring girder spans, a section of highway overpass shading an upper-level trading floor, its ceiling height recalling the more inspiring atmospheres of brutal train stations or other civic architecture from other continents, yet with the benefit of the Sahelian climate; there are no walls.

I would have photographed more aspects of the structure but I was constantly mobbed by haggling craft dealers. I am not sure of the age of this building but while it also stylistically looks to be several decades old, it may be a replacement for the older market that suffered a devastating fire in 2003, and so may also be only about ten years old (but could also be the standing site of the fire; not clear). It also not the only brutal civic structure in the city: the main railway station also hoists aloft a soaring slab of concrete, but it was too difficult to try to photograph there.

III. Monument des Martyrs

Also known as the Monument to National Heroes, this is surely Burkina Faso's single most bizarre edifice, and for that reason the one that makes listicles like The Most Astonishing Space Age Buildings in Africa!, so it's conceivable that readers will have come across a straight-on shot of this mirrored-glass Eiffel Tower.

This was the grand-projet of Burkina Faso's president since 1987, not only glorifying the fratricide revolution that brought him to power, but the centerpiece of the brand-new planned quarter of the city that was designed for the turn of the century: Ouaga 2000 [French link], an elite diplomatic and residential area which sprawls in half-deserted, axial grandeur on the southwestern edge of Ouagadougou, like a French-inspired section of Tempe, Arizona. The Monument stands in the middle of a scrubby field, which makes its presence that much more strange and startling.

There is no more tired metaphor in architectural criticism as describing an ultra-modern building as looking like an alien spaceship has landed from another galaxy, and yet there is a certain effect of this bombastic quadruped that makes possible to imagine that a rocketship has descended from orbit as much as it looks ready for take-off.

For a third time, what adds to stupefaction is not just the form but the vintage: what is presumed to be a vintage 1983 structure was in fact ground broke in 2002.

Although still young in building-years, the Monument is hardly ready for take-off, as in typical fashion the elevators are defunct, and a visitor has to endure the stifling, twisting stare wells to reach the observation deck, and finally a regular ladder propped up against a ceiling hatch to reach the bellevue platform. There is an empty museum on the mezzanine level, but other than the old man who pockets $4 to escort you around, the place is deserted.

I was delighted by so many details: the plaid-legging effect of all that police-visor glazing, framed in smooth concrete, so akin to the stately slope of the Solow Building on 57th street; the under-side with its pizza-oven half-dome elevator lobby, ready to vacuum earthlings up to the mothership;  the engorged-to-bursting muscularity of the mezzanine level; the sharp flair of the fins on the tower's crown, a gesture like the tail 1958 Chevy Cobalt.

The building is both autocratically menacing and fancifully ridiculous: a cartoonish rendering of an world's fair tower built with the state resources of the world's third-poorest country to celebrate its own achievements. It is in this perspective that it becomes troubling to act merely as a tourist, and be amused or even aghast at the irony; it becomes necessary to reflect on the role of buildings and their architects in the furtherance and solidification of regimes. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Architecture of Ouagadougou


I am just returning from a long trip to West Africa, which partly-explains the three month silence on the blog. I was in one particular city for about six weeks, jumping back and forth to other places, working on multiple projects simultaneously. One of my last weeks there began with the unnerving anticipation of trying to finish everything, a long list of odds and ends and small details along with major, critical steps in the execution of the project. I got a call that Monday afternoon from a major partner, hoping to be informed that the paperwork was complete. Instead, as so often happens in that corner of the world especially, I was told that I would have to wait until Friday for anything to happen.

The grand mosque. 

So I had a week to burn, and rather than rage with frustration, I walked down the street to the ticket office of Air Burkina (one of the delights of that corner of the world is that travelers still buy paper tickets from ticket offices, in person), went back to my apartment, packed a duffle bag and took a taxi to the airport.
Another mosque under construction.

A few hours later, I was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, a place that I had always wanted to get to, and had for many years been only as far away as the 90-minute flight that I had just taken. I had imagined being there since childhood, laying prone on the floor the living room with the Rand McNally World Atlas, the tip of my index finger my transport across the degrees and meridians. There are few place names that rank so exotically for a kid from Ohio than Ouagadougou—how to even pronounce it—and now twenty-five years later here I was, a smiling immigration officer sending me out into the Sahelian heat with an enthusiastic “bon arrivee.”

I hired a taxi to drive me around the city before I even figured out a hotel room or changed money. For $14 a day, a lawn-green vintage Mercedes zipped me around the city, and I spent most of the next three days taking photos of buildings.

A commercial block on the main commercial boulevard, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah

A French Bank branch, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah

What I saw, and photographed, astonished me. Nothing in my most imaginative moments of childhood, or my years of working in neighboring countries, had composed my expectations properly for the city that I came upon.

Ministry for Civil Service & State Reform

Burkinabé headquarters for the West African Monetary Union, BCEAO. 

Amsterdam and New Orleans come to my mind as two cities predominated by their own architecture, and where architecture somehow develops into its own condition: where each new building that rises in the city actively attempts to contribute to a wider, existing milieu.

Two views of the same building: A Ministry

To this I would add Ouagadougou: it is overabundant with a very particular, contextual variety of modern architecture, from the older ministries and the more bombastic edifices of the semi-autocratic state, to the commercial and banking offices, to the hotels, cafés, cinemas, markets, and fuel stations. Perhaps this is why, like Amsterdam and New Orleans, a relaxed atmosphere predominates in Ouagadougou: quite a contrast to other capital cities, in the region, tense and chaotic.

Another Ministry.

There is hardly a block without remarkable, if not masterful manifestation of a desert design that is difficult to date: some of the more dilapidated examples are from the 1960s, a product of the post-independence development of the sovereign state, many others augment the 25-year president's rule through monuments, yet others are just now being completed as the country experiences a gold-mining boom, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

A soon to be completed commercial tower, probably a north African bank.

Headquarters of the State Electricity Company, SONABEL.

Ouagadougou is basically a small city, although it is also a national capital of perhaps as many as two million people. Its commercial and governmental center is quite small, and most of the city spreads outwards in simple residential quarters of single-story, metal-sheet-roofed house compounds.

Rooftop view. 

I am going to post many of these to the Bauzeitgeist Tumblr, to give each its own proper platform for appreciation, but I thought that putting them all here, a single volume, would be slightly overwhelming just as the city of Ouagadougou itself is; I was only there for three days, and hardly had time to photograph a third of the buildings that rushed passed on the road, much less learn anything about the particular history and provenience of each.

A large commercial/banking complex.

For a bit more detail and to pace this post for length, I'll split into their own separate post three particularly fascinating examples of the city's architecture, but what I've noted here is what little I know at all about what I was able to see and capture on my iPhone (tragically, my Canon G12 broke before I got there). If I had the time, I would embark on a project to write an architectural guide to the city—it certainly deserves to be an architectural destination.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Climb The Empire State Building 1,000 Times

“…to walk enough stairs in a lifetime to climb the Empire State Building, and then climb it again: One-Thousand Times.”
from this Centrum Silver commercial. Actor: Damien Leake, Voice-over by Martin Sheen.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Anachronistic Quality of the Word Skyscraper

He went outside and crossed the avenue, then turned and faced the building where he lived. he felt contiguous with it. It was eighty-nine stories, a prime number, in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass. They shared an edge or boundary, skyscraper and man. It was nine hundred feet high, the tallest residential tower in the world, a commonplace oblong whose only statement was its size. It had the kind of banality that reveals itself over time as being truly brutal. He liked it for this reason. He liked to stand and look at it when he felt this way. He felt wary, drowsy and insubstantial. 

The wind came cutting of the river. He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born. 

The tower gave him strength and depth. 

—Cosmopolis, by Don Delillo, 2003

Although the book doesn't name the building explicitly, the description of the world's tallest residential building, on First Avenue in Manhattan, means it can only be the Trump World Tower.

photos ©2011  Bauzeitgeist.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jimmy Fallon's Skyline

A few weeks ago, the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon made its big debut. I don't watch a lot of television, much less late at night, but think Jimmy Fallon is a really clever, energetic, creative entertainer, and nowadays its easy to watch a handful of clips on YouTube and feel like you're at least partly aware of what is going on.

The Tonight Show has an all-new set, which follows the standard desk-and-couches-on-a-soundstage format. What I immediately noticed was the backdrop, which is made up of a panoramic photo image of Mahattan, but in front of it what was especially notable is a collection of more than three dozen wood building models.

The buildings are arrayed randomly in the display—their arrangement doesn't correspond to their true relationships, and it doesn't appear as though the models are to scale with one another. This makes identification a bit difficult, and I am also not certain that all the models have been detailed with equal faith to their original appearance. There is a small, laser-cut Pan Am Building, visible second from left above; it is less-detailed and more diminutive than the finely detailed McKim frontage of the NYP Library and the Chrysler Building just over Jimmy's left shoulder, which seem to use a variety of materials and might even be from a model kit.

During Justin Timberlake's appearance, its easy to spot the AT&T Building, directly behind the microphone, 
with what might be the Daily News Building behind. 
The Woolworth Building is easy to spot behind Timberlake at far left. 
I am tempted to suggest that the Building to its right, behind Timberlake's head, 

is the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South.

There are some interesting choices here, besides the world-famous landmarks such as old as the Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings and as new as the One World Trade Center, there are secondary icons like Johnson's AT&T Building, Stubbin's Citicorp Center and Johnson’s Lipstick building. Some other notable inclusions include Piano’s New York Times Building, just behind Jimmy, and at the far left, normally not visible but clearly shown in these scenes of U2 and Will Smith, Foster’s Hearst Tower. Other recognizable but far less identifiable towers include post-modern art deco Trump Riverside, the bland corporate mid-rise of 4 World Financial Center, and the hipster Maritime Hotel.

The Chrysler Building shines behind Fallon's right shoulder, with the Lipstick Building in front. 
Behind Fallon's left shoulder, in the shadows at far right, is Piano's New York Times HQ, 
with a twin tower from Trump Riverside in front. 

There is a foreground layer of low-rise landmarks, too, including the Arch in Washington Square Park, the Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport, the Guggenheim, New York Public Library, the New York Stock Exchange, and the tripartite arrangement of Lincoln Center.

During U2's performance, 1 World Trade Center and the Hearst Tower are clearly seen behind the Edge. 

But still, I was only confident in labelled a little more than half of them: is that the Daily News Building just over Jimmy's right shoulder? Is that big, French-Empire Style manse behind the guests, with its green-copper roof, supposed to be the legendary Dakota apartments? Others, like the sample Tribeca warehouse and the prototypical SoHo cast iron façade, would be laborious to pinpoint to a specific real-life building. For all I know, a third of the models are just made-up, and not based on real buildings. I certainly suspect that is the case, even with the larger models such as those between the Chrysler and Citicorp to Fallon's left, at the far right of the background.

Kristen Wiig impersonating Jason Styles. Lincoln Center is clearly visible at left, 
with what appears to be a tiny Guggenheim Museum in front. 

Behind Kristen Wiig, on her right: A SoHo building, Pier 17, the Dakota? 
On her left: a TriBeCa warehouse, Lincoln Center at lower right, and the Maritime Hotel behind.

When Jerry Seinfeld visited the new show, while praising the show, he turned around admired the elaborate background:

”I love the set. I love the rich kid NY chess set. This is the upper east side kid's chess set. It's beautiful, but I would move the chrysler building to king 4...”

Here is a quick diagram I made of the display, with whatever buildings I could identify. Suggestions for changes or additions are welcome in the comments section: 

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Preservation of Miami Marine Stadium

Miami is known mostly for its high-rise condominiums and sleek little art deco hotels, not brutalist ruins. So what might be more surprising landmark than the shell of an old hospital is the powerfully-sculpted pavilions of the Marine Stadium, which sit derelict on a key just in front of Miami's downtown, on the road to its upscale suburb of Key Biscayne.

 Daniel Garcia/Little Gables Group, via Architect Magazine

A water-facing concrete review stand, built in 1964 for boating events, then later opened to concerts and other public gatherings, the stadium has been vacant and vandalized since 1992, but was saved from demolition and may now be renovated thanks to a dedicated social effort.

 Pancoast Ferendino Skeels and Burnham/Hilario Candela, via Architect Magazine 
 Credit: Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, via Architect Magazine
 Pancoast Ferendino Skeels and Burnham/Hilario Candela, via Architect Magazine

An article from Architect Magazine last October gives the full history of the stadium's revival, from derelict, condemned wreck to atop World Monuments Fund/National Register of Historic Preservation watch list. The success of the restoration drive has been driven by the well-organized Friends of Miami Marine Stadium: to look at the chronology on their website gives a sense of just how much effort has gone in to saving this structure. From an article from a few weeks ago about a graffiti artist selling his art to raise funds for the renovation:

Declared structurally unsound after the widespread devastation of hurricane Andrew, the abandoned stadium has been "off-limits" for nearly a quarter of a century. But graffiti loves a challenge, and "off-limits" means "perfect hangout" for fence hoppers, midnight drinkers, restless youth, skaters, and most obviously, taggers.Now, the stadium is on its way to a new life thanks to the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium. The group plans to renovate and reopen the venue, and that's expensive —$30 million expensive.
Its an especially nice story because the place will not only be preserved, but architecture will be revived to its original purpose. For now, the site is half-heartedly cordoned off, but it is still accessible from the waterfront. Check out the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium website for tons more information, historic and current photos, etc. 
 ©2014 Bauzeitgeist
©2014 Bauzeitgeist

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bauzwangsvorstellung: South Beach Community Hospital, Miami

I spent the first part of this year in Miami, Florida: an interesting city in a lot of ways, mainly the way it is both a national and global capital of leisure, and the manners in which this is embodied and acted out, and also the ways in which the city is trying to evolve into a more multi-faceted crossroads; a "real" city with "serious" culture, or at least, an alternative to partying, shopping, eating, and lying on the beach, even as its febrile status as a cosmopolis of wealth and pleasure in this new Gilded Age makes those activities more prominent and overpowering. 

One of the most obvious manifestations of its current circumstances is the explosion of luxury real estate, especially high-rise condominium towers. While these glistening new complexes clutter up the oceanfront, most of them sit in close proximity to a previous city: Miami has long been a disheveled, poor city, and the stunning development is in many cases only one-block deep: there is the beach, the luxury high-rise then across the street are tenements, or crumbling art deco shells, or other abandoned buildings. 

I spent my time in Miami staying at a friend's apartment in Miami Beach. The 15th -floor apartment was high up in one of the recent condominium towers from the pre-crash boom. Although only completed in 2007, the property is already a little worse for wear, but it had wide balconies which wrapped around three sides of the tower, offering views in almost every direction.

Directly cross the street from these condo towers sits the incredible ruin of the South Beach Community Hospital. I became somewhat obsessed with this site, in part because I passed it every time I came and went from the apartment I was staying in, and when I did pass it, there was often a flurry of activity as the outbuildings were being demolished with yellow machines. But mostly, the old hospital was such an arresting sight: buildings aren't built in this shape and form any more, and this one stood vacant, many of its shiny golden windows blown out, possibly from vandalism and demolition but also, I think, due to a hurricane from several years ago. 

I am a big fan of the now-discarded penchant for forming a wide-browed capital atop office buildings like this, a practice which has fallen out of fashion. 

I especially love the unattached elevator shaft, which led expressly up to this top floor, whatever its purpose. Its sleek face seems to embody the late-space age techno-optimism of construction, an Atari joystick of a detail. 

Glass of this tint isn't in fashion right now, either. 

The pyramidal shape is just great. 

There are plans to build yet more luxury retail and condominium residences on the site, which stretch back to 2011, but development has stalled in the more recent financial climate, and the property, one block away from the waterfront (facing the city, not the ocean) might not be the ideal location for speculation. Plus, its not really clear how much more luxury space Miami needs right now. So the fate of the building seems a bit uncertain for now. 

As you can see, I took a lot of pictures of it. It would have been relatively easy to trespass, as the ground floor was only blocked off with stands of chain-link, but I would have had to sneak in at night, and there's something unpleasant about an abandoned hospital in the night, even one that is so glossy in the daytime. 

So while the site is slowly prepared for a loosely-defined luxury development to be installed at an indeterminate date in the future, the building stands forlorn in the midst of the its more glamorous neighbors, a marker of the previous city.