Olympische Spiele: Munich ’72

Friday, July 13th, 2012


With the London 2012 Olympic Games still a few weeks away, there are already rumblings that they represent a missed opportunity as far as architecture and design are concerned.  We recently had the opportunity to visit Munich—a favorite city in any case, but also host to the 1972 Olympic Games.  Unfortunately, the Munich Games are probably best known for the “Black September” terrorist attack, but they also represent a benchmark of Olympic architecture, design and branding.

The Games were seen as a way to present Germany in a positive new light following the low point of World War II and the approach was decidedly bold, modern, and upbeat.

Olt Aicher was chosen as lead designer for the Games, and he went on to create a graphics and identity program that looks remarkably fresh 40 years later.  The pictogram system that Aicher developed revolutionized visual communication and became standard throughout the world.  Beyond this achievement the designer created the first official Olympic mascot, Waldi—a dachshund, of course.  The lead poster for the Games, as well as those that depict individual sports, are simple and direct but at the same time multi-layered and vibrant with colors said to be inspired by the nearby Alps.  Aicher’s program for the Games is known for both its quality and comprehensiveness: all printed matter, from event tickets to ID badges to official postcards received the same degree of focus and displayed the same rigorous design language.

The Olympic stadium and most of the facilities stand intact and in use in Munich’s Olympiapark, a short bicycle ride from the city center and well worth a visit if you can pull yourself away from the city’s famous beer gardens.  The open air stadium itself is considered a landmark in tensile and membrane architecture and construction techniques, with a system of masts that suspend an undulating web of acrylic panels.  The peaks and valleys of the stadium structure also recall the Alps, yet their transparency makes them appear lightweight and buoyant rather than monumental.  Some of the smaller design details are the most impressive: stadium seats were colored in multiple shades of green, to make the seating areas look like a grassy hillside rather than a sea of plastic chairs.

Today, the Olympic Village originally designed for competing athletes houses students and seniors.  Both the tiny townhouse units and the terraced apartment blocks are essentially 70s style concrete boxes, but over the years vegetation has greatly softened their appearance.  The village as a whole is oddly appealing.  The townhouse units wouldn’t look out of place in a current Dwell Magazine pictorial on small scale, sustainable housing and students have painted some of the townhouses in bright colors or created murals.  One cool feature is the small, horizontal vitrine style window in the front of each unit that essentially functions as a display case for passersby.  A quick glance at the contents delivers a succinct message about the interests of the unit’s residents.  Schnapps and whisky bottle displays make a universal Let’s Party student statement, but artful arrangements of personal mementos tell a deeper story.

The Olympics have always been viewed as a high prestige event that has the ability to put the host city on the global map.  Yet given the extreme security precautions and the enormous expense required with hosting the Olympic Games today, it’s somewhat amazing that so many cities compete for the honor.  The Munich Games represent at once a holdover from a more optimistic time and the point at which the mood changed.  Still, the design legacy of the Munich Games endures, and the event itself helped to transform Munich from a regional German city into one of Europe’s most popular and prosperous.

Carved in Stone: Isamu Noguchi

Saturday, June 9th, 2012


Noguchi Museum, Queens, New York

We recently headed to New York to take in ICFF—the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.  This fair has come a long way since its inception and its one of the few trade shows that we don’t mind going to, in spite of its location at the Jacob Javits Center.  “Javits”–for anyone who hasn’t experienced it–is New York City’s convention center and a pretty humdrum one at that.  The roof at Javits has been leaking for as long as we can remember.  The preposterous band-aid for this particular issue is to string up large scale tarps along the ceiling of the center in order to collect the water.  During heavy rains these have been known to give way, drenching everything below.  All of which makes for a fun and lively atmosphere–you just never know when your number is going to come up at Javits!  After walking the aisles of a trade show all day, we’re typically too wiped out to do much else.  That’s why when our visit allowed us some free time to visit the nearby Noguchi Museum, it was a rare treat.

The museum is located in Long Island City, Queens, an arts and small manufacturing district, which produces everything from fortune cookies to Brooks Brothers neckties.  While the area around the museum is made up of rough and tumble factories and warehouses, all that fades away once you enter the museum complex.  Larger than it looks from the exterior, the complex includes an open air sculpture garden with extensive works by the Japanese- American artist.

While Noguchi’s stone sculptures are for museums and serious collectors, his Akari Lamps make his work available to a much larger audience.  Based on traditional Japanese paper lantern designs, the Akari lamps are icons of 1950s modern design.  Produced in Gifu, Japan by the original manufacturer, the lamps are handmade with washi paper from mulberry bark and bamboo ribbing.  Belying its delicate appearance, washi is surprisingly strong for paper—we have a lamp at home that has taken more than a few tumbles over the years without any damage.  The designs have been endlessly copied in cheap materials like rice paper, but authentic versions display the printed signature of the artist and are well worth the price.  This video shows the painstaking process required to produce the lamps.

On a much different scale, Noguchi is also responsible for an impressive output of public works including plazas, parks, and fountains, in locations as far flung as Japan, Detroit and Jerusalem.  Growing up in the Detroit area, I can still recall the Noguchi-designed Dodge Memorial Fountain at downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza derisively referred to as “The Flying Donut” for its design based on a ring rising up on two symmetrical legs.  So much for bringing art to the masses.  In any case, Noguchi’s multi-disciplinary talent shouldn’t be easily dismissed, and a visit to the Noguchi Museum is a welcome respite from the chaotic energy of NYC.

Down in the Valley: Paolo Soleri

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012


Cosanti, Paradise Valley, Arizona

Many people think of the Phoenix area as tiled and stuccoed urban sprawl spreading endlessly across a sun-baked valley—and, well, they’re right of course. However, closer examination reveals a surprisingly interesting mix of architecture and design.  Thanks in part to the new availability of air conditioning, Phoenix boomed after World War II and the result is an abundance of mid-century modern buildings and neighborhoods.  Contemporary architects such as Will Bruder continue the tradition with new buildings that reflect the rugged character of the Sonoran Desert.  We’ve been spending some time in the Valley of the Sun recently and we’ve come to appreciate this city that too often is lazily written off as ‘Los Angeles without the Pacific’.

Cosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s residence and studio, is incongruously set amidst posh, suburban Paradise Valley, supposedly Arizona’s wealthiest zip code. A rusty sign directs you in from Doubletree Ranch Road to this Arizona Historic Site. The buildings and grounds certainly look like absolutely nothing else around. The buildings are carefully sited, with some partially underground, to take advantage of the abundant natural light and the insulating properties of the earth. Included among the buildings are Soleri’s own residence, a performance space, work studios, a foundry, and a swimming pool we would gladly take a dip in.

Soleri’s architecture projects are partially funded by the sale of the bronze bells that are his own designs and cast on site—weekday mornings are the best time to catch the pouring. The bells themselves range from diminutive single bells to massive multi-bell sculptures that weigh hundreds of pounds.  Also produced are terra cotta bells with rounded forms that recall pueblo architecture and Navajo pottery.

For the full-immersion experience, take the drive an hour and half north to the high desert where Arcosanti, an experimental community based on Soleri’s architectural principles, is slowly being built. Founded in the 1970s, Arcosanti was the focus of a recent New York Times article that described the challenges that face the ongoing project. A bit closer is the recently completed Soleri-designed pedestrian bridge in nearby downtown Scottsdale, the only one of Soleri’s many bridge designs that actually got built.  Elsewhere, the architect’s legacy is less secure: an amphitheatre designed in 1970 in Santa Fe is currently slated for demolition.

We plan to share more good stuff from the Phoenix/Scottsdale environs in future posts.