Berea

Photo by Axel Bührmann

Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.

By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.

It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.

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OMA’s Milstein Hall at Cornell University

Milstein Hall at Cornell University. Image from dezeen.com. Photography is by Philippe Ruault

Last week, on my way down to New York City, I stopped at Cornell University to see their new Architecture, Art and Planning building, Milstein Hall. The OMA-designed facility looks like a Mies van der Rohe-style box propped up on a concrete ant hill, floating not incongruously between the kind of Victorian and Georgian structures one imagines at an Ivy League school. Some of the design is quite subtle — part of the exterior is clad in elegantly stripped Turkish marble — while some of it is showy and loud — a giant, 50-foot cantilever reaches over University Ave., almost-but-not-quite touching the 150-year-old Foundry Building across the road. I wasn’t sure if this latter gesture was an act of aggression — like a bully announcing its presence to a meek, helpless victim — or one of kindness, like an outstretched hand between a young spunky kid and an old, fair lady. This ambivalence basically describes my reaction.

What I liked: The building is porous. As people walk or bike by, there are interesting opportunities to look into spaces that are normally much more cloistered in a school: a lecture hall that has windows on three sides, or a submerged auditorium/crit space with large clerestories.  Continue reading

New York To-Do List

Over the Victoria Day long weekend, my boyfriend and I are driving down to New York City. We’ve gone every year for the last four, and each time we visit we discover new reasons to love the city. In 2011, for example, we rented road bikes and toured around Manhattan, then crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge, checked out Prospect Park and went down to Coney Island. It took us a whole day and we were exhausted by the time we hit the Atlantic, but it was great. We were both impressed by the miles of dedicated bike lanes that made cycling feel so much safer than in our home town of Toronto.

We might bike around again, but I think this trip is going to be more arts and culture focused. Here’s what we’re thinking of seeing.

Milstein Hall at Cornell University

Milstein Hall by OMA

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A House I’ll Never Own or Decorate – The Kids I’ll Never Have Edition

When I’m looking for a piece of fantasy real estate, I usually don’t go for detached, suburban (albeit in a very Dwell magazine sort of way) homes that sit north of the 401 (which, for people who don’t live in Toronto, is a bit like living on the moon). But when I saw 20A Senlac Rd. on Torontolife.com today, I made that soft, sad whimpering noise that I make when I’m thinking “damn, I’m poor and I wish I weren’t.” With an asking price of $1.7 million, it would take me over 40 years to save up a 10 per cent down payment, and then the rest of eternity to pay back the mortgage. If I had kids, I would especially long to live here. True, me having little ones is as much of a stretch as ever being able to afford this house, but whatever paternal feelings I have were stirred by the ravine setting and the perfectly decked out little nursery. Sigh, here’s how I’ll never decorate the house for the kids I’ll never have.

The Place: The four bedroom prefab was designed by celebrated American architect Ray Kappe — who has, incidentally, been featured by Dwell magazine.

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Architecture Envy: Vancouver vs. Toronto

Big, Beach and Howe

It’s possible to say that I’ve had an intimate relationship with both Toronto and Vancouver. I was born in Canada’s largest city, and have lived here on and off (currently on) for my whole life. It’s my steady, and I love it the way I love an old, comfortable sweater. I’ve also traveled west a few times to visit. There’s something about all the mountains and trees that used to really spark my imagination. But my most recent trip to Vancouver — a three month stint in 2008, when I was on a university work term — cured me of any desire to live on near the pacific. It’s pretty, true. Yet aside from the great skiing and hiking, it can be kind of tedious. How many lattes can someone drink without wanting a bit more edge? I have to admit, however, I’m a little jealous right now of a couple of their architectural projects. Might make a trip necessary again in the future.

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Weird Things Inspired by Modern Architecture

Modern architecture is often derided for being austere, yet over the past few years, I’ve definitely noticed some clever, playful things inspired by the work of Mies van der Rohe, Arne Jacobsen and Le Corbusier. Toys, gingerbread houses and even a bird house have brought a certain down-to-earth charm to some of the most iconic buildings of the twentieth century, making them more accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between Ronchamp and Fallingwater. Here are some of my favourites.

If I had a backyard with birds in it (especially birds wearing black turtle necks), I would definitely buy Monique Engelund‘s tribute to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

On Saturday I made an architectural pilgrimage to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. The drive down from Pittsburgh, where my boyfriend and I spent the weekend, rolled though tree-covered hills and small, quaint farming communities. It was so restful and pleasant that I almost forgot where we were headed and why.

The tour of the house is only and hour long, but it’s undeniably worth it. The place is like a mid-century modern fantasy land, with bold horizontal lines in rich black walnut, rough-cut stone, ochre-coloured concrete, and dark red window mullions. There is a deep, comforting warmth to the rooms (this isn’t a cold, hulking, Corbusier-style modernism) and at times an almost Victorian feel. The hallways are tight and dark, and there’s an upstairs/downstairs divide between the servants quarters and the rest of the place that feels really old fashioned (the house was designed in the 1930s, which is easy to forget considering that it feels much more contemporary). There’s also a sense of playfulness and levity—the built-in sofas have a cream-coloured upholstery, and are cheerfully accented with square pillows in ketchup-y red and mustard yellow. Most remarkably, walking from room to room, there is just such a clear and palpable feeling of enthusiasm—it’s clear how much Frank Lloyd Wright enjoyed crafting the house. It almost comes across as spontaneous, like jazz, or as though the design just popped out of his head like a witty turn of phrase.

I hope the clients—the Kauffman family—enjoyed spending time in its cascading planes and fluid walls. I imagine I would have loved lounging in either of the pools, or deciding which of the many terraces to sit out on to read the latest New Yorker.