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An abandoned office tower in the middle of Caracas – that deeply troubled and dangerous city – has been squatted by more than 700 families.  An exhibition and installation by architecture critic Justin McGuirk, Caracas-based Urban-Think Tank and Dutch photographer Iwan Baan which documents the ingenuity and will to survive in the Torre David skyscraper has received the top prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.  I’ve toured parts of Caracas with members of Urban-Think Tank.  Their work is gutsy and visionary.  A huge congratulations to them for winning the Golden Lion for best project.

Image    A small city exists within the 45-storey tower, including  hair salons, mini convenience stores, a church and restaurants.

Image No need to romanticize this as a desirable kind of urban utopia.  Having seen the sprawling slums in Caracas that house an estimated one million people on the edge of the city, my take on the Torre David squat is that it exemplifies a desperation to improvise a sense of normalcy – and safety. And it’s not architecture without architects…the concrete frame structure was originally designed by Venezuelan architect Enrique Gomez, but the project was abandoned following the death of its developer David Brillembourg in 1993.  Venezuela was once an oil-rich, sophisticated country but, since its economy imploded in 1994 and President Chavez came onto the scene, that reality has become a faraway memory. (Above photos by Iwan Baan.)

Next to an inner city slum in Caracas, Urban-Think Tank designed the hugely popular Bello Campo Vertical Gym.  When I visited it was packed with children learning ribbon gymnastics, runners on an elevated catwalk track and young soccer players training on a rooftop field.  Crime is estimated to have decreased by 30 per cent in the neighbourhood because of the gym’s activating presence.  That’s architecture with a social conscience and it looks good in bright colours and high-tech exposed structural frame.

An invitation to spend the night in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gardener’s Cottage (1909) was unexpected and irresistible.  (Thank you to the Martin House Restoration Corp.) Before going to sleep I caught the reflection of a Tiffany lamp in a portrait of Wright that hangs in the cottage bedroom.    The sweet two-storey cottage is set within the Darwin Martin House complex, one of Wright’s residential masterpieces that spreads some serious presence in a Buffalo neighbourhood.

Wright was intrigued by the absence of light and shadowy interiors.  But the two-storey cottage is filled with light pouring in from generous wood-framed windows that line the walls of the bedroom and the living room.  Wright’s Barrel chairs, designed specifically for the Martin House, super comfortable.  The couch not so much. The bed fantastic.

Wright specified miles of rift cut white oak and Roman brick for the main Martin House. But, for the nearby Gardener’s Cottage, materials were simplified: wainscoting in cypress and broad brush stucco. Sage green…because Wright advocated going to the woods and the fields for colour schemes.

 Morning time view from the Gardeners’ Cottage, across the terra cotta rooftop, to the Greatbatch Pavilion, a visitor centre, intelligently designed as a piece of luminous architecture by American architect Toshiko Mori.  Mori was intrigued by the sheltering eaves of the prairie-style architecture, and inverted Wright’s low-slung hip roof  for the visitor centre so that the interior ceiling dips down toward the exhibition space.

Gardener’s Cottage set between the visitor centre and adjoining clapboard homes belonging to the leafy Parkside Historic District neighbourhood.

Class difference: this is not the Gardener’s Cottage, but the reception room of the main Martin House.  The sunburst fireplace with bronze gilding in the mortar joints between the bricks was intended to warm the heart, though the Martin House fell into ruin after the Depression and is only now undergoing a massive and impressive restoration.  If you’ve been to Wright’s Fallingwater, seek out the Martin complex next.

Pop-up architecture reinvents instantly. Sometimes it exhilarates.   Like this one: a canopy of pink balls floating over Rue Sainte Catherine in Montreal’s gay village, bringing waves of people to the newly created pedestrian mall below.  Check the Montreal artsy video for more.


At the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London, the 2012 temporary pavilion by Chinese conceptualist and dissident artist Ai Weiwei with Swiss architects Herzog + de Meuron sends a disc of water over an excavation cloaked in cork.  The columns from the 11 previous pavilions are revealed below. Chinese authorities prevented the fearless Weiwei from attending the opening earlier this summer.   Last year, Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest, was imprisoned in China for several months and his studio was destroyed.

White tent drama popped-up at Fort York sprawling grounds in downtown Toronto.  Ghostly, ethereal, every one of the 200 tents offering artful interiors. Wander in late at night and cast your shadow against the shimmering shelters.

The 23.2 House by Vancouver designer Omer Arbel sits between a couple stands of old growth forest while opening far and wide to a hayfield in White Rock, B.C.  Here’s Canadian residential design that rocks innovation and flaunts an avaricious appetite for the outdoors.  Check the “hockey-stick” white columns.

A chandelier of blown-glass pendants (the 28.3 series created by Arbel for the Canadian design house, Bocci) illuminates the space, giving it an extra dose of whimsy.  Walnut wooden shelving and tables are hefty enough to anchor the space underneath the heritage lumber roof.    A triangulated structure of irregular timber lengths allowed the client and Arbel to retain the wood lengths exactly as they were found in demolished Vancouver warehouses. Then to the outside: an angled wall of glass to allow for an immersive experience of the rural surroundings.

For those accustomed to sleek, minimal lines and contemporary near nothingness, you’ll need to readjust your eyes.  There’s nothing minimal here. Thankfully.  For a change.

This is a family home but it also clearly doubles as a fantastic party lounge.  Which, naturally, inspires many, many soundtracks, such as… Bon Iver through the morning; Skrillex dub step at night.  The Bocci pendant lights are now available in colour – even the video about their making is a small work of art. (Photos by Nic Ledoux.)

More innovation here: The cedar that was used to form the concrete walls of the house was dismantled and re-used as long cedar shingles for the roof.  They appear as petrified lengths of wood…so now you can never go back to asphalt shingles.

Mr. Nescafé, we loved your voice, but not your watery instant coffee.  Zap ahead a few decades to the real pours.  One of my all-time favourite coffee zones is the unfussy, slightly grungy Mercury Espresso Bar in Leslieville, Toronto.   The baristas are wizards and the wooden shelves are filled with freshly harvested coffee beans from across Latin America.  There’s usually lyrical art up on the walls.   I also like the no-cellphone-policy-while ordering. Respect for respect.

After beach volleyball and paddleboarding, the long weekend at Lake Huron was spent luxuriating with Tim Horton’s stored in a big tin and pulled out of a cedar cupboard.  Savoured in blue willow cups with vintage hand-stitched flag from Ontario.

Lining up last week for some fresh brew at the coffee cart on the elevated High Line park in NYC’s Meatpacking District. Perfect pours by unhurried baristas, despite the million or so visitors walking the High Line each year.

Manual drip has its charms.  Like music, which sounds infinitely better with record players.

Nice to wake up to: Very buttoned down hotel coffee, like this classic scenario at Pavilion de la Reine next to Place des Vosges, Paris.

I’ve been collecting mid-century modern chairs for about a decade…leather butterfly chairs, Harry Bertoia’s Diamond Chair, Danish teak, Canadian Solair chairs, Le Corbusier’s chaise longue, the Eiffel chair by Charles Eames and plenty of molded plywood chairs found in trashed condition on sidewalks.

  

 For Mother’s Day, the kids and friends hauled some of the chairs outside to get some much deserved sunshine.

And to let loose with a game of musical chairs.

For the music, I was singing a random song, loudly.

The competition was fierce.  The chairs disappeared.

In the end, it was a battle between the Solair chair (1972) and the Diamond (1958).

The Diamond won.  So did the dazzling joy of the day.

I’m on the hunt, often, for the ultimate in cabin experiences. Which might help to explain my fascination with the blog, cabinporn.   Recently posted is this image of a sunlit interior at Rackwick Bothy (also known as Burnmouth Cottage) on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Wood and stone never looked so authentic and right.

There are a couple pre-requisites for an enduring cabin:  authentic materiality and an indoor-outdoor room to inspire the writing of a great novel, season after season, year after year.

Ideally, a great bar to help inspire the great novel. (This one at the 350-year-old Hermitage Plantation set up high on the island of Nevis in the rainforest.)

And morning wake-up tea to sip and contemplate one’s amazing escape from the city.

I can highly recommend Stanley Mitchell Hut, a wood-frame jewel of a cabin built in 1940 and set in a meadow about 6,825 feet in the Little Yoho Valley in Yoho National Park, BritishColumbia.   We signed up to be custodians of Stanley Mitchell Hut one summer and played host to climbers from around the world.  Contact the Alpine Club of Canada if you’d like to do the same. (Photo by Paul Zizka.)

Where there is a cabin there are almost always piles of sweet-smelling wood.  In Sweden, wood piles are exquisitely designed.  So, let’s remember that for our ideal cabin.

The Bergman-Werntoft House by Johan Sundberg, near Malmo, Sweden.  The wood piles are in the back.

Or perhaps you were thinking of the ultimate indoor-outdoor, more outdoor than indoor, cabin. So long as there are books and a place to write, I wouldn’t mind.

Waking up. Looking up to the morning sky.  Past an artful split of wooden timbers. (Designed by Suppose Design Office, Japan.)

Showering in style.  Training the bears to pass the soap.

Breakfast delivered in a basket.  I did not make this up:  On the small island of Saynatsalo, several hours north of Helsinki, Finland, breakfast in a basket was brought to me one early morning by a woman who worked for the Alvar Aalto Museum.  I’d been invited to sleep over in one of the guest rooms available within the Aalto masterpiece, the Saynatsalo Town Hall.  Imagine how good the coffee tasted while I gazed upon the courtyard of the Town Hall and listened to the soothing sounds of the fountain in the reflecting pool.

Closer to home, when spring is still wrestling with winter, there’s the comfort of sheepskins, good books and a fire to transition from morning to afternoon.

 

Easter weekend, 2012.  The hunt begins.

In search of something unexpected but nearby, we took a road trip to the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora, NYC.  Where a colony of artists, writers, ironsmiths and furniture designers came together to reject convention and all of the design wisdom borrowed from European castles and churches.  Think of Andy Warhol’s Factory if it was a century ago.

Before becoming the intellectual leader of the Roycrofters movement, Elbert Hubbard was in marketing at the Larkin Soap Factory, the company that produced several millionaire executives who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design iconic houses for them.    The Roycroft Inn and Colony, awarded National Historic Landmark status in 1986, might well have inspired Taliesin West. From East Aurora we went in search of Frank Lloyd Wright…

At the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, in a genteel neighbourhood designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the house is part showstopper, part serious institution, pulled down on its acreage like a low slung Japanese hat.  All piers and deep overhangs, a series of horizontal walls of roman brick; it’s impossible to tell where the bedrooms might be so abstract is its composition.  Exacting renovations and rebuilding of a complex fallen post-Depression into ruin are impressive.  And worth hunting down.


Next to the Darwin House is the Visitor Center Pavilion by New York architect Toshiko Mori, all light and reflecting surfaces, distinguishing itself from Frank Lloyd Wright’s earthy palette rather than risking the battle.

Back home in time for the Easter hunt.  Chocolate ‘buffalo’ wings to go.  May yours bring you many unimaginable surprises.