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"Polyark" Blog: 30 Arch. Students Circle the Globe

Editor’s Note: More than 30 architecture and landscape architecture students from Ball State University, along with two of their professors, have embarked on a three-month, 23-country tour to explore some of the globe’s great buildings and urban environments. As they circle the globe on their “Polyark World Tour,” the students will send regular reports to, sharing their impressions, experiences—and lots and lots of images.


Barcelona, Spain: A Gaudi Pilgrimage

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All photos © Kathryn Marinaro

The Polyark group devoted an entire day to Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) and his works in Barcelona. The Casa Mila was the first extended stop on this pilgrimage of expressionism. 

The residential building’s scale was moderate, but the form and detailing was exquisite.  The building seemed alive with its bone-like columns and curving flesh walls. I could almost see it expand and contract as this beast of a building breathed in and out. 

The materials were an interesting part of the construction. The scrap wrought-iron guard-rails stood out from the moderately smooth, cream-colored stone behind. I cannot even imagine trying to design and build this shapely structure. 

Supposedly Gaudi never did construction drawings for the Casa Mila; he merely built a model and let the contractor figure out how to build it. This way of architecture seems impossible, but we are growing closer to paperless design with the current use of CATIA and BIM systems.

I was able to walk around the first floor of the building, currently used as an exhibition space, and experience the interior elements. The ceiling fluctuated as the room progressed, the entire first floor being an open plan. 

Even though the ceiling was motionless, its flowing form conveyed eddies of water swirling around light fixtures, columns or nothing at all. The walls were all painted white, and the exhibit walls covered many of the organic windows and nooks. 

The interior courtyards contained stairways snaking around and up to the floors above.  Daylight filtered down the courtyard walls, casting shadows on the fluctuations even within the building.

We moved to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished church. The scale was much different than Casa Mila: massive with four tall towers across the front and many smaller towers, buttresses and adornments below. 

Cranes framed the church as scaffolding filled its belly, showing signs of progress and hopes of finishing. (Construction halted for many years after Gaudi’s death, no one knowing quite how to finish his masterpiece.) 

Currently the estimated completion is 2035, although no one actually knows if the church will ever be finished.  This question is what draws people to the building—along with its enigmatic structure with different styles on front and back, top and bottom.

Gaudi’s expressionist designs are whimsical and organic, different from the glass skyscrapers, such as the Agbar Tower, that are starting to pop up faster and faster throughout Barcelona. His unique style brings visitors to not only see the design, but to experience the space it creates inside. 

—Kathryn Marinaro, sent February 11, 2007



Barcelona, Spain: A Little Gem in a Big City

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All photos © Christopher Alexander

Hidden away in the large city of Barcelona, in between the Agbar Tower and the Mediterranean Sea, lies a small church with a unique past.          

Designed for the 1992 Olympics by Josep Benedito Rovira and Agustin Mateos Duch, the Centre Abraham now stands as a Christian church, but once served as a place of worship for three distinct faiths.

Named for the patriarch who figures prominently in the Torah, Koran and Bible, the center, situated within the Olympic Village complex, was designed to be used for services for Muslim, Jewish and Christian athletes who were competing in the 1992 Olympics.

The building is in a shape of a fish, respecting the strong seaport society in which it is situated. The curved walls seem to invite one in; one can imagine the building bursting with energy with the various competitors joining to worship in their own way.

The intimate interior is penetrated by light from three sides. The front allows light to come from the top of a wall, giving a definitive direction to look; or allowing one to focus on one’s inner self.

Although the Centre Abraham is overshadowed by many other buildings in Barcelona, one should make a point to seek out this unique experience.

—Christopher Alexander, sent February 1, 2007



Madrid, Spain: Plaza for the People

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A view of the plaza in front of the public library in Usera, a suburb of Madrid.

Because most local homes lack yards, the plaza in Usera becomes a de facto playground for the neighborhood's children.

The city's narrow and crowded sidewalks make the plaza a popular place for the elderly looking for a safe place to stroll.
Photos: © Kristin Andre

The discussion of urban planning projects often leads to a common question: “How can designers make a public space successful?”

While in Madrid, I visited the public library in Usera, a dense suburb of Madrid. Even though the library was closed (much to my disappointment), and it was January, the adjacent plaza was modestly populated with a variety of users, ranging from older men taking leisurely walks to children playing soccer. 

There were no attractions drawing people to this space, but they came anyway. I recalled my studies of William H. Whyte’s theories of successful urban plazas, but virtually none of those qualities was present here!

While the criteria for [what constitutes] a successful public space may vary from person to person, my observations of how people were using this space were evidence, to me, of a successful plaza. The only question that remained was why.

While I’m sure several factors contribute to the successful use of this Usera plaza, many of them cultural norms of which I am not aware, my walk through the surrounding neighborhoods revealed some key architectural factors contributing to the plaza’s success. 

Usera seemed to be organized by a pattern I will call “controlled congestion.”  Like many other European cities, Usera was dominated by one-lane roads and narrow sidewalks, a scene quite picturesque for the American traveler, but probably not as comfortable for a local resident. I realized that this congestion of the city was what funneled the residents towards the library plaza.  

Children played soccer in the plaza because they didn’t have a backyard to play in, and older men took walks because the sidewalks were narrow and crowded. The Usera plaza was not designed as an attraction, but as a refuge and a space that serves the innate needs of the city’s residents and naturally balances the congestion of the surrounding neighborhoods.

As designers, we all would like to create spaces that are “successful,” but success should not be the goal in designing public spaces. Perhaps our eagerness to create bustling urban plazas only creates an overabundance of competing public spaces, requiring certain “attractions” to draw users. 

The design of public space cannot be isolated from the workings of the overall city and the needs of its residents. The success of the Usera plaza was not in its design or attractions, but its integration with the patterns of the city and response to the needs of the people.

—Kristin Andre, sent January 22, 2007



Granada, Spain: Moorish Palaces

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An exterior view of the Alhambra palace complex, on a hilltop outside Grenada, Spain.
All photos © Kathryn Marinaro

The city of Alhambra, situated on the hill above Granada, contains the best-conserved palaces of its kind [from the time when the Moors ruled Spain]. Moorish design creates ornate detailing to a degree that surprised me with its complexity and detail: The decorations consist of geometric patterns, organic designs and Arabic lettering, mostly “There is no victory without Allah.” 

The elaborate details, however, are not perfect. The designs purposefully build in a fault to show that only Allah can achieve perfection; mere humans cannot. 

Glazed tile lines the walls of the palaces to shoulder height; sculptured pieces fill the rest of the walls, placed higher to prevent damage from passersby. 

The materials were an unexpected surprise: All of the intricate wall sculptures are actually made with plaster, and the majority were cast from the same molds, taking much less time than traditional stone carving would. 

Currently, the wall adornments stand mostly intact, but plain in color. But the space lit up in my mind when I imagined the bright colors of the original paint on the sculptural pieces, the elaborate rugs covering the floors and the stunning stained glass present in all the windows. 

This truly was the greatest Moorish palace of its time, and we are very lucky that it is still in such great condition, even without its paint, carpets, or windows.

—Kathryn Marinaro; sent January 19, 2007