To graft

by diego terna

text published on C3 Magazine, n.311


10 years later, an album


Sometimes you must wait ten years to listen to a masterpiece.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes your name is The Beatles and you churn out milestones once a year.

But sometimes you must wait, perhaps ten or eleven years.

In 1998, Portished released the CD Live in Roseland New York, a collection of live performances from their astounding first two albums. The Bristol revolution seems to have ended here, with a very brief production, despite the following work by Massive Attack, Tricky and other groups on the Bristol music scene.

Yet, more than ten years later than last unedited collection, Third seems a repetition of a miracle: songs that fit into one another, the creation of an emotional atmosphere and some songs that stand out as masterpieces.

One of these songs is The Rip, the first single: a withering ride, burned in two strophes, built on the juxtaposition of the musical base, underpinned by instruments, and the incredible vocals of Beth Gibbons. Treated as independent objects, they seem to follow parallel paths: the music with a slow gait, initially acoustic, then gradually faster and richer in sounds and instruments; the voice flat and quiet, almost detached from the music. Yet, at the end of the strophe, when the singer comes to the last question (Will I Follow?), the two paths magically cross and the voice grafts itself onto the musical background, as an added instrument. A long note melds instruments into vocals and creates an indefinable lament, not human, not electronic, that becomes a sigh of pure melancholy.

This perfect joint clearly shows the effect of overlap between entities that are separate in space, time, and quality. It seems that the background music has always been there, and can continue into eternity. It is the unique voice that makes the difference. And this unique element places itself in the musical weft in a well-defined temporal point. Now the voice and music follow the same track in unison.

Pre-existences: the turn of the millennium as seen from a museum

Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space – space even more than time.

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934

There are six billion people on Earth. Most of them now live in cities, where the challenge is to find architectural and urban space so that each person can have a home, a school, a museum, and places to eat, play, and learn.

The architecture, therefore, is faced with an issue related to the density according to time and required functions. To do this, the trend for decades, especially in older cities like those of Europe, has been to use disposal areas, especially industrial areas that have been relocated outside the city center or even to other countries, transforming them into residential or recreational areas.

In 2000, London welcomed the new millennium with the opening of a building that will very quickly become a classical masterpiece: the new Tate Modern, designed by Herzog and De Meuron. At a time when all of architecture seemed a simple variation of museum buildings (from the Bilbao Guggenheim a race starts in which the new architecture seems to be able to define itself only through the design of new museums), the Tate provides an emotional example of reuse of historic buildings (although quite recent, like the Bankside Power Station, completed in 1947 and designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott). The Swiss duo manages to surprise visitors by calibrated interventions which highlight the most valuable element of the building: its interior space. Then they proceed with a minimum number of grafts, light volumes that emerge from the high walls of the station, backlit to enhance this sense of lightness. And so the breath breaks at the entrance, where volumes cling to the walls, and a slight descent, seemed to suck us into a whirlwind of emptiness, heights, space, that is the Turbine Hall. The greatness of the Swiss studio lies in having fully assimilated the power of this place and, like the song by Portishead, have grafted a new architectural weft at the right time, creating a whole between the background and the a-solo, between the existing building and new architecture.

A slight note, fluctuating, is the space of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, yet one that is able to drag the emotion of the listener/viewer into a chasm of emotion.

The Tate Modern will be, in the next decade, the paradigmatic example of reuse of architecture, showing the world that one of the qualities of existing spaces will be simply the accommodation of new urban needs, constituting the foundations of what will be new spaces of the future.

Enhanced spaces

The projects presented below tell a story similar to the Tate’s: give new life to buildings constructed between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. All of the projects grasp the potential of existing space, the theme that will constitute the backbone of contemporary design. The old buildings have already built a space that has a value given by its size. In the old industrial buildings, in fact, the voids enclosed by architectural limits are often generous, as is the availability of large heights, wide areas, materials of excellent workmanship. The only action to be developed is the same exploitation of the vacuum that, at the beginning of the millennium, allowed Herzog & De Meuron to give life to an exciting space.

All such projects, through calibrated grafts, fit between the ancient walls, and improve existing spaces. They act as if adding organs to a body, highly valuable, but unable by themselves to respond to all of today’s functional needs. The graft then becomes reinvigoration, a sum that gives a result greater than the value of its individual components.

It is quite curious, then, to see that the grafting usually takes place through the construction of pure forms, which are setting in place as dropped from above to fill holes.

In the Moderna Museet of Malmö , in the Salt Museum in Salins-les-Bains and in the Casa das Caldeiras in Coimbra, the project found its own main icons in three large volumes: the entrance, the distribution and exhibition space of the two museums, and the photographic centre. It is like working in opposition: as the complexity of pre-existences increases, the graft geometrizes, acquires a net limit, a minimal sharpness.

This kind of geometric abstraction, however, was immediately rescued by a daring use of materials with a strong character: a wire, an orange shot in the Moderna Museet; a coating with Corten steel, rusty in Salt Museum; a graceful wooden grille in The Mint Project; the rough concrete in the Casa das Caldeiras.

Again, they build a contrast between the genuine ancient materiality and the contemporary sophistication in research  the right product, the right finishing, but perhaps greater is the difference between the treatment of new interiors, generally white, anodyne and anonymous, and the flighty exteriors as if the interior was completely restrained, almost frightened by the need to perform the chosen functions and then exploded in the outer boxes as released from fear of failure, determined to become recognizable in the city.

What is more evident is that the mechanism reaches extremes in the restaurant of the Salt Museum, where the flat covering of rusted steel becomes a kind of game made by cuts and deformations, an imperious detachment from the existing, to mark a different territory.

But, perhaps, the best example is the Kraanspoor project in Amsterdam, where a volume of glass soars over an ancient craneway: an object of extreme radicalism, which seems to be straight out of one of the worlds designed by Superstudio. It is an endless volume, which creates a dialogue of incredible strength between the old support and the new glass parallelepiped.

None of this is found in the project for the Water Tower in Delft: here the graft is totally interior and the ancient building, therefore, maintains an untouched appearance, that implodes inside with fluid forms, still white, but a white that tends to highlight the complexity of the project, not to undermine it. The tower then builds its newly strengthened body, its skin remains the same and so the outward appearance, the belly, its internal organs, are completely revolutionized. The walls become simple edges, boundaries not to be crossed; in the interior the stairs can fly without fear of an exciting light void.

The volume supported by the walls in the Salt Museum, and the fluctuating stairs of Water Tower bring us back to the last line sung by Beth Gibbons, when two roads, that seemed parallel, add them one to another in a planned chorus that becomes a deep breath. The two bodies, old and young, support each other, bringing back memories of old buildings, to the spaces swarming with activity, given up as dead, suffering from a period of disuse and yet new, move forward into the future. The graft, here, can regenerate what exists and cause a lead in time: a long and deep breath.