Florian Beigel: Architecture as city

Biba Dow, ‘Florian Beigel: Architecture as city’, in: Building Design (London, UK: April 2010)

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The Architecture Research Unit director talked about his preoccupation with literal and abstract cities

Florian Beigel’s presentation of the work of the Architecture Research Unit (ARU), the practice he shares with Philip Christou, opened with a slide of the Half Moon Theatre on London’s Mile End Road, completed in 1985 and one of the practice’s first works. This “small world of theatres” forms a dense and layered series of spaces, some internal, some external, held together and brought to life by the way people move between and occupy the spaces. With its exposed blockwork walls, the studio theatre was built with a rugged and modest clarity which exaggerates the spatial richness of the spaces.

The Half Moon explicitly draws on medieval theatre design, with galleried and interconnected spaces. Recalling the compressed layering of the scena frons in its internal elevations, it inverts the external layered city on to the interior of this theatre space. Its site appears excavated into the urban block, with the building unfolding behind its narrow street frontage with a series of interconnected courtyards and theatre spaces, extending the city into an internal landscape with compelling vigour.

Beigel described the practice’s interest in the inhabited city through references to paintings and places the spaces between Morandi’s jars and bottles, in festival spaces and within Scharoun’s Berlin library. Particularly enjoyable were the drawings of medieval cities, with their multi-perspectival depiction of space and scale.

This awareness of proximities between buildings is exemplified in the practice’s careful placing of a new house in the landscape gardens at the Hadspen estate in Somerset. The building, recently granted planning approval, connects to existing planted routes, openings and enclosures, teetering alongside the gardener’s cottage uncovered from its ruins.

The same awareness informs the skewed portico in front of ARU’s recently completed YoulHwaDang Book Hall in Paju Book City, South Korea, where a widened pavement and the portico supporting a tea room above form a threshold to the building.

Beigel explained that making models as part of the design process is an important part of the practice’s work. They give special attention to elevations, which are carefully delineated, every opening and surface a part of a compositional whole, each a city in itself. While materials and means of construction are clearly and carefully considered, they are condensed into a tectonic cloak to the building form. The stone and brick cladding at Hadspen, the concrete relief to the Book Hall, the brick curtain wall cladding of the Positive Thinking Publishing House (also in Paju Book City) are deliberately, consciously thin. They form a taught edge to the public realm, like the Half Moon’s “scenic street”, recalling images of medieval cities and presenting what the practice calls the “civility” of the city.

The practice’s work spans a huge cultural field with ease, from Hadspen’s landscape gardens and the village life of Lambourn, Berkshire, to pieces of new city on the outskirts of Seoul.

The extended series of projects in Paju City demonstrate the architect’s empathy with the Korean understanding of space. The Korean word for space, “kong-dan”, translates to English as “emptiness”: a positively charged emptiness which resonates with the preoccupations of the practice, where the spaces in-between hold a charged emptiness awaiting the life of its citizens.

ARU's Poti peoples publishing house

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