Saturday, March 10, 2012

Accordions in architecture

I'm no architecture buff but I do enjoy structures. People spend a lot of time inside various enclosures, and whether or not they are aware of it, they are appreciating the architecture while they are there. This is for better or worse because a miserable building is as easy to appreciate as a beautiful one. For instance I have found myself, numerous times, standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles appreciating its most noticeable qualities. The lack of natural light, claustrophobic hallways, low ceilings and impersonal common areas just scream, "hurry up, buddy, 'cause nothin' makes you special!" Each time I go there with my relevant paper application and two acceptable forms of ID, I feel like a character in Terry Gilliam's Brazil and I want to leave as fast as possible. I've also lived in apartments on par with the DMV. Light enters the living room, hits a wall and never makes its way to the bedroom. Those places felt more like caves than homes, yet I appreciated them, too.

But not every building is the physical embodiment of a soulless municipal organ like the DMV. I work in a lovely library that is housed in an uplifting structure. It looks like a fortress on the outside, or a castle, but inside it is more like a palace. It has huge windows in each wall and an upstairs gallery that overlooks the immense, vaulted space above the main floor. During daytime hours, buckets of light pour into the building, creating the perfect atmosphere for illuminating interests. The light touches everything. While browsing, the vaulted ceilings give you an airy, comfortable feeling. This is head space in the literal sense, encouraging patrons to dive into their searches and let their imaginations swim through new ideas. This large space is also an echo chamber. Soft, distant murmuring voices and hushed whispers surround you on all sides like voices from the past or perhaps the gentle whisper of the muses. It's a nice space to occupy and I am happy to work within it each day. I've found that in terms of attitude and disposition, Orem librarians are the antithesis of the clerks at the DMV, and the structure housing our place of employment has a lot to do with that. Above and at right you'll find a photo of the library's North Wing, which is a little different than the South Wing, but has many of the same features including plentiful natural light, a vaulted ceiling, and an upstairs gallery. Come and visit!

The word "accordion" has entered common parlance as a term to describe virtually anything that is collapsible like an accordion bellows. It is also used to describe things that merely resemble an accordion's bellows. In architecture, the accordion shape may not always be collapsible, but it has other uses. It can make a structure visually appealing or exciting to look at. Staggering areas of smaller spaces also allows the architect to divide a larger space in a more useful way. This apartment building outside of Seattle is a good example. By placing rectangular apartments at an angle to the street, small private spaces were created for balconies. Adjacent balconies do not peer into one another, and their walls create a noise barrier between units. An extra wall for windows allows more light to enter the apartment than if the wall were parallel with the street, and the whole structure is more attractive. I guess the downside might be that one of your windows, the one in the corner, looks right at the neighbor's place. But seriously, have a look at that monstrosity looming up in the distance. It looks like Cold War era housing from the former Soviet Union. I'd much rather live in the funky little building shaped like an accordion bellows. Wouldn't you? Look, there's even room for your BMW out front.

Occasionally, accordion-like structures are intended to collapse, as in temporary structures. These can be erected when needed and folded up for easy space-saving storage when not in use. The Accordion reCover Shelter by Yanko Design, seen at left, is one such accordion structure designed for emergencies. Its designers claim the folds can be used to collect water, and it can be set up easily by one person. The bottom photo (I know it's small) shows that two adults may stand side-by-side in the center of the structure. Personally, I'd rather learn to erect a tipi and keep its parts in my garage or yard than try to live in the reCover Shelter. How are you supposed to cook in that thing? Temporarily, I know. But you'll notice any storage space in its flanks will quickly occupy the living and sleeping space and there are no vestibules for your gear. I know, I know.. it's an emergency shelter. Like a 72-hour thing. But still. I think it could be improved.

Maybe you'd rather live in a real accordion? That's what the owners of a San Francisco music school thought when they designed their storefront to look like a giant accordion. Wild buildings like this used to be more common in the United States and persist in areas where residents could defeat zoning and architectural control laws. I love the old boat parked out by the curb: two tone, hardtop, white walls, plenty of chrome. You can see some of the mid-century design similarities between automobiles and accordions. Classy stuff, indeed. Unlike the apartment building in Seattle two photos up, this accordion shape is quite literally an accordion shape, and it doesn't have any architectural value except to serve as an eye-catching landmark or perhaps drum up business for the music school. And unlike the collapsable reCover Shelter by Yanko Design, it is not collapsible and doesn't look like it would weather storms or earthquakes very well. But it's fair to say that it probably wasn't intended to do any of these things.

This building belongs to the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Trossingen. Many accordionists will recognize Trossingen as the home and birthplace of Hohner accordions. Hohner is still there and so is its legacy. What not a better place for a music school than Trossingen? The Hochschule Trossingen contributes to local arts, music and culture through outreach programs and international pedagogy. Its teaching focuses on practical experience and offers lectures, workshops, and symposia. I really like this building. It may only be my imagination, but when I see this music school located in the accordion heartland of Germany, I am driven to interpret accordion components in its architecture. The vertical and horizontal bars covering the corner window look like rods from the bass action in a large accordion. The windows on the ground floor look like the uniform apertures in a slide mechanism, opening to reed chambers. The large squarish window in the side of the building reminds me of a reed plate, and the color of the building has the look of an accordion's aluminum faceplate. If there were shutters, I'm sure I'd think they look like pallets, too. I have never visited Trossingen but from looking at photos of this building, my only negative criticism of the structure is that it clashes dramatically with the traditional German architecture surrounding it. Is it appropriate? I've always thought that the accordion seems antiquated in the age of information, a little out of place. There's hardly anything fast or sexy about an accordion. It can't send text messages and it doesn't get very many likes on Facebook. So in my opinion, although this building's style interferes with that of its neighbors, at least it's doing so in a way that s obtusely consistent with local history. In Trossingen, it seems, the past is meeting the present right down to the very architecture. And that, I think, is a wonderful metaphor. 

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