New Books: The Fire Station Charleroi

Charleroi Fire Station - CoverSamyn, Philippe, Alain Sabbe, and Hugues Wilquinn. The Fire Station Charleroi. Tielt: Lannoo, 2016. Print.

Philippe Samyn, the architect behind the Charleroi Fire Station in Charleroi, Belgium, partnered with Alain Sabbe and Hugues Wilquinn to write The Fire Station Charleroi.  The book explores the life led by firemen, the design competition for the building, the plans, the design versus the reality, and the sustainability and artistic nature of the project.

The authors begin by describing the life and work of firefighters. The long hours, the dangers they face, and the different rooms in firehouses.  This builds context for the design of the firehouse and the inspiration behind designing such a grand, beautiful space for these hard-working individuals.  With commentary from the architect throughout, the process of designing the firehouse for the competition is described, as well as the changes made during construction.  The firehouse is unique in its shape – the building is circular.  The selection committee “complained of the maneuvering difficulties fire engines and other emergency vehicles would have due to…insufficient space” (pg. 39).  So, Samyn and his colleagues recommended the circular form, with folding doors to allow easy, quick access in and out of the fire station.  Everything about the station, from its location to its shape to the colors selected are meant to provide comfort and easy accessibility.  Throughout the book are photos and drawings which demonstrate the look, functionality, and details of the Charleroi Fire Station.

Oftentimes, fire stations are small buildings, leading to cramped conditions and difficulty in maneuvering firetrucks in and out of the station.  The Charleroi Fire Station presents an alternative to this: a massive, open facility meant to service firefighters’ needs.  These individuals put their lives on the line every day they go to the station – do they not deserve the very best spaces?  Additionally, the circular garage allows for faster departure times for trucks, and the location of Charleroi on a hill provides easy access to roads, leading to a faster response.  In other words, this beautiful space actually produces improvements in job performance, cutting down on time, which can literally be the difference between life and death for an individual.  While projects like Charleroi are expensive and time-consuming, the impact of the project proves that building high quality, functional, beautiful fire stations improves the experience of firefighters and helps them to save lives – is that not worth every penny?

New Book: Architecture and Justice

Simon, Jonathan, et al., editors. Architecture and Justice: Judicial Meanings in the Public Realm. 2013. New York, Routledge, 2016.

Architecture and Justice - CoverSimon and his co-editors explore the architecture related to the judicial system and the connection between justice and architecture to “examine the effects that architecture has on both the place of justice and on individual and collective experiences of judicial processes” (pg. 1).  The book is organized to transition from individual, intimate stories, to more broad commentary.

The first part discusses prisons and prison cells, including their design and the experience of living in prison.  The authors note that the simple lines, the utilitarian austerity give prisons a contemporary feel.  Prisons are naturally boxy places, due to the presence of square cells, and the architecture often reflects the seriousness of the place, adding to the sensation of being trapped. Next, the courthouse and courtroom are explored, including an essay on a “Virtual Court Pilot” in the United Kingdom, which would allow cases to be heard quickly and efficiently.  Courtrooms, like prisons, are meant to convey a sense of seriousness, but without the austerity of prisons; instead they strive to also demonstrate the importance and morality of the judicial system.  The two remaining parts of the book cover more general topics and explorations of justice and architecture, including articles on the spatial aspects of justice and the role of architects and justice in Athenian dramas. This section examines theoretical and big-picture subjects, ending the book on universal themes connecting architecture and justice.

Almost every city in the United States has a local courthouse or city hall, some place where civic duties take place.  It is a place some people hope to never enter.  Beautiful, imposing buildings that remind us of the laws we abide by.  Or in the case of prisons, boxy, modern buildings that warn us against breaking the code.  The architecture itself is meant to express the grandiosity of the justice system, creating an indelible if subtle connection between justice and the architecture representing it.

Friday Finds: Ancient America

Leonard - CoverJonathan Norton Leonard’s Ancient America (from the series Great Ages of Man: A History of the World’s Cultures) provides a historical overview of the lives and architecture of Native American tribes in South America.  Leonard calls the tribes “a race of master builders” and highlights such achievements as stone cities and Machu Picchu (pg. 43).

In the Introduction by the Peruvian Ambassador to the United Nations, the pre-Spanish history of South America is summarized, providing geographical and historical introduction for the reader that provides background to Leonard’s more detailed writing.  He makes use of primary and secondary sources, as well as his own knowledge and experience, to create a full cultural picture of ancient South America.  Featuring photographs of artifacts and sites in South America, Leonard explores the art, architecture, lives, and cities of these tribes, from their earliest known years to the European conquests. Leonard demonstrates the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan ingenuity in building their cities.  For example, he highlights that Aztecs “soon learned to increase the area of their island by filling marshes with dirt and rocks and by building chinampas, islets made by anchoring wickerwork enclosures to the bottom of the lake and piling them with silt mixed with reeds and refuse” (pg. 64).  Such creativity is what allowed the tribes of the South American world flourish and build some of the most miraculous and mysterious sites in the world, such as their pyramids and Machu Picchu.

Leonard shows great respect and appreciation for the culture and accomplishments of Native Americans in South America, an attitude Leonard - Pageunique in its time.  Ancient America was published in 1967, when the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution was still felt, paranoia about the spread of Communism was at an all-time high, and the superior attitude of the United States’ “Good Neighbor Policy” remained strong.  This era was a time when the field of history began to shift from being completely Eurocentric to thinking globally.  Leonard himself was a longtime correspondent on South American events for TIME Magazine, and even married a Peruvian woman, giving him greater appreciation and admiration for South America than that of many Americans at the time.

Much of modern South American culture is dominated by European (particularly Spanish and Portuguese) influence.  Leonard supplies a much-needed and deserved celebration of pre-European South America.  While today Spanish architecture and social hierarchy remain major aspects of South American culture, the achievements and history of Native American tribes are only just beginning to be recognized.  Leonard celebrated this past in Ancient America when South Americans themselves were just beginning to appreciate it. And how could they not?  They are descendants of the people who built pyramids (the construction of some of which still baffles historians), plowed grandiose patterns in the fields without an aerial view to guide them, and they achieved what was thought impossible and built Machu Picchu, a literal city among the clouds, securing a place of honor for Latin American Native Americans in the canon of master builders.