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Performing Arts Center

Preston Scott Cohen

Edited By Conrad-Bercah - 8 October 2010
Le Corbusier maintained that “the highest delectation of the human spirit is the perception of order and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaborating or participating in that order.’’ Ruskin, on the other hand, thought great architecture should be “restlessness in spirit, constantly dreaming”. For him, Venetian architecture was filled with playfulness and sweet imperfections: a true mirror of human nature. An organic style, it could tolerate mistakes, roughness and asymmetry since it derived from Nature where there are no “straight lines” or vacuums. I recall these conflicting statements for two reasons. First, because they turn Ruskin into a champion of two increasingly popular trends in contemporary architectural production: the eccentric and the sustainable, whose shapes and concepts are justified by “Nature-driven” rhetoric. Secondly, because there is no architect more interested in such dialect than Preston Scott Cohen. Here is an architect with unrestrained leanings towards both, namely, the rule, the exception, and the myriad surprises that architecture can produce with straight or complex lines alike. “Architecture should look strange” is one of the few slogans attributed to Cohen. Indeed his latest Asian and Middle East work, including the Nanjing Performing Arts Center-an iconic landmark on a new campus site-gives substance to this epithet. His work appears to be the result of a number of life-long ‘quarrels’: with his inner self, with the history of the discipline of architecture and, finally, with the weighty Italian cultural influence. Cohen’s work, in fact, comes after slow decanting of his exposure to all things Italian: from his formative apprentice years in Rome as a RISD student and early exposure to Peter Eisenman’s intellectual obsessions with the rationalist work of Terragni (and Moretti, his baroque counterpart), and with a search for emancipation and autonomy in line with Aldo Rossi, in an attempt to free form of all meaning. It is a struggle that has met with resistance from several quarters. Interestingly, while Eisenman now appears deeply indebted to Terragni, Cohen seems more in tune with Moretti. For both, architecture is an autonomous spatial entity that ultimately takes no account of the human reasoning and labour that went into its making. Around 1950, Moretti used the term “algorithm”, in his magazine, significantly entitled Spazio, to describe the spatial, constructive, plastic and lighting variables that together make up a given structure. Form was a “reality of pure interrelations”. These parameters come together in the Nanjing Performing Arts Center. The site model, the circulation around the tower, indeed the entire complex, is a “kinetic experience” in both form and public reception. The Nanjing Center may be described as appropriately providing new insights into Moretti’s concept of “successive, temporal vision”. It also exemplifies the idea of a building as a ‘temporal stratification’ whatever the budget constraints - in Cohen’s words, a “low-tech building within a scenario of high-tech design strategies”. The definition is strikingly in tune with Cohen’s abiding fascinating since the early Eighties with the stratification of the Rome Forum. In the Nanjing project, all Cohen’s dexterous moves seemed geared to giving a sense of the building’s rhythmic ascension. The rules of gravity appear less simple. Like the church of Sant’Ivo in Rome, natural forces seem strained to the limit, as are the forms. Here Cohen seems to be flagging up the precepts that inform his work in general, which, interestingly, are similar to certain aspects of baroque architecture: adherence to a code through an infinite series of exceptions. As with many baroque buildings, Cohen seems to seek to fuse extremes. Solid foundations are contradicted by subjective movement; rules are immediately contradicted by their exceptions. The very layout is designed to contain contradiction; it is “inventio versus consuetudo” (in the words of Tafuri), a feature that is both fecund and unique in contemporary architecture. What differentiates Cohen from Eisenman is the fact that Cohen shows no trace of “paper architecture”. There is no hint of architecture as a “record of the design process,” which for Eisenman led to badly built structures hostile to all user requirements. What links Cohen and Eisenman? Wikipedia describes Eisenman as a ‘conceptual’ rather than traditional architect whose main aim is to set things in movement by making them incomprehensible, disorganized, and ultimately shapeless in order to reflect the technical, social and ethic changeability of culture. Conceptual architecture aims to make apparent all the steps of the creative process. Cohen’s work can arguably be defined as the flipside of the conceptual coin. His is a preoccupation with the negative interior volume of solid space - like the Sacristy of San Carlo ai Catinari in Rome of 1660 - that connects elements of the past with the issues of the present by means of materials used in a variety of ways. An example is the herringbone array of ceramic tiles in the Nanjing Performing Arts Center that take on the appearance of a metallic surface. For Ruskin, Gothic’s True Nature was “a perpetual novelty”. For Cohen, the True Nature of architecture is arguably “formal novelty” where form tries to achieve an increased intensity of expression in a construction of limited cost.

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