Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Curtain Calls
“Look at what architecture CAN’T do!” exclaims Petra Blaisse half way through this tome of a book about the work of her Inside Outside studio. A full-bleed, double-page image shows a yellow silk curtain billowing out of the sash window of a grey apartment building in Amsterdam.

Filled with delicious images of the interior and landscape design projects for which she has become renowned, Inside Outside is the first book to attempt to capture 20 years’ worth of Petra Blaisse’s work; work that manipulates the fertile thresholds between inside and outside, architecture and everything else.

We have a copy of the 2007 version of Inside Outside in the office, and it has assumed the role of one of those big, beautiful, image-rich, design scrap-books that one thumbs through for inspiration. Full of colours, textures, snap-shots of process, notes, sketches and the odd essay. A place to stick post-it notes.

I didn’t think of it as a book to read from cover to cover. This was reinforced by the mildly irritating anti-introduction that starts on the front cover in almost illegible typeface, inviting a relaxed pick-and-mix engagement with the book.

However, a proper read of Inside Outside reveals that it is more than just another attractive dip-dab digest. Hidden within graphic designer Irma Boom’s scrap-book aesthetic is a genuinely engaging exposition of Blaisse’s method, practice and projects.

A mixture of transcribed interviews with Blaisse and original essays from a range of contributors, hidden within a superabundance of photographs, film stills and drawings; the book covers over 40 projects. These range from exhibition designs and interiors to urban landscape master plans. However, the majority of the book is given over to seven major projects including SANAA’s Glass Pavilion; Tim Ronalds’ Hackney Empire and OMA’s Casa da Musica.

Each of these projects is described in a refreshingly straight-forward and infectiously cheerful running commentary from Blaisse, covering the stories of the projects from their inception - through testing and production - to post-occupation.

What becomes clear is Blaisse’s skill at being able to find and carefully manipulate the boundaries between the inadequacies of architecture and the wonderfully messy contingencies of world around it to encourage all kinds of positive participation. In his accompanying essay, Chris Dercon describes this as “creating space for otherness”.

This is probably best exemplified in Blaisse’s mastery of the design of curtains.

A still from a film of the Villa Dall’Ava describes this at its simplest and most powerful. Captured in time, a column of yellow silk curtain billows in a draught from an open door, creating a constantly changing room within a room. The straight-laced architecture is challenged and enhanced by “…something far more like the child’s variable free play” to quote Stanford Kwinter. Here, a simple curtain adds the positive charge of change, time, ambiguity, otherness, opportunity, complexity and texture to the otherwise relatively dumb architecture. Blaisse says that ‘folds make noise’.

Blaisse’s generous and careful application of ‘noise’ – often through the use of light and sound regulating curtains - challenges the totalizing and unambiguous blandness of much architecture. It ruffles architecture’s feathers.

Curtains? Really?

Tim Ronalds’ short essay in Inside Outside is revealing. Having worked with Blaisse on the Mick Jagger Centre and the Hackney Empire Ronalds describes a journey through practice from an architect’s familiar preference for ‘bare rooms’ and ‘hard surfaces’ to a belief that curtains ‘make a primal connection between space and people: the stuff that wraps our bodies and touches our skin becomes an element of architecture’. Curtains ‘make for performance’.

In her landscape projects, Blaisse has successfully translated her mastery of using curtains to create ‘space for otherness’ in to a way of manipulating the contemporary urban environment to similar effect.

In her project for a State Detention Centre in Nieuweigen in the Netherlands, Blaisse manipulates the gap between the ‘meaningless boxes’ of the business park in which the detention centre is located and the ‘extremely homogenous and methodical’ identikit architecture of the detention centre itself, turning the space in to a programmed landscape of activity and ambiguity, illusions, opportunity and provocation.

This project, and others by Blaisse, challenge the still-prevalent idea of landscape as mere green ‘filler’ for the space left over around buildings and after planning, instead, seeing it as an opportunity for the positive synthesis and charging of architecture, nature, interior and exterior.

In her commentary, Blaisse returns to Nieuweigen seven years after completion and charts how the spaces of the project had been used and abused over time. “It was exciting to see the gardens have been used and used and used!” she writes, enthusiastically. This enjoyment of witnessing and valuing usage and change displays a sensibility that is strangely rare amongst designers, and reflects what I find special about Petra Blaisse.

I would have liked to have seen more of this book’s 540 pages devoted to this kind of post-occupancy observation. After all, enjoying what architecture CAN’T do is essential to making a better architecture. As Le Corbusier said upon learning that his Pessac housing project had been altered by its inhabitants:

“You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong”
   
Published by Vincent Lacovara
A Review of ‘Inside Outside’; a book about the work of the studio of Petra Blaisse.
Shorter version published in the RIBA Journal
March, 2010