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  • Kivi Sotamaa

Superman and Spiderman

Muoto 2002

During the recent months there’s been a critical debate concerning architecture in Helsinki. Kivi Sotamaa participates in the debate by conducting an experiment in his Lab –column: if Spiderman and Superman were architects…What kind of buildings would they design? How would the buildings relate to the existing urban fabric? How would they relate to people?

Superman and Spiderman and distinguished by the way they move – One graciously dances on the surfaces of the city while the other one flies rocketing through concrete walls, if necessary. The Spiderman moves is in interaction with the material reality while the Superman defies gravity.

In Finland and elsewhere many architects belong to Superman’s tribe. They have been involved in numerous significant projects – for example J.S. Siren’s Parliament House, Antti-Matti Siikala’s & Jan Söderlund’s Sanoma House and Viljo Revell’s City Center, i.e. “Makkaratalo-the Sausage Building”. A good foreign example of a Superman design would be Oscar Niemeyer’s fantastic Brasilia. Superman’s designs are discrete heroic objects which form a collage-like relation to existing city fabric. Interaction between user and his architecture is very linear – the human being is in control of the environment. The building contain open plan spaces, which are easily recofigurable by moving non-structural separation walls and by furnishing them in various ways, spaces which would be easy to fly in.

Spiderman’s architecture is not made of discrete objects. The relationship of his buildings to the existing fabric is more complex and multiplicious. His architecture is woven around the existing structures creating various degrees of affiliation between the old and the new. Sometimes it appears his designs dance seductively around the other buildings, sometimes they seem like malicious parasites. Spiderman’s architecture is formally complex and articulated: The material surfaces unveil their potential only when people engage them through play and exploration. Just the kind of architecture children love. When you see images of Spiderman’s architecture, they usually have people in them, whereas in the pictures of Superman’s work you’ll see only clean, beautiful spaces.

Both Superman and Spiderman and heroes and therefore use their reputation to get commissions. Their difference is that superman organises his office hierarchically according to a “master architect” model which has prevailed in architecture since the renaissance. Using his incredible vision and force, the Superman-architect exercises full and complete control over the design process. He commences with a notion of a clear functional problem and derives a formal and material solution relying on his extensive historical knowledge which he acquired from a tuition program is his escape capsule traveling to earth from his doomed home planet. The Spiderman does not operate linearly – he proceeds with small moves, like a judo wrestler - tries something, steps back, looks at what happens, then makes his next move. He does not rely on historical typologies nor does he derive a formal solution directly from a functional problem, because in his world function is a possibility of form rather than the other way around. Spiderman’s office is part of a web formed by collaborative relationships with other supeheros. The architects who best represent Spiderman’s philosophy and his operational mode are young individuals and groups such as Greg Lynn, Foreign Office Architects, NOX, Decoi, Plasma Studio, Office for Information Based Architecture, Servo and Propeller Z, to mention a few.

The work of both of our supeheros is significant. Superman is a veteran and has operated for decades already whereas the Spiderman is a newcomer. However, Superman has recently faced trouble. He has great difficulty of dealing with the unpredictability, complexity and heterogeneity of today’s cities. It has become crucial for an architect to be at ease with the complex, fast developing dynamics between people, societies and the material environments. Spiderman was created to take on this challenge. He does not view the environment as a static material arrangement but as a dynamic structuration of mobile relations in time and across space. However, for an architect the Spiderman is still young and his designs and methods are yet to be put to a test. There are a few more experienced signature architects working in this direction one could mention – architects such as Ben van Berkel, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. Time will show, how the spiders as a breed evolve; whether they will catch good projects in their webs and if they will one day overshadow Supermen as the new urban heroes.


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