I’ve been lucky enough in the last eighteen months to have been involved in a long running project with IBM’s Academy of Technology which has taken me to various IBM sites around the world. My favourite so far has been Somers, designed by the architect I.M. Pei, but La Gaude, in the hills above Nice runs it a close second.
Needless to say, my personal experience of local accommodation came a distant second to the splendour of the architecture. This has been a recurring theme in my travels. Usually determined by the same logic. I elected to stay in a hotel close by, which turned out to possess all of the charm and indeed some of the architectural features of the Bates Motel. The identity of said hotel shall remain a secret, but for those, like me, expecting to work at La Gaude, I can in good faith recommend alternative accommodation on the medieval town of Vence, about five miles distant.
Back to the lab. this extraordinary example of 1960’s brutalism was designed by the Hungarian modernist Marcel Breuer and built between 1960 and 1962. It’s worth repeating a story here that plays on the fact that the IBM building was supposed to have been one of his favourites.
Breuer’s Architecture went through five recognisable phases and this example using modular prefabricated concrete facades was the first in a phase that went on to dominate an entire town at Flaine.
Accused by critics of being perhaps a little repetitive, Breuer responded somewhat peevishly: “I can’t design a whole new system every Monday morning.”
I’m not sure that even IBM can design a new system every Monday morning, but I like the retort, especially in the context of La Gaude.
One of the things about these buildings is that they embody the kind of bold statement that one might expect from one of the world’s largest and most successful corporations of a certain time in history. I doubt we’ll see this type of statement again, indeed many of the IBM sites are being returned to the wild, a reflection of changing times and changing workplaces. Most of our work is done these days from home or from customer sites, the offices being required only for research and development, customer demonstrations and administration. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back and we’ll see another phase of these grand designs.
Finally, a detail from the front of the building, shot in the early morning sunshine, accentuating the shadows and bringing out the best I think of this type of architecture. I used a wide angle lens to get this shot, accentuating the curves and really maximising the geometry. These buildings really are breathtaking, the scale and scope of the project being quite vast.
So, on to Dublin next week. Not sure what I will find by way of architecture, but it’s a great city and I’m looking forward to the couple of days I’ll be spending there.
A trip to New York a couple of weeks ago brought surprises on many different levels. Firstly a reunion with an old school friend I had not seen for forty years, secondly a night in a hotel that put Alan Partridge to shame and thirdly a close up look at the architecture of I.M. Pei in the shape(s) of the IBM site at Somers NY.
To begin at the beginning, as regular readers will have realised, I’m on something of a world tour, beginning last October I’ve visited China, India (twice), France, Spain (three times), and now America. Some of this has been work; I’m involved in Communications Skills training with IBM and have been delivering a course to members of the IBM Academy, the future technical leaders of the company. The trip to New York came hard on the heels of a trip to India and my rudimentary preparation involved using the IBM chosen travel agent to book my hotel, car and flights.
Arriving in New York, I headed straight for the Hertz desk to collect my car, only to discover there was no sat nav available. A couple of minutes of negotiation secured an upgrade to a premium class, 4 wheel drive, fully automatic Mercedes in glistening white, with Sat Nav installed. I’d never driven an automatic before and more to the point, never driven in NYC before. Unwitting, I set off to recreate my very own “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Leaving JFK, I quickly became lost and hurtled into the Bronx, a borough of legendary delinquency. Cruising the streets of this neighbourhood proved to be disappointingly normal – no angry mobs gathered to torch my vehicle, no gunfights were observed and there was not a siren to be heard. I used the opportunity merely to familiarise myself with the sat nav and the automatic transmission and very soon found my way back onto the highway.
Seventy miles north of New York City is a place called Somers, a tiny New England town, that hosts one of IBM’s many office complexes and research labs. The buildings appear from the highway to float amongst the trees, and it was not until the next day that I was able to get close to this self advertised “futuristic fortress”.
First I was to navigate to Dansbury, Connecticut where my hotel was situated. I’d chosen the hotel on the basis of being out in the woods and towns of New England which I was keen to photograph, yet close enough to commute to Somers where I was going to be working.
Inevitably, nothing went according to plan. I arrived at the Hotel to find a JCB digging up the car park and inside, a fine layer of plaster dust covering the dust sheets that were draped over every stick of furniture in reception. Something told me this was not going to be a long stay. I checked in and made my way to my room, which featured a microwave cooker, a coffee machine with no coffee to be seen and a view right onto the building site behind the hotel. Alan Partridge would have been ecstatic, I was exhausted and unimpressed. I decided to post a satirical rant on Facebook and turn in for the night. Five minutes after posting I got a message from my old school friend Dana Wiehl, who, it turned out, lived only ten miles from Dansbury in a house with a spare room! The power of social media knows no bounds. I moved to Bridgewater and stayed the rest of the week. Wonderful to find out about old friends and to catch up after so long.
The next morning, I set off for Somers and the IBM complex. I’d seen the buildings from the road, but close up they are astounding. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, this site is nothing less than inspirational. There are four buildings in a 730 acre estate, each building is triangular and topped with a glass pyramid. Arriving early in the morning, there was not a human being to be seen, and I was able to roam the estate photographing the buildings from a variety of angles. Extraordinary architecture, designed by I. M. Pei. To my untrained eye this is the finest example of modernist architecture I’ve seen. An absolute joy to be around. I was fortunate to get the most fantastic light, which really shows these buildings off to their best.
Inside, with the exception of the glass pyramid the buildings are disappointingly corporate, but I suppose reality has to impact at some point. I’ve never looked forward so much to going to work as I did at this location, and that is in large part down to the vision of the architect and the boldness of the commission. Hats off to all concerned. The course I should say was also a pleasure. A great bunch of people (as they have been all over the world) and an experience perhaps summarised best by the feedback from one of the attendees, delivered in that inimitable New York style: “A life changing experience, but hey..we’ve gotta get you a new hairdresser!”
Paul Strand was an American photographer and film maker whose work I was only vaguely familiar with, as one of a number of modernist photographers who helped establish the form in the United States during the mid 20th Century. That was before I discovered this book and the fascinating story behind it.
Strand was a Marxist connected to, though apparently never a member of, the Communist Party and through his work with a company called Frontier Films fell foul of the McCarthy regime and found himself branded as “un-american” and “subversive”. Never a man to shirk a fight, his response was to insist on having his work printed in Eastern Germany on the pretext that the print process could only be found in the Eastern Bloc.
He arrived in Scotland, with the FBI in close attendance, at the same time as the American military began surveying the island of South Uist in the Hebrides to see if it were suitable to host a long range missile site. That the project should yield one of the definitive documents of the Hebridean way of life and perhaps the definitive work of Scottish photography is extraordinary under the circumstances.
Written in collaboration with Basil Davidson, the book contains a set of monochrome photographs that span portraiture, landscape and documentary in the main, supplemented with textures of stone and sky, thatched roofs and reeds. As an impression of that bleak landscape, I’ve never seen better, indeed never seen anything even approaching this standard.
Although the book is a political project it is not overtly political. It tells a story, the story of the islanders, of their values and relationship with the land and the sea, with work and the weather. In so doing, Strand asserts that the islanders are and continue to be a viable community, not to be ruthlessly ignored and exploited for political gain.
I love this book, both for the writing and the photography. It is an extraordinary achievement for an outsider to capture so accurately the soul of a community, but capture it he did. He tells the story of these islands in the hope that they might be left alone. In fact, the book was immediately banned in the USA and the rocket ranges are still there, under the management of corporations supplying the defence industry.
In somewhat prescient fashion, the book ends with the following quote: “A comic mythology sometimes found elsewhere has liked to paint the Hebrideans as pawky spongers on the governmental purse, preferring charity to fending for themselves…” Sound familiar?