Monday, October 3, 2011

POLIS University | Metro_POLIS Studio

Designing with ideas

We leave the big city’s center. Direction: Durrës. Initially, the flow of traffic is slow. Later it accelerates, naturally, after each roundabout jam left behind. The highway’s entry point gets increasingly closer, the road widens and, with it, the sizes of the surrounding buildings. This segment is one of the most developed, construction-wise, and has the greatest visibility in the country, a place in which the Albanian capitalism shows its most prestigious face. It would not be entirely wrong to call it Motor City or Motown, a dynamic developing area, a symbol of the country’s relatively small economical achievements.

The speed increases but the surrounding landscape remains the same. Mingled with the endless advertising billboards, on both sides there are one after the other a plethora of buildings that become increasingly bigger and further apart. Completely different in appearance. A whole city is growing along this street, built so as to be admired by the interior of a vehicle that moves at a speed of 100 or more kilometers per hour. The eye sees cupolas, pyramids, Greek (frontone), buildings ruled by symmetry, pseudo-deconstructive objects, façades de stijl, structures that seem to have been catapulted from Corbusier’s blocks, concrete, marble or aluminum(ballina),all the actors of the kitsch though interesting ensemble that is being erected along the perspective which is cut by the major gate of Tirana.
Actually, if we stop and judge in strictly architectural terms, we would notice that in the multitude of elements that compose these buildings, there is a clear absence of character. There exists a “silent” race to be noticed, translated in a variety of colors, shapes, and materials, or in the plasticity of the facades which are completely unconnected with the content/interiors. In terms of dimensions and “decorations” the architectural elements that are often observed are enlarged copies of each other, rather than updates of classic and contemporary originals.

After a few kilometers, on the right, while the silhouette of the city left behind begins to fade, another building appears. It is not bigger or higher than the others, on the contrary. It is obvious that its volumes do not feel the need to show off with space-invading acrobatics or to dress itself with all kinds of clothes which often serve as masks that hide emptiness of any content. Its volumes are simple, calm, designed in clean lines and lucidly measured, natural extensions of the interior spaces. The clarity of shapes radiates clarity of thought and wisdom. The appearance fully corresponds to the function of this building. This building is an architectural school, POLIS University, a Bauhaus object of today, which with its architectural language tries to oppose the context’s inappropriateness. One of the unique characters of the first manifestation until now and evidence that you can stand out without making noise.
Mainly during the hours of the day, the view of the building is dominated by the two symmetrical bodies of the central façade. They stand dignified, made to look even graver by the grayish stone of its surface. Inherently one feels that they are much more than the function that moves in the interior. They are many things simultaneously. They are the frame of a tableau that mentally transports you away from the everyday banality. The watch towers that rise on the sides of the gate physically transport you to another “polis”, a different one from the city just left behind. In between the side scenes, a real architectural story is taking place, one that is built based on ideas thought by devoted authors, with a clear subject that stands as an antithesis to the urban tragicomedy that surrounds it.
You turn, enter in the main yard and stop in front of the façade which despite its modesty of shape radiates greatness. It is obvious that what you are about to pass is not a simple threshold.  In between the massive blocks that are visible from afar stands the 20 meter transparent curtain of the glass façade, while behind it stands the crux of the architectural journey which we are preparing to begin. The curtain allows the uniform surge of the external space into the interior. Another transparent curtain is placed over this one, smaller in size, which corresponds with the entrance. This movement followed by the stools in the yard helps the natural blending of the monumental scale of the façade with the human scale. Despite all these architectural elements that aim at making the instant of entering the building as easy as possible, the weight of its importance is even more powerfully felt. A few steps ahead, an entire other “world” stands, the beginning of the architectural story of which you are now a part.
A building belongs to the surrounding environment and is an inseparable part of it, gives and takes with it, and cannot be seen as removed from it. In the environment in question a new architectural type is noticed, one that is supposedly influenced by the rectilinear character of the highway. It is the type of building built intelligently. The entire care and attention focus on the front part of the objects, thus creating contrasting ensembles. It seems that this building cannot avoid such an approach, yet it achieves it in entirely original way. This school is not constructed from scratch but encroaches on something pre-existing. A number of questions arise. What must be done in such cases? What is the most honest approach? How do you adapt to an existing building? Do you hide it, hide from it, or do you co-exist with it? The history of this place is apparently older. It has an industrial past that must be preserved to an extent. This building does not start with POLIS University and the university does not start with this building. From the perspective of the finished architectural object, it could be said that the previous identity is preserved, is present, and the industrial past can still be detected today. The new and the old continue to stand as two parts of a whole, converse with the mutual simplicity and content of the shapes, yet differ in the treatment of the dress, one black and the other one white.

It is time to step inside. Open one of the central gates. From the infinite external space the movement surges in through the entrance’s narrowed transparent cube thus extending the instant of this passage in time. You pass through a second gate and immediately you find yourself inside. A vortex of volumes, spaces, and movement suddenly overtakes you. You might feel unprepared, without words and overwhelmed by a number of sensations. Everything is abrupt; you are immediately in the center of things, in the heart of the building, now a part of it. A bit later, while the senses start to adapt to the new environment, the collage of perceptions becomes clearer.
The waiting hall, the largest area of this school and its essence.  It is the most communal environment and it really belongs to everyone. The eye sees no walls but only spaces that intertwine with each other and are generated there. Here everything comes to life, becomes one, borders fade away; there are no differences except those between the past and present. In the 15 meters of its height appear all the composing elements of the building. The stairs, the strongest connecting element, structure this hall and make the story even more accessible. By ascending the stairs, you can begin the informative architectural journey that changes with each step. The perspectives are unpredictable; they open up the building in every direction by connecting it with the surrounding landscape. In a collective tableau mingle views from the interior volumes which flow in the space of the hall, the view of vehicles which rush speedily in the highway, the city’s silhouette intermingled with the hills beyond, the mountain of Dajt. While inside the building, you feel the freedom of being outside, in the open air, a sensation that is reinforced by the transparent curtain of the façade. The urban story is always present in the background and at the same time a part of the architectural story that you are experiencing. Ascending, you are surrounded by the whiteness of the smooth plaster and the transparency of glass. The materials used are few; the architecture is free to express itself with all the power that flows from the rich, three dimensional vocabulary of lines, forms, volumes. Space can flow into each of its corners.   

Only one compositional element differs from the others. It is flat, reflective, and has very vivid colors. It seems that the wave of sensations which overwhelms you as you enter the building is materialized here. It is the floor of the hall which is a mosaic of nuances of green that become increasingly brighter. All the surrounding space is reflected on it, the different itineraries of the movement that layer over one another, the clean shapes of the circular lights, and all the other volumes that appear on it. For an instant, it is almost impossible to distinguish whether the design of this “carpet” is generated by the surrounding space or if it is the space which is born from this two-dimensional plane. 
The ascent continues. It is a process during which the building becomes increasingly more familiar, dearer to you. The people who move in it, ascend with you, walk through hallways, read, talk with each other, laugh; the students walking out of the classrooms are the lymph that gives it life. The walk ends on the highest floor. At a point, the name Motoen is distinguished. It is a cafeteria, canteen, restaurant, call it whatever you prefer. It is one of the many communal spaces of the building. Here the end of the journey begins. This final space does not have any divisive blocks; indeed, transparency is the sovereign. The sight is free to stop anywhere in the live, 360 degrees panorama, a real proof of the incorporation of content and context. Here you can sit and perhaps think of a million things and why not, even the journey you just undertook. There, from the building’s highest point, try to distinguish the steps of this journey, to retrace them in your mind; the hall, the square in front of the building, the street that takes you to the capital, and the accompanying allegory.

We leave POLIS University. Direction: Tirane. It could be the moment of the day when dusk descends. If yes, then turn around and look back. Other details which you might have missed might appear. The Bauhaus writing of the façade, the hall lights that slowly become brighter, the space which becomes more alive under the invading light, the symmetrical bodies of the façade which slowly grow more distant, melding with the darkness of the coming night. The essence of the architectural story that we just experienced is now the only visible compositional element, even from far away. The clear and strong light that could help you find your way back through the noise of the highway.  

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