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Issue 128


Unemployment, the London Olympics, new galleries in Metz and Rome, the Shanghai World Expo and contrasting spa designs

BY Douglas Murphy AND Oliver Elser in Culture Digest | 01 JAN 10

Douglas Murphy

At the start of 2009, the hottest place for an architect to be seen was the dole queue. The crash had hit hard, and the frantic pace of work most architects had been struggling to sustain stopped almost instantly. More than almost any other producers of cultural artefacts, architects depend upon precisely the kind of spectral capital that had evaporated so suddenly, and every week brought news of another stalled or cancelled project, another firm that had made half of its staff redundant. Things looked entirely bleak.

The most potent symbol of this early stage of the year was the gutting by fire of one of Rem Koolhaas & OMA’s two buildings for Chinese Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing. As images of the inferno (caused by illegal celebratory fireworks) swept around the world, commentators used this opportunity to speculate on the death of the ‘Iconic Building’: the shapely yet amorally vacuous edifice that has come to be the defining architectural symbol of 21st-century globalization, and of which OMA’s towers are among the seminal examples. For once Koolhaas was silenced; there was no glib statement the arch-ironicist could make that would put a positive spin on this disaster, and it perhaps seemed that a new sobriety was around the corner.

But somehow our un-dead society keeps lurching on, thoroughly deserving the epithet ‘zombie-capitalism’. All of a sudden we were being told that there were ‘green shoots’ everywhere by exactly the people who’d failed to notice the crash coming in the first place. Only time will tell how lucky we are, but at the end of 2009 we found ourselves in the contradictory situation of being about to witness the completion of the Burj Dubai, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill – it’s one of the great ‘iconic’ architectural symbols of the last ten years and the tallest building in the world by almost 100 metres – even while Dubai, the most populous state in the United Arab Emirates, effectively had to be bailed out by its neighbour Abu Dhabi. It will be interesting to see if anybody attempts a construction quite so mad as this one in the near future.

National Museum of 21st Century Arts (MAXXI), Rome, 2009. Architect: Zaha Hadid. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome

A slight hope we might have is that a previously hidden critical stream in architecture is beginning to receive recognition. Owen Hatherley’s book Militant Modernism was published in 2009; its timely mixture of history and polemic drives home the point that it is both possible and desirable for architectural criticism to rise above the level of a raised eyebrow. Similarly, one of the most exciting and hilarious new architectural blogs, Bad British Architecture, reveals truly disgusting examples of the sorry state of our cities with just the right level of bile and vitriol. A new generation of writers and artists influenced by psychogeography is exemplified by Laura Oldfield Ford, whose exhibition of drawings at Hales Gallery, London, examined the sad mess of class-cleansed non-spaces that has been created by developers in the shadow of the pitiful London Olympics site. Overseen by EDAW consortium, one of the world’s most faceless architectural conglomerates, and featuring cheap sheds designed by the cream of Britain’s architectural talent, the site is fast shaping up to be a deserved embarrassment, a tin-foil-and-cocktail-sticks display of national pride, a parting architectural gift from New Labour as monumentally worthless as their introductory one: the Millennium Dome. 

National Museum of 21st Century Arts (MAXXI), Rome, 2009. Architect: Zaha Hadid. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome

What can we expect in 2010? The chimerical respite from economic collapse means that a number of significant buildings are finally to be completed. Shigeru Ban’s Centre Pompidou–Metz, France, although not of similar quality, might prove to be as symptomatic of its time as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s 1977 original. Whereas the Parisian building signified a technocratic optimism and an almost Situationist notion of public space, the Japanese architect has designed a building that looks like a scarecrow’s straw hat, yet has required the most advanced digital technologies to create its floppy wooden roof. It’s a perfect example of a culture that knows it wants to be ‘green’, but still isn’t sure what that might actually entail. In Rome, Zaha Hadid Architects’ National Museum of 21st Century Arts (MAXXI) is finally scheduled to open in May 2010. It’s a surprisingly good design from an architect who, with each new shiny shape, is fast becoming a parody of herself; she is one of the great disappointments from the generation of radical architects who matured in the last recession. 

Pakistan Pavillion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (artists; drawings), 2009. Courtesy: World Expo 2010, Shanghai

In my opinion, the architectural event of 2010 will be in China: the Shanghai World Expo, themed ‘Better City, Better Life’, opens on 1 May with 200 participants and an expected 70 million visitors. While the World’s Fairs of yesteryear might have created some of the most significant architectural designs in history, the last half century has seen them become increasingly irrelevant events. The Shanghai Expo, however, promises to show off some of the most bizarre aspects of current architectural conjuncture. With pavilions ranging from the kitsch (Pakistan) to the comic (Switzerland), from good design (Spain) to downright awful (Brazil), this architectural microcosm is likely to be a definitive example of the confused eclecticism of contemporary architecture, and promises to demonstrate one thing: that nobody has any idea what they’re supposed to be doing any more. 

Oliver Elser

Contemporary architecture branches off in so many directions that it is barely possible to offer an overview. But, unlike artistic production, the making of architecture is also subject to a great many taboos. On the one hand, there are anonymous (suburban) or vulgar (of the type prevalent in Dubai, Astana, China, etc.) forms of building. On the other, there is the International Highbrow Style. Rather than possessing formal characteristics, the key factor here is that the international community of architects and critics who consider themselves responsible for ‘true’ architecture has managed in some strange way to agree on a design code. One of its commandments is: build in a contemporary way! This may result in scintillating forms that range between those of David Chipperfield and Zaha Hadid, but it will never result in anything that might also appeal to the Prince of Wales, whose intervention against the planned development of Chelsea Barracks in London last year led to worldwide outrage among many in the architecture community.

But what if a building is neither contemporary in the sense of the established canon nor dressed up in the style of the good old days? As a member of the jury of a prize for the best spa design, I recently witnessed what happens in such cases: when it came to discussing the Tamina Spa in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, almost every architect present switched to red alert.

Tamina Spa, Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, 2009. Architect: Joseph Smolenicky. Courtesy: Smolenicky & Partner Architektur, Zurich

The design, by Zurich-based architect Joseph Smolenicky, breaks the commandment of teleological progress by freely combining late-19th-century Baltic resort architecture with monumental pillared halls (1930s) and oval windows (Biedermeier). Furthermore, it makes sacrilegious use of wood to give the columns a waisted form, turning the stomach of any believer in honest construction. The greatest offence, however, is that Tamina Spa can be read as a built commentary on another thermal spa. But this is no local conflict between Swiss spa towns: it’s a declaration of war in the arena of architectural politics. For what is being addressed here in antithetical terms is the world-famous Vals Thermal Spa designed by the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Peter Zumthor. His spa, completed in 1996, is one of the very few buildings on which everyone agrees: Vals is revered and treated as a place of pilgrimage by architects of every stripe. The Tamina Spa is radiant white, while Zumthor’s thermal spa in Vals is a mystic shade of dark grey, almost black. Zumthor created a fox’s den, a body-hugging grotto in layered stone, a snugly fitting case for all the sceptics who thought they had long since lost faith in contemporary architecture.

The Tamina Spa, on the other hand, plays on classical formulas of dignified monumentality, quoting the portico of a Greek temple in the entrance as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Zumthor’s spa is overwhelmingly archaic; its mood is one of escapist inwardness. Smolenicky, on the other hand, does not construct a primal scenario out of cave relics, but transports his spa guests straight back to the Age of Enlightenment. His classicism is more a matter of contemplation and intellect – not least because the varnished wood no longer feels like wood – causing the entire building to feel unapproachable and abstract.

Vals Thermal Spa, Vals, Switzerland, 1996. Architect: Peter Zumthor

The thermal spa in Vals was invented by Zumthor: to copy it would be to violate the fundamental principles of the profession. The Tamina Spa, on the other hand, was found by pursuing existing architectural forms. To further develop such existing forms – is that not a viable option? We face the question (not just as visitors to exclusive spas in Switzerland) of whether architecture must necessarily be original, and whether the taboos generated by a supposedly progressive architectural community are really such an achievement. The Tamina Spa already stands beyond dogma. It’s time for an end to prohibition.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Douglas Murphy is a writer based in London, UK. His book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture (2015) is published by Verso.

Oliver Elser is a curator at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.