in Frieze | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Looking Back: Architecture

Looking back over a year in which – despite some masterly exceptions – discusssions about architecture were more prevalent than great new buildings

in Frieze | 01 JAN 07

After the architectural annus mirabilis of 2005 – a year that saw the completion of such jaw-dropping buildings as Herzog and de Meuron’s De Young Museum in San Francisco, Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s Casa da Música in Porto, Massimiliano Fuksas’ Milan Trade Fair and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg – 2006 might have seemed like a letdown. None of the year’s most earnest aspirants to monumental immortality – Daniel Libeskind’s blustery Denver Art Museum, UN Studio’s over-hyped Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart or Jean Nouvel’s uncharacteristically cumbersome Musée du Quai Branly, Paris – manages to elevate the heart rate much.

Fortunately, monuments by ‘starchitects’ constitute only a tiny portion of the architectural firmament. In the absence of great buildings to talk about, conversations about architecture become that much more interesting. For the academically inclined, the Manfredo Tafuri conference at Columbia University and Cooper Union in New York in April brought internationally renowned scholars together for a gathering that was part exhumation, part exorcism and a good deal group therapy, to discuss the legacies of this towering figure of 20th-century architecture theory and history. If nothing else, perhaps the event will have instigated another generation to read Tafuri’s dense and penetrating books.

As it happens, Venice, Tafuri’s adopted abode, was the site of perhaps the most anticipated architectural event of the year: the Biennale. The theme selected by this year’s curator, Richard Burdett – ‘Cities. Architecture and Society’ – left a few designers grumbling under their breath that it was difficult to find the architecture amid the mountains of information. Burdett should be lauded for zooming out from the myopia of past biennials and for prodding architects to examine critically the juggernaut of global urbanization. Judging from the catalogue, my quibble is not that it was hard to see the architecture, but that it was hard to see the cities. How does one represent the experience or the reality of a metropolis? The curatorial team resorted mainly to familiar abstractions: aerial satellite photographs, colour-coded maps of population and income distribution, dystopian panoramic views of vast informal settlements, and the requisite street scenes. But, between science and humanitarian reportage, what is lost?

Anyone who broaches the subject of cities today can’t avoid talking about China, a country that has been urbanizing at a ferocious pace. In many ways Jinhua, a small (by Chinese standards) city of 4.5 million, is typical: in 2002 the municipality, located south of Shanghai, began converting a formerly agricultural zone into a mixed-use urban development. In this case, however, urban sprawl has yielded something novel: a riverfront architecture park composed of follies designed by five Chinese and 11 international architects, curated by the artist Ai Weiwei. At Jinhua Architectural Park the architects have been allowed to play, with delightfully insouciant results. Till Schweizer has designed an angular wood-screened welcome centre with distorted intersecting stairs that tease and beckon the visitor at once. Herzog and de Meuron have contributed a honeycomb labyrinth of a ‘reading space’ that is anything but bookish. And the young Chinese team of Wang Xingwei and Xu Tiantian have created a series of cheeky, Tony Smith-esque concrete toilets. In a country whose name is synonymous with ‘big’, Jinhua’s pavilions may be the tiniest projects in China. They comprise a counterpoint – but maybe also a preview – to the much anticipated, audaciously big, experimental mega-buildings currently slated to emerge before the 2008 Olympics: projects such as Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Tower, Herzog and de Meuron’s ‘bird’s nest’ stadium, and PTW and company’s frothy aquatics centre.

Closer to my home turf, my most disarming architectural encounter of the year took place in Ohio. The new Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is not so much a blockbuster building as a small miracle. The concept is simple: a labyrinth of bubble-shaped transparent glass rooms and courtyards is contained within a square glass box, all rendered in a spare white palette that makes Mies van der Rohe’s pavilions look Baroque. Sejima and Nishizawa have mastered the art of transforming apparently bland concepts into rhapsodic sensory experiences. Between the outer and inner layers of glass is a tantalizing trapped space, inaccessible to the public. Its function is to prevent condensation, but its effect is to provoke a state of exquisite oneirism. In the centre of the pavilion is a ‘hot shop’, where artists blow glass objects before visitors’ startled eyes. The juxtaposition of a chthonic hearth and ethereal glass surfaces is stunning. You feel as if you are floating in a molten, viscous vitrine.

Whereas the pavilions at Jinhua have an earthbound physicality, inviting one to clamber over and occupy them, in Toledo the relationship is reversed. The Glass Pavilion invades the body, leaving you breathless and your skin tingling. Like a conjurer’s trick, the pleasure of the architecture derives at least partly from the wonder of trying to figure out how it was done.