Page D1.2 . 01 August 2007                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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Market v. Meaning


The Dutch architect and founder of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) questioned the curious situation architects find themselves in: an ambiguous status of not being taken seriously, but having unlimited amounts of media attention. "It is not always clear whether we are using our position to engage in an intellectual discourse or an incredible ego free-for-all. Unfortunately, we have not been able to provide any dignity to the profession due to our complete technical inability to conquer market pressures and our willingness to be totally manipulated," he said.

During his slide show, Koolhaas presented several examples of the most worthy efforts of "star" architects, including both built and proposed projects from the last ten years, to more clearly see what he termed "the inevitable crisis." Most striking of these was a slide that showed a simulated desert "landscape" that included the Burj Dubai, Petronas Towers, Jin Mao Tower and Koolhaas's own Dubai Renaissance design. It was both an illustration and a warning to architects flocking to the emerging economic centers of the Eastern world.

"The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum's value," said Koolhaas. "In addition, we of course work enthusiastically for clients we readily describe as tyrants and occupiers. So there are many problems, first of all our work, which is not able to find its way out of this recurring dilemma, then there are the many reasons to question our sincerity and motives. And finally, if you look at places like Dubai, there is the astonishing reality that there are people who seem to have no problem inhabiting a skyline of one-off megaliths with relative equanimity."

To counter these pressures, Koolhaas's firm is taking a radically different approach through its new Generics department, which he referred to as a somewhat utopian effort to distribute design projects without copyright or ego. "It reverses the subtractive evolution of architecture we've seen thus far and proposes to create simple, reproducible and perhaps ultimately prefabricated, barely noticeable buildings within the urban skyline's hyper-density," he said. In closing, Koolhaas added, "It's too early, perhaps, to throw the icon away."

Eisenman, for his part, stated he felt no sense of urgency; rather, he claimed that urgency itself is the problem in present-day architecture.

"The problem we need to solve is the urgency of media to have something new to look at and talk about all the time. Our need to be in the news all the time… The slowness required to find and understand meaning in architecture no longer has any attraction," he said.

In his opinion, whether you're looking at the work of "star" or "B-movie" architects, we are witnessing the late period of modernism — its "death rattle" — and are in too much a hurry to get out of it, but with no new paradigm to replace it.

"We are in the rococo phase of modern architecture. The consummate rococo figure is Santiago Calatrava, whose work people like, in the same way they like Gothic architecture, because it's sweet and you don't have to think about it. You see it once and go 'Wow!' Of course, we know that not much happened in 300 years of Gothic architecture. It was always the same 'Wow!' However, I personally resent, for example, two billion dollars being spent on a subway station in New York City that looks like a bird. I have no idea why a subway station should either look like a bird or cost two billion dollars," he said.

Eisenman argues that what's required is an architecture that restores the difficulty of reading into meaning, "one that asks how, at this moment in time, without a new paradigm, can we understand our discipline and our culture in a different way." He said the one solution he's found in his work is the notion of partial figuration, exemplified in his work on the City of Culture of Galicia (Cidade da Cultura de Galicia), in the historic pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

"Not necessarily icons, and not full figuration, but partial figures. Figures that can be mistaken for aspects of ground or aspects of other figures, but that do not lead to necessarily whole objects. In the notion of partial figuration and difficulty of reading comes the notion of 'affect' — the physical and sensual idea of people in space… At some point we need to make people more in touch, in the affective sense, with their physical environment," he said.

The project consists of six buildings — an opera house, two museums, two libraries, and a research center — purposely portrayed, he said, in contrast to the Bilbao-effect, "where an icon took the energy out of a city and focused it on one building. This was an attempt to move the energy back to the city by denying a full-blown iconicity. The notion of the partial figure in this case comes from the figures of the buildings themselves coming out of and taking the shape of the ground [of Mount Gaiás] on which they sit."

According to Eisenman, the reading of the project starts with its diagrams, in which the old pilgrimage routes were superimposed onto the build site, and the topography of the hill was used to distort these ancient paths. "We took a computerized vector analysis of the hill, divided by these caminos, to design the frames of the buildings. There are many different, complex overlays of Cartesian grids and topographical aspects that are all recorded in the buildings. Each building is overloaded with recorded information that is not supposed to be intelligible or reducible to a single idea, but represents fragments of many ideas that are constantly unfolding as you experience the buildings.'

"Their façades are not accidental, said Eisenman. "They were carefully worked out through planned elevations and sections, defining the different levels of geometry and history we wanted to record in the buildings."

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Giancarlo La Giorgia is a freelance print and video journalist. He is vice president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada: Quebec chapter, a member of the English Language Arts Network, and author of the book Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage.



ArchWeek Image

Koolhaas showed a simulated desert landscape with the noteworthy designs of "star" many architects.
Image: Courtesy Office of Metropolitan Architecture

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The simulated desert rendering with OMA's own Dubai Renaissance project in the foreground.
Image: Courtesy Office of Metropolitan Architecture

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Koolhaas included the Petronas Towers in his criticism of iconic buildings.
Photo: Anton Bocaling / Artifice Images

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Eisenman's identified the sculptural works of Santiago Calatrava, such as the Milwaukee Museum of Art, as exemplifying Modern architecture's rococco phase.
Photo: Rob Manns / Artifice Images

ArchWeek Image

The Seattle Public Library by OMA, though striking, was reportedly shaped more in response to zoning requirements, than any intent to make a specific form.
Photo: Courtesy Seattle Public Library

ArchWeek Image

Interior of the Hemeroteca, one of six buildings in the City of Culture of Galicia project by Eisenman Architects.
Photo: Courtesy Eisenman Architects

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The City of Culture of Galicia, designed by Peter Eisenman is expected to be complete by 2012.
Photo: Courtesy Eisenman Architects

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An aerial view of Eisenman's City of Culture of Galicia project under construction.
Photo: Courtesy Eisenman Architects


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