Saturday, 29 May 2010

Shanghai Expo - Armchair Review!

In the current issue of Frieze, or online, you'll find a short piece by me giving a very brief cultural history of the Expo. If you're interested at all in said cultural history of the Great Exhibitions, and would like to read 50 times as many of my words on the subject, well there's a chance that there might be a book that's just right for you coming out in the not too distant future…

I'm pretty disappointed that I haven't, or didn't get a chance to visit the Shanghai Expo, which is what the Frieze piece is all in aid of. Then I would be able to speak with some authority on the architecture - I've hinted in the piece about the strange eclecticism of the architectural scene now, and I would love to be able to do this hunch justice. Instead, what I intend to do here is, influenced by the new forms of critique one finds on the architecture blogs, with their armies of armchair critics evaluating a work on the basis of a single photograph ("Shit!" "Amazing!" etc…), I'd like to give, as a part-time professional critic, my own guide to the Shanghai Expo.

If any of the pavilions could be said to have 'won' the Expo, at least from a distance, it would be the British Pavilion by Thomas Heatherwick Studio. Now, I don't want to join the chorus here, but despite Heatherwick's undoubted panache and inventiveness, he's never really yet designed a building, just a series of pavilions, (occasionally) inhabitable sculptures. This Pavilion is precisely that - a single room with a ridiculous façade. The landscape outside is made to look like crumpled paper, because the pavilion is like a gift from Britain to China, yeah? and each one of those acrylic rods that occlude the surface contains a seed, because, you know, we need to be green and natural and nature and something yeah? Fair enough, I say, that may be bullshit symbolism but the work doesn't really need it - the pavilion is a novelty, a wee expensive gimmick that you can go "ooh, ahh," at. In this way it's basically no different to most large-scale fine art these days: I think Heatherwick missed an opportunity to put some slides in there…

Well, the Swiss didn't miss the opportunity. Their pavilion, designed by Buchner Bründler Architects and Element, actually has cable cars to carry you up to an IMAX Alpine vista inside. That's pretty Swiss, I suppose, but does it also have extensive underground vaults filled with gold, I wonder? Anyway; the building is made primarily out of concrete, on some columns of rather over-weight scale. This rather chunky appearance is offset with what appear to be polka-dot tights, but are apparently some kind of responsive façade whereby the lights store a bit of energy and then flash it back at you. There's the green box ticked, then! Overall it's pretty hideous, but it begins to flag up perhaps the only stylistic trait that even begins to sum up where the architecture of the Expo is at, which is a kind of childish, multi-coloured pop-ness, although this is not the pop of the Independent Group, more some kind of mythical 'Atelier S-Club'.

Republic of Korea
This pavilion, by Mass Studies (awful, awful name, like calling your firm 'Napkin Sketch') is the worst offender. It manages to roll many of the most contemporary clichés of architecture into one. It has a suitably juvenile symbolic formal language (based on characters from the Korean alpahabet), and has a ludicrously laser-cut façade. The perforated façade, of which we'll see a more later, is the new 'barcode façade', a cheap and simple way of dressing up a building, so cheap that everyone is doing it without thought or taste. In this case it's not so bad, however, because at least nobody is making vague reference to the lost industry of the site, that horrid, horrid cliché of the urban-regenerator. Here we've just got various scales of text creating a digital-lacy effect. This digital effect is also evident in the pixellated form, something we’re seeing more of these days, especially from the dutch - MVRDV, OMA and Neutelings-Riedijk all have pixellated buildings on the go at the moment. Overall, though, despite ticking all of the fashion boxes, this building just looks a bit like a constructed migraine.

The Netherlands
Speaking of the Dutch, what the hell is this?!!? I must admit that the silliness of this pavilion, by John Kormeling, is something that appeals to me. Tenuosly reminiscent of the Sydenham Crystal Palace, within whose iron & glass walls were a number of recreations of historical architectural styles, the idea here is a minimal frame (a 'happy street') out from which recreations of various dutch houses (including the Rietveld house) are cantilevered. It's pop-as-hell, but somehow not egregiously so. Perhaps I am just attracted to its lack of façade, its bricolage aesthetic, and its resistance to a totalized, monumental aspect. It's bad taste architecture.

Denmark, on the other hand, has gone for impeccably good taste. Designed by Bjarke Ingels, who seems to be the poster boy for the kids studying architecture these days, although I can't for the life of me think why, this Pavilion has all the right shapes, the right amount of perforated façade, a tasteful colour scheme and details, and relies on one simple, zany gimmick - move the Little Mermaid from Copenhagen to Shanghai for six months. So, inside the looped ramps of the pavilion is the little copper lady, a testament to 'the aura' if ever you needed one. It's so correct, so 'now', so boring…

I'm sorry, what year is this? The Germans have decided to show how much they care about the Expo, China and the future by sending a design straight from 1994.

The French, however, are right up to date. For the discerning contemporary architect who thinks that the perforated façade is perhaps a little bit too crass, there's always diet-parametricism. This is one reason why Patrik Schumacher just doesn't get it - his beloved style is only ever going to be properly implemented in this half-hearted manner. What we have here is a façade that's a little bit too complicated to work out normally, so some whiz with Generative Components has helped solve the lattice work and make a steel cutting pattern. I'm sure you'll agree that it's totally revolutionary.

Austria have tried somewhat harder than France here. Essentially what SPAN & Zeytinoglu have achieved is a better-detailed version of Zaha's Wolfsburg Science Centre, and fair play to them. It doesn’t have any kind of silly symbolism about what Austrians are supposedly about, although it is, in its own way, incredibly Austrian:

"Both the building and the design objects are based on sophisticated digital models. Thanks to comprehensive logistics, the construction on site ran smoothly and within budget. “We are glad that is was erected precisely according to our plans”, says architect Arkan Zeytinoglu."

Hoo-bloody-ray. If my book ever comes out, it has a chapter where I go after the parametric ideologists. My main tool for attacking them is their general misunderstanding of both Deleuzian theory and the very notion of Avant-gardeism. To put it very simply here: we're in serious shit if the most radical architecture we have is 'organic', flubbery shapes based upon 'abstract diagrams'. Meh.

United Arab Emirates
What Patrik Schumacher just cannot accept is that Foster uses just the para-wibble tools that he does. It riles him, although he just can't explain it away. Here we have Foster & Partners doing the wibble dance for the newly-broke UAE. It's supposed to look like a couple of sand dunes. Geddit? Sand dunes. Because, like, the UAE has lots of sand. Geddit? Sand dunes. A building for a sandy country that looks like a couple of sand dunes. DO YOU GET THE REFERENCE?



More Doily-tecture. Besides the folksy symbolism, this pavilion is very Russian in that it consists of 12 towers, of which only 4 are open to the public. The rest, I'd like to imagine, are where the bribery is done.

Sir Peter Cook called, he wants his shit idea back…

Saudi Arabia & The USA
For some reason these two countries decided that car showrooms would be better than pavilions at the Expo. I have heard many an exasperated voice about the American pavilion, asking how on earth something so banal managed to be sent over there. Let's face it, with this and the new embassy they're planning London, America doesn't seem to be too concerned about its spatial image across the world. As long as it's bomb-proof, the Americans are happy.

Well, here's where I get a little bit confused. I'm going to try very hard here to be positive about a piece of architecture that I might like.
If I was to point out a trend that I think might catch on in architecture it would be the digital-craft approach. Influenced, I suppose, by the digital attitude of Gehry, whereby the computer is a tool for resolving formal ideas downwards and no more, and already visible in some of the work of Francois Roche, the basic premise of the idea is that digital tools can greatly assist the resolution of forms into structures, but that this need not compromise detail and material. It may also come from a certain green-wash tendency, whereby the complexity is draped in 'something organic', but I'd give Roche at least a bit more credit than that.
So here we have the Spanish Pavilion by EMBT. This pavilion basically marks the first significant design by the practice since the death of Miralles in 2000. The practice have been reasonably busy completing a number of projects that were in progress then, but there has been little in the way of 'new' design from them. And indeed, it is distinct from the previous work. For example, one thing that is very much absent from the design is the filleted-curve - that hand-drawn signature form of Miralles' that utterly defined the aesthetic of the practice. This pavilion is all double curves, complexity that is present from the beginning, rather than being something that results from the gradual movement and de-alignment of elements. But at the same time the old logics remain intact - complexity as something that is aggregated from small elements, no sign of the attitude of 'we have a shape, now how the hell do we solve it?'
On the one hand, the wicker-basket motif is a cheap gimmick akin to all the others. On the other hand though, at least EMBT have picked something that occurs in both Spanish and Chinese cultures, and then abstracted into another object entirely, rather than just scanning a piece of lace and making a laser-cutting pattern from it. It is this abstraction that used to be part and parcel of modern architecture and now seems to be entirely lacking, giving us instead a race-to-the-bottom literalism that is so afraid of being over anyone's head that it simply patronises absolutely everybody (which reminds me of being toured round the Scottish Parliament by an RMJM architect who looked at everything and said "I think what Miralles is trying to symbolise here is…" Who bloody cares? We can make a reading of our own!) This pavilion, if anything, is at least not bloody patronising.
It's good to note that the detailing of the pavilion is still of the kind that we remember from the EMBT of old - that combination of flamboyance and craft that was so satisfying. At their best, EMBT were like a repetition of the language of late Corbu on itself. To briefly clarify - this repetition is a quality that I admire in a piece of culture whereby the logic that a work applies to its context and historical milieu is then repeated upon the work again. It's a move of faithfulness where the fidelity begins to tear the original work apart. In this case the language of patterns, figures and forms that are recognisably late-modernist begin to create something far out from the original position. I agree when people compare Miralles to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, for example, as an architect whose work is full of reference to other buildings while never being derivative.
Anyway, the façade pattern repeats itself on both the inside and outside giving the interior what appears to be a very strange quality as the late-modern interior meets the flamboyance of the skin (web commentators seem to think this clash is a failure, but I think it's the point) although one thing that I would have been interested in seeing would have been the envelope of the building become properly detached from this skin - as it is façade and the skin never really leave each other, but there were opportunities to create various gradiations of space in between the two layers.
If we're lucky we might see more work in this vein. I would like to see more architecture where the digital aspects of a design were not means in themselves, where the contradictions between the various logics of a building were accentuated and heightened, and where the rudimentary and the special came into greater conflict. This unresolved tension is something that I've been researching with respect to the spatial language of the iron & glass expo buildings of old, their clashing aesthetic languages, their irreducibility to conventional readings, their intangibility, their spaces within spaces. In their case their architecture is about confusion, a fragmented architecture filled with flora, resistant to totalisation, dream-like. This pavilion doesn't match these qualities, but is a step in the right direction, and of all the pavilions it is the most expo-like.


Unknown said...

Super stuff.

"Sir Peter Cook called, he wants his shit idea back…"

I read this at first as "wants his shit back", which struck me as being extremely funny. A steaming coil from the Cook cloaca.

aml said...

agree on the spanish pavillion, and the reference to gehry--i would say particularly to something like the ginger building in prague, which paid attention to the structure of the skin. that said, would be nice if you named tagliabue at least once, since miralles is kinda dead.

Murphy said...

aml - you're right. However, I'm due to interview Tagliabue this week so hopefully there will be an opportunity to put this omission right in print.

Anonymous said...

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Murphy said...

Can I just point out that the spam comment above is uncannily apposite?