6 Σεπτεμβρίου 2006

"The fall of Bilbao" by M. Miessen


"...The image of the architect has often been related to the male heroic protagonist who introduces to the outside an established lifestyle. It is precisely here that one can locate the turning point in practice: the neglect of egocentric narrative and self-referential ambition in favour of catering for a particular, site-specific public. Such altruistic appreciation of what architecture can possibly be opposes individualism and raises the fundamental question of whether or not architecture should be taken forward as an art practiced by and for the sake of a broader cultural landscape or a commercial enterprise geared to the needs of the market. The highly romanticised ideal of the architect – "general progress in architecture according to a personal conception, usually of style, embodied in buildings and developed from architect to architect over the course of history" [2], which essentially derived from Aristotelian idealism – is no longer valid. Today, one has to appreciate the difference between the "architecture of image" and what one might call "post-Bilbao" practice. The starting point for this shift could arguably be identified as the moment when Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened in 1997. One of the last of the twentieth-century architectural superstars, Gehry became the epitome of a generation that set out to be part of an avant-garde and ended up as a highbrow, copy-paste establishment.


One could argue that the moment when Bilbao was born, an emerging generation of architects started to critically engage with the shortcomings of twentieth-century Western modernism and what the course of modernism and postmodernism had avoided dealing with: the manipulation of archetypical situations. In contrast to the process of pure image production, these new practitioners no longer operate on the -ism level. Although it is true that such anti-image is yet another ideological position that creates an image, the difference here is the way in which the protagonists act, network, and shift interests: suddenly, peripheral areas have become the focal point. Unburdened by the weight of the twentieth century, they have rediscovered a localism based on the belief that certain problems need tailor-made solutions rather than philosophically outsourced meta-agendas. This specific kind of problem solving has abandoned an understanding of architecture for the sake of the stylised object propelled by virtuous vision. Today, if one is working on a project dealing with the West Bank, the project is most likely to take into consideration an open-source involvement with its cultural and geopolitical heritage. In contrast to the late twentieth-century project of "the diagram" – which was purely modern in the sense that it attempted to deliver a personal, scientific solution to a problem that was being put forward by cancelling out everything else – "post-Bilbao" has started to generate a discourse that acknowledges the political implications of space as something which urgently needs to be dealt with. Like so many other theories and practices in history, the diagram was a stoic cocoon. Rather than a simple fashion, it dwelt on the image of the architect as the master of virtue, the master who cannot fail. As a container of the heroic tradition supported by self-image, the diagram – in the purely modern sense that it was playing with the age-old, prevailing image of the architect as impeccable master – was an intellectual claim only. Today, however, we work under a different ideological system, a scenario that is contingent, informal, ephemeral, and resists the notion of pure object-lust. There is no longer any sympathy for the stoic, self-referential, and masturbatory notion of the diagram when, post Internet and 9/11, everyone realises that the rest of the world is burning.

Since we are arguably at a turning point in the history of spatial practice – the junction where egotistic ambition is being separated from ambitious vision – we should actively engage with the current optimism regarding society as both a human and spatial construct. It is not the glorious virtue of the dead, but the eradication of the desire to be remembered that ambitiously prepares ground for change. Rather than mourning the passing of the old codes, it is time to venture out into the snowstorm. This is the tragic moment of realisation, in which the Stoic faces the deadlock of stable harmony as the epitome of nihilism."

  • [2] Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, Yale University Press, 1983.

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