There is a new pilgrimage point in Santiago de Compostela, the near perfect city in the far northwest corner of Spain that has drawn supplicants and scholars for centuries to its great cathedral and extraordinary architecture. Although a modern intervention seems almost unthinkable in a city of such intimate scale and splendid historical style, the recently completed Museum of Contemporary Art of Galicia by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza slips gracefully into its sacrosanct surroundings. It took a brave architect to accept the challenge, and a very good one to pull it off. The building is at once radical, beautiful, and timeless.
The Santiago museum does much to define the state of architecture today. It clearly puts the theme-park world of postmodernism behind us. Nor is there any pretense to a false historical humility. The building’s sharply angled forms and almost unbroken horizontal planes make a strong case for the enduring validity of modernism. And yet the building is as respectful and “contextual,” if one may use that overworked and misused term, as it is modern, another word that has come to beg all meaning and definition, although it can still be understood in its historical sense as something distinctly of its own time. Siza’s modernism contains bold departures and subtle complexities that highlight a shift in concept and style—a new way of seeing and building that signals a significant change in the philosophy and practice of architecture. This is the work of a master who has left almost everyone else behind.
The Santiago project is referred to in Siza’s office as a work of “preservation/transformation”—an interesting dualism that collapses past and future together. Intended as the catalyst for the restoration of a neighborhood on the edge of the city’s historic center, the museum occupies a roughly triangular site that narrows to a twenty-one-degree angle at its tightest corner for a striking, wedge-shaped plan: two L-shaped sections converge and interpenetrate at their closest point. But the new building does not so much occupy the site as it is skillfully inserted into it; from a distance one does not see it at all. What is most remarkable as one approaches is its quality of extreme horizontality, the easy way it seems to fit into the urban landscape. Yet the long, low, granite façade is neither passive nor recessive; it possesses a dynamism that prefigures the surprises awaiting within the bold exterior forms.
Nothing is conventional about this building—not even the way one enters up a short flight of steps that leads to an angled portico at the structure’s small, sharp end. Nor is this entrance as understated or inconspicuous as its size and location might indicate; there is an almost reverse high drama in the subtle precision with which the stair meets and stops the long portico that sweeps along the building’s main façade. Inside, the reception area with its sleek, serpentine counter is an oasis of cool white marble. Where the structure’s two sections merge, they form a triangular atrium sky-lit at the top, placed slightly to one side—rarely is anything straight ahead in this building—flanked by temporary exhibition galleries and an auditorium. Three shallow corner steps rotate the visitor diagonally down from the reception area into the first of a series of irregularly shaped temporary exhibition spaces. A central spine of stairs, ramps, and corridors slashes straight across the angled plan.
The stairs lead up to three large, handsomely proportioned permanent exhibition galleries. But these are not the formal, monumental stairs of the Beaux-Arts tradition evoked by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for their museums in London and Seattle; as you go up Siza’s stairs you are offered views of low-walled balconies with partially glimpsed galleries behind them; these shifting planes and suggestive spaces—neither quite open nor closed—are constantly modified by variations in natural and artificial light. Vistas appear that Dr. Caligari might have envied, although there is nothing sinister here, only delight.
At the top of the stairs one is confronted by the point of a double corridor that divides diagonally for public galleries and private offices. To merely describe this scissors-like split can hardly convey the effect of its knife-sharp diverging paths. We become very conscious of how the radical rearrangement of the familiar revises our expectations and revolutionizes our vision. Siza’s rigorously and artfully conceived forms and dimensions—for example, the way one emerges from a long, low gallery to a sudden explosion of height and light—make us respond to our surroundings with an intensified awareness. We are immersed in a powerful and profound experience of architectural space.
All of Siza’s buildings are full of revelations that seduce with their visual and poetic force. Since the camera records these views as pure abstraction, the architect’s office carefully labels photographs “top” and “bottom.” In the Santiago museum one has constant surprises: a sharply angled room or gently curving passage, an elegantly sculptured stair, a dramatic wash of light from a suddenly revealed source; each discovery becomes a palpable aesthetic encounter.
Siza’s style has been defined by the Italian architect and critic Vittorio Gregotti as “radical minimalism,” but that does not begin to explain the complex interrelationships that are smoothly combined into a deceptively simple whole. Rooted in modernism, Siza transcends it. His departures from received doctrine have coincided with the liberating forces of postmodernism. But he heartily dislikes the postmodernist style of cribbed classical fragments, of skyscrapers with broken pediments at the top or stretch columns at the base, their machinery dressed in historical drag. He uses the clean, bare, reductive vocabulary established by the modern movement for a minimalism that expands, rather than restricts, architectural possibilities. Siza starts where the modernists left off.
Although he is clearly indebted to the rich local tradition of simple geometric forms and eloquently expressive masonry of his native Portugal, his remarkable walls also draw on twentieth-century architecture. All of his work pays homage to Le Corbusier—once having seen the magical union of space and light of the church at Ronchamps, who could avoid it?—but he explores possibilities in his own way. Siza’s buildings are a fugue of orchestrated views and events. His strict geometry is the expressive vehicle for a much more fluid, plastic, and kinetic approach than modernism ever achieved, with enormous dramatic effect. Space has not been handled so theatrically since Mannerism. Façades have not been composed so surprisingly since Hawksmoor.
Alvaro Siza is not alone in pushing the boundaries of conventional practice. Among today’s established architects are two practitioners of particularly strong personal styles equally dedicated to the exploration of new directions: Frank Gehry in the United States and Christian de Portzamparc in France are pursuing similar goals in distinctly different ways. Siza makes his headquarters in Porto, Portugal, Portzamparc practices in Paris, and the peripatetic Gehry, who is by far the best known of the three, is based in Los Angeles. Gehry has already achieved the kind of popular recognition that has made his dramatic compositions a familiar trademark. Siza seems to be an acquired taste still restricted to the cognoscenti. Portzamparc has been less well known outside of France until his selection for the Pritzker Architecture Prize last year brought a deluge of publicity. Their buildings are international events.
What is common to all is the process of design which begins inside, breaking the building down into its component parts for a searching analysis of their functional rationale. Architecture is no longer conceived as the making of a formal “container,” as it has developed over centuries of stylistic evolution. These architects think first of the interior space and second of the enclosure; they handle space not as finite form, but as fluid and open-ended; for the user, it becomes a serial rather than a static event. The significance of this approach is that the building’s interior space and other elements can be redesigned and reassembled in a variety of unconventional configurations, with a greater awareness, and sometimes radical reinterpretation, of the relationship of use and form.
The paths people take through a building make movement an essential part of its design. The connections between places are now as important as the places to which they lead. Frank Gehry’s recently completed building for the Vitra Furniture Company in Basel offers a striking example. The connection between the two parts of the structure—the sales offices and administration headquarters—is a series of bridges crossing an open atrium at different floor levels. In a conventional building one would simply get off an elevator on separate floors. Here the passage from one section to the other is a calculated transition that is not only notable in itself, but also serves to characterize the transfer between two areas that are totally unlike in use, look, and feel. The process of getting there has great drama and its own rewards.
Conceiving the exterior enclosure of these new spatial relationships becomes a free exercise in style, a matter of personal preference in this time of pluralistic taste and expression. This fact, rather than chaos in the profession or competing claims of correctness, explains much of the diversity of architecture today. Far more important is the expansion of the art of architecture itself. To its conventional definition as a three-dimensional, spatial art a fourth dimension has been added: an aesthetic of experiences in time, of responses dependent on the passage from one part of the building to another. Interlocking, layered views are seen simultaneously and sequentially. The eye and the body are invited, and required, to register perceptions and sensations of an actual and aesthetic complexity rarely encountered before. It is creative change of this magnitude that defines the history of art.
These buildings must be visited personally. Photographs are more than usually misleading; what one sees in pictures are the strange shapes and stylistic mannerisms that merely hint at the strategies beneath. Gehry’s eccentric piles of richly colored sculptural shapes may seem arbitrary or about to tumble over, oblivious to the laws of gravity and order; but this is a precisely calibrated disorder, sedulously studied and arranged. An unrepentant modernist, he is pursuing a fundamental inquiry into the art of building and the expanded forms this may take. Portzamparc, also based in modernism, turns the modernist aesthetic into a much more evocative, romantic, and referential idiom, invoking the shapes, images, and colors of the 1950s with unabashed élan. His roofs soar, swoop, and hover with a lively retro wit; his affectionately reconstituted details in aluminum, tile, and concrete recall Morris Lapidus’s “architecture of joy,” the showy style of the Fontainebleau and Americana Hotels in Miami in the 1960s. Although Portzamparc was an active participant in the student protests in Paris in the 1960s, when Miami architecture would have been considered the ultimate frivolous irrelevance, he sees nothing odd or anachronistic about combining this flamboyant hedonism with his continuing sociological concerns. Both a sophisticated stylist and sensitive urbanist—qualities usually considered antithetical in modernist practice—he is a skilled planner with an acute understanding of the nature of public and private places. Siza’s work, which depends on the exacting organization of its minimal components, is the most abstract of the three and has immense poetic rigor. It is also the hardest to imitate; great talent is required to resolve complex needs while using forms of such absolute, elemental purity.
What Siza, Gehry, Portzamparc, and others are doing today is, in a sense, reinventing architecture. They are stretching the limits of the art, much as Mannerism and the Baroque stretched the principles of the Renaissance, forever altering its vocabulary and range. Portzamparc’s work is, perhaps, the most easily misunderstood. It would be simple to dismiss it as theater, to call it a younger generation’s clever appropriation of recent history for its popular evocative and decorative appeal. To do so one must overlook the logic and originality of his plans, the expert and effective way in which his solutions flow and function, his sure grasp of scale and proportion, his superior sense of urban amenity, his lyrical use of light and color. In addition to Miami-modern redux, there are echoes of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx in the undulating curves of his work that transform Corbusian austerity into Latin American exuberance. Given cultural distance and a European perspective, these sources become more than fashionable sentimentalism; Portzamparc transforms his obvious delight in Arplike free forms and giant cones and candy colors into a pop monumentality that moves serious high camp into serious high art.
Make no mistake about its seriousness. The French take their pleasures very seriously; French chic is a high art form. But unlike so much French architecture, where the chic is skin-deep, this is genuinely innovative work with an impressive range of dramatic invention. Only a seriously assured architect could carry it off. Official French taste tends to favor modish displays of real and faux engineering—whether it’s Piano and Roger’s muscular Pompidou Center or I.M. Pei’s suave pyramid at the Louvre. The current rage of Paris is Jean Nouvel’s polished glass and steel headquarters for the Fondation Cartier, where style and client are perfectly matched for a dazzling display of impeccable, glistening cachet. This kind of work is greatly preferred to a “humanism”—another loaded word—that delights in subjective and evocative images. But Portzamparc is not alone in persistently incorporating personal stylistic icons in his work—James Stirling had his lighthouses and Aldo Rossi has his haunting skeletal stairs and lonely lookout towers.
At fifty, Portzamparc has not yet perfected the art of self-presentation usually cultivated by the celebrity architect. Trailing a well-worn raincoat that is somewhat more, or less, than Armani-casual, wearing a fashionably beat-up fedora and a permanently distraught air, he is just as likely to exhaust a visitor with a tour of earnest and highly commendable rehabilitations of social housing as to show off his star turns. But when one gets to them, they are breathtaking.
Ten years have passed since the start of construction of the first part of his competition-winning design of 1985 for the Cité de la Musique in the redeveloped district of La Villette. The second half of this very large complex in the Parisian outskirts is being completed only this year. One of Mitterrand’s grands travaux, this national conservatory for music and dance is more interesting than many of the other projects to come out of that imperial effort. Like Siza’s museum, there is nothing conventional about this building. The conservatory, already in use, contains both classrooms and performance facilities. As you enter through a dramatic, multi-storied space, you have a full view of the main stair and the tiered balconies that form open corridors around it on all floors. The building is partly underground, but one is not aware of this because of the visible top-to-bottom interior flooded with natural light. The vistas out from the large glazed areas are spectacular—across to the cone-shaped organ recital hall that is part of the complex, or up to an undulating canopy that connects two sections, its curve pierced by a huge oculus through which one sees the sky (see below). Art deco railings, high-style furniture, and beguiling colors banish any institutional air.
The second structure includes Paris’s major new concert hall, which opened on January 14. The experience of this building starts outside, with a stunning public act. Visitors step down through several entrances into a roofed but open court; one can arrive from the park, the street, or the conservatory across a connecting plaza. The court serves as a collecting point for pedestrian traffic, which then moves along a curving, covered promenade leading to, and circling, the concert hall. If one doesn’t enter the hall, or wishes to proceed to the museum, studios, or, finally, to an exit to the street, one follows the narrowing sweep of the curving path to its end. As the corridor unfolds, walls change in hue; Portzamparc is also a painter, with an artist’s eye for what color does to a place and the people in it.
In no way is this a traditional promenade in the City Beautiful sense; it relies on the drama and mystery of movement as well as on traditional monumental scale and architectural form. The space is intriguingly ambiguous in its open and covered, public and private nature; the nearly circular path never quite reveals what lies beyond. Inside the large concert hall—one of numerous performance and practice spaces in both buildings on which Pierre Boulez has been an active collaborator—an array of colored lights instantly imbues the handsome wood panels with Hollywood glamour, a feature dear to Portzamparc’s heart.
His School of Dance for the ballet of the Paris Opera at Nanterre is also a competition-winning design. Under the French system, the architectural commissions for all large public buildings are awarded by state-run competitions, with construction by state authorities. This system yields conspicuously mixed results: the Bastille Opera is one of the grander disappointments of the grands travaux, and the much revised quartet of glass towers for the “Très Grande Bibliothèque” is more notable for bombast than for reason. Materials, finishes, and details are frequently a casualty of a division of labor between the state construction agency and the architect’s office in the provision of working drawings. But the system allows younger architects in France to have an equal chance at the larger commissions almost universally given to older and more experienced practitioners elsewhere. In this case, the logic and lyricism of Portzamparc’s ballet school design survive any defects of execution.
The building is, quite literally, the sum of its individual parts—a characteristic of much of the new architecture. It consists of three distinct areas—the dance studios, a classroom and administration section, and student dormitories—connected by a glass-walled entrance area that gives access to all of them. These separate parts are shaped and disposed by circulation patterns based on the acoustic isolation of the studios, the social orientation of classrooms and offices, and the privacy of the dormitories, which take the form of a connected, serpentine wing, narrow and sinuous, that curves across the landscape like a tail.
The central feature and dramatic focus of the building is a soaring, full-height spiral stair that serves the dance studios. There is constant movement up and down this spiral, and along the mezzanines that alternate with studio entrances on different floors. The wide bridges across this open, central space become lounges that tie the activities together and also provide a place for the dance students to pause between them.
Portzamparc is becoming famous, or notorious, depending on one’s point of view, for his “ski boot” office building designed for the Crédit Suisse bank in Lille, one of those “images” that editors rush to publish and architects love to promote. He is not immune to the unremitting French infatuation with “googie,” or gimmicky modernism, where outrageousness passes for inspiration. But his buildings succeed because they address fundamental concerns—the needs and pleasures of the body and spirit—that all great architecture serves and turns into art. And he has something that other architects recognize instantly, the single-minded application of a rich poetic creativity.
If, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Portzamparc seems to shake designs out of his sleeve, Gehry’s search for form is a painstaking one. His slow, anguished choices seem to involve as much public suffering—displayed engagingly to anyone who closely follows his work—as private investigation. He has chosen a particularly difficult path, walking a thin, treacherous line between architecture and sculpture, pursuing the tantalizing prospect of a union of the two that will maintain their integrity while transforming their intrinsic natures. This constant balancing act between experiments-on-the-edge of architecture that renew it and the potential disaster of architecture for sculpture’s sake can enlarge the art of building magically or diminish it disastrously, enrich it or empty it out. Gehry is pushing the very idea and definition of architecture to its limits in a dangerous but exhilarating game.
To this creative challenge he adds a dedicated search for new materials, and a fresh eye for the older, more ordinary ones that add unconventional color and texture to his buildings. Much has been made of his elevation of common, unloved plywood and chain-link fencing to starring roles in his early work; today he is more likely to use elegant and expensive copper sheathing. But this attention to surface is essential to his inventive aesthetic. His best buildings offer unusual perceptions and heightened pleasures hard to imagine before. No facile art, it requires uncertain moves into unprecedented territory, accompanied by relentless self-criticism. One misstep and all is lost. Gehry loves the challenges, and even the risks, and continues to produce extraordinary work.
At Weil am Rhein in Germany, where the Vitra Furniture Company has commissioned an international roster of star architects to design a custom collection of buildings, Gehry has constructed a furniture museum in which the utilitarian is elevated to high drama and fine art. The visitor climbs an encircling ramp through a sequence of display spaces that lead to a doubleheight, sky-lit gallery at the top, where daylight pours down stark white walls, spilling into the galleries below. The trip is exhilarating. Presented as the history of the modern chair, this exhibition is its apotheosis as well. Solitary or in groups, on pedestals and platforms or suspended in air, chairs are haloed, enthroned, and enshrined.
The new Vitra headquarters building just across the Swiss border in Basel is perhaps Gehry’s boldest and most colorful composition yet. Like the museum and the other Weil am Rhein spectaculars, it was commissioned by Vitra executive Rolf Fehlbaum, one of Gehry’s most enthusiastic admirers. The chapel-like executive offices were not furnished when I saw them last year. Their walls glowed red or gold with natural light from skylights and strategically placed openings. (Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps again: how pervasive and lasting is the influence of that icon of modernism!) Altars would have seemed as suitable as desks and chairs.
I found myself an uneasy admirer of these spaces, trapped between acceptance and rejection, fascinated by their superb drama and put off by the way their uses were made subservient to an overwhelming but gloriously willful aesthetic. Gehry’s evocative, sense-filling environment is a personal statement of great conviction and power. It still works in a wonderful and scary way.
But one begins to wonder. Has the task of analyzing how we use buildings in order to revise how they are designed become less important than the invention of pure form? Functions seem increasingly allocated to the idiosyncratic spaces that we see essentially as dramatic exterior sculpture, or are related only tenuously to them. Is Gehry being trapped by popular acclaim and prodigious publicity into a spectacular stylistic formalism? Will this process continue to lead to new and useful transformations of architecture or to a sublime dead end? No doubt he searches for his solutions as diligently and conscientiously as ever. Carried to extremes, or copied by others, the results can become arbitrary or self-indulgent. At what point does such a forceful personal aesthetic threaten the delicate and essential equilibrium between art and life that makes architecture such a risky and rewarding art? Can the responsibility for keeping that balance be ignored? Does it matter when the architect is so gifted and the product so outstanding? These are questions I suspect Gehry wrestles with constantly, and even the most sympathetic viewer can hardly avoid them.
His recently completed American Center in Paris, located on the city’s outskirts in Bercy, raises other questions. In the interest of architectural diplomacy Gehry used Paris’s traditional, creamy limestone to face his unusual façade—a characteristic collage-like jumble of canted and disjointed shapes. My initial response was to respect his judgment. But an uneasy feeling persisted; the conventional skin gives a strangely muffled effect; something seems to be suffocating behind that respectful camouflage, struggling desperately to get out. We miss the vivid and varied colors and materials that are such an important part of his exploratory forms. This is the trap and fallacy of “contextualism” into which so many architects jump or fall—the masquerade of matched materials, the cosmetic cover-up of architectural maquillage. The Center was dedicated recently in a bravura gesture—a dazzling, empty package constructed while there is a serious shortage of funds for programs and maintenance. Walking through this mute symbol of American culture was a ghostly and sobering experience.
In Portugal, Siza’s Architecture Faculty for the University of Porto also awaits people and activity. A controversy over moving a road that caused years of construction delays appears to have been as much a matter of political and academic infighting as of planning policy; moving the road would have sabotaged the design, and at last it was avoided. In all of Siza’s projects, site and structures are conceived together; here, two facing rows of buildings are linked by circulation and land-scaping; the paths people will use to move among them and the outlook along the way are basic elements of the design.
One row consists of four rectangular pavilions that march in a straight line across the land; “matching” but unequal, they vary in their heights and shapes; the size and placement of their window openings make a subtle balance of solids and voids. In partial use now, these pavilions contain classrooms with spectacular river views. The variations of their taut, abstract volumes play off against one another and the setting. Opposite this row, and joined to it by a fifth, offset building, is a long, low structure that completes the composition and contains most of the school’s other activities—auditorium, library, exhibition space, lecture rooms, and student facilities.
Connecting ramps run the full length of all the buildings—an organizing device that provides essential circulation and supplies Siza’s characteristic horizontal emphasis. The separate pavilions are joined by an outside ramp, or walk, at ground level; the long building has a continuous ramp inside, treated as a glass-walled corridor that parallels the walk across the way. They are linked above and below ground. Sometimes the ramp runs flat, sometimes on an inclined plane, as it leads to classrooms and communal spaces. At one point it loops off dramatically into a semicircular exhibition area. There is always a view of the land and the other buildings. When both parts of the complex are completed and functioning, the ramps will set the whole into a kind of contrapuntal motion. Half a world and centuries away, the tradition of Jefferson’s University of Virginia with its Lawn and Ranges has been radically updated.
Siza’s kinetic and sculptural sense of space is prefigured in a small gem of an entry to an earlier building for the Architectural School completed in 1985. A glass entrance door is placed asymmetrically at one corner of a U-shaped structure that has been bent into acute, rather than ninety-degree, angles. This door opens directly onto a short flight of steps that proceeds from the point of the angle and widens almost imperceptibly to a doubly-curved upper level where corridors start on both sides. With such deceptively simple sleight-of-hand-and-eye, Siza marries mannerism and modernism in one astoundingly elegant little stair. This spectacular work comes from a seemingly unspectacular man—soft-spoken, chain-smoking, politely professorial, he is a study in brown—brown beard, brown business suit of indeterminate cut, brown tie of indistinct pattern. Wearing the perfect conservative camouflage, he is beyond fashion.
Important architectural change is not an instinctive or unpremeditated act; in all of this work, theory has a significant, if questionable, role. Architects tend to be coattail philosophers, adopting and bowdlerizing intellectual trends as they go out of style; their connection to the world of fashionable ideas is tenuous, their application disturbing. The architectural avant-garde is always alert to the newsworthy possibilities of a radical stance; a shot of revolutionary obscurantism can launch a four-star architectural attraction. Nothing is more seductively appealing than being terminally iconoclastic—a lot of mileage can be gotten out of insisting that there should be no architecture at all.
Theory can redefine architecture or derail it. Literary and philosophical borrowings “appropriated” and force-fed into this pragmatic, problem-solving art become, at most, barely recognizable and, at worst, dangerously irrelevant. Deconstruction, building as “text” or “narrative,” contextualism, chaos theory, all have had their day and devotees. The result has been much pretentious and tortured reasoning, a few striking tour de force buildings of baffling beauty and equally spectacular impracticality, and a lot of gorgeously indecipherable drawings of stupefying complexity. A few notable examples of work driven by theory become transient landmarks or textbook illustrations; the rest make it to the New York Times Style pages, where styles go to die.
Structures that defy gravity and common sense by looking as if they are about to fall down or fly apart are as carefully composed and put together as Palladian villas. The London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid’s sleekly handsome, superbly crafted, and dizzily angled “deconstructivist” fire station for the Vitra Company in Weil am Rhein may set a record for both the number of its foreign visitors and the number of working drawings the design required. Like so many first buildings by talented architects, this one tends to overreach its purpose. Faced with spending a lot of time living life on a slant where right angles are taboo, one hopes the firemen have learned to lean—to go with the flow. Hadid is spectacularly gifted; her works on paper are breathtakingly beautiful; but theory and reality need to come together in more constructed work. Her competition-winning design for the Cardiff Opera House in Wales—currently embroiled in battles of politics and taste—is a superb, mature design; it would be a tragic mistake not to build it.
A young Spanish practitioner, Enric Moralles, has constructed an arresting house by extrapolating the sightlines of the natural features of the building site into two different kinds of geometries that collide in the plan. The overlapping patterns of this elaborate projection of “context” have resulted in rooms of unusual shape and location that seem to impinge and intrude on one another in an intriguing way. Writing about the house in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in February 1994, John Welsh noted a “criss-crossing of circulation routes corresponding to the complexity of any family”: an arrangement that leaves “simple bourgeois, suburban logic” far behind. We are a long way from Levit-town and the “dumb and ordinary” lessons that the Venturis once told us we should learn there.
There are always architects who seek ways to achieve revelations that will break through custom to new kinds of vision and design, to new definitions of art and use. The objective is discovery, to reconstitute the familiar in a freshly revealing way and, ultimately, to achieve a greater conceptual and aesthetic range. The hope is not to rehearse familiar pleasures and encourage feelings of pride in having for oneself what others have had; but to find a route to changes in viewpoint and perception that will heighten experience and enlarge sensibility through an expanding set of visual and visceral signals derived directly from the art of design.
Architects relish theoretical discourse; it is part of the climate of the times. Some, like Siza, Gehry, and Portzamparc, absorb what serves their needs and go their own way. Today, everyone is free to follow a personal path and muse. The English architect Norman Foster is a master of finetuned, exquisitely honed minimal technology. In his choice of materials and structure he uses, with remarkable eloquence, a fastidious aesthetic that derives from engineering but quietly makes it clear to the viewer (as with the 1991 exhibition rooms of the Royal Academy of Art in London) that a series of highly intelligent choices have been made.
In France, Jean Nouvel treats the same technological aesthetic as hightech fantasy; the brilliant, hard-edged image is so diligently pursued that it can override structural logic or necessity. In his exquisite glass and steel Fondation Cartier building, transparency is emphasized even to the conceit of a cable-supported clear glass wall surrounding the building at the street line; here high tech comes close to haute couture. Foster and Nouvel use similar technology with a dramatic difference; both are equally admired. But it is the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who is taking the engineering aesthetic through the thickets of theory into an imaginative exploration of ways to make material and structure serve unprecedented ends. Like Koolhaas, Siza, Gehry, and Portzamparc represent this more adventurous kind of creativity.
But comparisons are invidious; there are no longer any rules; it hardly matters what philosophy drives the design or what vocabulary is being used. The perennial architectural debate has always been, and will continue to be, about art versus use, vision versus pragmatism, aesthetics versus social responsibility. In the end, these unavoidable conflicts provide architecture’s essential and productive tensions; the tragedy is that so little of it rises above the level imposed by compromise, and that this is the only work most of us see and know.
Today, when so much seems to conspire to reduce life and feeling to the most deprived and demeaning bottom line, it is more important than ever that we receive that extra dimension of dignity or delight and the elevated sense of self that the art of building can provide through the nature of the places where we live and work. What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.
The test, finally, is the manner in which ideas, vocabulary, and structure are employed, how far these instruments of exploration carry architecture into new uses and sensory satisfactions, how well they move building beyond current limits. What matters is whether this work serves and satisfies us, in the personal and societal sense, and ultimately, how this process engages and reveals necessity and beauty in the visual language of our time. There are architects today creating buildings on the edge of this extraordinary art. That this can happen in a culture of the transient, the shoddy, and the unreal, deserves recognition and celebration.
April 6, 1995