It’s not just the Chinese authorities who are fed up with novelty buildings. I hope they’ve learned their lesson.
I fear however, that the recent Chinese edict will only serve to drive symbolic references underground. Downplayed symbolism was already evident in, for example, Pritzker Prizers Zaha Hadid for ‘pebbles on a stream’ Guangzhou Opera House
and Toyo Ito and his dragon-shaped stadium.
You tell me.
I don’t know who’s being scammed more with this enigmatic meme scheme. Ito might have pitched “The scales are actually solar panels. Imagine that! – a dragon that makes its own energy from the fire of the sun!” Or perhaps such duplicity wasn’t even necessary for he equally well may have said “It covers all bases. You can emphasise the dragon bit here because your people like things like that but my press release will emphasise the sustainable angle because that plays well in the Western media.” Deal.
Such one-size-fits-all concepts are creatures of our times. Pre-Beijing Olympics, I imagine the Chinese authorities approved the birds’ nest idea in an as-long-as-the-Western-media-is-happy-we’re-happy kind of way. This is the economic and marketing logic behind the enigmatic signifier. Everyone’s happy. In this next image, it looks like Herzog, de Meuron and artistic advisor Wei-Wei have all just received word their clever ploy worked. Everything about this image is sad.
The Chinese are now exporting sustainable hedonism imagery back at us.
Duplicity of intent is most obvious when the PR value of highly visible and large buildings has to be exploited globally in different markets. It’s history now, but take Kazakstan’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Its description on F+P’s website never fails to appall.
As a non-denominational contemporary building form, the pyramid is resonant of both a spiritual history that dates back to ancient Egypt as well as a symbol of amity for the future. It will accommodate a permanent venue for the Congress, and houses a 1,500- seat opera house, a university faculty, meeting spaces and a national spiritual centre. This programmatic diversity is unified within the pure form of a pyramid, 62 metres high with a 62 x 62-metre base.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan said he wanted a pyramid and F+P damn well gave him one as it was “well suited to the hierarchical nature of the program.” Sure pal.
Google’s new tent has a similar “top-down decision” feel to it because it’s so un-demonstrative and therefore unlike anything either Heatherwick or Ingels have produced in the cause of furthering their respective brands. From what we’ve come to expect of Heatherwick’s output, it’s not weird enough and, as far as BIG goes, it’s incapable of being reduced to a simple graphic for their website – though I’m sure someone’s trying. It’s easy to imagine Googleboss calling the two of them into his office and saying “I want something the opposite of Apple’s donut!” How it’s played to the media is not his problem.
And here it is on YouTube where everything is these days. I was reminded of BIG’s Baku mountains, but that could be just me. Must give credit where it’s due though. The two of them are catching some very big fish of late.
Googleguy David Ratcliffe adds, “Tech hasn’t really adopted a visual language for buildings.” Oh yeah?
Like Lord Foster who also keeps his head down when it comes to what his buildings might actually mean to commoners, Koolhaas never objected when Jencks wrote [p.111 of his The Iconic Building] of his CCTV building
“the distant view looks like a moon gate, the ornamental surround that punctuates every Chinese garden. This frame also bears resemblance to the pi-shape that goes back to the origins of China, a form that was normally made in bronze or jade. Even more suggestive is the exposed structure. This recalls the famous Chinese bracket construction, as well as the lattice windows that can be found in traditional homes”.
If I remember rightly, I believe Koolhaas’ wife produced some of the illustrations. All of the above associations may well be true for Jencks and I have no problem with that – he can write what he wants – but I’ve also no interest in whether or not this building suggests something far less esoteric and infinitely more universal to others, Chinese and the rest of the world included.
But by his now historic silence to Jenck’s gushings, Koolhaas showed had no problem with his building being labelled an enigmatic signifier yet he was later compelled to say its shape had no hidden meanings. But he can’t say that. He can only say it has no hidden meanings he was aware of having designed into it. This shows him to be a post-modernist – someone who believes meaning is something architects design into a building, and not something people ascribe to a building.
This website encourages people to post images of what the CCTV building means to them. This may be against the spirit of Post Modernism but it’s fully in line with Post-structuralist Pluralism where ‘building as text’ is read as what YOU want it to read, not what an architect says it does (or does not). At one stage, “Big Underpants” was favourite.
We either have to accept that architects design meanings into buildings, or that people are free to make whatever associations they choose. Jenck’s track record places him clearly in the former camp. Remember double coding? One meaning for the cognoscenti and another for the hoi-polloi? And how clever architects were for sneaking in some intellectual allusion ‘under the radar’ of the less knowing?
This was all very eighties when you think of it. Suddenly, there was a apparent freedom of choice as to what buildings could mean but there was still an elite imagining themselves in charge of what the choices were. It also mirrors the political-economic concept known as ‘privatisation’ – another eighties concept architecture is still suffering the consequences of.
Architects may enjoy the plaudits when they make a good design call that happens to “resonate” with a local audience and that bounce around the internet and reverberate in their own way and to their benefit back home, but they simply have to take it on the chin when people think for themselves.
• • •
This next image appeared on the RIBA website to illustrate the news that the 2016 annual Charles Jencks Award went to Niall McLauglin. The essential shed-ness of this building made me think McLaughlin was a good choice for an award but that this was perhaps the wrong award.
On second thought, I’m not so sure.
The metal shed roof is a red herring for, in time-honoured tradition, this building uses excess to represent simplicity. “Why does a building above water needs guttering in the first place?” is a question worth asking. It could be to stop rainwater from destroying the timber beams supporting the guttering. [!?] Or it could be the real function of the unnecessary guttering is to extend past the roof to complete the parallel line of the deck and so bring out its essential Farnsworth-ness.
I’m surprised to find I don’t even care to find out what this building actually is or does – I’m guessing sunset-viewing platform, and that McLaughlin received the award for using tried and trusted references to indicate the presence of serious money and property to some, and to represent economy, simplicity and appreciation of nature to others.
Different strokes, as ever.