Death of an Architect
I’m glad I’m not a journalist expected to, at a moment’s notice, rush out an obituary summarizing and making sense of an architect and his/her career while often simultaneously introducing them to the general public. The architectural historians and bloggers of yesterday weren’t without their biases but the only responsibility of contemporary architectural journalism is to place some content in a framework in which it can be readily comprehended. At least that’s how I regard this dreadful headline and lead that, to be fair, are probably a sub-editor’s summary of what they thought the main thrust of the article was. Perhaps it was.
Just consider. If Bofill had died before his La Muralla Roja (Red Wall) in Calpe, Spain as chosen to “influence the aesthetic of Monument Valley video game and the cult TV show Squid Game, then this 850-word obituary would have been 213 words or almost exactly 25% shorter. If he’d died before his Espaces d’Abraxas was featured in the 1985 film Brazil or even before The Hunger Games, then it’d be another 84 words (10%) shorter. We live in a world where the importance of architects is judged by their number of popular culture retweets. Pad the rest out with equal parts biographical detail and architect quotes and job done.
Things I liked:
“Bofill initially shunned the architectural canon and turned instead to studying vernacular buildings on his travels around the Mediterranean and north Africa. “I’ve never liked architectural theory,” he told me. “So, from the beginning, I’ve always looked at traditional and vernacular buildings.”
“When I was 35, I was the most fashionable architect in the world,” he told me, … but I was always an outsider, never fitting in with architectural culture.”
Turns of phrase I didn’t
“A self-styled outsider”
Being an outsider architect is not a look. Rather, it’s the insiders who are self-styled or, to put it more precisely, respond to external forces to style their lives for architectural fame.
“Looking like a Stalinist Disneyland, his Espaces d’Abraxas project…”“neoclassicism on steroids”
Bofill’s proposal for a Neo-Palladian prefabricated villa is a gem that could only be thought of by someone who undePost-modernism neoclassicism and prefabrication were made forrsw each other. Arc du Lac and some of the office building projects also show his mastery of both.
“the excesses of puffed-up postmodernism”
I can think of a few architects more deserving of this accusation. There are no Bofill projects in Orlando, FL, for example.
“his projects wouldn’t always turn out as he hoped”
Bofill was not the first or last architect to experience this, but saying it makes him sound like like he was.
Words that aren’t untrue:
“as fashions changed his expressive work fell out of favour”
“he developed a style that was very much his own”
It had to be done, even though I’m not due to look at ArchDaily again until this coming June. I’ll quote it in full. ArchDaily were quick off the mark with these 125 words but, as far as I can search, I haven’t been able to find any follow-up piece.
“Ricardo Bofill, the Spanish architect founder of Taller de Arquitectura (RBTA), designer of the iconic Walden 7 and more than 1,000 projects in forty countries, has passed away at 82 in Barcelona on Friday, January 14, as officially announced by his own firm through a statement.
“The firm praised Bofill’s ability to “question the mainstream thinking in architecture. [His works] ranges a style expression, connected to the context, featuring a strong dose of innovation and risk.” Moreover, RBTA has confirmed that his two sons, Ricardo Emilio and Pablo, will continue leading the firm founded in 1963.
“His office has announced a public act to be held next January 26 and 27 at the headquarters in Barcelona for those who want to pay homage to Bofill.
At the end of the article is an invitation to “Explore some of Ricardo Bofill’ most iconic architecture projects” on ArchDaily. Too much time has passed to even debate what the word “iconic” means anymore but I’m guessing it now means something like “backdrop”.
Over at the New York Times, Fred Bernstein files 1,242 words, beginning with some facts.
“Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish architect behind some of the world’s most startling buildings, died on Friday at a hospital in Barcelona. He was 82. The cause was Covid-19, his son Pablo said.”
It’s a fine article and a fitting obituary, interspersing biography and history with descriptions of projects and their often mixed reactions such as
“Among Mr. Bofill’s best known works were public housing projects, most of them built in France in the 1980s, with vastly overscale classical elements, which were both derided as kitsch and hailed by critics as the long-awaited middle ground between historicism and modernity.”
Things I agreed with:
“His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest cost you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk down endless corridors, and where different populations can be part of one community.”
Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New York Times at the time, wrote in 1985 that it was Mr. Bofill’s gift “to be able to unite the French instinct toward monumentality, which has lain dormant since the days when the Beaux-Arts ruled French architecture, with the country’s more current leanings toward populism.”
Things that aren’t untrue:
I was surprised to learn Bofill told Vladimir Belogolovsky in a 2016 interview for the website ArchDaily. “When Post-Modernism became accepted and popular in the United States and worldwide, it also became a style,” “And with time it became ironic and even vulgar. I was no longer interested.” I’d always seen Boffil’s Post Modernism as a style suited to the prefabrication of concrete components, much as Classicism was suited to carved stone ones. In both, the monumentality of the elements disguises the joins. Styles are never about the arbitrary whims of fashion, although many would have us believe otherwise.
This article is also not immune from mentioning that the jarring juxtapositions [of his Les Espaces d’Abraxas] made it seem dystopian — and it served as the perfect backdrop for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie, “Brazil,” and the last of the “Hunger Games” movies. Again, the notion is reinforced that being referenced in popular culture as an Instagram backdrop or a set for a TV series is the only indicator of architectural success we have.
“In an unexpected twist, Mr. Bofill’s older buildings found new fans in the 21st century. “Westworld,” the HBO sci-fi series, was shot in part at La Fábrica, and “Squid Game,” the Korean TV juggernaut, featured sets that closely resembled La Muralla Roja.
Upon re-reading that, I think it’s a bit odd to discuss an architect’s career as if it were a movie plot with “an unexpected twist”. I don’t suppose I should be surprised, if we talk about architects as if they’re movie stars then why shouldn’t their careers have “plot twists”? Mr. Manuel Clavel Rojo is not helping. He’s either expressing the will of the epoch or simply going with the flow.
Those Bofill buildings and others became familiar Instagram backdrops — or in the words of Manuel Clavel Rojo, a Spanish architect and educator, “His buildings became pop icons at the very end of his career.”
The process had begun well prior to Bofill’s death.
Creative Bloq posed the question below, before helpfully informing us that apartments in La Muralla Roja are available to rent on Airbnb. 458 words.
There’s also this Martin Solveig music video from 2016. [Thanks V!] – https://youtu.be/wQRV5omnBBU
This article mentions how “in the 21st century, the scale, complexity and unapologetic optimism unique to Ricardo Bofill’s work has made it an ideal backdrop for contemporary culture, be it photography, cinema, music, or fashion.” This may be true but at least it’s not suggesting that’s the sole worth of the buildings and career.
The remainder of the article is functional, providing biography and history but also mentioning that Bofill “embraced vernacular details from Catalan architecture” and a “bold experimentation with modular geometries”, using Walden 7 to illustrate.
It’s a polite article and with sufficient images and links for the reader who would like to know more. The end of the article has links to similar articles I might be interested in. It’s a bit weird, but such is the way of algorithms and keywords.
Suspicious of some ingrained prejudice, I wondered how Richard Rogers’s death fared on ArchDaily. His life and career were summed up in 214 words which, although not many, is 89 more (41%) than Bofill. I don’t think these mini-obituaries indicate anything more than ArchDaily’s meanness in paying for original content when people supply it for nothing. Over at The Guardian however, Oliver Wainwright managed 2,600 words for Richard Rogers which is 1,750 (200%) more than he did Bofill. We can only speculate what might have happened to the careers of both if Bofill’s plan for Les Halles had been completed, instead of Rogers+Piano’s Beaubourg.
The history of architecture has always been an arbitrary construct, continually reshaped according to what we think we value from the past. These obituaries are examples of new history being laid down. They don’t encourage us to remember buildings for what they meant at the time, or architects for what they did or aspired to do, or if those aspirations might still be valid. The past 60 years saw architectural history mined for references to be used in architectural objects but there was still a sense of worth attached to them. Our immediate future looks like being the same, except the only metric of worth will be the number of instances something can be used as a reference for anything. It’s happening now, but we should’ve seen it coming.
The https://ricardobofill.com/ website is one of the most generous and informative architectural websites you will ever find. It is a true resource that also says a lot about the man and his regard for what he did.
• • •
Mon. 7th Feb., 2022: This obituary in Curbed does the man and his work more justice. https://www.curbed.com/2022/01/ricardo-bofill-obituary-social-housing.html?regwall-newsletter-signup=true