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In a digital world, has the role of cultural buildings really changed?

Kengo Kuma FRAC index

It is possible that the two things that most define our age – increasing urbanisation and the development of digital communications technology – have very little to do with each other

It is the job of the futurist to make bold predictions which often turn out to be wrong. So it is perhaps unfair to join in the chorus pointing out the miscalculation that George Gilder made when he suggested in the early 1990s that the rise of the internet would lead to an end not just to cities but to conventional human geography. However, when it comes to Gilder, who also wrote widely on the social inferiority of women and the superiority of Christian societies to secular ones, we shall just have to make an exception. Cities have grown since he made his prediction – showing no sign of abating – and cultural buildings such as art galleries and museums have had a key role in this that questions their very purpose as public institutions. 

Gilder, and others like Nicholas Negroponte, ultimately failed to understand the origins of the new network they were championing. The internet – the ever-expanding network of computers speaking each unto each – began as a means to keep a particular community connected, largely the diaspora of radical Berkeley students who moved up the West Coast and out into the desert during the 1970s. It emerged from the Whole Earth Catalog. Focusing on this end product, they ignored that the world they were commenting on was being defined in one space to the south and east of San Francisco; a multi-centred series of urban continuums which may not look like a city but with its easy access indeed acted like one. Yet we have chosen to ignore what a cultural building might look like in these places, with a renewed focus on the old urban cores. 

‘It is possible that the two things that most define our age – increasing urbanisation and the development of digital communications technology – have very little to do with each other.’

It is possible that the two things that most define our age – increasing urbanisation and the development of digital communications technology – have very little to do with each other. We are not seeking greater isolation thanks to the internet nor is it causing it. Our cities are not being planned in any radical different way and if our cultural buildings look different it is not as a direct result. They both rely perhaps on the maximising of existing infrastructure. While the USA has seen a general decline in the standard of its interstates, its bridges and railways, the streets of its cities have been revitalised. 

Take Seattle for example. In 1971 it suffered from an oil crisis prompting a collapse in production by Boeing with half the workforce being laid off virtually overnight. So extreme was the depopulation that two young real-estate agents hung a sign up on the road to the airport that read ‘Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out the Lights’. Boeing, as we shall see, never fully left the city, however. Furthermore, the area was fortunate enough to draw Microsoft and other tech companies to it in the 1990s. Post-grunge Seattle prospered and the Seattle Public Library by OMA was a sign that a civic culture had returned to the city. For other cities like Buffalo and Detroit which were also depopulated in the 1970s when civic budgets were slashed by the federal government following the oil crisis, the return has been slower. 

Seattle Library OMA

Seattle Library OMA

Source: Kevin Schafer / Alamy Stock Photo

Seattle Public Library by OMA (2004): a sign that a civic culture had returned to the city

Regeneration is often just an uneven reversal of this process. It is an economic-led shift in population rather than something that is specifically planned. Very little new infrastructure is required to make it successful, just a bit of sprucing up here and there and the odd signifier such as a new cultural building to express that change has occurred. While the area around San Francisco was producing the new economy of the United States, the process of recolonising its urban core was only completed in the early 2000s. The glowering, menacing de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron was the sign that the economic impact of Silicon Valley had touched the troubled heart of the city.    

The USA rediscovered Lewis Mumford. ‘The city fosters art and is art. The city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater,’ he had said in his essay ‘What is a City?’ published in 1937. This idea of the city as something creative in itself seemed worth rediscovering. It had run through American planning thought after all. Edmund Bacon observed that one of the ‘prime purposes of architecture is to heighten the drama of living’; Jane Jacobs was enchanted by ‘a street ballet’ that had to be preserved through the assertion of the role of the viewer. This theatrical model was particularly interesting given that a new economic model suggested the creative industries could replace heavy ones as a means of providing employment. 

Certainly in the UK there was also an attempt to re-densify the central core of the city. Although Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force used explicitly European terminology to describe what should be required in the centre of our cities, the process was borrowed from the USA. The Creative City, written by Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini and published in 1994, elevated the term creative not just as a means of considering a city, nor of building one, but of actually organising it economically. Landry and others like Richard Florida flattened and extended existing ideas of the city as an aesthetic experience to include leisure and buying things. This new creative urbanism was ‘blurring the boundaries between shopping, learning and the experience of culture’. 

It is as much this process that created the Guggenheim in Bilbao as the increase in short-haul flights by budget airlines across Europe. With the collapse of a national industrial strategy in the centralised economy of Spain,  we see local civic leaders making recourse to an arts-led regeneration at a city level, supported by European Union money. This model was knocked out again and again throughout the continent. It was aided by the depoliticisation of the development process. For example, in the UK the process of removing planning and decision-making from elected local authorities and handing them to Urban Development Corporations whose members are appointed by central government kicked in during the ’90s. 

It is also at this time that funds from the National Lottery kicked in, a financial stream which sits outside the political responsibility of elected government. It is not imperative that culture is funded solely by the state, as the USA shows, but in the UK this slippage encouraged a loosening of the idea of what a cultural building might do. A sense of the public function of a cultural building was lost and, given the sheer profusion of new facilities, appeals were made both to the lowest common denominator in terms of leisure activities and in attempts to target specific communities. The Earth Centre in Doncaster began in the 1990s as a community project, received £40m of Lottery money in 1995, attracted very few visitors after it opened in 1999, added a crazy golf course in 2001 and closed in 2004. 

de Young museum Herzog de Meuron

de Young museum Herzog de Meuron

Source: Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

The de Young Museum in San Francisco by Herzog & de Meuron (2005)

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is also important not simply because of its economics, but also due to the architecture, and we have dismissed both of these before really understanding why they work. The building is important because it is a confluence of changing political and economic landscapes in Europe and the new technological possibilities driving construction and representation in the USA. It is this that makes Gehry and the Bilbao Guggenheim so important. The Guggenheim is effectively the first computer-designed cultural building in the world and it was made possible largely by the freeing up of design and construction skills following the end of the Cold War. 

If the land on which it sits was acquired by the ending of industry, then likewise the construction techniques that gave birth to it. Rick Smith trained as an architect but worked between IBM and the aerospace industry on the West Coast of the USA for nearly two decades. In 1989 the Cold War ended and the industry died virtually overnight. Frank Gehry’s office called him the same week he was laid off. Gehry conversely was less than satisfied with the build of the caracol-shaped stairway at the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein which even Swiss builders couldn’t manage to construct without a kink. Together with Jim Glymph, Smith created a graphic interface for CATIA in Gehry’s office. Gehry used this new digital modelling in combination with materials aping digital surfaces; velvet dipped in wax, folded metal; anything that could capture the lustre of the graphic surface. This technique was first employed on the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Little wonder that it does not relate visually to its surroundings. 

‘Cincinnati is perhaps Hadid’s most contextual structure, in that it presents a kind of three-dimensional extrapolation and recompiling of the grid of downtown Cincinnati’

Of course Gehry’s experience is unique in that he brought software development within his own practice whereas other architects worked with engineering firms who had co-opted the new techniques. Yet the marriage of computing and sculptural or painterly qualities created a new means of generating form. Let us compare it with a project by Zaha Hadid: her least discussed but arguably one of her best cultural buildings, the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati. Hadid forms her building from a series of intersecting planes that is both a sculptural continuum  of the city’s grid and a refiguring of it. Her drawings have moved on from the overtly Constructivist-influenced work of the 1980s to a tightly controlled world in which components are selected and highlighted rather than universally incorporated. It is the product of a conversation between Hadid’s artistic technique and computer renderings.

Cincinnati is perhaps Hadid’s most contextual structure, in that it presents a kind of three-dimensional extrapolation and recompiling of the grid of downtown Cincinnati. It exhibits in both design and execution  the ideas that Mumford touched upon. The different heights in the city form different stages (in the theatrical sense), mezzanines and platforms to view art within the building. Hadid’s least successful work, like that of others such as Libeskind, is the totalising nature of the art;  the culmination of architectural phenomenology  asserting the experience of architecture over its rational production and planning so that it becomes solipsistic  or reductive in its meaning. 

In his book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard focuses his attention on domestic space and the need  to observe types of felicitous space; the impact of the intimate experience on the active mind. Bachelard towards the end of his book begins to consider the wider implications of what he is suggesting and his focus on the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view has to push at the very limits  of that view. ‘In prolonging exaggeration, we may have  the good fortune to avoid the habits of reduction,’ he writes. The continuous surfaces of the computer rendering, the uninterrupted contours of the digital  world, pushed this project to the point of collapse. 

Bachelard’s text had a role in the deployment of exaggerated, naive ur-forms by Rossi and other European Postmodernists, revolting at the stultifying, bureaucratic quality of the International Style – that reduced, codified approach to architecture that had a surface similarity to Modernism but did not share its spirit. By implication  too, though, it attacked the public intent of the 19th-century institutions which proceeded it; which are effectively series of homogeneous space. The phenomenological approach asserted an architecture which produced effect first and a series second. It is a strange moment in history when the impact on the individual becomes the main purpose rather than an operative consideration, ie, something that an architect does when he is also creating space and form.    

 ‘“No more weird buildings,” is the cry of this particular age, made not by an architecture critic, but the president of the most populous country on earth’ 

Of course, the Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank Gehry is a stunning structure. It is not always easy gallery space to curate but then hanging work across a series of galleries at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim is by all accounts not easy. It is, however, a product of a particular time and the successive attempts to ape it are producing lower and lower returns. (Kengo Kuma’s contribution to the FRAC building programme in France, for example.) Foster, Nouvel and Hadid’s work on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi could be the best work each architect has ever produced and the architectural world wouldn’t give a damn. It marks not the way forward but a full stop. ‘No more weird buildings,’ is the cry of this particular age, made not by an architecture critic, but the president of the most populous country on earth.  

Yet the next generation of cultural buildings are conceived in the shadow of Saadiyat. We have had  our senses piqued and we are unlikely to put up with  the recent backlash to create venerable, dowdy architecture, when it comes to the few cultural buildings that are being built, even if our love affair with Brutalism holds the day in terms of cultural memory. There are plenty of examples to take forward from recent history and we all have our favourites. Haworth Tompkins at the Young Vic prefigures their reordering of other later theatres by creating a series of spaces between the street and the auditorium that are both theatrical and urban in quality. It is legible as a theatre but also capable of acting simply as a platform. Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary is a piece of city and a gallery simultaneously; hugging the terrain with serious tectonic purpose but still appealing to the senses. There is a formal dialogue between the city and the building.

nottingham contemporary Caruso st john

nottingham contemporary Caruso stjohn

Source: Maija Viksne

Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary (2009) is a piece of city and gallery simultaneously

There are great examples of work which is both exuberant and formally engaged with the city which it inhabits. The work of Mansilla + Tuñón in Spain is particularly strong on this score. Ciudad de León Auditorium completed in 2002 and the 2005 Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (known as MUSAC), both in Léon, are strong examples of this. This work is additive in a formal sense, the architecture abstracts the built forms of the city around it before recompiling it. Herzog & de Meuron’s work at its best does the same. It is not born of historicism or a simple desire  to be contextual. It is not reductive or conservationist.  It accumulates and intensifies.

These buildings are not created to be used by users or by a community. The facilities they provide are the  best they can be at the scale the client affords them.  They help the directors and curators make the only  lasting argument in favour of culture, that it informs  and addresses a public. Having begun by mocking the efforts of a futurist, it is perhaps churlish to make a prediction and indeed this is more a hope than a determined belief, but our new cultural buildings will  be series of structures that make formal responses  to the city. They may be commissioned by those who  fear we are becoming reclusive internet-only entities  but they will be designed with an optimistic vision  of the public as mankind’s most enduring arena for collective activity.  

Lead Image: 

The FRAC in Marseille (2013) – Kengo Kuma’s response to urbanity – was the site of a fire-raising installation

Source: Olivier Amsellem