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Scenes, Actors and Spectacles

Starchitectural Review: Exploring the process of procurement within today’s pluralism

Although it nowhere uses the word, this book is all about ‘procurement’. It examines how, in a range of costly projects in Bilbao, Abu Dhabi, Paris, New York and the Vitra ‘campus’, buildings were envisioned, commissioned and produced − ‘produced’ in the Hollywood sense of financial, industrial and distributive accomplishment.

More important than ‘starchitects’, the author shows, are the procurement agents and the procedures that engage them, procedures that frequently result in banal, dysfunctional and paradoxical consequences as cities try to distinguish themselves by commissioning ‘icons’ from ‘archistars’ to ‘brand’ projects that are often either misconceived or merely generic. Moreover, some of these delusions have gone viral, replicating in a global trail of grotesque ‘mis-icons’. Chief among them is the supposed ‘Bilbao effect’, a notion that some fantastic attraction will ‘lever’ extra investment into an otherwise unlikely place or scheme, which can somehow be concentrated into a single built (but eminently reproducible) image.

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Abu Dhabi skyscrapers

However, Ponzini also shows how rational thought informed some projects, and how, though selected from the same elite designers, their procurement arose through varying processes in differing contexts. Likewise, a virtue in Michele Nastasi’s photographs of these works is to convey, as well as their abstract and rootless beauty, their complex and sometimes strange contexts.

The cover shows an Antonioniesque night scene in Abu Dhabi: an empty lot, a taxi, no passenger to be seen, a dark building site beyond; and looming up in the background, like a vertical flying-saucer, a headquarters building by MZ Architects, whose website declares: ‘Our work relates to spatial concepts, form and structure … driven by the specificity of context.’ Except that here, there is no context; only, as Ponzini says, ‘a 27-square-kilometre development … 20 kilometres of coastline with a 28-billion-dollar investment’, which is projected to quadruple Abu Dhabi’s population to over three million. You might well ask: why would they want to do that? Why not just create an enduringly good place for Abu Dhabi’s existing citizens? But the ur-imperative of bigness is unfathomable, at least in a short study such as this.

To pursue such an enquiry you would have to follow Ponzini’s many references, which will recommend this book to anyone asking the important question: how do major architectural works get commissioned and procured? And how come they turn out to be not just so poor, but abysmally so? Part of the answer, Ponzini suggests, may be that certain works of ‘starchitecture’ seem to be successful enough to justify (just) their hype; but in the rush to imitate, the real reasons for their success are frequently overlooked.

Thus, would-be emulators of the ‘Bilbao-effect’ tend to miss its vital context: that, while Bilbao was ‘rust-belt’, it was also still host to the headquarters of a major bank, is on the ‘Euroside’ of Spain (like Turin and Milan in Italy) and that it benefited from the Basque lands’ near-autonomy within Spain’s federal system. Ponzini points out that the Basque government provided €100 million as well as land for the Guggenheim, while ‘in a decade the Spanish Ministry of Development coordinated more than €100 billion and the Ministry of Environment another €19 billion’.

Furthermore, EU Objective 2 programmes for structural and depollution measures invested another €4.5 billion from 1994 to 2006. These enabled tramways, Calatrava’s new airport, and Foster’s Abando railway station and Metro. In a London-obsessed UK, such sums and investments can only be dreamt of by parallels such as Swansea, Belfast or Newcastle; and they make nonsense of any notion that Bilbao’s revival stemmed entirely from Gehry’s museum.

Yas Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Yas Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Likewise, in the ‘fiat city’ of Abu Dhabi, cultural ‘icons’ commissioned from Gehry and Hadid (among others) were dropped like cherries onto a vast cake of business-engineering. Because of Abu Dhabi’s oil, they are better underwritten than Dubai’s speculations, and maybe such cultural flywheels, despite their utterly artificial concoction, may see it through oil’s decline. But if Iran, Iraq and Egypt stabilise and liberalise, then the Gulf boomtowns, no matter how well air-conditioned, will likely lose out to older centres; so that their current dilation, rife with the febrile glitz of ‘too big to fail’, could end up as history’s biggest Klondike: global husks, abandoned to the sands.

More familiar are Ponzini’s next cases, the Grands Travaux of Paris and New York’s ‘Plural Architectural Profiles’. If they are also more credible, it may be because their confidence and (relatively) sophisticated procurement procedures have enabled these centres to avoid the icon-neediness of more provincial cities; and when ‘iconic’ needs were voiced in the case of Ground Zero, Libeskind’s ‘Freedom Tower’ was displaced by pragmatic demands.

Yet even in (especially in) these metropoles, spectacular commissions recurrently go to ‘stars’ in an apparently self-validating system of prestige clients and ‘signature’ architects, much like the gallery world of collectors and big-name artists. Indeed, Ponzoni’s last case study is Vitra’s ‘collection’ of buildings by Gehry, Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron et al at its plant near Basel. These works, it is clear, were not casually bought up, but commissioned and assembled with practical as well as curatorial care. Yet, as Ponzini titles his chapter, ‘The Vitra Campus is not a City’, and any lessons it offers to civic culture are very limited.

Hyatt Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Hyatt Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Ponzini concludes in pessimistic reflection on ‘the homogeneity of spectacular architecture in totally different contexts with respect to their cultural, economic, institutional, urban and aesthetic features’. Like Kenneth Frampton’s Studies in Tectonic Culture, he notes that many ‘icons’ amount to little but facile scenography − image-veneer + ‘value-engineering’ − no different from the ‘Potemkin City’ of Vienna’s Ringstrasse that incited Adolf Loos’ sarcasm. And yet, Ponzini observes, resorting to spectacular ‘starchitecture’ is an effect, not a cause, of the current malaise; for the ‘icons’ conceal a deeper inability to originate procurement in rational understanding and informed civic discussion. Starchitects are not to blame alone, but also their commissioners’ cupidity and stupidity.

Doubtless patrons were always greedy, doubtless procurement in today’s pluralities will always be a complex negotiation; but if we are to avoid dooming our cities to being arid dumbscapes, we are going to have to clever up and do a damn sight better in our commissioning than reaching for a branded ‘starchitect’ like a teenager buying his first alcopop. A century ago, as the Wiener Werkstätte made aesthetic fetishes of furniture, Karl Kraus remarked sardonically ‘What times we live in! It takes a genius to make a table!’ Today, Kraus might put it somewhat differently: ‘The 21st century! It takes a genius to commission an architect!’

Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities

Authors: Davide Ponzini and Michele Nastasi

Publishers: Allemandi & Co

Price: £25

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