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Attending the third World Architecture Festival to be held since the start of the Global Financial Crisis has guaranteed that it’s a small world after all. The purse strings have been tightened and junkets cancelled, with the Australian contingent from McBride Charles Ryan confirming that numbers are down on the previous year.
With little representation in the competition categories from architectural heavyweights Japan, most of this year’s competitors come from the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden, with an increased representation from countries that remained relatively unscathed by the impact of the GFC, including Australia.
Following opening remarks from festival organisers and the Mayor of Barcelona, the presentations warmed up with a polite review of the Neues Museum by Rik Nys of David Chipperfield Architects and Julian Harrop of Julian Harrop Architects. Both architects discussed the sensitivity and moral dilemma of re-building a cultural relic. Their strategy of continuity of form making may have been more interesting, had it been contrasted with the proposal from Frank Gehry (Chipperfield’s unlikely competitor for this tender). Regrettably, however, this comparison was lacking and the audience was treated to a room-by-room, blow-by-blow description of technique.
The highlight of day one was the juxtaposition of the work of two firms: FAT: Architecture, presented by Sean Griffiths, and the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), presented by Ingels. Griffiths commenced his no-holds-barred dissertation lampooning his contemporary starchitects, in particular criticising Daniel Libeskind for vacuous form making. Libeskind, he said, was guilty of repeating the language of his one meaningful building – the Jewish Holocaust Museum – and using the same language for an office building, The Graduate Centre for the London Metropolitan University, with no difference in style attributed for any programmatic functions. Presenting this argument using slides of both buildings, this was damming evidence indeed.
Griffiths’ scorn for the international starchitects also fell on Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, who were employed by the drivers of new capitalism with their designs spreading like a nasty rash over the globe. Unfortunately, although both are presenting projects at the WAF this year, neither Hadid nor Koolhaas had the right of reply. Griffiths claims might have been more compelling, had he provided accompanying slides to show how far the rash had spread.
This barbed attack was cleverly paired with a presentation from Bjarke Ingels, himself a starchitect in the making. Ingels began with cartoon speech bubble images of Mies van der Rohe saying, ‘Less is more’, Venturi stating, ’Less is a bore’, and Phillip Johnson exclaiming, ‘I am a whore!’ a reference to Johnson having once famously described all architects as prostitutes. Ingels went on to present a futurist manifesto suggesting that, rather than ridding a city of cars, we ought to increase the efficiency of their use. The use of Philip Johnson’s analogy became particularly appropriate, when the sponsor of Ingels design brief was revealed to be none other than car manufacturer, Audi.
The tension of the discussion came from comparing the work of FAT: Architecture, a firm that wishes to remain small and do small work that replicates the local culture, with that of the Bjarke Ingels Group, who – by their name alone – are BIG! FAT presented their Islington Square Housing Development and Hoogvliet Heerlijkheid Community Centre projects, both of which relate to the local vernacular and individual taste. This personal scale was diametrically opposed to the project presented by BIG, a new, large-scale philosophy for living, harnessing the driverless cars to tackle urban congestion and become the next step in cultural evolution.
Both presenters offered alternate agendas that reconfigure what the clients already have access to, with very different results. Although cordial on stage, the two practices are moving in very different directions, and it will be interesting to hear if Griffiths is describing Ingels as a rash, should the latter’s global domination continue.