As the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology opened in Lisbon, a new wave of European architects exhibiting alongside it asked if extravagant, self-consciously sculptural buildings have had their time
The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi currently exists as 1,400 concrete piles, protruding from the earth. No work has taken place on the site for five years and there is no signed contract to deliver it. Everything is pretty much silent, apart from the whooshing sound of life, history and the world hurtling past a series of proposed deadlines for completion. There are rumours that more than 200 artworks are sitting in a climate-controlled warehouse in a port somewhere in Europe ready for shipping. Who knows? When the Louvre Abu Dhabi – a series of white-cubed spaces under a freaky crenellated sunshade – opens, construction on the Gehry’s building will commence. If so, it is hard to imagine just how spectacularly unfashionable the Guggenheim will be if, indeed, it is ever built.
If you were looking for signs that an extravagant, expressive, self-consciously sculptural architecture is in terminal decline, then the stasis of the desert Guggenheim is one example. Another was provided by the singular juxtaposition during last year's Lisbon Architecture Triennale of Amanda Levete’s Museum of Architecture Art and Technology (MAAT) and the major installation The Form of Form. To the east of the old Tejo power station that constitutes one part of the museum lay Levete’s structure, a sinuous white line on the shore that bulges to create an entrance and to proffer up its back for Lisbonites to climb around on like a toytown Oslo Opera House. To the west, on the other side of the charming brick power station, was the installation in plasterboard and steel subframe – the Form of Form, an intriguing architectural manifesto that formed the thrust of the Triennale. Curated by young Portuguese architect Diogo Seixas Lopes, who sadly died before its completion, it was designed by architects Johnson Marklee, Office KGDVS and Porto-based Nuno Brandão Costa. It provided a bewildering collage of half-familiar volumes.
Hufton + Crow
A sinuous white line on the shore that bulges to create an entrance and to proffer up its back for Lisbonites to climb around
Frank Gehry’s designs for the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi
The juxtaposition with Levete’s building prompted one to make some more immediate considerations about the end of an architectural epoque. Is the MAAT the ultimate post-crisis icon? I’d say so. It is limited in scale. It provides just 7,400sq m of floor space in total and only two major exhibition spaces. One of these is an elliptical exhibition or performance space that one enters slightly above grade and descends to join or view at closer quarters down one of two curving ramps. Although much smaller, this is a post Turbine Hall room, designed – successfully one might add – for the kind of large-scale performative work in which the spectator becomes part of the spectacle. Next to it, just beneath the ground floor level, is a longer, more conventional gallery, for group exhibitions or major retrospectives.
This lack of extravagance is matched by a tightly defined brief and a much-traduced sense of purpose. The MAAT is actually pretty functional. Limited in scope and budget (€20m) it is evidently a post-crisis icon. Although the ceramic tiling was clearly unfinished upon opening, it does a pretty good job both in terms of providing decent exhibition space and relating to the rest of the city. A bridge at the north-east corner ties the building to the city behind the four lanes of road, tramline and railways that hive off the littoral strip from the city. Its graceful roofline protrudes on to the water line gently. It is modest – something you could never accuse Gehry of – and yet it does something that we take for granted about the architecture of the last decade. Despite its meagre budget, it addresses the scale of its setting. It makes a formal gesture out to the petrochemical plant on the other side of the Tagus.
Yet it was through the cuts in the ghostly Form of Form that we first saw the Levete building. In the endless play of memories The Form of Form prompted, it was perhaps only this writer who thought of the competition for the sculpture that became the Arcelor Mittal Orbit in London, particularly the contribution by Caruso St John. It was stupendously melancholic: a well-behaved, lonely brick tower with some lights imbedded into it, a structure in search of a Victorian warehouse to expire next to. Neither in materials, nor in animus did it reach out to the steely surrounds of a 21st‑century sporting circus.
A toytown Oslo Opera House: the MAAT designed by AL_A
The post-industrial landscape that iconic architecture often inhabits has a scale that contextual modernists who rail against it as un-urban can rarely respond to. The reference to Caruso St John is not gratuitous. Although the influence is not direct or stated, Lopes operated in an academic milieu created by Adam Caruso, who was professor of architecture and construction at ETH Zurich. Caruso’s preoccupation with form and context in architecture was one that Lopes appreciated. His book on Aldo Rossi evolved out of a PhD at ETH. Partly because of the use of external verticals there was a certain similarity in appearance between The Form of Form and one of Caruso St John’s most enchanting buildings – Nottingham Contemporary. Both were assemblages of different volumes, although the reasons for being so are wildly different. For Caruso St John it was partly to weld their work to the hillside, and to prioritise the creation of excellent exhibiting spaces.
For Lopes and the three architects he brought together, the agenda was different. It was about beefing things up: it was about responding to the condition of post-industrial urbanism as much as its overly literal context. It was also a manifesto statement insisting that while architecture can never utterly resist capital, it can never be entirely subservient to it. With the Form of Form, Seixas Lopes provided a platform for three architects who work with the historical continuum of architecture. They view the city as an accretion of architectural forms not simply of economic or political forces. However he asked them to address a more complex, less polite scenario than a pre-industrial town centre in a pleasant region somewhere in Europe. He asked them to deal with a difficult site.
The Form of Form curated by Diogo Seixas Lopes for the Lisbon Triennale
There was a certain fortuitous element to this. The Form of Form was originally intended for the interior of the older part of MAAT: the former electricity plant turned exhibition space. However, a decision was made to turf it out, in order to host the Barbican’s brilliant Eames exhibition. It was an inspired move because it compelled the architects involved to consider their temporary installation to be a building – albeit a temporary one – and to consider the riverscape, with the oil refineries on the other side of the road behind, and the monstrous forms of the Centro Culture de Belem, a Botta-esque behemoth built to celebrate Portugal’s first presidency of the EU and presumably to immediately dispense with any financial benefit that might have accrued from it. There was also Mendes da Rocha’s Coach Museum: proof that brutalism may be good at many things but housing a modest collection of ornamental 18th-century horse-drawn carriages is not one of them.
Architects would shudder at the extreme lengths to which planners in Berlin have gone to ensure that the historical datum of that city, to which all new architecture must respond, is the 19th century (foregoing all latter additions) – for example, demolishing the Palast der Republik in order to rebuild a copy of the 18th-century Stadtschloss. However, the contextual approach is in serious danger of achieving the same aim. Soon we will be in a situation where only the right context can produce the right kind of architecture. The Form of Form was a riposte to this. Each architect took spaces from another’s already completed building and incorporated it into a new plan, which was in turn incorporated into a larger ensemble. The result was at times confusing, at times ridiculous, but largely an important attempt to escape the politeness of historicism and contextual modernism from whence these architects emerged and search for something ... bigger. It tested the idea of eternal forms by smashing them into each other, by juxtaposing them or crashing them into each other. Its beauty was apparently accidental.
The assembled volumes of Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary
It also addressed a certain inward turn to the future, as the building hosted a kind of recursive archive of building forms collated by the web zine and online curation project Socks Studio. This occasionally related to the form of the building. Stanley Tigerman’s unbuilt exploration of the nine-part grid in plan is echoed in the real plan by Office KGDVS for the Villa Buggenhout (a pioneering, free-standing villa in suburban Belgium), which was translated into The Form of Form by Nuno Brandão Costa. It is a complicated game, but then the world isn’t straightforward – and it revealed that the idea that parametricism is the only game in town that is articulating complexity is a convenient untruth.
Indeed, one of the most important aspects of The Form of Form, and why one felt it superseding the formal extravagance of Levete’s building, is that while it had apparently forsaken the technical possibilities of our computed world, it embraced its cultural ones. We copy and paste more easily and openly than we ever did. We make Tumblrs and scour the internet for examples of certain kinds of things to put in them. We create our own taxonomies. We live inside a cultural space and wander through the eternal presence of its history without seeing the end of it. It is however a civic space in which debate can take place freely.
The sleek form-making epitomised by MAAT works, but its future is in doubt
The fascinating thing is that when this postmodernist approach is translated into architectural form, the result is as much akin to brutalism as postmodernism. The building was generated by a collage constituted from the plans of interior spaces, with the exterior ostensibly left to define itself. There may have been an impish, postmodernist game in the selection of the interior space and in the historicist approach, but this significant internal turn to architectural production owed as much to Lasdun as it did to Rossi. The civic possibilities of the space were clear. The crowds wandered through them cautiously as if through a ruin, rather than riding bikes across it in the case of Levete’s MAAT. It prompted an audience first to try to decode and then to relax and enjoy the echoes between content, interior arrangement and external form.
Standing at the riverside, looking back at these two white structures, one sleek and clad in ceramic tiling and a series of what could be film-set flats, interlacing with each other, colliding and creating new strange intersections, it was clear that one kind of form-making is on the decline. Gehry’s Abu Dhabi Guggenheim not withstanding, this much is obvious. Of course, it is still unclear whether the future will be as exciting and unexpected as the work that Gehry produced was. The Form of Form suggested it might be. One of the lasting testaments to Diogo Seixas Lopes is that he has given us hope.