The idea was that we should re-visit the Arab Institute to show this beautiful building to our friends, so we strolled along the Seine after passing Notre Dame until we had to cross over to Nouvel’s Institute that could already be seen addressing the aspect from some way off. After achieving the almost impossible and surviving the road crossings, we moved onto the site of the Arab Institute and through the geometric masses that marked the entrance. The tight spaces opened up into a large forecourt that presented the wonderful wall of irises, Nouvel’s mechanical, light-sensitive, climate control devices that cleverly reference traditional Arab patterns in art and design. It was good to see again – just a grand a spectacle as it was remembered. But what was this?
To the right was a large free-form mass, curvaceous, glossy and white. This was new. It looked temporary. One sign seemed to suggest that it held a display of Zaha Hadid’s work. It was not at all clear. It looked as though Hadid could have designed this little mass as an icon to exhibit her work. Or was the display in the Institute building? The building was a strange contrast with the classicism and rigour of Nouvel’s building. Here were bold three-dimensional surfaces bulging and billowing with forms similar to those coloured blobs in an oil lamp. The mass made no particular gesture to Nouvel’s building other than with what one might assume to be an intentional indent opposite the entrance to the Institute. But was this merely a chance relationship? It held no certainty that this dent was created by design for any other purpose than it looked interesting. The remainder of the building was introvert and self-centred, and gave no hint of it knowing where it was. It could really have been anywhere.
It was attractive. One was drawn to it to touch it – to feel its reality; to look at its detail, for it had a surreal presence that was enhanced by the juxtaposition with the rigour of Nouvel’s formal grids. Wandering around what looked and felt like epoxy-coated fibre glass, one repeatedly pondered on what it was; how it was; what it was for; how it achieved any function; how it was made; and how one entered this cloud. While all but the last question could remain vague and unresolved, it seemed that how one should approach this building might be more explicit. The uncertainty left one uneasy. After making the assumption that the void between two bulging white masses might be a ramped entry, we wandered up to explore the possibility. It was strange that there was no confirming graphic that might have helped us in our dilemma as the way in, like the remainder of the form, had no straight lines and no visible termination.
Weaving up the ramp along its curves, one could again touch the white. It held an unusual lack of reality in its perfection. The question seemed to be: can something ever be so completely without blemish? The hands sought to confirm that it could be. It did feel beautifully smooth – not a pimple or a grain of grit disrupted the flow of the feel. Then there was a void and a glazed wall. We assumed this was an entrance so we walked in. The interior was as freely curvaceous as the exterior, but one had no indication of where one should go or what one should do once having passed through the doors. There were no signs here either. So we wandered around seeking out some sense of organisation. No, this way was a dead end. The other way opened up into spaces displaying various models in other voids enveloped by epoxy forms with a ‘futuristic,’ integral shaping.
Our confusion must have looked obvious. Two tall, uniformed guards approached us and asked us for our entrance tickets. We offered them the ones purchased for the Arab Institute, but were bluntly told that these would not do. Other tickets for this display had to be purchased. How were we to know this when there was nothing to explain even the purpose of this building? There was a stunning lack of any information and signage. It was all as vaguely amorphous as the building itself. Where did one get these tickets? At the Arab Institure. But it was closed. The Gaelic shrug and the threatening uniforms made it clear that there was no logical or rational strategy here that could achieve any result that might allow us to move in beyond this point, so we left in silent protest. Typical!
At least we knew something more about the building. On the way back down the ramp we discovered that parts of the curved walls allowed us to reach over onto what might be a roof. Did the white forms wrap the whole building with a continued refinement? No. The slick walls stopped with an elegant curve that lapped a secret gutter to catch the water running off what one might label as the roof. Standing on tiptoes to get a better view, and reaching further, one could see that the ‘roof’ was a taut, translucent membrane that let light into the interiors. It was an interesting discovery. But how did the membrane meet the gutter? The fingers probed. Great blobs of ‘squeezy’ sealant could be felt along the edge of the membrane at the gutter. The stretching to see more revealed an enormous messy strip of wide, bulky goo that had been smeared thickly over both membrane and gutter to seal the junction. There was no elegance here, just muck. While everything easily accessible to the eye was a pristine, hi-tech wonder – look at me, no hands! – once the detailing was out of sight, it became carelessly mundane. One was left wondering about the other joints that could not be seen. The DOMUS aerial image on the Internet showed that there were many other situations that required careful solutions to remove water and stop its penetration. What happened here? One could not be hopeful that everything was as beautifully resolved as the detail of the lower exterior surfaces.
The disappointment was that the gleam, gloss and wonder were all just a false, showy style, concealing some less than mundane detailing. Did this prove that Hadid’s work was mere decoration – a skin for appearance only? After seeing Nouvel’s work again, one could appreciate its coherence, logic, depth and rigour. It made Hadid’s work look careless, shallow, in spite of its attractive skin. Did all of Hadid’s work suffer from this lack of interest in concealed detailing? Is style the essence? If there is so much effort spent on achieving the desired image, and so little care given to the joining of the parts that cannot be seen, then one has to ask why - why it is not unfair to make the claim that the work is all about appearance rather than anything else. All the joints in the white panels were perfect, but those unseen seemed, well, just sloppy.
Clever computers are able to develop and define the most complex of forms and make them, but how things are joined together and made waterproof needs the more traditional architectural input, techniques and understanding. Even though this might not be as dramatically exciting as computer work, the joint and the seal remain critical to the success of any architectural outcome and offer as great a challenge as does the shaping and making of the shell. Managing some highly visible joints carefully while not spending any effort or time on the unseen parts, does give the appearance of a smart hoax. It suggests much the same carelessness as was displayed for the visitor who was left stranded in a no-mans-land of indecision because of the lack of signs, either metaphorical in the making of the semiology of the masses, or in the specific information provided as diagram and text. This neglect suggests a lack of empathy for others involved in the building – the ‘users.’ What looks to be most important is only ME and MY form.