Sunday, April 29, 2012


The Abu Dhabi promotional presentation in the local Abu Dhabi art gallery showed the proposals all together. Following the slick hype of clouds of colour and their Mobius movements on the three-D, super panoramic video screen that curved around a sprawling, plush theatrette space, the group was ushered through into an area that had looked like a surreal photographic mural behind the moving radial images. This illusion turned out to be another display space viewed through a heavy chain curtain. After pushing the chains aside, the fuzzy haze disappeared to materialise as a gallery that housed a large model of the proposal to develop Saadiyat Island just outside Abu Dabhi. It was in this development that the Frank O. Gehry Guggenhien, the Jean Nouvel Louvre and Zaha Hadid Performing Arts Theatre were to be built – on the edge, beside and into the sea. The bulk of the development was dense housing. The model showed all three schemes together in their context, as well as the housing and the core Zayed National Museum that used the tail feathers of the falcon as its inspiration – a symbol of force and courage. It was heroic, not only for the president but also for the architect. The Foster group under the direction of Lord Foster himself was designing this museum. The presenter advised that Tadao Ando was preparing concepts for a maritime museum on the site allocated nearby, but this had not yet been modelled. The group of architects seemed to have been chosen from various places around the world as if to give this development immediate international prestige. Or was it just a marketing ploy? There appeared to be no rationale or necessity to gather such functions in this particular place. Either way, the invitation to build seemed to offer the architects the chance to do anything they wanted – the more extreme the better. They did not let anyone down, least of all themselves.

 The theatre building by Zaha Hadid looked like a giant sperm – perhaps a whale - wriggling sinuously out into the ocean; all, it seemed, self-consciously formed to create an interesting arrangement of complex melding curves and surfaces that could startle and excite. Boxes seem to be very undesirable these days where computers can so easily generate ever-new alternatives using programmed random distortions. Jean Nouvel’s new Louvre was more modest – more classically subtle and discreetly relaxing. It had a large perforated dome sheltering the boxed spaces below, hiding them under this hovering roof as if to disguise their perhaps undesirable presence, and further camouflaging them with a scattering of dappled light falling across their rectangular surfaces to create a delicate, confusing illusion of amorphous solids, voids and water. It was explained as a response to context – the harsh light and heat. Then, as if biblical in its declaration, there was Frank O. Gehry’s new Guggenheim, like a trash heap beside a swamp, appearing more interested in making an outrageous statement than anything else. It seemed as though boxes had been thrown willy-nilly perhaps by way of protest, and had been fixed in this ad hoc positioning and labelled as a building, a Gugggenheim outpost, in an attempt to match the Bilbao outcome. The Bilbao Guggenheim has set the example for the success of architectural extremes. It has become the envy of all places seeking international attention and acclaim.

The first glimpse of the Gehry model revealed a replica of a pile of trashed cartons thrown aside into a random heap. As one looked closer, trying to read the messy mass as a building, it seemed that a curved pieced of card could be interpreted as the linear entrance vault. Nearby, to one side of the main pile, a minute element appeared. What looked like braced timber framing that could have been a part of a shade structure was neatly modelled in the finest of detail. This particularity was an odd and puzzling clash in scale with the schematic bulk of the main mass. The form of the building was casually, almost carelessly, modelled in bland boxed card and some seemingly random conical and curved paper shapes. Why was so much attention given to such a mundane, almost insignificant part of this model that made its big parts from simple folded, rolled or bent card? Even what was assumed to be the entry was only a curved card with no supports. It looked like a rolled envelope shoved into a letterbox. The model really looked a shambles. What would water do here? How would it run off? How could it be kept out? Well, it probably doesn’t rain enough to worry. This is desert country. But sand? Will the whole gallery eventually be covered in trapped, drifting sand to become a giant dune? One needed to know more about this clutter in order to be fair to it, although first impressions are sometimes difficult to overcome.

Nearby, in a glass box, was a continuous video loop of Gehry, the man himself  - Frank O. – talking about his scheme in his rich, melodious, mesmerising Yankee drawl. It was like slow rap music with a Cohen-like resonant depth. He repeatedly, almost laconically, explained that the building sought to be a response to place. It had some sheltered areas on the outer edge. Well, this only heightened the dilemma. Did Gehry think Abu Dabhi was a pile of rubbish? Did he think that a few shelters around this pile would be enough for him to say that the building responded to the climate? Is this why so much detailed attention had been given to a tiny piece of shade framing when all other forms were left more than broadly diagrammatic, with all of the details ignored? It seemed as bizarre as the whole concept that appeared to be asking, “How can I be most outrageously provocative?” Had Gehry run out of time for this presentation, or ideas?

It truly was very strange. Perhaps this is what the promoters were wanting? One kept on going back to view the model in order to see if there was any substance to this proposal. Was it just a try-on – a joke? If shelter in this harsh environment was the theme, where were the other shelters? It was not at all clear if the bits of card were solids, voids or sun screens – or any combination of these. It was an enigma. Looking at the proposal with an open mind and a casual, uncritical eye, one slowly began to envisage wind tower shapes, and forms reaching out for light. The muddle eventually took on the scale and hectic appearance that one found in the buildings around the souks and the nearby alleys and lanes. Viewing the massing, one slowly experienced the familiar feel of chaos that some areas of old towns in the region have. One recalled the random roof scapes of these buildings, all so varied and ad hoc, that offer such extraordinary vistas. These prospects presented an identity that could be described as a clutter of chaos that matched the model’s character. Is this what Gehry was trying to touch? Why does he simplistically try to explain the outrageous pile as a response to place with a few perimeter shade areas in this hot climate when it might entail a more sensitive and complex strategy? Is it just not politic to say such things about the local villages and towns, or is one reading too much into too little? 

The proposal makes more sense as a response to the random complexity of traditional planning patterns and form than a climatically driven solution. One could envisage the cones allowing into the dark, cool shaded interiors, those beautiful shafts of stunning light that one sees from a domed oculus, or slicing through the framing of a souk. The shambles held the possibility of shaping a beautiful array of interrelated spaces, both large and small, similar to those one sees in traditional lanes and courtyards. Let us hope that this is the meaning. Just building a mess is too easy. The ad hoc jumble will still gain international awareness because everyone will be talking about the sheer cheek of Frank O. Is he too good for anyone to believe that he can accept the proposition that the random pile will do; or is he so bold and brash as to propose one for no other reason than he can build one? Or is there another agenda? But what can be said of Z. Hadid’s theatre? Much the same, but its references are more obscure. It has an organic appearance that suggests skeletal remnants or heaving dunes. Perhaps skeletal remnants on dunes? Or it is one of the many super luxury yachts in the region: true theatre on water?

In an era that sees the drama of climate change impacting on our lives, and where wars seem to be a part of our everyday experience, the attention to things climatic is becoming a cliché. Likewise, we see the familiar images of devastation everywhere. Broken, smashed, leaning, twisted, holed, fragmented, knarled, deformed buildings remain as ruined remnants of war and terror. Such images appear on the news only too regularly. One has to wonder why Gehry (et. al.) works so hard to produce similar images as new ‘arty-smatrie’ buildings? Abu Dabhi has a twisting building already – a wobbly tower. Clever. More quirky distortions are proposed or being built elsewhere in the Emirates. What is the sense of this other than newsworthiness? – more strange; higher than highest; most unique; etc.: something to talk about; free advertising? A disc-shaped hotel was passed on the way into Abu Dahbi – smart: pause for a photo; ogle in amazement; move on to the next. Could an alphabet-shaped range of hotels be constructed for a hotel chain? What could or should one spell? Could more complex twists be made? A Mobius strip building? It all sounds so really - surreally - very odd, but it is all very possible just because it can be done. The question is: should it be done?

Architecture has to be better than random games manipulating malleable forms, otherwise it is just a forum for the greatest ‘”OH!” - “Oh dear!” There is no doubt that such architecture will stimulate attention and tourism. It becomes a freak show. The danger is that these slickly smart – smart-arse? – buildings will become models for young minds to either match or better; as though it was the norm; and that the attitude of the new and most-fashionable ‘master/mistress heroes’ will set the stage for mirrored stances, attitudes and actions: “ME is good.” Gehry’s enigmatic explanations could set a precedent, just as Hadid’s suave stance might. The promo image of Zaha looked like a front-page pose for a fashion magazine, with the head photographed from an unusually low angle, framed with fan-blown hair, in full frontal rawness with the eyes looking down, casting one into the role of the ‘lesser’ mortal. I have never seen her like this before. She usually looks, well, different to this. There is no humility or apology here in this image – just ‘Look at ME! ME!’ Vague memories of a range of images of the same ilk come to mind. Lord Foster offers a different, more surly ME, with no hair to dramatise the appearance. After all, he is a Lord: praise the Lord.

There is something strange going on here. Is it a cultural thing or the ravages of promotion and fashion taking control of architecture as it has in just about every other aspect of our lives that face the void of meaninglessness in ever-new distractions at every turn: slick cars; smart phones; magic tablets; fancy food; designer clothes; all with matching watches and accessories to die for – if only. The Hadid image and building model – the lights really come on! “Isn’t that quaint?”: let’s play on/off – reminds one of a recent advertisement for a very expensive hotel. Here, a bronzed, nearly naked, beautiful female is sprawled over a designer’s lounge by a bluer than pristine blue pool, with a heavy gold necklace draped around her neck, with the words above in classic, elegant script in a fresh blue sky: “Luxury just for you.” There is not a blemish anywhere. Hell, is it possible? For me?? Luxury!! Perfection! Shucks. Thank you so-o-o-o much! Alas, it will never be thus.

Are the Abu Dahbi projects all touching a similar vein? Nouvel’s Louvre seems to have some sense of a serious architectural/environmental agenda/theme/rigour to consider and talk about without exaggerating any egocentric hype or ideal. It is quietly introvert. A hovering, gentle and supremely delicate, shimmering beauty seems latent here rather than any exclamation screaming ‘NOUVEL!’ It is located centrally, between the exuberant, exclamatory extrovert confidence of Z. Hadid and Frank O. Maybe such proclamations have to be separated by a mediator? Nouvel’s Louvre sits as a glimmering gem between two stones being flogged as extra-precious diamonds without any testing or rationale being available to check the rating or quality. Will these buildings sink or swim? Will these schemes have sufficient stamina and integrity to have and to hold meaning beyond just being alarmingly different? Can they sustain a future wellbeing beyond the immediate interests of journalism and propaganda?

 One might hope for this as the best outcome. Such a conclusion could transform perceptions – even first ones – and offer new visions for a meaningful future. The alternative is unthinkable – the screaming success of cynicism. Change is rarely ordered, but it seems a folly to ignore simple, subtle, humble human qualities in favour of the exuberance of promotion. It may be an entertaining diversion, but it will distract only for a short time until life matters begin to concern us once more. It is at this time that sustaining substance is sought in the silence of solitude. It is rarely found in the exclamation, but the desire for it may be embalmed in one - a desperate, despairing, anguished cry, as illustrated by Edvard Munch.

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