Blog Post

Beware of Iconic Buildings

An article in the UK Guardian (via Arts & Letters Daily) takes a wonderfully suspicious look at the "Bilbao Effect," named after the explosion in interest and tourism Bilbao, Spain got when it build Frank Gehry's Guggenheim. Regular readers of this blog (all six of you) may have noted some slight skepticism on my part as to the fundamental aesthetic qualities of Mr. Gehry's work (I kinda think he's not so good). I refer you to this article from Wired, in which I had a small editorial hand.

But so right. The salient bits from the UK:

[T]here are also less significant buildings that aspire to iconic status but do not always deserve the profile their sponsors demand. In this context, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao has had a significant effect. I am not convinced it is a great work of architecture, although its public credentials are clear. Its significance as a building is less in its extraordinary shape and surface (which many now consider formulaic) than in the popularity of its formal abstraction.

This is an important building that gives little obvious indication of its content. While we are all now attuned to identifying such structures as cultural institutions, could this abstract formula be applied to more prosaic buildings - a hospital or a school perhaps?

With Bilbao, "celebrity architecture", in all its low-cut and high-rise disguises, came of age. It was certain to be followed by a torrent of imitators - and indeed, the launch of the Guggenheim coincided with a new public appetite for bling-bling architecture. Lottery investment and the subsequent press interest provoked a demand for "finished" images. This has encouraged the presentation of a single uncomplicated idea, an architectural one-liner that once in the public realm would be difficult to change.

As competition increases, each image has to be more extraordinary and shocking in order to eclipse the last. Each new design has to be instantly memorable - more iconic. This one-upmanship was, and is, a fatuous and self-indulgent game.

Point is, just because buildings are kooky doesn't mean they work. I'm not a stickler for architectural continuity in space like, say, Baron Hausmann was, or even my dad (whoops -- now we're down to five readers). But buildings are supposed to fulfill a function...and that function is almost never helping a celebrity architect pine for a Pritzker.


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