Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It’s not easy

Peter Zumthor’s new city gate in the small Bavarian town Isny im Allgäu, Germany stopped after 72% of the citizens voted against the project. I cannot say the design, commonly referred to as the “glass underpants,” is at Zumthor’s best. But it would still be an interesting piece of architecture with large glass bricks and a wooden ball. This story reminds me of what Zaha always says: our profession is really a tough one.
Peter Zumthor, Isny City Gate

Architecture usually involves many different constituencies. We can’t just sit in the studio and make things, then try to sell them in auctions. We have to face reality and make things work. One of the most powerful factors in the matrix is the client and their money. How many times, especially in the last few years, have we heard that a fantastic design would not be realized because there was no money? How confident can we really say that Museum Plaza would come back soon? In fact, one of the things that the Isny citizens couldn’t accept was the estimated 20 million Euros price tag.
REX, Museum Plaza

And there are historic preservation people. We know OMA have been having a hard time in Venice. Italia Nostra, a prominent heritage group, criticized what it called “very serious alterations which will change the fabric of the building” and filed an official objection to the project with the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Italian prosecutors. Steven Holl also had to pause work on the Hotel Loisium Alsace near Colmar, France because two local associations who opposed the project (Nartecs and Paysages d’Alsace) filed appeals at the General Council and the Administrative Court respectively. The Administrative Court of Strasbourg issued a suspension on the building permit in August, 2011. Mayor of Voegtlinshoffen Jacques Cattin was almost kicked out of his office.
Steven Holl, Hotel Loisium Alsace

Things get more complicated when the battle becomes political. Former president of the German state Baden-Württemberg Stefan Mappus also lost his job in the March 2011 election partly because of the largely controversial Stuttgart 21 project. Officially announced in April 1994, S21 is an urban development project with a renewed Central Station as the core. People protested for various reasons, but in the end was it all came down to the dissatisfaction of how the government treated its people. Of course, it’s heart breaking to see them cutting those 200-year-old trees. And you can always question if it’s worth 4.5 billion Euros. But I think it’s not wrong for the city to upgrade its infrastructure and have the ambition to put itself in the high-speed train connection between Paris and Budapest. A state-wide referendum was held in November 2011, and 58.8% people voted to continue the project.
Ingenhoven Architects, New Stuttgart Central Station

Another recent controversy is Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial. The Eisenhower family raised objections about the barefoot kid image. (I don’t understand what’s so wrong to say he’s just a human being, and he’s one of us.) A Virginia congressman asked a federal panel to reject the design. But the harshest criticism this time was from our fellow architects. Leon Krier bashed Gehry’s proposal with a 1,500-word essay on the Chicago Tribune. He called Gehry a “great but greatly confused artist, who was appointed by a commission who shares his intellectual confusion and distaste of a classical Washington, D.C.” He described Gehry’s design as “frozen melt-down and explosion, paralyzed tremor and arrested collapse,” and even went so far to compare to the remnants of the World Trade Center. He continued to claim that Modernism is “a theory that has been brain-dead for half a century but keeps dominating positions in academia and its dependent culture industry.” “The Gehry style is a century old; it seems ‘innovative’ only to the ignorant.” OK, I know you prefer some Greek columns there and think fake Classicism is more innovative. But strong words like that have already carried the criticism beyond constructive architectural debate, and it sounds more like a personal attack.
Frank Gehry, Eisenhower Memorial

Generally speaking, architecture is not as free as art. But in some cases, ambitious art projects also face the difficult reality. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Over the River has been on the drawing board for 20 years now. The artists have spent over $7 million for various environmental studies, mock-ups, surveys, and wind tests, just to prove that it’s a bold yet feasible idea. The proposed construction will include over 100 measures to mitigate any impacts on wildlife, traffic or safety during the installation and exhibition of the work.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Over the River

Last November, Christo finally received approval from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns 98% of the riverfront. But the battle is not over. He still need to convince the local Coloradans. “We are fearful of impeding our way of life on a day-to-day basis for years to come. We are fearful for the wildlife and sanctuary that we enjoy,” Opponent Thomas Kainz of Howard, CO said. “Most importantly, fearful that we are faced with yet another case where someone with deep pockets and political connections gets their way like some spoiled child. Mr. Christo may see this as some wild juxtaposition between the line of fabric in the surrounding nature over the roaring river, but to me, I see it as a bastardization of the beautifully pristine, quiet countryside that I and many, many others choose to live in.” Boy! I don’t think a “spoiled child” would ever make so much effort to fight for a dream. And certainly, beauty can mean so much more than just being pristine and quiet.

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