New York

“Ricardo Bofill and Leon Krier: Architecture, Urbanism, and History”

Beyond all doubt, this exhibition confirmed that architecture has become a form of mass culture; its presentation and analysis are discharged with the staunch passion of a prime-time television series. Architecture is searching for an audience that will provide it with rationale and legitimacy. The pairing of Ricardo Bofill and Leon Krier was an example of curatorial imagination that, in the end, failed to make architecture or urbanism more comprehensible. The differences between these two Modernism-rejecting architects are so plain that intersecting dialogue is virtually impossible. There were not enough shadowy regions here, and the exhibition of both architects’ work proved that apples cannot be compared to watermelons.

Bofill and his firm, Taller de Arquitectura, have built some remarkable works in the past, but the recent critical uproar concerns a series of middle-income, subsidized, titanic apartment complexes constructed in France over the past fifteen years. While apartment houses typically have been good, solid, background buildings, Bofill decided to give tenants their own Versailles, complete with grand courtyards, parterres, allées, dramatic sight-lines, and a post-Modern collage of architectural references. Bofill’s employment of formal French garden planning was intended to satisfy a complex social agenda in housing the citizenry. Perhaps this is an age without memory; how else could such a carefree shopping spree of architectural sources occur with so little recognition of the forms’ significance? Some architects are interested in Bofill’s formal juxtaposition of Modernism and historicism, but I suspect that simply the awesome scale and sensationalism of these projects is what fascinates most people.

The first few rooms of the exhibition space were filled with enormous color photographs of Bofill’s four apartment projects. Architecture is first an art of drawing and then of building; here, the dearth of conceptual and generative drawings obscured further Bofill’s thought process up to the point of construction. The intention of this section of the show was to overpower rather than to inform.

In contrast to the Bofill extravaganza, Krier’s fiercely academic drawings and models have a density and private intensity that are easy to overlook on a quick walk through an exhibition. Krier’s utopian objectives are born of desires and ideas; there is no room for compromise and the projects are therefore unbuildable. The most ambitious project represented here was his 1985 plan to recreate Washington, D.C.—the seat and symbol of a working democracy. To coincide with the capital city’s bicentennial Krier proposes monumental transformations involving a huge tidal basin surrounded by public gatheringspaces. To counter the insidious incursion of the “downtown’: the ”strip’: and the “sub-urb,” Krier divides the new “Federal City” into four polyfunctional centers in which all services are within walking distance. This concept of a polycentric city makes urban areas not only more manageable but more comprehensible. It is Krier’s ideas that intrigue and provoke; the drawings and models are quite beautiful but almost beside the point.

Bofill is antiutopian; Krier is utopian. Bofill is a builder; Krier is a polemicist. But it takes more than antitheses for an exhibition to be informative. Through this awkward comparison, the show did not illuminate new dimensions of either architect’s work, nor did it explore the essential ground between their polarized careers. In spite of Bofill’s optimism, I think that Krier’s pessimism about the future of architecture and the slim possibilities for ecological reconditioning is the more operant critical force.

Patricia C. Phillips