Temps Sauvages et Incertains

Saline de Chaux

This show, curated by Patrice Goulet, one of the most stimulating critics in France, is a milestone in the field of architecture exhibitions. It features the current work of 23 architects—two from the United States, six from Japan, the rest living in Europe—through scale models of their recent projects. Slides offer overall views and details of a given project’s latest construction phase, and of barely cleared work sites, where human life has not yet left its mark. At the entrance to the exhibition, there are also sketchbooks containing studio drawings, sent by fax to the curator, that document work currently being done.

The subtle, vigorous air of the workshop permeates the space. One seems to have entered a place where architectural composition comes into being, yet where all activity has halted and the principal actors and extras have disappeared. I was lucky enough to see the show (which is traveling to several locations) in a particularly suggestive environment: the Saline de Chaux designed by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. Here, the architecture emerges from the compositional play of elementary geometric forms, from pure volumes seen in the light of day, essential and comprehensible. On this site, it is easy to feel a nostalgia for the world’s childhood, for the era when our progenitors developed archetypal signs. And in this semicircular space, which seems ready to embrace us, but also to signal its presence to the sky in an imaginary dialogue with the stars, we manage to intuit what Karl Marx meant when he stated that our experience is similar to that of dwarfs borne on the shoulders of giants.

In one of his early writings, architectural historian Emil Kaufmann concludes, “The similarity of Ledoux’s era with our time . . . stems from the fact that then, as now, the great problems of architectural mass required autonomous solutions.” This formulation is particularly apt for many of the projects in the exhibition. Frank O. Gehry’s designs for the Turtle Creek complex in Dallas and for the laser research laboratories at the University of Iowa seem to develop their autonomy through the logic of subversion. The materials that form the “unstable” constructions seem held together more by an unusual solution based on combinatory calculus than by the traditional norms of physics and geometry.

Kaufmann’s statement also pertains to the Herouville-Saint-Clair skyscraper, the European tower designed by William Alsop, Massimiliano Fuksas, Jean Nouvel, and Otto Steidle. This team was successful in designing an unrestricted work that embraces the personal, autonomous interventions of the various designers. The model demonstrates the absurdity of the still faithfully-respected rule that requires the use of identical stories in tall constructions.

The SITE group emphasizes and explores a play of opposites and contradictions in order to achieve an ambiguous, shifting symbolism, one that is in harmony with a universe—our own—that has lost its center and has been left orphaned. The model for the Ansel Adams Center in Carmel, California, shows a building whose square plan is echoed in a grassy slope. The meadow, rising up, overhangs and slides toward the summit of the roof that can be glimpsed through narrow diagonal cuts. On a formal level, these cuts signal the presence of the building and, on a symbolic level, recall the camera obscura. Nature and architecture, frontal image and perspectival view, information and narration, reality and fiction: every concept loses its outlines and the clarity to which we have become accustomed. This new structure doesn’t aim to astonish us, rising toward the sky like a new Tower of Babel, nor does it exhibit powerful steel beams, complex machinery, or vast transparent surfaces. But it does expand our sense of how form is built up, while breaking down the boundaries within which our experiences of form were previously contained.

The SITE project sets up a quiet dialogue with OMA’s Dutch Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam. A vast triangular space whose glass facade is supported by slender steel columns, it holds a large library and some exhibition halls. Its most disturbing element is a black cement tower that will contain the archives—the historical memory—of the institute: it rises above a wedgelike slanted roof that is itself a provocation to contextualism.

The exhibition also offers a fascinating range of recent work from Japan. It includes a commercial complex and a series of lodgings in Nagayama, designed by Toyo Ito and Associates, which constitute almost a city in miniature. This city seems intended for inhabitants who are perennially in motion, in search of lost tranquillity in a consumption-oriented society that continually stresses the new. The architecture shapes these institutions—a sports center, a self-service bookstore, a gigantic hall with public baths, several green spaces—with a light, almost transparent touch. The basic idea is one of movement, and so one comes across numerous gazebos and other filtering spaces conceived to be passed through.

Shin Takamatsu’s work emphasizes the discrete charm of motors, of mechanical pieces produced by the latest generation of automatons. His is ambiguous and, at the same time, profound architecture; it is capable of sinking into the sediment of memories, and therefore, is not easily forgotten. Yet because of the materials employed—cement, polished stone, glass and steel, all brought to a mirror shine—the effect is one of extreme lightness. The exhibition raises profound issues about the legacy of the Modern movement, but also of those manifestations of the post-Modern that look solely to history for their inspirational source. It seems to propose a move away from the so-called autonomy of the discipline, the rules, dogmas, and schools tied to the current star system, and toward an inclusion of the entire universe of media. To acknowledge the complexity of reality, the “chaos” that surrounds us, is precisely what will give rise to the liberation of differences, the recognition of the full dignity of invention. A tendency such as this, expressed with diverse and personal works, indicates the end of a single language, of the “strong” project, of absolute certainties, and heralds the appearance of small aggregations that are expressed through the use of dialect—a form of language to which, as the philosopher Gianni Vattimo maintains, we ought to grant the same dignity we do the mother languages.

Mario Pisani

Translated f rom the Italian by Marguerite Shore