Square Roots


Screenshot from the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition.

LISTS. It is hard to imagine architecture not getting its regular fix. The announcement of competition longlists, shortlists, and final lists pace the field’s collective conversation in a way that individual building projects or even group exhibitions usually do not. And if the playing field is not always leveled—too often, high-profile invited competitions read like Who’s Who lists—the site and the project size are at least common enough to make quick correlations and easily measure-up the contestants.

So this past June when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced that the two-stage design competition for a proposed museum on Helsinki’s South Harbor would be open to any qualified architect worldwide, they were ensuring a full year of tallying and intrigue. Entries would be due in September; submissions revealed in October; six entries selected by an eleven-member jury in December; a winner declared in June 2015.

As to which, or how many, architects would enter was anyone’s guess. Open competitions for major museum projects are extremely rare, and altogether unprecedented for the Guggenheim. The brand has a Midas touch when it comes to buildings, but the every one of its iconic art containers—in Venice, New York, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi—resulted from either a direct commission or an invited competition. All those designs also pre-date the 2008 global financial crisis, which has called into question such name-brand architectural glitter, along with the rarified processes that typically produce it.

In Helsinki, skepticism abounds. The city board voted in 2012 to reject the proposal, citing lack of open debate about the project and doubts about the museum-as-tourist-engine economics that supposedly justified it. Last year, the Guggenheim and its local backers succeeded in moving forward by ensuring more public engagement and greater transparency. We knew to expect a bigger, more democratic competition, but no one could have anticipated just how weird and benumbing the whole process would get.

Screenshot from the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition.

The deluge began with a click. It was October 22, a Wednesday, and I had woken up to an email from a friend. The cryptic subject line: How to separate the sheep from the goats? The message: www.designguggenheimhelsinki.org/stageonegallery/view. At the tap of my mouse, the site launched and images loaded. Not all at once but rather one by one, left to right, row after row. Square, predominantly blue, they marched across my MacBook screen. When I scrolled, the gapless grid spawned more squares. Wooziness ensued. The sight of so many similar-but-not images—digital renderings of buildings of varied design on the same waterfront site, often depicted from identical perspectives—was crossing wires between my eyes and my brain. All 1,715 submissions were posted that morning, and fatigue had already set in.

I have spent hours on the site since then. So I say with confidence that I have not seen at least a third of the proposed projects at a scale bigger than their gallery thumbnail (which truly are the size of an adult’s big-thumb nail when viewed on a laptop and a toddler’s pinkie on a smartphone). At an average rate of 30 seconds per submission—each consists of two images and a brief text of uniform dimensions and word length—it would take over fourteen hours to view them all. And, at any rate, prescription attention enhancers. The same technologies that had enabled this apparently fathomless pit had rendered my mind incapable of approaching its depths.

But a pit it was not. As it turns out, the site is less deep well than database, and fully outfitted with Web 2.0 tools to help survive the informational flatlands. Browsing the submissions, users can search and share, shuffle and sort. Basically all the stuff one is accustomed to from Pinterest-y websites, but tweaked a bit to suit the content. For instance, entrants were given the option to apply to their projects up to 5 tags from a predetermined list of twenty-three formal and material descriptors like “twisted,” “fabric,” “transparent,” and “pyramid.” Now, picky users can filter the gallery according to their desires, fantasies. Like your mega-museums textured and smooth? That combination has over twenty matches! (Umm, congratulations?)

If you are okay having no real say in the outcome of the competition, if a jumbo dose of architectural renderings of slick swirling surfaces and gimmicky lighting effects does not make you queasy and/or hugely dispirited, then the gallery does inspire some kind of ludic and social and participatory behavior—maybe. In effect, the Guggenheim had transformed the entire competition pool into a content mill, and was now relying on us to mine it. The interface’s “My Shortlist” feature allows you to play juror by compiling personalized six-entry shortlists that can then be pitched effortlessly into Facebook and Twitter streams, circulated.

The six-entry max did not suit the kinds of lists my friends and I were making, however. By Wednesday afternoon, multiple friends had sent me, unrequested, their favorite-in-scare-quotes submissions,simply copying and pasting JPEGs straight into the email as they often did with similar digital inanities. Then, a week later, while on a lethargic nighttime Skype call, I roamed the gallery for images with Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog and Louise Bourgeois’s Maman in them, using the interface’s “Favorite” function to keep track. Within a half hour I had star-ed seventy-four different appearances of those iconic spiders and canines. (It seems the architect-curators of these imagined museums learned art history from in-flight magazines.)

Ad-hoc lists were popping up elsewhere on the web too. At some point in the days after the Guggenheim released the competition entries, the popular real-estate blog Curbed published a post headlined “The 36 Weirdest Proposals for the Guggenheim Helsinki.” It was a quintessential “listicle”—the article-as-list form popularized by BuzzFeed—with a compelling combination of eye-catching cardinal number, zany adjective, and recognizable proper noun to generate links, likes, clicks, mentions, tweets, and, ultimately, site traffic. And to much success: the post now ranks—in the US, on my browser—second in a Google search for “Guggenheim Helsinki,” right below the official website for the competition.

Screenshot from the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition.

Weird was trending. Meanwhile, conventional indicators of achievement were nowhere in sight. If this was a competition, why wasn’t anyone talking about the “best”? Where were debates about the prowess of one submission, the weakness of another? Had we grown that contemptuous of considered judgments?

The Internet has no winner’s platform. If anyone comes out ahead, it’s those who reach farther rather than stand higher. Buzz—not best—is the name of the game, the logic of our networked social media. Its means are its ends: magnitude of connectivity and velocity of circulation, reach and influence. Images, itinerant and mobile, are its privileged agent.

What, then, becomes of things as stubbornly immobile and site specific as buildings? For some time now, designers and patrons of so-called signature architecture have responded to this question with icons or image-buildings whose obligations are awkwardly torn between their real and virtual sites. But with the changes in our visual economies and image consumption brought about by expansion of social media and smartphone use over the past decade, the production of architectural icons would inevitably need recalibration. Maybe we were looking at one attempt to adapt. By embedding the entries in the media environment that gives value to and conditions images today—cat GIFs and blue-chip edifices alike—the Guggenheim has transformed the design competition into a kind of proving ground—or screen test. Whereas architectural renderings once helped jurors and the general public bridge the representational gap between speculative proposal and real site, they serve here not as mediators but as the things themselves, media objects whose performance is evaluated within their virtual environment.

Perhaps this is why, despite the 4:3 aspect ratio elsewhere on the site, the images in the thumbnail gallery are cropped into squares, simulating the familiar Instagram format that will give the project life blood when, or if, it is ever completed. And perhaps this is also why so many of the submissions are rendered with those artificial filters and faux-glow light effects. After all, it’s not the best project that the jury will be selecting. It’s the one that can buzz the most.

David Huber

Carlo Scarpa, Olivetti Showroom, 1957 - 1958, Venice.

WHEN CARLO SCARPA ASSUMED LEADERSHIP of Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia in 1972, he directed that graduation diplomas be inscribed with the aphorism of the Counter-Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico, Verum ipsum factum—truth itself is made. Scarpa shared Vico’s understanding of the world as constructed rather than observed, a product of creative individuals rather than universal reason. A voracious reader and an ambidextrous draftsman, Scarpa nevertheless insisted upon the built.

In particular, he made strange with it. This is partially attributable to Scarpa’s having lived most of his life in Venice. Venice discounts the first assumption of architecture: the ground. Built on mudflats, the city is subject to winter floods that underscore the ground’s provisional status. Equally unsettling, Venice’s maze of streets, reflections of water, and atmospheric effects conspire against the unifying gaze of perspective. Scarpa’s insistence upon the built was a quest for understanding a world that was strange to convention. Scarpa’s tenure at the Murano glassworks was a peculiarly Venetian architectural apprenticeship. Rather than interning at an office to hone his professional skills, Scarpa immersed himself in an ancient craft to explore qualities that ran counter to the modernist principles that dominated conventional practice of the time. Working directly with master craftsmen in the foundries of M. V. M. Cappellin and later with those of Paulo Venini, Scarpa became fluent in glass’s paradoxical effects. While modernism extolled glass’s thinness, hardness, and transparency, Scarpa developed an intuitive understanding of glass as a supercooled liquid, its visual thickness of color, pattern, and light challenging perceptions of scale and form.

Carlo Scarpa, Battuto bi-color glass bowl, 1930's, 13 1/2" diameter.

Such is the case with one of Scarpa’s first works at Venini, which deployed the bollicine technique to suspend miniature bubbles within turquoise depths, resulting in vases that look as if they might not only hold water but be made of water. Shortly thereafter, Scarpa exploited ambiguities of scale through the sixteenth-century mezza filigrana technique of bonding thin colored rods and then blowing them into delicate shapes that possessed an uncanny monumentality. Moving still further back in time, Scarpa turned to the Roman murrine to generate hovering fields of color, an effect that he later accentuated with the puntini, which set color free from murrine’s defining field, and the facse applicate and macchie series, whose drifting colored figures overwhelmed the vessels’ forms. Even when glass was rendered to give sensation a tactile purchase—corrosi’s rough finish, battuto’s hammered surface, or incisi’s precise patterning—color, scale, and translucence undercut the assurances of a hand’s grasp. And when form seems to predominate, such as with the lattimo and incamiciati series, color either retreats, leaving form’s ghost, or oversaturates, swallowing form. Towards the end of his time at Venini, Scarpa addressed glass’s form-making capacity in the conchiglie series: soft memories of marine shells adrift in wavy patterns, aquatic hues, and iridescence.

View of “Carlo Scarpa: Venini 1932–1947,” 2012, Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice, Italy.

Scarpa left the glassworks in 1947 to concentrate on architecture, but the institution’s lessons stayed with him. His erudition and empathy for artwork played out in museum renovations and additions—the Palazzo Abatellis, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Gipsoteca Canoviana, the Querini Stampalia, and the Castelvecchio, among others—as well as numerous installations of contemporary art, particularly at successive Venice Biennales. Scarpa’s interrogation of craft continued with these commissions and elsewhere, such as with the Olivetti and Gavina shops, the Banca Popolare di Verona, and what he considered his masterwork, the Brion Cemetery. Throughout this work, Scarpa draws us into a world where the ground drifts, solids double and liquefy, and material effects trump stable perceptions. In his final residential commission, the Villa Ottolenghi, the ground itself seems to liquefy as if it might be blown like glass, its bollicine of living spaces nestled into a Bardolino hillside. Scarpa’s sensibility, which finds its first realization in the glassworks of Murano, was more aquatic than terrestrial, and the world that he opened to us breathes with strange continuities.

Michael Cadwell is the Walter H. Kidd Professor of Architecture, the director of the Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, and author of the book Strange Details from MIT Press.

Daniel Buren, Défini, Fini, Infini, 2014. Installation view, MAMO, Marseille, France. Photo: Sébastien Véronèse.

MARSEILLE MODULOR (MAMO), the art space on the newly refurbished roof of Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse housing block, a midcentury experiment in vertical-urban planning in the south of France, has taken an audacious step forward in its sophomore annual summer exhibition. The show (on view through September 30) presents a monumental, site-specific installation by Daniel Buren, DÉFINI, FINI, INFINI, which significantly raises the bar for the fledgling space by staging a remarkable encounter between a weighty architectural context and an ambitious artistic intervention.

MAMO has evinced a strategic awareness of the historical import of their location from the beginning, opening last year with an exhibition of explicit homages to Le Corbusier by French artist Xavier Veilhan. He transformed images of the venerated modernist architect, real and imagined, into sculpture: A small-scale diorama featured bronze versions of Le Corb rowing a catamaran with his contemporaries, Pierre Jeanneret and Buckminster Fuller; a monumental bust created the illusion that the late architect, pencil in hand, had drawn the entire building into being. “Xavier was a perfect fit for the opening,” says Ora Ito, the Paris-based but Marseille-born designer who founded MAMO after leading the roof’s renovation process. “For me, it was very important that people could see the space. He didn’t hide anything. He didn’t transform the building.”

By contrast, Ito’s second show has separated itself entirely from such literal representations and genuflections to the Le Corbusier legend; as little as Buren’s abstract work has to do with image, it has even less to do with homage. He took a decidedly more disruptive route, focusing less on the architect and more on the architecture. He combined the familiar mainstays of his visual vocabulary—expanses of mirrored glass and narrow white-and-colored stripes—with Le Corbusier’s recurring square motifs to shatter and distort the architecture and its surroundings, which, in this outdoor space, mean Marseilles’ mountains, sea, and sky.

Daniel Buren, Défini, Fini, Infini, 2014. Installation views, MAMO, Marseille, France. Photo: Sébastien Véronèse.

The exhibition begins quietly as visitors pass through a southward-facing door toward 4 Carrés pour 3 Couleurs, bas-relief, travail in situ (4 Squares for 3 Colors, bas-relief, travail in situ), 2014, four square panels colored green, white, and yellow to correspond with the square tiles Le Corbusier had scattered on the walls throughout his design. Turning the corner, the show explodes into a series of colors and illusions: Fragments de ciels, haut-relief, travail in situ (Fragments of sky, haut-relief, work in situ), 2014, in which a row of alternatingly convex and concave angled mirrors are a checkerboard of red, white, and blue panels and mirrors that create exactly the condition suggested by the work’s title. It is difficult to discern what is real and what is a mirror image, what is blue panel and what is a reflection of cloudless sky. The mirrored panels, too, turn Le Corbusier’s ship-shaped concrete solarium on its side as if it were sinking, and redistribute architectural elements in new compositions. Throughout the progression of the day the panels undergo constant change, representing what Ito calls the infini (“infinite”) aspect of Buren’s work; as midday turns to dusk, their reflections shift from blue to orange to deep purple. The squares of light they reflect onto the béton brut floor grow long and distant before they disappear entirely.

On the façade of the concrete solarium, Buren created La Mire, travail in situ, 2014, a Mondrianesque, kaleidoscopic composition of brightly colored inlays of square and rectangular film on its windows. On the tubular (rather than rectangular) interior, sunlight filters through the colored film and is reflected by the mirrors Buren placed on the floor below, encircling the viewer with streams of rainbow light. The effect falls between the religious, meditative experience of being enclosed in stained glass and the whimsy of standing inside a man-sized kaleidoscope. Yet despite these evocations, Buren’s works are largely indifferent to the space’s deified historical legacy: “If someone were to say these works were an homage to Le Corbusier, I wouldn’t say no, but in my mind, it’s not an homage. It’s a work in such a place which I found absolutely interesting, very well thought out, and even beautiful.”

With his long-running history of installing works in venerated spaces (the Grand Palais, Palais Royal, and the Guggenheim rotunda, to name a few), Buren is quite the match for Le Corbusier. Unbeknownst to him (actually pointed out by Ito), his lines follow the modulor, the system of measurement Le Corbusier invented to guide the proportion of the modular, from which the space takes its name. Perhaps more importantly, Buren’s work also brings to light the particular characteristics of a space: its site and the nuances of its architecture, which is, after all MAMO’s defining asset.

Défini, Fini, Infini runs through September 30, 2014 at Marseille Modulor.