Architecture: The shock of the view
Vertigo! an exhibition by Rowan Moore, gets dizzy attempting to dramatise contemporary architecture.
Monday 22 March 1999
Ten big, brash projects make it clear that size matters. Shanghai's 100- storey money market tower will scrape the sky, while in Hong Kong a mountain has been lopped off next to the harbour to create the world's biggest duty free shop, at Chek Lap Kok airport. The world's single biggest structure, the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, is big enough to hold 75,000 people at one time. And when all 50 cinemas in Ontario, California, screened the launch of Titanic, 1 per cent of the total number of movie-goers viewing it in the world were there.
Not all of this architecture-on-steroids is great, or even designer-label. But all 10 projects have either been recently completed or are in progress. "It's not a Utopian city of the future, but a microcosm of life as it's actually happening," says Rowan Moore. And that's what induces a faint feeling of unease.
The way Moore carves up the world vertiginously is to represent universal themes with scale models and photos: Culture (the new Tate at Bankside), Politics (Norman Foster remodelling the Reichstag); International Space (Hong Kong airport, by Foster again, with the world's first Minimalist airport lounge, by John Pawson for Cathay Pacific) and Public Space (Yokohama Port Terminal, by Foreign Office architects). Private Homes (Lake Las Vegas resort, by Berkus Studios) is shown next to Public Housing, the Kitagate high-rise towers by Kazuyo Sejima, and the theme of Money is represented by the Shanghai financial centre, by KPF. For Spectacle, the Greeenwich Dome is shown adjacent to Artificial Nature - the landscaped gardens in Duisberg Nord, Germany, by Latz. Both projects turn industrially polluted soil into pleasurable places. Shopping is a vast mall at Ontario Mills, California, by Communication Arts.
Vertigo! looks at architecture beyond the buildings, as industrially polluted wastelands are cleaned up and reclaimed, while elsewhere in the world vast areas are being concreted over for the leisure industry - posh words for sex and shopping, according to Moore.
The exhibition begins in an Identikit white cube gallery space that shows the conversion of the power station at Bankside, by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, into the new Tate. The young architects Caruso St John's transformed the cavernous Victorian Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow for the Vertigo! exhibition as part of the celebrations for Glasgow City of Architecture and Design 1999. Its installation is a scaled-down version of what is happening at the Tate and all over the world, as obsolete buildings empty of machines to become galleries and exhibition centres.
The exhibition avoids the commonly made distinction between "high" and "commercial" architecture. Architects are just part of a great team of landscapers, lighting designers, engineers and "imagineers" (as they call the theme-park designers of these huge areas that have been cemented and glassed over). Moore goes so far as to ask, in the catalogue: "Are architects superfluous?" Clearly not.
But the exhibition suggests that the clients who sponsor architects and the people who use their buildings are just as interesting. Videos and stills throughout show people in the locations.
Vertigo! is not pushing a style, like most architecture exhibitions. It tries to show buildings and their interiors in a dramatised fashion. But the disparate nature of Vertigo! makes it hard work for the visitor. Certainly it is eclectic, but the symbolic expression of function by allusion to the past in familiar details has ceased. Moore deals with buildings culturally and socially, not with their form, or niceties of architecture.
It is a polemic about industrial decay - our ability to build over it and see beyond it is awesome. Vertiginous, even. But as an exhibition it falls a bit flat, largely because the scale models, photographs, pull quotes and talking heads in video loops can't convey the experience of such excesses. The soaring overhead natural light in the cavernous halls of Chek Lap Kok, the way you will leave your stomach behind on the ascent to the world's tallest tower in Shanghai, the experience of standing in the Dome at Greenwich Peninsula, cannot be evoked with models and photographs.
You leave the exhibition with a screening of Clueless which Moore chose because it's a laugh about shopping. He wanted to screen Dawn of the Dead, a horror film set in a mall, which probably says more about his real attitude. It's just that he had to please the sponsors.
Vertigo: The Strange New World of the Contemporary City is on until 16 May 1999 at the Old Fruitmarket, Albion Street, Glasgow G1
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