Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Designs on reaching for the stars, not being one
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on design and architectural issues for the Herald.
HEROISM was rather the order of the day at this month’s Royal Australian Institute of Architects conference, in an art-school black kind of way. The conference was themed The Future is Now, whatever that means; its keynote speaker ushered in by the pulsing, thrusting original of Get Off My Cloud. The congregation, black-shirted and ponytailed to a man, swooned.
“Architecture,” whispered the keynote superstar, Wolf Prix, as Jagger’s insistent throb died away, “architecture nowadays iss occupite territory. Occupite by money, tasteless investors, politicianss vith no idea and the not-too-intelligent building industry. So architects must decide: vill I be a traitor or a spy?”
It was refreshing, really. No one’s talked like that for years. Not that it isn’t true, now or here. It’s just that we don’t say it any more, certainly not in the language of revolution. You half expected him to launch into a tirade about capital and the means of production. And when, in passing, Prix mentioned student riots in the streets of Paris, he meant 1968, not last week. He is Viennese.
Prix – and yes, it’s pronounced phonetically – is a principle of the uber-cult archi-firm Coop Himmelblau (pronounced co-op, not as in chicken). When interviewed 20 years ago in Vienna, Prix and his partner, Helmut Swiczinsky, had a wild-winged rooftop conversion and an angsty little bar called Der Rote Engel to their name. Their design method, they said, was to get stoned, sit in a room, close their eyes and draw. It rang true, since that was exactly how the buildings looked – unstable, flighty, highly strung. When they weren’t designing Zen-style, they were tooling about Vienna’s cobbled streets in a badly mauled Vee-Dub convertible, raging against the felt-hatted, lederhosen-clad, goose-stepping establishment.
“The most apt question of our time,” wrote Prix in 1990, “is, how can we think, plan and build in a world that becomes more f—ed up every day?” They’d already been at it, he and Swiczinsky, for 20-odd years, but the work and (to some extent) the thinking still seemed interestingly fringe – especially in the context of a dull, pastel postmodernism playing its ironic games with orthodoxy. Himmelblau drew its manifesto from Herman Melville (“would now the wind but had a body …”) and its design from a mix of the organic school of Graz, Austria, and the Jewish-Californian legginess that gave us Frank Gehry. Then success hit.
Since then, style-Himmelblau has spawned a copycat industry. Think Daniel Libeskind, think Zaha Hadid, think Bernard Tschumi. There’s a lot of it about. Just as strung-out gutter junkie has become fashion’s look du jour, so post-terrorist train smash is, still, the architectural style of the moment. (Prix did rule out the terrorism metaphor, once so appealing as an expression of the thinking architect’s discomfort at being so much an establishment creature. Terrorism has become bad taste, even as a metaphor.)
And Wolf has become Professor Prix, dean of design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, heavily decorated by the world’s top design establishments. Coop Himmelblau is now spelt Himmelb(l)au – lassoing the pun on building (bau) to the blue-sky mind-set – with offices in Los Angeles, Mexico and Vienna and some of the world’s biggest, most expensive, most eye-popping buildings in progress.
BMW Welt in Munich, for example – a 100-metre-long, undulating, titanium-clad tongue (easily mistaken for a rogue Mick Jagger body part) cantilevers over a vast, column-free delivery room. Or the great crooked-winged JVC Cultural Centre under construction in Guadalajara, Mexico – it “redefines entertainment from … consumption to … intellectual discourse”. Or the Musee des Confluences in Lyons. Or the European Central Bank tower in Frankfurt.
It’s not revolution, but old-fashioned futurism, devoted to pushing what’s possible. “The art of the cantilever is very important for the future of architecture,” said Prix – adding, as he flicked up an image of the Doric temple at Paestum: “I hate columns.”
It’s a “because it’s there” argument: declining to cantilever, now that we can, is “like dragging a Ferrari at 10 miles per hour”.
Truth is, though, Prix is still infatuated – quite as much as Leonardo ever was – with the idea of flight; the idea that architecture (life, even) can be weightless, silvery and unconstrained, like Jagger’s cloud.
Of course, in some ways, it’s silly. Revolution and architecture don’t mix. Architecture decides form, but not content. And it has work to do: sheltering, shaping, securing. Dull, essential work. That’s why we have it.
So what is it for Prix – traitor or spy? Neither, of course. Prix is right to pronounce: “There are no superstars in architecture.” His real role, however skilled, is stylist to the captains of industry.
Clive James, addressing a glittering black-tie (as opposed to matt-black) audience, nights earlier, was also concerned with celebrity’s tendency to disappear up its own fundament. With a few Brokeback Mountain and John Howard-for-Pope jokes, padded by decades-old celebrity reminiscences from his latest book, James even showed us how it’s done.
Still, be grateful. James reminds us just how prepared we are, as Australians, to settle for the third rate, even from the first rate.
And just how prepared we ought to be to stretch the cantilever, strive for the edge, test the limits.
Sometimes, like Mick, just because we can.
PHOTO: Cantilever, because you can … the Musee des Confluences in Lyons.