Some Architects Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Jump the Shark

The discourse on architectural preservation has dreamt for itself an antagonist. He sits in the meeting and shouts “Everything should go back to the way it was!” He appeals to Authenticity, Nostalgia, the Good Ol’ Days, and so on. Then the architect in the back of the room stands up and gives a passionate and outrageously reasonable Sorkinesque monologue in order to enlighten this doofus. “What about the drop ceiling added in the 1960s?” our hero asks. “Does that bit of historical authenticity deserve restoration?”

The fact that this drama is largely hypothetical hasn’t stopped it from distracting us. Even though we know the right answer, we keep pretending the question is “Preservation or adaptive reuse?” Today, the important question is “What strategies and tactics should be deployed in adaptive reuse?” (After all, there are more abandoned warehouses that need to be converted into industrial-chic lofts than there are Colloseums.) While we sit and mock the conservatism of our imaginary straw man preservationist, adaptive reuse gets a free ride as the enlightened position. Given that the actual milieu of adaptive reuse tends to include gentrification, higher tax revenues, and a singular aesthetic style, it’s strange to think of it as the controversial position, let alone a critical one.

OMA’s past contributions to the adaptive reuse genre (built and textual), though in part responsible for inventing this discursive bogeyman, have not fallen prey to the problem of “simplistic opposition.” But a pair of articles in Domus about their proposal for Venice’s Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi has me a bit worried. The first article, “For a reflection on res publica and construction of new economies,” by Matteo d’Ambros, argues for a deeper debate about the abstract (social, economic, political) issues the project raises. In response, Michele Brunello – a Venetian – wrote an article titled “The Battle of Venice,” which agrees, but expresses the further concern that what’s really lacking is willingness to engage the specifics of OMA’s project in relation to those larger questions.

Brunello’s article is somewhat more explicit than d’Ambros’s in terms of the results it wants out of that initial discussion about the “big questions.” In having that debate, Brunello hopes, Venice will remember it’s a city, not just a commodity. In fact, for the second discussion to be valuable, we need the criteria for judgment that would emerge from the first discussion.

OMA and AMO sell their projects on edgy narratives – often recognizable as manifestations of Rem’s interest in the paranoiac-critical method. Brunello’s call for attention to the specificities of the Fundaco project reflects his concern with embracing that sort of audacity for its own sake. The project was inevitably going to be controversial: it’s the conversion of a thirteenth-century palace into a department store in the middle of Venice. The problem with this project is linked to the problem identified in the introduction: instead of talking about what the project does (or even should do), the question is whether or not the project should be done. Because the project occupies the “correct” discursive position (“Adaptive reuse in Venice!”), there’s no debate about how it occupies that position.

Architects are used to fighting for their work and for new ideas; this does not mean that a project which provokes a fight is a good project, or that it’s a good fight. The latent source of discomfort in Brunello’s article is that Rem is committed to the idea that Venice (and eventually Europe) cannot be anything other than a theme park. Indirectly, Brunello’s op-ed is a dramatization of the implications of Rem’s bombastic theorizing. Suddenly the amoral edginess that was so seductive when used to criticize airport interiors seems a bit scary. It’s one thing for Rem to say Venice is a museum; it’s another to read the anxious testimony of a citizen being transformed into an exhibit.

Simplistically, the project description for the Fondaco is the same as usual (for OMA, that is – we’re not talking about Renzo Piano’s stance on preservation here). There’s the radical reinterpretation of context. There’s where they lay out new tactics for operating within that context. There’s the quiet pause that emphasizes their adamant refusal to give a conspiratorial wink. There’s the avowedly subversive fusion of norm and projection. We see this, for example, in the repeated insistence upon the limited scope of intervention. This deflects the anticipated criticism that the project damages the continuity of the city’s historical image. Equally, however, it serves to verify OMA’s critical narrative that sees Venice as akin to Disneyland. Another point of emphasis – the high ratio of public space to commercial space – possesses similar multiplicity. Although OMA’s project description never mentions it, the client is not the city of Venice (as one might imagine given that OMA does call attention to the building’s current use as a post office and to its historic status), but the Benetton Collective (of Colors of Benetton fame.) By highlighting the relatively low volume of explicitly commercialized space, OMA seeks to paint the project as civically minded, an oblique reassurance in the face of the city’s apparently imminent privatization. But this, too, fits with one of OMA’s standard narratives, initiated in their Prada projects’ claims that a store might also be a museum and that shopping is the last vestige of public life.

So the narratives woven through OMA’s Fundaco project clearly pick up on older narratives from their oeuvre. But, as d’Ambros and Brunello argue, there’s no critical or public attention to whether or not they’re the right narratives. People will accept privatization of their city as long as a certain percentage still operates as public space, so we’ll do architecture that gives them this privatized public space. The city is a museum, thus we make architecture that’s reproduces the city as a museum. The worst thing that could happen to OMA is for it to become content to reify existing narratives – even their own – without questioning them.

Back in college, some friends and I came up with a fairly elaborate and well-evidenced theory that Jeff Goldblum wasn’t supposed to be in Jurassic Park. Rather, we suspected, a drug-addled Goldblum had stumbled onto the set one day during filming and hadn’t realized he was in a movie. (This would be the ultimate “cool performance” in the Whiting/Somol sense.) His unscripted musings and wholly authentic reactions to the animatronic dinosaurs added so much to the film that Spielberg decided not to dispel the delusion.

With the Fundaco proposal, OMA has outdone Goldblum: the circumstances are the same, except that you have to replace Jeff Goldblum with Michael Crichton.

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