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For all its vaunted grandeur, the Hudson River Valley is a landscape locked in existential crisis. Littered with slaughterhouses and gas plants, old traprock quarries and Superfund sites, riverfront burgs like Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Hudson, and Troy—and their long-suffering cousins on the Erie Canal—are poster children for New York’s upstate downslide. For decades, this realm of strapped municipal governments and tumbling population has been tilting toward the economic abyss. Beyond the weekenders’ paradise of five-and-dimes and post-hike pubs, there lies an even grittier Hudson Valley begging for a business plan. What if, instead of a tombstone to the industrial past, this might be prime territory for the reinvention of our region’s future?
Seeking to “rethink the evolutionary capacity” of shrinking postindustrial places along the Hudson River and Erie Canal, New York architect Meta Brunzema has advanced an outsize idea to turn the social and economic tide. Working with a small team of collaborators, Brunzema has conceived a decade-long effort tentatively titled Building Exhibition Hudson Valley/Erie Canal, 2014–2024. Still in its early stages of development, the project aspires to create prototype projects across the region’s second-tier cities, harnessing the power of architecture and urban design to help re-energize society.
That may be a tall order for a region in an epic funk. Of the 46 cities in upstate New York with a population under 50,000, 38 are shrinking. The “bright flight” of young adults is especially acute in this land of dwindling opportunity. While New York City may still snag ambitious upstarts, young people are fleeing the state at four times the national average. With the exception of college hubs like Ithaca, Poughkeepsie, or Saratoga Springs, a major chunk of New York’s human capital is languishing in hock.
Courtesy respective students
How to turn the valley’s sand pits and cement plants into zones of catalytic culture? Brunzema has borrowed a page from Germany’s famed International Building Exhibition, known as IBA, which over the last century has leveraged design intelligence to tackle urgent social and urban challenges. These farsighted efforts include monumental housing built by Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, and others during the 1957 Interbau, and the “critical reconstruction” of Berlin’s historic core in 1987, which pioneered sensitive alternatives to slash-and-burn urban renewal.
The Hudson Valley version draws on two more recent IBA editions that boasted region-scale ambitions. The first, known as IBA Emscher Park, was a ten-year program launched in 1989 to jump-start the reinvention of the decaying Ruhr district, once the nation’s industrial powerhouse. Carried out jointly with 17 cities, it produced 120 different projects—many the result of separate design competitions—that formed the basis for a sprawling system of landscape parks, rebuilt wastewater infrastructure, and a tech- and culture-fueled economy conjured from defunct coal mines and machine halls. And early this century, IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 launched an equally bold effort to rethink the future of 19 shrinking cities in the former East Germany, managing population loss through a process that combined social and economic initiatives with architecture and landscape innovation.
Brunzema, who co-curated an exhibit on Emscher Park in 2000, and later collaborated on Beacon’s floating River Pool, grew intrigued by the idea that upstate New York’s cities could be bootstrapped by an IBA-style adventure. Like Emscher Park, which used the Emscher River as a framework to stitch together planning and development projects across more than 300 square miles, an upstate exhibition would use the Hudson River and Erie Canal—the historic sources, after all, of the region’s industrial heyday—to reconnect them as an integrated economic network. And importantly for an area dominated by Albany dysfunction, the ten-year exhibition timeline transcends political cycles, while focusing collective resources, energy, and ideas toward a hell-or-high-water deadline.
Under study since 2009, the Hudson Valley exhibition got a boost last semester, when Brunzema took a crack at imagining how the region’s industrial legacy could be remade as an economic engine for “green growth.” Working with eight graduate architecture students at Pratt Institute, she helped envision a prototype “pioneer district” to be sited within Poughkeepsie’s Clinton Point Quarry, which since 1880 has disgorged things like railroad ballast and riprap. Still in active use by the aggregate maker Tilcon, the 1,200-acre property has been eyed by local planners as a tempting redevelopment opportunity.
The student group’s proposals, recently on view at Pratt’s Higgins Hall, replace old-school, extractive industry with projects intended to drive sustainable business growth and create a critical urban mass near Poughkeepsie’s historic downtown. Affordable, prefabricated housing would be designed to densify over time; a municipal waste plant transforms trash into green products; a high-tech manufacturing complex takes advantage of water, rail, and air links to global networks—the whole site crossed by cable cars and packing in as many as 10,000 residents. In this vision, Poughkeepsie becomes one node in a network of “polycentric regional towns” prepped to compete on the global playing field.
As much model urban design, a Hudson Valley building exhibition would tap new economic development ideas like “economic gardening.” Pioneered in Colorado in the 1980s, the concept promotes the entrepreneurial spirit of local citizens instead of simply handing out tax-break bonanzas to bargain-hunting corporations. Through a building exhibition, “creative competition” between cities could stimulate hundreds of projects to incubate industrial and commercial innovation, with funding awarded for proposals that demonstrate high-quality planning and design. The entire initiative would culminate in 2024 with a yearlong series of exhibitions, forums, boat tours, and other events.
Such a deliriously ambitious program calls for scores of public, private, and nonprofit partners. Brunzema’s team has begun reaching out to potential collaborators like OurHudson and Empire State Future, groups deeply engaged in cultivating vibrant upstate communities. And building exhibitions aren’t cheap. The Emscher Park effort was stoked with $1.5 billion in public funds (all, incidentally, deemed wisely spent). A Hudson Valley exhibition would need to rely far more on private support, coupled with public investment bundled, as in Germany, from existing funding streams.
America is desperate for just this type of urban innovation. Aside from the brave and still unfolding saga to downsize Detroit, our nation has shown tragically little willingness to confront, through large-scale planning and design, the postindustrial present. A building exhibition to retool the Hudson Valley would give the region’s communities precisely the resources they need to begin shaping their own economic destiny. It would give all of us the faith that upstate New York has a future, and it’s more than just gravel.
In an ever more interconnected and globalized world, the concept of regionalism seems both out of step and more relevant than ever. And the architects associated with an architecture of place are keenly aware that—whatever the wider world thinks—their work is not based on a menu of fixed typologies but on adaptive values. Regionalism today is not about quoting barns and silo-shaped houses but rather actively engaging with the deeper forces driving specifics of form—whether it’s time, culture, climate or cost.
Critic David D'Arcy reexamines Kenneth Frampton's canonical essay on Critical Regionalism with fresh eyes, while AN editors survey projects and practitioners that are carving out new principles as they engage with—or resist—the notion of regionalism.
It was a global landscape haunted and threatened by “the freestanding high rise,” “the serpentine freeway,” “the apocalyptic thrust of modernization,” and “pathological philistinism.”
This was the condition, not just of the built environment, but of architecture, said Kenneth Frampton, who accused architects of responding with eclectic historical nostalgia and a rapturous futurism. And it was only 1983.
Frampton’s response was a jeremiad deploring it all. And there was much to deplore.
His alternative was critical regionalism, seizing on a term first deployed in 1981 by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre. It was a warning, a manifesto, and a call to arms. Frampton termed it “a critical basis from which to evolve a contemporary architecture of resistance—a culture of dissent free from fashionable stylistic conventions, an architecture of place rather than space, and a way of building sensitive to the vicissitudes of time and climate.”
Frampton’s enemy then was post-modernism. He and others felt besieged by a tendency that was dragging critics and resources and young talent into nostalgia or into technological rootlessness.
Frampton heaped blame, not just on the postmodernists, but on the circumstances weighing upon them. Modernism, however, tended to be left off the hook. Just root it in a real place, he counseled. Here’s how he hovered around a definition, vaguely enough to be big tent: “Critical Regionalism depends upon maintaining a high level of critical self-consciousness. It may find its governing inspiration in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic derived from a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given site.”
Back in the 1980s, Frampton and others would foresee another persistent factor. This regionalizing trend that they hoped for would not be a revolution. “The scope of activity available to the potential regionalist is interstitial rather than global in nature,” Frampton wrote in 1988, “which will be seen to some as a deciding advantage.” Frampton also called that work marginal—not the most effective term for recruiting.
It’s now clear that Frampton under-estimated the challenge—and the flexible advantage of regionalism. It was several financial crashes ago, before the Internet enabled almost everything besides dwelling to be virtual rather than tactile, and before destination architecture turned a battleground like Bilbao into a tourist mecca and turned an elite of architects into boldfaced names.
Some three decades later, regional architecture is a sensibility, rather than a movement. Like most tendencies that move from the bottom up, there are no clear rules, other than a tactility, a commitment to place, and an ethical attitude about community, all of which fuse into an approach to sustainability, a term that escaped the earliest formulations.
In a 2006 lecture, Alexander Tzonis updated the challenge: “Mindlessly adopting narcissistic dogmas in the name of universality leads to environments that are economically costly, ecologically destructive, and catastrophic to the human community.” As Yogi Berra might have said, it’s apocalypse all over again.
Like anything regional, solutions will vary from location to location. These are paths that lead to hybridization, rather than purity.
No surprise, it’s leaderless. But there are plenty of prophets, like Alvar Aalto, whose brick Synatsalo Town Hall of 1952 was a triumph of tactility for Frampton. Another one of Frampton’s heroes was Luis Barragán, whose 1947–48 Casa Estudio—an office, home, and garden in Tacubaya, a working-class suburb of Mexico City—is now being scrutinized in a new documentary by Rax Rinnekangas and the Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa.
And adherents are growing, hailing from farther afield both, in geographical and intellectual reach. In Nova Scotia, architect Brian MacKay-Lyons has been gathering architects—under the suitably oblique banner Ghost—to appraise the future of master building in terms of landscape, material culture, and community. Both Frampton and Pallasmaa have contributed but the range of engaged architects is wide, among them Deborah Berke, Wendell Burnette, Ted Flato, Vincent James, Rick Joy, Richard Kroeker, Tom Kundig, Patricia Patkau, Dan Rockhill, and Brigitte Shim.
Among them is Marlon Blackwell, who is all too keenly aware that he has been scripted as American architecture’s regional everyman. Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, he has developed an approach as likely to draw on mud towers in Yemen as the state’s ubiquitous long-haul trucks. For the Porchdog House, a post-Katrina dwelling, Blackwell rejected a retreat to the sentimental vernacular. Instead of a granny-style porch with geraniums and rockers, the Biloxi house sits on 11-foot pillars—a new prototype responsive to the elements, but also affordable enough to replicate.
Blending the mass-production possibilities of the prototype with locally resonant design defines a hybrid approach being taken by regional firms like Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, designers of the Apple Store. The product is a paradox—multiple corporate retail stores are also transparent physical gathering places for corporeal Apple customers who spend much of their time in virtual worlds. The stores are potent advertising logos, as well as local destinations.
Is this a case of regionalists already jumping ship or selling out? Only if the already-slippery definition of regionalism is seen as a rigid pledge or a straitjacket, which hasn’t been suggested by any architect. There is no required vow of poverty, chastity, or obedience. So far, no one has been excommunicated from Ghost for taking on corporate clients.
Or for creating a destination. And what, if not a destination, is the new and exquisite Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, a gambit hyped as a tourist site by destination-obsessed Denver and designed by Brad Cloepfil, a Frampton pupil at Columbia University who established himself as a practitioner of Pacific Northwest regionalism? Rather than create another billboard for the city, Cloepfil responded with a restrained design at a restrained budget. If the Clyfford Still Museum says anything about regionalist work, it is that it can be purposefully local without aesthetic compromise.
As regional work once thought destined for the interstices surges through the cracks, consider the food analogy. Declining quality, rising cost, and waste alarmed a small core of eco-minded consumers and producers, and spawned the locavore movement. Some three decades later, it has bastions throughout North America and Europe and beyond. Restaurants and producers have lifted local economies, which continue to grow, benefiting everyone from architects to sommeliers (and throwing off profitable vernacular subsections).
With architecture, as with food, the challenge is to move beyond the elite clients, and into the regionalists’ heartland, where the vernaculars of poor nutrition and cheap generic construction meet at the strip mall and sprawl outward.
On January 13, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri announced the five teams shortlisted for its Pavilion Project, a design competition in conjunction with its special exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939. The competition, launched on November 23, asked teams to design and then build a temporary pavilion on-site by April 9, 2012. After renting a Ferris Wheel for the length of the exhibit proved cost prohibitive, the museum decided to develop their own pavilion, which will be used for flexible programming and events. Catherine Futter, the curator of the special exhibition, said, "We really wanted something that showcased innovation today in the spirit of the World's Fairs."
Courtesy AECOM, Hufft Projects, el dorado inc
The five shortlisted teams include AECOM, el dorado inc with MAKE + DESIGN (Kansas State University), Echomaterico, Generator Studio, and Hufft Projects. An in-house jury reviewed 15 entries before deciding on the final five, but the winner will be selected by the Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Julian Zugazagoita, the exhibition curator, Catherine Futter, architect Steven Holl, and a still unnamed person from the Kansas City Missouri Parks and Recreation Department. The pavilion will be located in the front yard of the museum along Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, in the foreground of the 2008 expansion of the museum designed by Steven Holl.
Time was not the only constraint in the competition. Teams were given a total design and materials budget of $20,000, required to provide their own power if needed, encouraged to use green materials, and prohibited from excavation on the site. At the end of the exhibition, which runs from April 14 to August 19, the teams must restore the site and ideally find a second home for the structure.
The exhibition will showcase decorative arts from every major World's Fair from 1851-1939. It includes 200 artistic and scientific objects, including such architectural gems as Alvar Aalto's Savoy Vase and Aalto Flower, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair, and Marcel Breuer's Chaise Lounge No.313.
Said Futter, "We were very impressed with all of the entries from the local design community, and we are hopeful that this will turn into something the Museum will do more frequently." The finalists will continue to refine their ideas and provide a presentation to the museum's design committee before the winner is selected on February 1.
The fox knows many things, according to the parable, the hedgehog a few bigger ones. Temperamentally, Detlef Mertins belonged to the hedgehog side of the ledger. Modernity Unbound, published shortly after his premature death in January 2011, contains nine essays written over a decade and a half. Most appeared previously in journals like AA Files, Assemblage, and Grey Room or as catalog essays. Together they offer a compelling portrait of the architectural thinker as one incessantly reflecting, reading, circling back to earlier preoccupations, and digging into his position while excavating wider ground.
Mertins’ returns to his privileged subjects—glass architecture, the concept of transparency, the theoretical writings of Walter Benjamin, the universal space of Mies, and increasingly what he comes to call “bioconstructivism”—are more than just verifications, however. They also exemplify what Nietzsche called the use of history for life. As Mertins makes clear in the introduction to this short but dense collection of writings, his “underlying project” was to discover in early modernism “the antecedents of today’s ecological and biologistic architectures.” Such a project inevitably risks being an “operative” one, and Mertins’ rereadings, which draw especially on German aesthetics and architectural history, are not entirely immune from this charge. At the same time, in his interrelated roles as critic, historian, and educator, his intent was to mine fresh insights from the past that could inform and vivify contemporary architectural practice and teaching.
Two of the nine essays in the book contain a strong critique of “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” the seminal two-part article coauthored by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky in the mid-1950s (belatedly published in Yale’s journal Perspecta in 1963 and 1971, respectively). Rowe and Slutzky had attacked one of the central tenets of Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, arguing that Giedion had failed to distinguish sufficiently between what they call “phenomenal” transparency—the virtual layering manifested in Cubist painting and in Le Corbusier’s Cubist-derived early architecture—and the “literal,” or see-through, transparency exemplified by Gropius’ Bauhaus building at Dessau. Mertins characterizes Rowe and Slutzky’s reading as “reductive and restrictive.” In an effort to rehabilitate Giedion’s conception, he argues that the material transparency admired by Giedion in the Bauhaus and other glass buildings of early modern architecture was “anything but literal”; it was rather the expression of a “new optics”—“a turn from the determinate representation of a self-positing consciousness” toward “indeterminate biotechnic constructions hovering contingently without ground.”
It is worth pointing out (if only for the sake of continuing a debate that appears not to have been exhausted yet) that Mertins’ interpretation—in spite of its presentist references to groundlessness and biotechnics—paradoxically confirms Rowe and Slutzky’s reading of Giedion’s concept of the “fourth dimension,” or “space-time,” as being closer to the free-floating, utopian atemporality of, say, Malevich’s Suprematist compositions than to Le Corbusier’s architecture, forged under the “muddy banner of Cubism.” As such, it also implicitly contradicts Mertins’ larger concerns with historicity, contingency, and difference. Perhaps more important in adjudicating between these two canonical texts from the vantage point of half a century, however, is to put them back into their respective contexts. Rowe and Slutzky’s argument, just like Giedion’s and like Mertins’ own, belongs to a particular moment of history. The reason “Transparency” had the reception it did when it appeared is that it represented a polemical assault on a mainstream postwar American architecture that was, at this date, both visually and intellectually vapid. “Giedion’s bible” had long since become the classic account of the emergence of the modern movement, and Rowe and Slutzky’s formalist critique, like that of Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture a little later, was a revisionist effort to inject meaning and richness into an architectural language that, in the hands of the leading corporate practitioners—including stars like Gropius—had become instrumental and boring.
The essays in Modernity Unbound that best render the philosophical depth of Mertins’ reflections on modern architectural space are, in my view, those in which he takes up the problematic of emptiness in the work of Mies van der Rohe. In “Same Difference,” Mertins compares Crown Hall to Alvar Aalto’s Cultural Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, persuasively arguing that while Aalto’s heteroclite forms are ostensibly “open” and “inclusive,” the architectural experience they afford is, in fact, “scripted in advance.” (The same may be said of the spaces of Frank Lloyd Wright or Hugo Häring, despite the claims of both to “organic form.”) In contrast, Mies’ simplified but intensely studied forms destabilize any narrow conception of function, remaining more receptive to unforeseen events. “Mies’ universal space,” Mertins writes, “staged the uprootedness so central to the experience of modernity, as both a crisis and an opportunity for self-fashioning.” In this sense, Miesian space is not neutral. It is, indeed, “almost nothing,” but with the accent—as Mertins puts it in “Mies’ Event Space,” an essay focused on the New National Gallery in Berlin—on “almost.” It is precisely this “almost” that differentiates Mies’ minimalism from the modernist aesthetics of his contemporaries, and through the heightened sense of theatricality his spaces induce, dramatizes the dialectic between freedom and constraint inherent in the experience of modernity.
The book’s two concluding essays, “Bioconstructivisms” and “Pervasive Plasticity,” extend Mertins’ previous thinking to contemporary architectural research and experimentation, in particular the work of Lars Spuybroek and parametric design. His ongoing concern with the values of “alterity” and “formlessness” (or self-generating form) reflect his readings in both poststructuralist theory and the recent literature of evolutionary biology and mathematics. He discovers an ultimate source for these values in the natural world. The microscopic sea creatures called radiolarians illustrated by the biologist Ernst Haeckel at the turn of the twentieth century in his book Kunstformen der Natur, and later upheld by radical engineers like Frei Otto and Robert Le Ricolais, as well as by Spuybroek, as “analogical models for self-directed form-finding processes,” suggest to Mertins a way of moving beyond modernism’s binary opposition of machine and organism, or scientific rigor and expression, to a new “biotechnic or bionic” paradigm.
Mertins’ erudite, closely argued, disputatious and at times poetic volume is the seventh of an admirable series of small, well-designed books entitled Architecture Words published by the Architectural Association in the UK. It belongs to a genre of architectural literature that is today threatened with extinction in the maelstrom of digital publication and “postcritical” thinking. Detlef Mertins’ thoughtful essays are living proof that this would be a grievous loss indeed to the intellectual culture of architecture.
The Bronx Museum of the Arts will hold a two-day conference in October on Latin American architecture and art practices from 1929 to 2011. More to the point, panelists will be discussing the intricate interactions between these disciplines within a critical theory of peripheral and marginalized culture.
In 1962, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck wrote: “Western civilization habitually identifies itself with civilization as such on the pontifical assumption that what is not like it is a deviation, less advanced, primitive, or, at best, exotically interesting at a safe distance.” Even Kenneth Frampton’s essay “Towards Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” reinforces the notion of center and periphery. In his essay almost all examples of architecture are taken from Northern Europe. Frampton’s essay argues for the kind of public space generated by dense urban form against the prevalence of the contemporary industrialized societies and the pseudo-public realms generated by megastructures in housing, hotels, or shopping centers.
Now we live in a modified form of McLuhan’s “Global Village,” and access to information has made the idea of periphery obsolete. Yet the center continues to monopolize the publicity and production of culture. During the last ten years, the longstanding strength of local culture has been subverted into an opportunity for global architects to acquire new markets. The Bilbao Museum is perhaps the first example of this new form of globalization. The City of Culture, a monumental work still unfinished overlooking the medieval city of Santiago, Spain by Eisenman Architects is a project exemplary of its last phase. In 2008 the economic collapse of the American and European markets largely put an end to this cultural phenomenon in Europe.
A global process of modernity claims a singular universality and also advocates a rupture with the past as a necessary step toward achieving the modern. The schism created by World War II in Europe and North America interrupted the culture of art and architecture that was so fecund in the early part of the century. As early as 1929, modern European culture could be represented by two iconic works: Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, and The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. These two works of architecture already present contradictory theories of modernism. Corbu posits a rational system of free plan construction within a hermetic envelope and a pre-determined geometric system interrupted by a vertical promenade in section. While Mies uses an open scheme of platforms and free standing walls made of precious materials that does not distinguish between interior and exterior spaces and points to a system that he would later call “universal space.” Modernism even at its inception was multivalent and not the reductive Modern International Style publicized and promoted by Phillip Johnson through the exhibitions and publications at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
South of the border, architecture has been classified as exotic and peripheral by the canonic historical texts of art or architecture written mostly by English or American authors who inevitably include a reference to the work of Niemeyer or Villanueva. These works are included as interesting variations on the original European object. Most historians now acknowledge that the South had a fundamental role in the formation of new modernisms in art and architecture as Europe and North America were engaged in war production and propaganda. The extraordinary diversity of modern architecture built in Brazil alone in the forties by Gregori Warchavchik, Lucio Costa, Flavio de Carvalho, Lina Bo Bardi, M. Roberto, Oscar Niemeyer, Alffonso Reidy, Jorge Moreira, and Bernard Rudofsky is a testament to the effervescence of this modern culture.
By 1936, what we might call the golden era of modern Latin American architecture made it possible to look at the three hundred year old colonial cities with new eyes. Now, to politicians, how to engage modernity became a practical problem to solve. The discussion centered on the “immediate tomorrow.” The concept of time was transformed; this would result in the large-scale transformation of the vibrant metropolises of Latin America and the Caribbean. Today modernity in this enormous territory is no longer the “immediate tomorrow.” The modern city is still incomplete: an urban landscape of inconclusive superimpositions, mistranslations, and mistaken strategies on successively larger scales.
Is it now possible to establish a modernity that is multifocal—one that does not need to negate the regional? Can we have a future without the subaltern? What art, architecture and literature now being produced in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Habana, and Ciudad de México speaks to a modernism that is multivalent? To what extent were these cities the location of an international movement that incorporated avant-guarde art and architecture within the heart of the city? These are some of the questions that will be addressed at the October conference.
We are just now beginning to understand the significance and scope of this period and the substantial list of artists and architects who were previously unknown in the standard texts. We will look at the city from the point of view of the citizen and how architecture cannot be separate from the people that inhabit public and private spaces whether made by architects or not. Some terms taken from Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said, and Vilem Flusser such as “ambivalence,” “hybridization,” “cultural difference,” and ‘the construction of cultural identities’ will be used to reveal the intrinsic contradictions of the contemporary architectural discourse in order to open a path towards a new discourse that is inclusive of the architectural other.
The Bronx Museum conference will investigate art practices in Latin America that did not follow the standard pedagogy of the art schools. Artists were often also students of architecture during of the golden period of 1929–1960. Latin American architects during this period were themselves influenced by art practices from Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Carlos Raul Villanueva was living in Paris in 1937 studying at the Institut d’Urbanisme and was the co-designer with Luis Malaussena of the Venezuelan Pavilion on the Trocadero that won the “Diplome de Gran Prix” at the Paris Exhibition. Villanueva writes about his visit to the pavilion designed by Josep Lluis Sert and Luis Lacasa and built by the Republican loyalist government in exile.
The indelible first impressions that Villanueva collected included Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the poetry of Paul Eluard, Joan Miro's large canvas of an upraised arm and clenched fist, Alexander Calder's mercury fountain and mobile painted red to symbolize the Spanish Republic, and finally the documentary films shown almost continuously in the auditorium, Madrid ‘36 by Luis Buñuel and Spanish Earth by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway that graphically depicted the suffering of the Spanish people during the civil war.
This encounter was fundamental to Villanueva’s identity as a modern architect following a period of 15 years as an eclectic designer in Venezuela. At Hotel Luteria on Boulevard Raspail, he would sometimes entertain his fellow Venezuelan artists Jesus Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Narciso Debourg. Also on the scene were such other artists, poets, and intellectuals as Dominique Vincent, Leon Joseph Madeline, Jacques Lambert, Paul Lester Wiener, Maurice Rotival, Antonin Artaud, Juan Larrea, Vladimir Mayakovszky, Julio Galvez, Max Jimenez, Juan Gris, Vicente Huidobro, José Bergamin, Rafael Alberti, Federico Garcia Lorca, Andre Malraux, Louis Aragon, and Waldo Frank. Later during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the expatriate Latin American artists living in Paris such as Lygia Clark, Julio Le Parc, Alejandro Otero, Helio Oiticica, Lucio Fontana, Carlos Cruz Diez, and Jesus Soto were all indebted to the architecture that they saw being built in Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
If Paul Ricoeur, Kennneth Frampton, and Alexander Tzonis’ advocacy for a “Critical Regionalism” was ultimately very Euro-centric, their method of discourse opens the way for dispelling longstanding bias and beginning a more complex discussion of modernism not only incorporating the very important work of Alvar Aalto and Jorn Utzon but forming a more “Atlantic” and “Carribean” view of American architecture. In 1928 the poet Oswald de Andrade in his “Manifesto Antropofago” advocated a “metaphorical cannibalism” as a defense against cultural colonialism. This vast territory called “Latin America” has been building art and architecture for the past four centuries and it is time to analyze what makes this modern art and architecture unique.
When exultant crowds sledgehammered the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historic moment was a turning point for a divided city and nation, touching off a decades-long urban reinvention that healed the wounds of war while creating one of the world’s most dynamic capital cities. But reunification had its downside—a catastrophe across the former East Germany, where plummeting populations, high unemployment, and rampant disinvestment have brought scores of small and mid-size cities to the brink of ruin. As shops, industries, housing estates, and whole urban quadrants vanish seemingly overnight, the once-resurgent German nation has become a laboratory for the fate of shrinking cities.
For the past eight years, 19 of those cities in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt have been the subject of the 2010 International Building Exhibition, the latest iteration of Germany’s visionary program, known as IBA, that has anchored innovative architecture and urban thinking in Berlin and beyond. But IBA 2010 is different. Unlike exhibitions of years past—including the 1987 effort that built new housing in West Berlin by an all-star cast of architects, and the earlier Interbau exhibition in 1957 that raised apartment blocks by the likes of Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Oscar Niemeyer—this was the IBA of unbuilding.
Against a backdrop of dwindling government budgets and a continuing exodus of residents—Saxony-Anhalt’s 2040 population is projected to be half what it was in 1950—the current exhibition set out to prove that it is possible to be smaller and be better. To that end, IBA 2010 has developed a range of pilot schemes for urban innovation, positing that public spaces, social services, and even economic opportunities can all improve despite the region’s demographic death-spiral.
The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, which staged IBA 2010 with the state development company SALEG, recently invited a group of journalists to seven IBA cities to survey the results. A first impression offers a portrait of urban resilience made possible by an emerging toolkit of tactics—new kinds of ecological infrastructure, small-scale urban interventions, targeted demolition, and citizen-activism—coupled with economic development strategies like tourism, education, and high-tech incubators. In Magdeburg, for instance, a revitalized riverfront is the core of a new urban identity, with an old port reinvented as a science center and other brownfield sites returned to nature. The city of Köthen tapped its heritage as the birthplace of homeopathic medicine, building a new European library for homeopathy and exploring how alternative medical principles might even heal the urban landscape. And Aschersleben has reconcentrated development from the suburbs to the city core, building a new education center and freshening up a once-grimy central thoroughfare with a “drive-thru art gallery” of vibrant installations in vacant lots.
Of the many shrinkage strategies, perhaps the most inspired can be found in Dessau-Rosslau, home to the famed Bauhaus and seat of modernist innovation. Enjoying full employment and a thriving industrial sector prior to reunification, after 1990 Dessau’s job base essentially vanished thanks to competition from the West and the state’s own failed privatization policies. Young, skilled workers bolted, leaving the city with a mortality rate twice as high as its birth rate and a population drop of 25 percent.
The town worked with the Bauhaus on redevelopment efforts, targeting a ribbon of landscape where derelict housing, factories, and infrastructure could be razed to create a contiguous swath of public space in the city center that links different “islands” of urban density. This large-scale landscape zone has been acquired by a variety of means, including negotiations with creditor banks for foreclosed properties and land swaps with owners for parcels in redeveloped areas. The project’s optimistic emblem is a series of 400-square-meter “claims” adopted by individual citizens throughout the new green zone. To date 19 claims have been awarded with 10-year leases, resulting in new public-oriented uses such as an apothecary garden, a multicultural meeting ground, and a BMX bike course. A new path known as the “red thread” weaves through the landscape of low-maintenance wildflower meadows, connecting the claims and the archipelago of smaller, stable urban districts.
IBA 2010’s reinvention of Saxony-Anhalt offers several instructive lessons. Even for a budget-conscious IBA without grand building programs, these efforts required a hefty capital investment: More than 200 million euros from various sources were spent on current IBA initiatives. But that sum is dwarfed by a pot of nearly 2 billion euros from European Union structural funds that have supported programs in all 19 IBA cities over the last decade, plus an ongoing infusion of another billion from European Regional Development Funds that target economic, ecological, and social challenges in urban areas. While Detroit’s urban homesteaders on the inner-city prairie are a good start, it is clear that America’s shrinking cities will need much more federal, state, and local funding to get innovative urban thinking off the ground.
Beyond financial backing, shrinking cities require an equally crucial investment of political capital. For many IBA city mayors, embracing shrinkage was a non-starter. “At first, it was politically almost fatal for any decision-makers to stand up in front of citizens and say: We have a problem. We are shrinking,” said Sonja Beeck, project director for IBA 2010. But in the end, the project’s mounting successes eventually got the region’s stakeholders to adopt the “grow by shrinking” message. That support was made possible by what is perhaps this IBA’s most powerful tool: not urban design or green buildings, but an immersive process of storytelling through stakeholder workgroups, forums, “city stroll” events, and the torturous negotiations that are essential for both public and political buy-in.
Finally, this IBA argues for a trend we’ve seen in postindustrial places everywhere: the key role of landscape architects working at the head of multidisciplinary teams shaping the 21st-century city. While the program’s limited budget and time-frame made a virtue of modest interventions, IBA cities show what’s possible when holistic ecological thinking ties together biodiversity, shared social spaces, and new urban freedoms. Shrinkage is by nature a dynamic process. As these pilot schemes play out over the coming years on one of the richest canvases imaginable—a backdrop of industrial monuments and world-renowned historic fabric—IBA 2010’s open-ended approach to urban reinvention offers a courageous, even uncharted path toward the city of the future.