Friday, September 30, 2011

Vitra or What is the Role of the Avant-Garde?

A few weeks of this summer we dedicated to a research trip in Europe on medieval construction methods (soon more on that), a rather peculiar interest, not at all relevant.

Yet as we were back to Europe already, we also didn't fail to visit some of the latest iconic and avant-garde buildings, the architecture world talks about. We headed to Basel and successively to Weil am Rhein, where Vitra has used its campus to invite well known architects to contribute to a 'themed production headquarter'.

It clearly demonstrates the state of the art of construction and innovation at its particular period in time: Frank Gehry's and Zaha Hadid's elemental dynamic shapes, Herzog de Meuron's integrated dependent structures. We were fully prepared for the avant-garde. And we found it. They look great on pictures, every time I revisit them (even now as I put it up on the blog). It appeared like a recipe of what avant-garde is: Be different, challenge everything, push beyond everything, everybody has ever thought of - and that on as many levels as possible. It has been a revelation on construction and formal strategy. These appeared well positioned in what you would expect from the leaders of the architectural discourse.

Yet being there was like a coitus interruptus - we felt like losers. Spaces failed to move. In fact, space didn't exist at all. We were irritated by the few lonely people, trying to sit on the bench that was a result of the squashed dependent A-frame structure. They felt as uncomfortable as the structure itself. Finally spaces wanted us to leave.
Not touched at all, rather annoyed, we headed back to Basel. We strolled through the old town and arrived finally at the Muenster - one in a zillion European churches. The typology offered what we expected - striking engineering and a well known typology. Yet the moment, that puzzled was when we took the turn towards the cloister courtyard. It was supposed to be an enclosed, internalized courtyard with covered arcades. Yet the architect engaged the view over the Rhine with large scale windows and therefore completely changed the meaning of the internalized patio as an introverted, privatized area of contemplation. It hit us completely unexpected, yet it was very powerful (yet not photogenic) and left us puzzled.

It was that moment, when I was rethinking role of the avant-garde? Must avant-garde reinvent the wheel over and over again, use new technologies and the dynamics of the contemporary social and economic developments to generate a dip into the unknown? Or does avant-garde mean to maintain a critical alignment within the cultural context, yet challenge specific conditions based on context and opportunity? Is avant-garde the achievement of the seduction of a photo/rendering or the obsessive memory of a rather banal challenge of a near cast-in-stone principle?

Obviously in our practice we are also torn between the sensation of the new (avant-garde!) as we are confronted with clients who want something new every time, and the cultural lineage (avant-garde?) which has been our professional's main question of who to serve.

Yet I have to admit, that this trip has puzzled me more than moving to Asia eleven years ago. And we are glad to maintain that struggle a little bit further.

© 2011, ice - ideas for contemporary environments

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