Piano Ignobile: An Ugly New Home For Ugly New Art In Spain

With tomorrow’s opening of the Centro Botín, a contemporary arts center in the Spanish city of Santander, the art world will have another ugly space in which to display ugly art, and the architecture world will have another white elephant to fawn over. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian starchitect Renzo Piano, perhaps most infamous for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London, this is Piano’s first building in Spain. Hopefully it will also be his last in that country.

In this museum Piano has succeeded in marring the already not-terribly-pretty waterfront of the city of Santander as he has that of other cities, such as his hometown of Genoa. There, in addition to the usual ugly pavilions that one has come to expect from contemporary waterside redevelopments, he constructed a giant terrarium which has nothing at all to do with the sea, and a rather pointless rotating crane with an observation capsule attached. Presumably he did this so you can see just how bad an architect he is from a great height.

While designing the Centro Botín, Piano maintains that he was consciously avoiding the so-called “Bilbao Effect”. As I’ve explained previously, this is a touchstone in contemporary architecture which takes its name from the impact of Frank Gehry’s (awful) Guggenheim Museum in another northern Spanish city, where a singular structure was built to draw in the gawkers, and hopefully revitalize both its neighborhood and the city as a whole. Such a structure has been the unholy grail of mayors, city councils, and museum boards for nearly two decades now.

Unfortunately, Piano’s conscious decision to avoid the showmanship of a Gehry or Zaha Hadid-style building does not mean that he has built a better building. The assymetrical halves of the Centro Botín, with their flimsy-looking posts and exposed gangways, look cheap and shoddy. They resemble an abandoned airport terminal more than a cultural institution built to stand for generations.

Anyone with a basic understanding of construction can tell you that you cannot build a glass structure supported on metal, plop it by the seaside, and expect it to long survive the corrosive effects of salt water and sea air. Keep in mind that Santander is not in the hot and perpetually sunny south of Spain, where it hardly ever rains. Rather, it is in the north of the country, where it rains roughly every other day between October through April, and has an average humidity of over 70%. In addition, furious winter storms come barreling in off the Atlantic with hurricane force winds during the winter months.

Lest you think that this scrivener is alone in his mocking of this building, a Spanish blogger has extensively catalogued some of the weather, public safety, and other concerns that may turn this contemporary carbuncle into a disaster for the city and for the project’s investors. Click through the pages and you can see how the museum will cause a myriad of problems, even as revised from the more blocky, original proposal. Whether or not you can read Spanish, you can clearly see from the illustrations how the net effect of the building will be decidedly negative.

It’s regrettable that the officialdom of Santander has decided to mar the coastline of their city for at least another 30 years or so, until the museum has to be pulled down for structural failure – as will inevitably happen. Fortunately I will never have to see this thing, but personally, it gets rather tiresome reading over and over again about how a spectacular new cultural institution has been built which is utter rubbish. It happens so often that I could probably blog about it every day and never run out of material.

So rather than fight against the inevitable, I can simply chalk up the expense and waste of this structure to the old adage, stupid is as stupid does. Let the contemporary art establishment have its way, and let us laugh at their expense. For when the sea eventually comes in and destroys their latest bibelot, it will at least have the added benefit of destroying a lot of garbage art along with a garbage

Seeing DC: Summer Architectural Tours Of The Capital With NCAS

I’m heading off on vacation to Spain today, so blog posts may be sporadic, but you can check my progress by visiting my Instagram page

In the meantime, I wanted to share this opportunity for seeing some of the interesting architecture of Washington DC metropolitan region, if you happen to find yourself in the Nation’s Capital this summer. The National Civic Art Society will be taking a look at a range of styles and subjects, from the British colonial past, to the Founding Fathers, to the horrors of Brutalist architecture. Definitely worth checking out or sharing with someone you know!

National Civic Art Society 2017

“Our Classical Heritage” Tours of D.C.

The National Civic Art Society is proud to announce the launch of our 2017 “Our Classical Heritage” walking tours. These tours are fashioned for those who wish a greater understanding of why and how the District of Columbia came to be a classically designed city. You will learn of the ancient antecedents of our political philosophies, of the stylistic precedents of our architectural forms, and of the Founders’ classical vision.

About the tour guide: Michael Curtis studied classical architecture at the University of Michigan, and painting, sculpture, and engraving in Florence, Italy. He has been a sculptor for more than 25 years. Major commissions include The History of Texas at the Texas Rangers Ball Park in Arlington, Texas, the largest American frieze produced in the 20th Century, as well as portrait busts for the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Thurgood Marshall Building, and many other public venues. His specialty is portraiture and fine medals. His book Our Classical Heritage: A Guide to the Political Philosophy and Aesthetic Precedent of Washington, the District of Columbia, will be published in fall 2017.

Tours are limited to three hours in length and begin at 10 AM at the location indicated. The cost per tour is $10. NCAS members, students, interns, and Hill staffers may obtain free tickets by e-mailing info@civicart.org. You must RSVP in advance. If you have any questions, please e-mail info@civicart.org or call (202) 670-1776.

Tickets are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/our-classical-heritage-national-civic-art-society-walking-tours-tickets-34436469407

Tour I: Washington, the Classical City — June 3

The ancient cause of liberty; the immediate reason for independence; the classical principle of our convictions; the aesthetic model of a civil society.

The National Mall, from the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

The Jefferson Memorial

Meet at the southeast corner of Constitution Ave. NW and 17th St. NW.

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Tour II: National, Political, and Personal Liberty — June 10

The various aspects of liberty considered in exemplary statues.

Lafayette Park, Lafayette Statue, et alia

Alexander Hamilton Statue

The National Liberty Memorial

Meet at the entrance of Teaism at 800 Connecticut Ave NW.

***

Tour III: Freedom and Sacrifice — June 17

A consideration of freedom, sacrifice, and the architectural style best suited to remembrance.

Lincoln Memorial

Vietnam War Veterans Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial

The National WWII Memorial

Meet at the west end of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool.

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Tour IV: Brutal Mistakes — June 24

Hubris and progressive misdirection; gradual abdication of citizen responsibility for morals and art; policy, an instrument to undermine traditional culture.

L’Enfant Plaza: Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, Housing and Urban Development, James V. Forrestal Building Department of Energy Building, L’Enfant Plaza Hotel

The Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building

The Hubert H. Humphrey Department of Health and Human Services Building

Meet at the glass pyramid in front of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel at480 L’Enfant Plaza SW.

***

Tour V: British America — July 8

We trace in Alexandria, Virginia our growth from quaint colonial villagers to benevolent masters of the world.

Carlyle House and Lower King Street Warehouses

Prince Street and Local Alexandria

The Lyceum and the Confederate Statue

George Washington Masonic National Memorial

Meet at the front gate of Carlyle House at 121 N Fairfax St, Alexandria, VA.

Saving The Soviets: The Art Media Loses Its Mind In Moscow

Much of the city of Moscow, as you are probably aware, was scarred with hideous buildings during the Soviet era. Films such as “The Bourne Supremacy” show the bleakness of 20th century Muscovite residential architecture in a way that brings home why we won the Cold War. Because honestly, who would *want* to live in these sorts of places? As it turns out, a number of Muscovites do, but not for the same reasons that architectural experts want them to stay right where they are.

Over the past few weeks, the art press has been wailing and gnashing its teeth over plans by Moscow’s mayor to demolish a large number of low-rise, Soviet-era apartment buildings. The reaction has been predictable, for those who follow the arts. “Moscow’s architectural heritage threatened by development plan” screams Apollo Magazine. The Art Newspaper had the gall to compare the proposed demolition of these buildings, which were built in the aftermath of a murderous land grab, to that very land grab itself. “Describe [sic] by many residents as a property grab akin to the forced collectivisation of property under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the demolition plan has proven so unpopular that thousands turned up for a demonstration against it in Moscow on Sunday 14 May carrying signs with slogans like ‘My house is my castle’.”

What’s most telling amidst all of the histrionic reporting on this story is the fact that almost none of the reports provide any images of the buildings proposed for demolition. There are plenty of photographs of protestors, in the half-dozen or so articles from the art world that I’ve read on this story. The media always likes covering protesters (apart from pro-life protesters, of course.) For the most part however, not one image of these apparently precious apartment blocks appears anywhere in the reporting itself.

Why is this the case? Surely, buildings of such architectural significance ought to be shown by the art media to the international reading public? How else do they expect the outside world to develop a collective sense of concern, and galvanize support for the preservation of these important structures? In the interest of their cause, then, I present to you one of these architectural wonders, which is currently slated for demolition:

Now, if I was arguing this case in court, at this point I’d probably say something to the effect of, “res ipsa loquitor.” This particular gem was one of the first low-rise blocks built under Khrushchev, a figure not exactly known for his innate sense of good taste. If this building was located in the U.S., I’d expect there to be a strip mall across the street with a cracked parking lot, a gas station, a Chinese takeout place, and a nail/threading salon, along with several boarded-up shop windows bearing “For Lease” signs.

There’s a further wrinkle to this story, beyond the perhaps inescapable conclusion that the art press has lost its collective mind, and that is a consideration of what the residents of these buildings themselves want to see happen. They know, and freely admit, that these structures are ugly, dangerous places, which are always falling to pieces and in need of constant repair. The only thing pleasant about them is the fact that they are mostly low-rise apartment blocks, rather than high-rises. Older Muscovites, in particular, do not want to live in high-rise apartments, particularly ones that are built to (questionable) Russian standards, and that’s fair enough.

When you drill down into the reporting, it turns out that what the inhabitants of these apartments are really concerned about is not architectural preservation, or the alleged glories of socialist style. Rather, these people are worried that they will not receive new apartments which will be better than the ones that they currently live in. For the majority of these apartment dwellers, their concerns are focused on money and square footage, not celebrating the supposed brilliance of Soviet-era design.

Among the cognoscenti of the art world however, the demolition of these buildings – which of course, they themselves do not have to live in – would wipe away large swathes of the kind of hideous, leftist architecture which they and their predecessors have promoted and fetishized in our cities for nearly a century. For those focused on the preservation of these sad reminders of the evils of socialism run amok, such oppressive structures represent the good that leftism can do, when it ignores conventional ideas of both beauty and individuality. It is as if Captain Picard would have been better off remaining in the Collective as Locutus of Borg.

Having seen but one specific example of the hundreds of Soviet apartment blocks slated for demolition, I’d certainly be willing to consider whether Moscow’s urban renewal plan is going too far. Perhaps there is some work of significant architectural beauty that is going to be torn down, which my readers could share with the rest of us in the comments section of this post. Yet given the reticence of the art press to provide even one example of such a structure to date, I’ll be very much surprised if you can find any.