The Bilbao Effect: Frank Gehry’s Garbage Can Turns Twenty

There is a very interesting article – or rather, pair of articles – in Apollo about the so-called “Bilbao Effect” on cities, twenty years on. Bilbao, as you probably know, is the Basque industrial city in northern Spain, that suddenly became a major international tourist destination even before the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenhiem Museum opened to the public in October 1997. With its reflective titanium surfaces and abandonment of convention, it was the urban cause célèbre of its time: suddenly cities around the world wanted to have something like it, in order to demonstrate their wealth, status, and trendiness.

As the writers point out, the myth of the “Bilbao Effect” is not an entirely accurate one. Bilbao had already made significant efforts to try to improve itself before the arrival of Mr. Gehry. Other cities such as Sydney and Paris had been undergoing significant changes decades earlier, building unusual Postmodern structures long before the crumpled Canadian garbage can rose on the banks of the Nervion River.

Bilbao was of course something new however, in that it was a place which most people had never *wanted* to visit before – not if they could help it, anyway. Despite lacking a history of significant architecture or particularly attractive natural surroundings, and being plagued by some of the most depressing weather in Spain, it suddenly became the belle of the international urbanism ball. The city even managed to find a role as a giant set piece during the frenzied opening sequence of the Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” – an entirely contemporary confection, since one doubts that Sir Ian Fleming had ever heard of Bilbao.

In a way, the “Bilbao Effect” is no different than the competition to build ever larger and grander cathedrals, which dominated Christian architecture for centuries and turned growing towns into the major commercial centers which many became. Some of these structures were so expensive and complicated to construct, that they were only finished long after they were begun. The massive and imposing Cologne Cathedral in Germany for example, which looks like something out of Gotham City, was begun in the 13th century but only completed in the late 19th century.

These religious structures are, in a way, a moral two-edged sword, which secular structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao are not. The great churches were designed to honor God, and to celebrate the lives of the saints to whom they are dedicated. Yet they are visual expressions of the great sin of pride, as towns vied with each other to see who could build the tallest, longest, widest, or most lavishly-decorated building, in order to draw in the punters. For tourism, be it pious or secular, comes hand-in-hand with income, and what burgher or alderman doesn’t yearn for some more taxation flowing into his coffers?

There are also some more fundamental differences between these ancient religious structures and the secular confections of contemporary starchitects like Mr. Gehry. There is no question that the former were built to last, for despite their great age, most of them have managed to survive major disasters from plague to invasions to bombing raids relatively intact. Meanwhile, the formerly undulating and sparkling Guggenheim Bilbao looks increasingly lumpy and dirty, a fact which the architect blames on the people for whom he built it, rather than himself (natch.) This is as if Leonardo da Vinci – although Mr. Gehry is no da Vinci – blamed the Dominican friars at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan for the rapid deterioration of his “Last Supper”, despite the fact that he was the one who chose an experimental and ill-advised painting method.

Moreover, the world’s great churches serve a supernatural purpose. Even if pride was involved in their construction, their underlying function remains that of praising God, not man. The motivation for the construction of structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao however, and indeed their underlying function, is to honor those who are already far too pleased with themselves to begin with. Both types of building have elements of pride involved in their construction, but whereas the church leads to the worship of God, the “Bilbao Effect” leads to the worship of oneself.

While none of us will be around to see it, my guess is that roughly two centuries from now, when the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres turns 1000, she will still be filled with worshipers and visitors every Sunday, while the Guggenheim Bilbao will be long gone. It is an easy bet to make, I grant you, because no one will be around to point at me and laugh like Nelson Muntz if I am incorrect in my assumption. And yet, when we take a step back, we can see that throughout human history pride and self-worship, at some point, inevitably fails – particularly when it comes to architecture.

Significant Architectural Work By Novelist Thomas Hardy Rediscovered

A major architectural discovery may be about to change the way we think about one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is familiar to anyone who has studied British literature, was an acclaimed novelist, poet, and dramatist. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a whopping 12 times, back when that was a highly prestigious award, although he never actually won. In books such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, Hardy often exposed the darker, more savage undertones of the veneer of Victorian propriety. His works have been turned into popular films and television series many times over.

What you may not know about Thomas Hardy however, is that he was also an architect. Hardy left the profession in the early 1870’s in order to pursue writing full time, leaving few completed projects to his name. A simple, but unusual and creative example of his work can still be found, perhaps appropriately for Hardy the writer of somber literature, in a London graveyard – a design which deserves a brief detour in our story of discovery.

Back in 1865 the young Thomas Hardy, apprenticed to a London architect who specialized in the restoration and redecoration of old churches, was faced with a somewhat macabre task. He had been given the unenviable job of clearing part of the cemetery located on the grounds of Old St. Pancras Church in Central London. A new railway line was set to cut through the churchyard, but a number of graves stood in its path. The coffins of the deceased had to be disinterred, under Hardy’s supervision, and moved to another location which the church had acquired for this purpose.

The problem of what to do with all of the old tombstones, which would not be accompanying the remains to their new resting place, was another matter. At the time, common practice was either to smash up discarded gravestones for other uses such as paving, or to simply throw them away. Hardy’s unusual solution was to stack the stones against each other in concentric circles, around the base of a young tree. Today, the so-called “Hardy Tree” still exists; over the years its roots have enveloped many of the crumbling, moss-covered grave markers that Hardy had arranged around its trunk.

But back to our main story.

Hardy’s architectural renderings from his early days have reappeared from time to time, such as in the 1970’s when several of Hardy’s proposed designs for a reredos in the church of All Saints, Windsor, were discovered hidden in the organ loft of that building. In traditional Western church architecture, a reredos is a prominent structure located directly behind the main altar of a church, which is usually decorated with carvings, mosaics, or paintings. Until now however, it was assumed that these were just some ideas by the young draughtsman which were never carried out.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, two members of the congregation at All Saints were recently exploring the historic church, looking for the original foundation stone that had been laid by the Empress Frederick of Prussia, daughter of Queen Victoria back in 1863, when they stumbled upon what appears to be Hardy’s completed reredos:

I said, ‘Let’s have a root around with a torch’, and he said, ‘I’ve always wondered why the panelling behind the altar sticks out a bit’,” said Tunstall. “I lay down, and shone my iPhone torch up the back. I didn’t see a foundation stone, but I saw a carved motive and a decorative panel.”

Tunstall realised the design on the altar-stone resembled a design hanging at the back of the church – the one, he said, that had been designed by Hardy. “The discovery shows it did exist, but that it had been covered over some time in the 1920s,” he said. “It’s every little boy and little girl’s dream, to discover hidden treasure.”

The church is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to remove the carved paneling that was used to cover over Hardy’s altarpiece about a century ago. It estimates that it will cost close to $12,000 to do the work, and of course no one knows how much restoration will be required once the paneling is removed. When exposed however, I suspect that this discovery will prove to be a major addition to our understanding of Thomas Hardy both as an architect and as an author.

In later life, Thomas Hardy wrote an essay entitled “Memories of Church Restoration” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member. In it, he recounted his experiences as a young draughtsman and architect working during the Gothic Revival period of Victorian architecture, when the influences of people like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin were at their peak. Hardy voiced his regret over the tendency of architects and designers of that time to try to make existing Gothic buildings even more Gothic-y, by ripping out their ancient interiors. 

In the case of All Saints however, since the church was brand-new when Hardy was working on it, he must not have felt such concerns. He was designing something new, for a new building, albeit evoking the architectural styles of the past. Hardy’s appreciation of historic architecture, and his understanding that there is much to be learned from it, ended up significantly influencing his work as a writer. 

Although he later abandoned the profession of architect, Thomas Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, nor lost sight of the importance that a building’s design can have on the life of an individual. Old buildings and the secrets contained within their ancient walls often played key roles in Hardy’s writing. All the more appropriate then, that a secret hidden in one of the few buildings that he himself worked on, may soon be brought back into the light.

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

A new exhibition at The Städel Museum in Frankfurt called “Heaven on Display” caught my eye in the art press this morning. Although the gallery is filled with beautiful works of art created over many centuries, as with any exhibition of this sort the visitor is cautioned not to forget the fact that such a show is something of a Frankenstein monster. Torn from the fabric for which they were created, and chopped into bits for the benefit of greedy governments, the objects on display provide a good opportunity for us to call to mind exactly why they were made, why they ended up as they have, and what we can learn from their story.

The centerpiece of the The Städel exhibition is the Altenberg Altarpiece, which was created in the 14th century for the Abbey of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Sisters in Altenberg an der Lahn. Its central portion consists of a well-loved statue of the Madonna and Child, which was placed in an architectural framework of Gothic tracery. This was flanked by hinged wooden wings, painted with lively, colorful images of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The entire ensemble stood on the High Altar of the Abbey Church for centuries, and was greatly admired by numerous visitors.

In 1803, Altenberg Abbey was secularized by the local princelings, in collusion with the secular French Republic led by then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters were forced to leave both their home and their religious vows, Altenberg was stripped of everything of value, and the Abbey’s contents were broken up and sold to the highest bidder. Today, the component parts of the Altenberg Altarpiece are scattered among municipal, regional, and private collections around the world.

The story of how the Altenberg Altarpiece ended up in its present state is a part of Western history which at best is usually glossed over in school. While England’s Henry VIII is certainly the most infamous of despoilers of the patrimony of Western Christianity, a supposedly “enlightened” Europe decided to match his efforts beginning in the late 18th century. Hundreds of abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, and buildings, land, and contents were sold off. This was done supposedly for the benefit of “the people”, but in reality for the benefit of people like the (Un)Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, an eternal embarrassment to the Habsburg family, and those who backed the radical destruction of Catholic culture.

This practice picked up pace under Napoleon, and continued well into the 19th century. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal for example, one of the largest pigs ever to achieve the feat of walking on two legs, is responsible for the fact that many works of Christian art and architecture were ripped out of Spain and sold to private collectors. When you see bits of frescoes from Catalan Romanesque monasteries or embroidered altarcloths from Burgundy in places like Boston or Philadelphia, the secularization process begun under the Enlightenment is most probably responsible for how they ended up where they are.

Understanding how these works of art came down to us is important, since they are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created. In seeing the Altenberg Altarpiece patched back together, we can be reminded that while an age of faith created this work of art, and built the Abbey that housed it, an age of secularization needed to destroy these things. The visual impact of Catholicism needed to be diminished or eliminated by secular forces in Western Europe, just as the communists needed to bulldoze cathedrals in Eastern Europe to show that there was no going back.

In earlier times, man’s creative energy was put at the service of God, cataloguing his blessings upon us all. Today, surrounded by contemporary art and architecture that catalogues and celebrates the self, which accepts no criticism of any kind, we may very well ask what such things portend. As we head into an increasingly perilous age for Christianity, perhaps in seeing what became of Altenberg Abbey and its beautiful Altarpiece, we have a preview of what may be in store.

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Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece