BIG deal

Earlier today I was weirdly irritated by a project by PLOT, the REN Building:

I say “weirdly”, because it is uncommon that an image or a couple of lines disturb me to the point that over the day I go back to them over and over for apparently no particular reason – hell, by now I should have developed a relative indifference  to snazzy images and pretentious architectural talk. So what could be that irritating about one-of-the-hundreds flashy projects posted and re-posted all over the web?

Long story short, the REN building is to be built in Shanghai, China, as a legacy of the last year’s World Expo. As one of the latest projects of the dernier cri Bjarke Ingels, it has been featured in a number of websites, along with Bjarke’s joyful agenda of “radical pleasing” (which sounds a bit pervy, I have to say). In one of BIG’s numerous comics/animated videos he was even cheeky enough to once again remove the r from revolution: as if we haven’t seen that cheap slogan trick many times already. So, the REN was originally intended to be a hotel in the north of Sweden, but both the jurors and PLOT agreed that it doesn’t really fit there. A few years later though they had a meeting with a Chinese businessman who was stunned to discover that PLOT’s misfortunate competition entry was actually shaped as the Chinese sign for “people”!

Didn’t Bjarke really ride on this. The once-to-be Swedish hotel is currently being described by the optimist comic lover as:

The REN building is a proposal for a hotel, sports and conference center for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The building is conceived as two buildings merging into one. The first building, emerging from the water, is devoted to the activities of the body and houses the sports and water culture center. The second building, emerging from land, is devoted to the spirit and enlightenment and houses the conference center and meeting facilities. The two buildings meet in a 1000 room hotel, a building for living. The building becomes the Chinese sign for “The People” and a recognizable landmark for the World Expo in China.

Opportunism, whatever cool slogans and comic books you wrap it in, is a very dubious agenda: there is something profoundly wrong already in the touching story of a Chinese businessman recognizing “the people” and giving the decisive push for another ugly (I finally said it, okay.) “landmark” built on the extatic occasion of A World Expo. There is something wrong in BIG’s cultural flexibility: Swedish hotel gets a second reading and currently bursts with dualist symbols of Ying-Yang, Body-Spirit, Water-Land, blah blah blah. And they go as far as celebrating the happy coincidence by saying “People as in “The People’s Republic of China”! Are you fucking kidding me!

Let’s ignore the fact that China is a bit on the authoritarian side and the republic is not really a “people’s republic”. Or okay, let’s not ignore it, but let’s say that how equal animals are is not the architect’s concern. By the way, Herzog claims that the (state-sponsored and heavily advertised) Olympic Stadium in Beijing is an act of resistance towards the Chinese government, because:

We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse. We fulfilled the spatial program we were given, but interpreted it in such a way that it can be used in different ways along it perimeters. As a result, we made everyday meeting places possible in locations that are not easily monitored, places with all kinds of niches and smaller segments.

As much as I’d love to elaborate on Herzog’s idea of free-spirited Chinese who gather in the niches of the Nest to gossip against the authorities, let’s get back to Ren now. The two symbolic legs of the building house conference centres, sports centres, water culture something, meeting places and on top of them – a 1000 room designer hotel. Now, seriously, how many people’s building is this going to be? And which people’s building?

BIG, PLOT, JDS, OMA, all the capital letter acronyms, they mean well. I’m sure they do. All the websites and blogs re-posting the project exclaiming over its “cultural sensitivity” and “poetics” mean well too, and so does everyone whose heart warms up at the thought of architecture as a vessel of higher ideas(Mine does too, by the way.) I can’t see as far as all the implications of reinforcing this architectural strategy of wrapping obvious  agendas in cheap symbolics and good intentions, but for one, those are the designs that have shaped mine and my peers’ sense of architecture, meaning and aesthetics. Someday someone would perhaps quietly say, “Hey, actually shaping the building as the symbol of something means crap and the world has plenty of landmarks noone cares about and all those beautiful and not so beautiful buildings we see on websites are actually very very few people’s buildings”. But since architecture is generally an upper middle class fun, why not reinforce it, why not build up to our small elitist club of symbolics, revolution and good intentions?

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