Archipelago-townKultur: stadt. An exhibition in Berlin

‘Culture: City’ is currently on view at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It’s a show that’s worth a trip to Berlin both for its thesis and for the way the thesis has been carried through in the s...

‘Culture: City’ is currently on view at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It’s a show that’s worth a trip to Berlin both for its thesis and for the way the thesis has been carried through in the show itself and in the catalogue (edited by Wildred Wang, with essays by Kaspar König, Richard Sennett, Michael Mönninger, Ricky Burdett, and William J.R. Curtis).

Curated by Matthias Sauerbruch, the exhibition investigates a telling conundrum of contemporary culture—the difficult relationship between architecture, art, and urbanity—by taking a close, critical look at case studies depicting certain aspects of XXI century social reality. Each case is introduced by an ‘anchor point’—a large-scale maquette—while more detailed information is conveyed on a tablet in which visitors find video tours complete with commentary and in-depth background materials. (The films d’auteur were prepared by graduates of the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin.) This strategy gives visitors three different perspectives in one space: that of the architect, that of the curator, and that of the filmmaker.

The exhibition aligns 38 case studies in six different sections along a timeline of sorts, showing the alarmingly increasing importance contemporary culture gives to designing instant icons—buildings conceived with the conscious goal of becoming objects of great attention or devotion.
The first three sections of the exhibition, entitled From Forum to Icon, New Icon, and The Building as a City, are opened by three key works—The Sidney Opera House, The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the Ciudad da Cultura de Galicia. These works alone have the power of showing both the strength of the thesis the show puts forward and the somewhat tragic evolution of contemporary culture.

The first two are arguably among the most well-known icons of the last 30 years, the third is the retardataire, aborted icon that never came into being. Designed by Peter Eisenman and virtually unknown outside of architectural circles, la Ciudad da Cultura de Galicia is responsible for having spiritually and economically bankrupted an entire region, even though it was supposed to be the miracle that—as an extension of the magical ‘Bilbao effect’—was to save the day for a rather depressed area. It remains, today, an empty, half-finished, structure that is the reverse of photogenic, which is to say, of the very quality it was supposed to incarnate.

Taken together these three buildings document the sharp rise and fall of the so-called star-architect culture. They embody the architectural version of the star-system culture that has so thoroughly invested the cultural scene since the beginning of the third millennium, producing an ever stronger allergy in many observers, the exhibition’s curators included, as they align their multilayered critique of this state of affairs.

The exhibition suggests a different path for urban conurbations by selecting an array of international examples, ranging from the creative reuse of empty buildings and city areas to citizens’ initiatives. It opens a panorama on the built concretization of culture, allowing the viewer to evaluate and assess each individual case. It triggers an active debate that it then broadens in the form of lectures, film screenings, concerts, sound installations, and conferences.

As Wilfred Wang reminds us in the opening essays: ‘Real culture normally grows from the Bottom Up, rather than from the Top Down and der realer arkitektonischer raum—the space of real architecture—one has to remember, can only be defined by an authorship that is the result of a meandrous path between enthusiasm and skepticism, rather than another form of unsophisticated entertainment for the purpose of winning the competition for attracting the largest number of tourists possible.

Culture: City is an attempt to face the most urgent problem that needs to be confronted today. It takes on the increasing pathology of the imperative of the spectacle as shown by the absurd emphasis with which architecture’s envelope has been invested, both at a literal and metaphorical level: Patrick Schumacher’s ridiculous manifesto about Parametricism being the end of a process that started arguably with postmodernism—the first instance in which the illogical replaced the logical.

The time has come to end such seemingly inexhaustible thirst for attention and showing off.
This, in my judgment, is the most important merit of the Berlin show Culture: City.

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