The Death of Architecture, Part 1.

Sad artificiality and fabricated environs (which, frankly, wasn’t even accurate for the season.)

I consider myself reasonably well-read when it comes to architectural thought leaders, from starchitects to historic luminaries to future-forward theorists. However, after reading Vanishing New York, something has happened to me, a sudden and dramatic shift in perspective that feels as if I am enlightened in a completely different way and feels like waking up after having been part of a self-perpetuating, self-worshiping cult of architects for the past 20 years. I’ve written several recent posts that have skirted this issue, but never one that tackles it directly, because the feeling has never been as clear as it is at present.

The final shoe dropped for me this past week when I stopped by the reconstructed Bjarke Ingels Serpentine Pavilion in Toronto. The unfortunately titled— “unzipped” —exhibition occupies what appears to be a disused courtyard on King Street West just outside the theatre-ish district of Toronto. The much touted reconstruction is sponsored by Westbank, the Canadian real estate development firm known for employing signature architects to design signature buildings across Canada.

Bjarke Ingels Unzipped Serpentine Pavillion Toronto Westbank
Unzipped Brochure

Every year since 2000 the Serpentine Gallery in London has commissioned a temporary summer pavilion by a leading architect. The series presents the work of an international architect or design team who has not completed a building in England at the time of the Gallery’s invitation. Past luminaries have included Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron, Socar Niemeyer, Álvaro Siza, Ai Weiwei, and—of course—Bjarke Ingels. Each Pavilion is completed within six months and is situated on the Gallery’s lawn for three months for the public to explore and is then deconstructed and only in rare instances makes an encore appearance somewhere else in the world.

Like a good architectural soldier and without hesitation, I somewhat robotically and unquestioningly planned a visit the reconstructed pavilion, armed with my “ticket” and iPhone in hand, ready to take photos of the structure at jaunty angles to post on my Instagram feed.

The pavilion was about 2 storeys tall.
Inside the pavilion.

Immediately upon my arrival, I was struck by the artificiality of the pavilion and its contextual environment, in terms of materiality, in terms of manufactured context, and in terms of faux authenticity. As I sat on the plastic turf lawn staring at the giant pile of epoxy “blocks”, I couldn’t help but take notice John Andrews’ CN tower peeking out above it. The CN tower remains one of the largest human-made structures in the Northern Hemisphere, and it’s an impressive engineering and construction feat despite the fact that the tower turned 45 this year. As I gazed at the tower in the distance, I wondered… why was I sitting on plastic turf, surrounded by plastic shrubs looking at a plastic structure that was really just there an advertisement for a company that is trying to convince the general populace that (yet) another new condo tower would be a great addition to King Street West? Is this plastic fabrication the avant garde (or perhaps worse, the future) of architecture? Has (capital A) Architecture simply devolved into a red-light district for celebrity designers working in the service of commerce and commercialism? Is this the best we can do?

Even the “tickets” (necessary for entry past the security guard [who was so unbelievably haughty and othering {and her outfit so impeccably tailored} that there is no way in hell that she can be an actual security worker, she (and her impeccable makeup) simply must have been from central casting]) were artificial. The entire ticketing process is simply a mechanism for Westbank to subscribe visitors to an endless stream of e-mails and direct marketing. No exaggeration, I’ve received about 30 e-mails from them since Wednesday. (I’m writing this on the following Sunday.) And also no exaggeration, though I had a “ticket” there seemed to be very little demand for entry and there wasn’t a soul ahead of me in line.

I left the pavilion feeling disappointed and sad and wondering… Is this it? Is this what I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life studying, researching, and teaching, and if so… What’s next?

Blocks.
The pavilion with the CN Tower in the background.
Foundation.

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