A New Kind of Architecture? JG Ballard on the Bilbao Guggenheim

JG Bal­lard is one of the most archi­tec­turally ori­ented writ­ers I know. His writ­ing evokes the phys­i­cal and men­tal expe­ri­ences of spaces and places deftly and vividly. No acci­dent then that Ballard’s work is con­nected to psy­cho­geog­ra­phy by many (an idea I’ve men­tioned before as well). And so it is a plea­sure to read his piece on Gehry’s Bil­bao Guggen­heim, The lar­val stage of a new kind of archi­tec­ture, in Monday’s Guardian.
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From the arti­cle:

More to the point, I won­der if the Bil­bao Guggen­heim is a work of archi­tec­ture at all? Per­haps it belongs to the cat­e­gory of exhi­bi­tion and fair­ground dis­plays, of giant inflat­a­bles and bouncy cas­tles. The Guggen­heim may be the first per­ma­nent tem­po­rary struc­ture. Its inte­rior is a huge dis­ap­point­ment, and con­firms the sus­pi­cion that the museum is a glo­ri­fied sales aid for the Guggen­heim brand. There is a giant atrium, always a sign that some corporation’s hand is slid­ing towards your wal­let, but the gal­leries are con­ven­tion­ally pro­por­tioned, and one can’t help feel­ing that they are irrel­e­vant any­way. The museum is its own work of art, and the only one really on dis­play. One can’t imag­ine the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo or Picasso’s Guer­nica ever being shown here. There would be war in heaven. Apart from any­thing else, these works have a dimen­sion of seri­ous­ness that the Guggen­heim lacks. Koons’ Puppy, faith­fully guard­ing the entrance to the enchanted cas­tle, gives the game away. Archi­tec­ture today is a vis­i­tor attrac­tion, delib­er­ately play­ing on our love of the bright­est lights and the gaud­i­est neon. The Bil­bao Guggenheim’s spir­i­tual Acrop­o­lis is Las Vegas, with its infan­til­is­ing pirate ships and Egypt­ian sphin­xes. Gehry’s museum would be com­pletely at home there, for a year at least, and then look a lit­tle dusty and jaded, soon to be torn down and replaced by another engag­ing mar­vel with which our imag­i­na­tions can play.


Nov­elty archi­tec­ture dom­i­nates through­out the world, pitched like the movies at the bored teenager inside all of us. Uni­ver­si­ties need to look like air­ports, with an up-and-away hol­i­day ethos. Office build­ings dis­guise them­selves as hi-tech apart­ment houses, every­thing has the chunky look of a child’s build­ing blocks, stir­ring dreams of the nurs­ery.


But per­haps Gehry’s Guggen­heim tran­scends all this. From the far side of the Styx I’ll look back on it with awe.

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