In 1977 Peter Blake wrote “Forms follows fiasco: Why modern architecture does not work”. His skepticism towards the dominant architectural thinking of the twentieth century was expressed through a series of chapters in which he cynically commented on the dominant themes of “modern” architectural research. In the chapter “The fantasy of the open plan”, the main topic is the functional flexibility.
Through a pragmatic analysis of the myth of adaptability (meant as the possibility to change functional purpose of spaces) Blake aimed to demonstrate its unsustainability. In a mirage of achieving variable and complex configurations, “flexibility” was the means to overcome static and immutable environments, being unable to respond to the multiple continuous, and unexpected changes that life brought to the new “modern man”. It seemed a closed topic. Blake was convincing in describing how the energy spent to achieve the desired level of functional flexibility then went, inevitably, to diminish the overall quality of spaces.
Visiting Concrete, the new exhibition space designed by OMA in of Al Serkal Avenue, I thought of Peter Blake, and how he, at least in this case, was wrong.
The new gallery, crippling a famous Le Corbusier’s definition for the so-called “modern” house (machine a habiter), is indeed a true exhibiting machine (machine d’ exposition). The interior partitions revolve around themselves to fit the varying content of the gallery and to offer multiple spatial configurations. To support this flexibility the lighting system appears oversized. During my visit only a small amount of the spotlights were functioning. It seemed that all the others were waiting for their turn to be activated. It is the giant order of partitions, though, that makes the space solemn. The perception of monumentality simultaneously fascinates and imposes its grandness. The art on display is not diminished by this solution, rather, the material minimalism enhances the uniqueness of the exhibited work.
Maybe a better variety in terms of spaces size would have offered better hospitality to smaller artworks. Few materials are used obsessively with no concession to any decorative style. All functional and technical details necessary in the daily use of space as doors, handles, grilles, hinges, etc. disappear in the inner lining of the perimeter walls, as if they absorbed by the gray fair-faced concrete. The glossy black color of the metallic ceiling and the dark floor enclose the white partition walls, exalting, in section, the artistic content of the space. We could, nostalgically, define this space as Brutalist.
The gallery takes possession of one of the modular sheds built for the expansion of Alserkal Avenue but the intervention is not just an interior design project. The redesign of the facades totally changes the perception and the presence of the anonymous “shed between the other sheds”.
The designer chooses to fill the existing metallic envelope with sprayed cement that appears almost spongy, being “embellished” by mirrored glass fragments. A detail almost frivolous in the first reading but it adds surprising complexity and lightness to the rough coating.
An ambiguous condition underlined by the sophisticated idea of not placing any “door”, any “classic” opening, in the whole main elevation. The perceptual ambiguity continues and transcends in the total translucency of the polycarbonate which being back-lit suggests a mysterious content thus, inviting. The open outdoor space flows uninterruptedly to the internal one and vice versa. This is a great urban invention.
The detail of the corner solution of the facade confirms this intent. The flanking concrete walls are not perceived from the open space. The thickness of the polycarbonate superimposes them. The interior space comes out from the concrete envelope through the main elevation and it establishes a spatial dialogue with the outside.
The gallery shows itself through the material absolutism of its façade. A contemporary art cathedral overlooking the open space which can be read as its “churchyard”.
One question is on the future performance of the polycarbonate and its evolving (or devolving) materiality. The building is almost totally oriented north and this should ensure a reduced aggression of sunlight that, historically, tends to yellow the material when used for exterior design solutions.
Nevertheless, Concrete demonstrates that architecture can still impress, excite, and fascinate without the need for spectacular, buy often meaningless, formal complexity. Which, at least for me, is good news.
Cristiano Luchetti is an assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah and a designMENA columnist.