I probably don’t write about architecture on here as often as I should, since even though these pages are primarily filled with stories about art exhibitions and auctions, I’m also always reading and thinking about buildings. So today, we’re going to take a look at some interesting stories from the past week or so dealing with architectural projects new, old, and revived. And ahead of my travels to the Motherland next week, we’re going to begin in Barcelona.
Back in 2012, a proposal was first floated to build an outpost of St. Petersburg’s massive State Hermitage Museum in Barcelona, much as the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and more recently the Smithsonian have been establishing satellite or affiliate museums around the world. At first, city officials were perplexed by the project, because it wasn’t exactly clear what the museum’s purpose would be. Although *THE* Hermitage would lend pieces from its collection, the Hermitage Barcelona wouldn’t be a branch of Russia’s largest and most famous art museum. Instead, the new museum would feature – and you will need to strap yourself in for some retch-inducing artspeak here – “continuous dialogue between science and art, highlighting both what unites and what distinguishes them, using modern scientific museology, a unique combination of parts, and [phenomenological] and museological metaphors.”
The site eventually chosen for the new museum was Nova Bocana, a reclaimed area of the city’s former industrial port, which over the past decade has seen the construction of Catalan architect Ricardo Bofil’s now-iconic W Barcelona Hotel, as well as a new harbor entrance, beaches, promenades, parks, breakwaters, retail & dining outlets, and yet another marina [N.B. the city already had several, but this one was designed to accommodate the latest in super-sized private yachts.] There is an empty site right next to the W on the new breakwater, which appears to be itching for something to occupy the space. The question of what that something will look like, however, is another matter entirely.
The initial design for the museum, proposed by Barcelona architect Íñigo Amézola back in 2016, was, in a word, boring. In fact, with its bland, bureaucratic lines, it was somewhat reminiscent of the 1970’s Soviet-era Russian Embassy here in DC. Plopping this uninteresting box down next to the bold, curving tower of La Vela (or “The Sail” as Bofill’s hotel is popularly called), an established presence which apparently Sr. Amézola chose to ignore entirely in his design, would have looked rather bizarre.
This early plan was later scrapped, and a new proposal was obtained from Pritzker Prize-winning Tokyo architect Toyo Ito, which you can see below. The undulating façade of the design references the water that surrounds the site, and simultaneously complements the sail-like hotel tower next door, instead of either ignoring it or competing with it. Entering the new harbor entrance by sea, from a certain angle I would imagine that “The Sail” will appear to be riding the waves of the museum. In addition, Mr. Ito’s proposal incorporates some of the parabolic arches favored by Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, a figure beloved of Catalans and the Japanese alike, which was a smart way to win points with a previously-hesitant Barcelona city bureaucracy.
In theory, construction could get underway later this year, but that doesn’t mean that the Hermitage Barcelona is a done deal. In the runup to citywide elections which will take place on May 26th, some candidates and neighborhood associations are complaining that the project will generate all of the usual 21st century tropes that are regarded as unforgivable sins: gentrification, property speculation, etc. Others claim that, because art museums tend to attract a better class – or at least, a better-behaved sort – of tourist, the project will foster a better tone for the area, raising property values, quality of life, and income for everyone.
Given that most of the city’s waterfront is currently populated by illegal immigrants selling fake Gucci bags out of blankets, drunk tourists engaged in projectile vomiting competitions, drug dealers, hookers, panhandlers, and pickpockets, the situation can hardly get any worse than it already is. City Hall under the leadership of failed actress Ada Colau has long been sparing the rod and spoiling the child, when it comes to both loutish tourists and the more cretinous elements of Barcelona’s native population, who of course constitute Ms. Colau’s natural constituency. If she’s not reelected mayor, it’s difficult to guess whether the city will pony up for the construction costs associated with the new museum or not.
Personally, I find the entire project rather silly. From a conservation perspective, putting an art museum within spitting distance of the sea at the entrance to a busy, functioning port is a galactically stupid idea. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and decorative objects, particularly those of significant age, can be profoundly affected by environmental factors such as humidity, air pollutants, and so forth. From an urban renewal standpoint, I rather doubt that a Russian oligarch’s wife, who is staying at the W after alighting from her mega-yacht, will want to head to a neighborhood chiringuito (a beach shack tapas bar) for lunch after touring a Renoir exhibition.
We’ll just have to wait and see what happens – if and when the Hermitage Barcelona ever opens.
Sticking with Barcelona for the moment, a satellite museum project that is very different in motivation from the Hermitage Barcelona is being proposed by Josep Bou, one of the city’s current crop of mayoral candidates. Sr. Bou is a member of the Partido Popular, the main Spanish conservative party, which is opposed to Catalan independence, and was recently trounced in the national elections. In the very tense political environment that currently exists between Barcelona and Madrid, he has argued that branches of Madrid’s Prado and Reina Sofia museums should be established in existing Spanish national buildings in the Catalan capital – specifically, the palatial Bank of Spain on the city’s central square, and the cathedral-like Post Office headquarters on the waterfront – in order to display Catalan art that is currently in storage at both institutions, and also as a way of demonstrating “a Catalonia loyal to Spain.” He makes a good point in noting that Madrid is full of works by Salvador Dalí, such as the Reina Sofia’s portrait of the artist’s sister shown below (one of over 100 works that museum possesses by the artist), whereas there are hardly any Dalí works in Barcelona. However, the notion that Barcelona needs to beg Madrid to lend it works of art, or that the city would establish new museum branches as a demonstration of fealty, are likely going to go nowhere.
The Emperor Nero’s (in)famous Domus Aurea, the opulent palace he built for himself on the Palatine Hill after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, was buried and built over by subsequent emperors, who found his “Golden House” a bit too heavy on the bling. Even though it was rediscovered over 500 years ago, and has been explored by everyone from Raphael to Michelangelo to Casanova, the palace continues to yield new surprises even today. Recently, archaeologists working to shore up the vaults in one of the estimated 150 rooms stumbled across an opening into a hitherto unknown room, which is covered in frescoes of birds and foliage, as well as exotic and mythical beasts. Due to structural instability the space won’t be fully excavated, but study of these ceiling paintings will add significantly to our understanding of Ancient Roman art during the early Imperial period.
After closing 18 years ago, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s gloriously bulbous TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport in New York is once again open to the public, reincarnated as the new TWA Hotel. More kitschy and cool than Saarinen’s soaring but sober, still-functioning Dulles Terminal here in the Nation’s Capital, the TWA will no doubt become a significant travel destination – particularly as it’s the only hotel located at the airport itself. “We’re bringing the building back to exactly as it was in 1962,” commented the developer, and from the look of things they absolutely have, and more; even the guest toiletries look like they came from the now-vanished airline. I have fond memories of the old “Pregnant Oyster”, including the pleasure of flying in and out of it on TWA a few times back in the day, and still remember the plush red carpets, the ergonomic seating, and having the sensation that I was in a Bond film or on an episode of Star Trek. It’s a real joy to see this aspirational, Space Age masterpiece back in the swing of things.