[Originally published on medium.com]
Dear Marc Kushner,
Like yourself, I also want people to love architecture. But unlike yourself, I don’t think that we are on the verge of “a new golden age of architecture.” Not because “98% of everything that is designed and built today is pure shit”, but because we just had a golden age of architecture — one that is now waning.
Yes, I’m referring to the same golden age that you speak of: the Bilbao Effect. Except for me, this phenomenon is on its way out, while you seem to think it’s still going strong and might become even stronger were it not for a handful of marginal critics who are completely out of touch with ‘the people’ (whoever they may be).
Much of what you say is correct, Marc. Tourism did indeed increase manyfold in Bilbao after the completion of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry. But that’s also because Bilbao had effectively no tourism to speak of beforehand, a fact that you omit. It was a grungy industrial port city in which there was nothing for foreign tourists to see or do unless they were perhaps pintxo-loving foodies long before that trend took off, or else happened to be fans of 19th century cast-iron transporter bridges designed by disciples of Gustave Eiffel.
You should be aware, moreover, that it wasn’t the Guggenheim Museumalone that suddenly caused Bilbao’s turnaround, even if that museum was planned as the jewel in the crown. The city was already in the throes of deindustrialization since the 1980s, when its ship building industry couldn’t compete with the foreign wages of a newly globalized economy anymore, and began to pin its hopes on the service sector before the idea of building an international museum franchise occurred to anyone. One of the first things Bilbao did, incidentally, was to invest in new public transportation infrastructure, including a subway system designed by Norman Foster. It also invested heavily in education, including research and development. What essentially happened in Bilbao was that an enlightened public sector planned a successful re-tooling of the city, taking some gambles — most notably building a spectacular franchise of a global museum brand — that turned out successfully. In many other similar cases, however, some of which are not very far away from Bilbao, such gambles didn’t work out. Have you recently visited the City of Culture of Galicia by Peter Eisenman, or Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences by Santiago Calatrava? In any case, my point is that the Bilbao Effect is ultimately the product of an enlightened public sphere.
And that is precisely what has changed since the recent golden age of architecture: the notion of an enlightened public sphere has gone into serious decline around the world. I don’t think I need to point you to the growing number of news articles about government sleaze, corruption, inequality, disinvestment, large-scale fraud, etc. I’m sure you already know what’s happening in our world, and what that’s doing to it.
I agree there’s no crisis in architecture, per se. What we do have is a broader ecological, economic, and social crisis; a crisis of the public sphere. I don’t think architecture can continue to thrive under such conditions very much longer; at least not the kind of architecture I consider to be great.
A new golden age of architecture? Nice idea, but it’s one whose moment has passed, unfortunately.