RCR, the Catalan architectural firm known for its love of Corten steel, has an exhibition in Barcelona’s Palau Robert that I visited today. Now, solo exhibitions of work by contemporary architectural firms tend to be highly self-promotional infomercial / advertorial / vanity-press kinds of affairs, so I always take them with a grain of salt and treat them as eye-candy, hoping for a good sugar-high.

In that respect, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint in the least. The retro-illuminated walls, the bent glass benches and model pedestals, and the exquisite videos that are effectively photographs except that once in a while a person walks by, a leaf blows in the wind, or a pigeon lands in a courtyard (careful observers might notice light and shadows slowly changing) are examples of how this exhibition delivers a mouthful. Yes, these architects are poetic. They are inspired by nature, beauty, idyllic landscapes, and ‘cloud people’ (though I didn’t quite understand that concept, I must admit). As a branding strategy for RCR and for Catalan architecture and design in general, the exhibition works brilliantly. You come out wanting more; an urge to go on a Sunday drive to get a taste of their work in the flesh ensues. Sure enough, the exhibition’s didactic pamphlet contains a handy map to the sights, the smells, and the sounds of RCR’s oneiric oeuvre.

But despite being thoroughly seduced, I couldn’t help leaving the exhibition with a bit of a bad taste in the back of my mouth. Was it, perhaps, because I started to remember that on one particularly cold winter day at the single-pane glass-and-steel Sant Antoni library I once saw a librarian wearing fingerless gloves? Or maybe it’s because I was remembering an excursion to the Riudaura civic centre with a group of students in 2004 (or thereabouts) and being told by the mayor that the building had to be shut down because its maintenance and heating and air-conditioning costs were bankrupting the tiny village? No, I’m sure the bad taste in my mouth came from elsewhere. We all know that ‘all great architecture leaks’, and today wastes energy neo-liberally, moreover, so these sorts of real-life minutiae could not have been the cause.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something else. The previous day, I had attended a local political rally of the ‘Barcelona en Comú’ party that is running in the upcoming municipal elections on a citizen-led ‘bottom-up’ political agenda. At this event, I listened to the curator of this very exhibition, Josep María Montaner, speak about the importance of, yes, citizen participation, energy efficiency, sustainable building, and curbing tourism in Barcelona. Hmm.

Oh well. I’m still a fan of RCR’s work, and I still plan to vote Barcelona en Comú in the upcoming election. I guess refined taste is, in the end, irreconcilable with progressive politics.

An RCR project in…Dubai?

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