The Architectural Legacy of Our Time

The Architectural Legacy of Our Time

Pondi Road

Sunday, January 19, 2020

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Published: December 14, 2014


A few weeks ago I was in Paris for meetings which honestly were not going very well. After three days of torturous miscommunication and bad vibes, I left halfway through the workday one day with my tail between my legs. Dear God, get me out of this. Battered and bruised, I felt I had lost my mojo. The depression was particularly acute because I could never imagine that I would ever be sad in Paris. After all, one only need slip down a side street, look around at the well- balanced architecture, order a glass of wine or savour some sweet pastry to be made whole. Yes, it seems perfectly acceptable to be miserable in dreary weather London, but Paris? No way! I stepped out of the offices in the 4th arrondissement and hailed a taxi, “N' import ou. €50. Conduissez!” Does not matter where. €50 Just drive!” And so it began. My Wednesday afternoon aimless journey around the city. When the meter was around €40, my African cab driver asked if I had seen the new Vuitton Contemporary Arts Museum. I had certainly heard of it while was being built. The city had been all abuzz when it was first commissioned 10 years ago, but I had not realised that it had opened. How fortuitous to be in town just a few weeks after it had opened! And so off we were to the outskirts of the city: the Bois de Boulogne Park. Sixty-seven euros later, we arrived at this spectacular glass spaceship that seemed about to take flight.

Anchored on girders of wood and iron, there are dozens of billowing sails of glass reflecting the natural light and the green park in various ways. The voluptuous swirls are perched over a pool of water which reflects the building while the building reflects back as if the water and the structure are in dialogue. The first approach leaves you breathless, then confused, then appreciative. Wood, steel, glass and concrete have never blended in this heady configuration. The structure defies easy explanations. To describe it is too reductive. To photograph it is to miss the contours of movement and feelings as you wade through it. It feels not of this world but of the next. Defying its surroundings but not insulting it. It evokes a sense of excitement like the opening of a long anticipated show but it is also familiar because there is no mistaking that it is a Frank Gehry design.

For the last 50 years, the tourist route for the first-time visitor to Paris has been pretty well-established: the Louvre for the Mona Lisa, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-élysées, the Sacre Coeur, the Musée D'Orsay, and the Centre Pompidou. Audaciously, as of this past October, the much-anticipated Louis Vuitton Foundation Contemporary Arts Museum ($143m) can justifiably be added to this well-worn must-see list.

The Vuitton Contemporary Arts Museum is the first privately funded major cultural institution in France. Ownership of the museum will revert to the city of Paris in 50 years. Globally, it has been decades since a private institution, even in America, has commissioned a “statement” building in its name, let alone an Arts Museum. One would have to look back as far as the Nineties when the Getty Foundation commissioned the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Foundation commissioned the Guggenheim Bilbao, another famous Frank Gehry project, in Spain. Now there seems to be a new billionaire trend in legacy projects. The Eli Broad Museum ($150m) in Los Angeles and the Centro Emilio Botin ($100m) in Santander, Spain will open in 2015, and the George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) Museum of Narrative Art ($140m) is set to open in 2016.

I am not the first Jamaican to pass through these gallery halls. Art cognoscenti Rachael Barrett took lifestyle aspirant Mina K Robertson to the grand opening in October. A few hours after I left the museum I had an Instagram exchange with Barrett who pooh-poohed the art in the museum. And on that note she was entirely correct. The art on display is dull, dull, dull! The experience is all about the building, not the art. But the truth is, as I look to the current standard bearers I am less than thrilled about a legacy by Damien Hirsch and Jeff Koons — saddened even that they will be seen as the representatives of our time. From where I sit, the fine arts flatlined after Andy Warhol and the endless “cool” installations and cartoonish pieces that I have waded through for the last two decades in New York, London and Paris have been largely unmemorable and uninteresting. And, yes, while I realise that a whole bunch of experts have made a whole bunch of money in art, it still seems to me much ado about nothing... kinda like the Kardashians.

But not Gehry. At the grand age of 85, the Canadian architect has created our Pyramid, our Parthenon, our Coliseum. This is the building of our time, the place where the future will visit to understand our present. It is a tremendous legacy, powerful, beautiful and memorable.

There is a gallery in the museum which explores the anthropological relationship between the construction workers and the building. The workers came from all over Europe and Africa, a multicultural fusion of aspirations and workplace norms. Each worker knew that they were participating in a building project of major significance. This was likely to be the only building that they had ever worked on that would be expected to stand the test of time. This was not Aunt Bea's apartment complex this was a part of history. The question was asked (confidentially) what they took from the worksite and what they left behind. How did they leave their mark? There was one man who put a small photograph of his newborn baby underneath a tile. There was another who left his urine DNA in the cement. There was one who left a used condom full of semen behind the dry wall after he had copulated with a co-worker. There is the man who stole a cement bag to build his daughter's bedroom. Someone else drew a huge penis on a stick man on the inner wall. A woman left a used cigarette butt below some of the inner electrical panels. There was a man who stole the building plans to show his family what he was working on, and another who stole a glass sheet for his window. Through the memories, cigarette butts, urine and semen of the 3,000 workers and 100 engineers, Gehry's building gets the element of the human footprint and gives it soul. The energy of the items taken from the worksite connects the building to other places. It is of us, with us, through us.

There is a talk that I have given several times to Campion sixth-formers, where I lay out my generation's legacy to them. We have bequeathed to the young the most explosive gift of choice. Where my parents were still advocating for everyone to become a “doctor, lawyer, Indian chief,” marry in your 20s, live in one place, have children, go to church and then retire and die, we broke the mould on everything. Be straight, be gay, be bi. Be virginal, be slutty. Your choice! Be Christian, be Buddhist or be nothing. Your choice! Marry, don't marry, marry late or marry thrice. Have kids, don't have kids. Live in one place or keep moving. Stick to one career for life or have several. Drink champagne and cream soda. Eat Michelin and roadside. Travel and be aimless or be responsible and then chuck it all away on a whim. The bottom line is that each person now takes full control of the narrative of his or her own life. Our legacy to the next generation is that we tore up the Book of Rules.

It is wonderfully freeing but also scary because everyone's happiness now depends entirely on them. You can't blame society for forcing you into choices that you would not have made if you were free. You are free. We have given the young absolute freedom and absolutely terrifying responsibility. The Gehry museums, for me, speak to that new modus operandi by breaking open our expectations of what a building should look like. The varied visual metaphors conjured up by the Vuitton Arts Museum are astounding. Is it a ship? Is it a bird? Is it an opening flower? A butterfly? An iceberg? Is it earthbound or does it fly? The walls are not straight and angular, as they begin one way and end another. Inside you get lost often because the path through the museum is neither clear nor well-marked. You walk straight then you barrel back and spin around to find your way again. The Gehry Vuitton Museum feels like the perfect metaphor for modern-day life and its infinite choices with no clear pathways. As such, it is an incredible homage to our time.

As I hoofed it back to the French offices, I found myself smiling with a renewed perspective about my professional troubles. As part of the first tier of people to ever walk through the museum, I became acutely aware that it is my century, my time that has contributed to this! Behold, despite Ferguson, global warming, terrorism, etc, etc, we are GLORIOUS. What does it matter that European bean counters were ruining my day, ruining my Paris?

We are all, them and I, part of a much grander proposition, one that stretches from the Paleolithic Caves through the Parthenon to the galaxies of the future. It is through our greatest proponents that we remember our place in the stars, even if for a moment we are stuck in squalor. It is Frank Gehry who will speak for all of us when the mundaneness of our lives is long forgotten. And who can beat that?

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