Of Balloon Dogs and Chantarelles
Written for Muoto Magazine 2005
When the average Finn is asked to name the most beautiful building in their home town, the answer is usually a house in the jugend style, a Finnish variation of art nouveau. More often than not, the facades of the buildings are decorated with images of animals, bears and frogs. Yet there is no place for animals or any other recognisable figures in the world of sleek, modern architecture. Why is this? Kivi Sotamaa muses whether representation could make an architectural comeback.
If one wants to illustrate the extremes of contemporary architecture, I believe Robert Somol’s simile is the most apt. I went to hear a lecture by the California architect where he claimed that architects are either james bonds or jimmy bonds. Who’s Jimmy, you ask? He’s the spoof character played by Woody Allen in the 1967 spy parody film Casino Royale. Jimmy Bond is a ne’er-do-well secret agent, for whom even the most mundane things become incredibly complicated. In his lecture, Somol jokingly compared Jimmy to the American architect Peter Eisenman, for whom complexity seems an end in itself. Eisenman wants the public to “read” the intricate aesthetic of his buildings, to recognise their geometrical allusions and signs of the creative process. His architecture is difficult, and intended to seem so.
The polar opposite of Jimmy is the famous James, who can smoothly glide from life-threatening underwater conflicts to cocktail parties with a suaveease. For Somol, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is James Bond. The diagrammatic logic structure and form of his buildings make perfect sense. Here, complexity appears simple.
Somol’s lecture inspired me to question what makes architecture “easy” or “difficult”. My own suggestion for the architectural 007 would be Frank O. Gehry. His works are astoundingly complex, rich in colour and varying in materials, and yet they are very approachable, and have gained great popularity among “regular folks”. In this sense, I feel that Gehry with his wider “fan base” makes a better Bond than Koolhaas, who’s mostly appreciated by experts and aficionados of the field. The hordes of admirers flocking to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles prove that the presumption “contemporary=difficult, classic=easy” is wrong.
The secret to Gehry’s accessibility lies in the representational element present in his work. The surface of the Guggenheim billows like loose fabric - something Gehry also explored for his Lewis House project, which was never realised. The lines of his “Fish” sculpture in Barcelona mimic piscean forms. Paradoxically, the figurative elements of the works divert attention from analysing the building itself, since their meanings are so obvious. The directness of the allusions gives a possibility for the viewer to concentrate on the spatial and atmospheric dimensions of the building without struggling to “understand” the work and find hidden meanings for incomprehensible shapes.
Figurativity is a traditional aspect of Finnish design. The National Romantic Movement in the beginning of the 20th century brought figures from the animal and vegetable kingdom into architecture and design. This trend was, of course, pan-European, with Antoni Gaudi and Victor Horta decorating their buildings in Barcelona and Brussels with representational ornaments in the spirit of art nouveau.
Modernism, despite its stark minimalist aesthetic, couldn’t shake representation from Finnish design. Tapio Wirkkala in particular used figurative elements in an innovative way. His glass works Chantarelle and Leaf immediately communicate their message to the viewer. In examining Chantarelle, the mind isn’t bogged down by semantic analysis and is free to contemplate the glass itself; its shape, form, reflections on its surface, the diffusion of light. Thus, with a minor leap of logic, it could be claimed that figurativity makes it possible for a work to be considered emotionally, not just academically. The most astounding example of this power of representational art is the American contemporary artist Jeff Koons. His huge metal sculptures of dogs and flowers are nearly exact replicates of the balloon animals we all know from children’s parties. The only difference is the weight, as Koons’ sculptures weigh tons. Straightforward figurativity removes the need to interpret the works while the balloon imagery functions with the general aesthetic and reflecting surfaces to heighten the illusion of weightlessness.
The actual process of making the sculptures has demanded astonishing technological and technical know-how and a tremendous amount of work, but the effort is not apparent to the viewer. Instead, Koons seduces the viewer with the incredible, sensuous shapes and colours, and invites us to see ourselves and our surroundings reflected on the shiny surface. For me, Koons is the real James Bond. He’s a hero who can make a huge effort seem as easy as tipping a martini glass. My first encounter with one of his quirky three-metre-high dogs in a gallery in New York convinced me of the renewed possibility for representation in architecture as well. Who wants to be Jimmy Bond if you could be James?