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Is There Still an Architectural Avant-Garde?

Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum building in Miami. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

A row of sharply creased white condo towers rises along Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard like guests at a country club in identical summer outfits. One newcomer stands out for its wide-hipped curves and thin crossed straps traversing expanses of naked glass: One Thousand Museum, one of the last works Zaha Hadid conceived before she died in 2016. This playfully bulbous 60-story creature doesn’t just stand there. It seems to shimmy, flare, and twist. Corner balconies smile. Openings gape. The shapely concrete legs look ready to break into dance, and the whole structure is so physically expressive and sexy that simply slipping into the porte-cochere feels slightly obscene.

Lively as this building is, it represents a final chapter, and not just because it was completed posthumously or the waterfront it looks out on brings threat as well as pleasure. One Thousand Museum is a late entry in a 40-year era in architectural style that’s still groping for a name. Neither deconstructivism nor parametricism has stuck as a descriptor for a dizzying range of practices that play with tilted surfaces, curving planes, fragmented façades, spectacular asymmetries, flaunted irrationalities, geological metaphors, and complex structures that defy the traditional plan and elevation. These feats of extreme architecture appear to levitate, billow, or list like a foundering ship. This is an architecture that aspires to dismantle even as it builds.

The critic Joseph Giovannini recently published Architecture Unbound, a lavishly illustrated 800-page survey that covers Hadid among an aging generation of (mostly male) wizards— Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Herzog & De Meuron, and many more, along with their forebears and heirs. Giovannini recycles an old terminological battle-ax: the avant-garde. The term is wistful. A revolution that culminates in a deluxe Miami condo has probably run its course, or is at least making room for the next upheaval. But does the concept of the avant-garde, wrenched from 19th century French military strategy, still have juice in it? Are there fresh aesthetic forces gathering explosive strength?

Giovannini (a former New York architecture critic) doesn’t answer or even address that question. He dwells in futures past and analyzes the great upwelling of spatial inventiveness first envisioned by artists in the early 20th century and given fresh urgency in the late 1960s, when young radicals attacked Euclidean geometry and the Cartesian grid, seeing them as tools of social control. In most of the urbanized world, the prevailing options for high-end architecture haven’t really changed in all those decades. Modernism lite, glass on glass, metal-panel chic, gables galore, and “industrial” chic all vie for dominance today, just as they did a generation ago. Giovannini isn’t talking about any of those but about buildings that advertise themselves as exceptions.

A key scene in his sprawling Homeric epic is the day in the 1950s when the social theorist Paul Virilio sneaked into a World War II bunker the Germans had built along the French coast. The heavy concrete box had shifted in the dunes, the gun slits gave on to open sky, and the floor slanted steeply. Virilio felt disoriented and dizzy. He reported the episode to his friend the architect Claude Parent, who answered, “Mais c’est formidable, le vertige! Il faut que je vois ça.” (“But vertigo is wonderful! This I have to see.”)

Their excitement at the possibilities suggested by a destabilized, ruined structure was so intense that it led them to form a partnership and, eventually, to organize a movement around the slanted wall and steeply raked floor. In one of those sweeping proclamations avant-gardists like to issue, Virilio declared that the vertical and horizontal axes were dead; the oblique axis would usher in a “new urban order.”

In a church that he and Parent designed together in 1966—Sainte Bernadette de Banlay, in Nevers—and in Parent’s own home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, they redefined the building not as an object to be perceived by the eye but as an experience of the human body in motion. The new architecture had to be read not by looking, but by stretching, slumping, leaning, climbing, and rolling. This delighted Parent’s children; how his older relatives felt about it is less clear. Young, able bodies would be challenged but not defeated by steep grades and a refusal of stasis: a revolutionary architecture of movement did not leave much room for infirmity.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum, by Daniel Libeskind. Photo: Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

Giovannini traces the lineage of that early epiphany over the course of a generation to large-scale projects that took shape in the aughts: Hadid’s suspended ramps in the MAXXI Museum in Rome (2010), Morphosis’s faceted-metal screen and broken-up staircases at the Cooper Union (2009), the violent discontinuities of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin (1999), and Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (2011), with its climbable roofs and juxtaposed axes. These large-scale projects were the apotheosis of an architecture Giovannini describes as “Dionysian.” Emotion, spectacle, and illusion replaced symmetry, balance, and poise.

Ironically, if architects could finally indulge their old dreams of spontaneity and intuition, it was thanks to the patient efforts of software engineers. New computerized tools responded to every creative whim. No sooner had an architect nudged the angle of a wall on a 3-D digital model than the program would automatically reposition ducts, recalculate loads, and spit out how much more steel each change implied. In the virtual world, designers could bend non-Euclidian planes with ease and translate those instructions to the construction site, allowing them to realize theoretical concepts on an immense institutional scale.

Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture, in Santiago De Compostela, Spain. Photo: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty

Toward the end of his narration (on page 717), Giovannini slips in the curious claim that as the avant-garde slipped into the mainstream, architects’ freedom to design irregular spaces promoted everyone else’s freedoms, too. Works like Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Hadid’s weightless and wavy Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, “were antimonumental monuments that eschewed the authoritarian message of official architecture and brought an antiauthoritarian message to the public sphere: architects were designing, and officials were accepting, geometries of liberation instead of geometries of control.” (Azerbaijan, incidentally, scores 1 out of 100 on Freedom House’s democracy rating, with the note “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime.”) Architects’ terminal addiction to autocratic power undermines that point, and so does the fact that Giovannini defines his terrain almost exclusively in formal terms as the product of the auteur’s visual imagination. The avant-garde doesn’t so much relinquish control as impose new forms of it. When it casts off conventions, it does so at huge expense and usually on behalf of those with the greatest control over the social order.

So what could a more genuinely progressive vanguard look like now? In the absence of a self-proclaimed platoon of revolutionaries charging into the future, I can distinguish three intertwining paths. The first emerges, like Parent’s obliques, right from Virilio’s bunker, only instead of yielding showy spectacle, it delivers a virtually invisible architecture. For the Tirpitz Museum, which opened in Jutland in 2017, Bjarke Ingels drew inspiration from a World War II concrete gun emplacement that had remained embedded along the Danish coast. Four narrow channels, cut into the dunes, meet at a sunken plaza. The museum’s four wings are illuminated from above, and the central space is open to the sky, the whole complex virtually invisible from more than a few feet away.

Historical precedents for this kind of negative architecture include the churches of Matera in Southern Italy, which are scooped out of the mountainside rather than built up stone on stone. Tirpitz is not a unique example either: Ingels carved another belowground museum out of a dry dock in Helsingør, near Copenhagen. And the Spanish firm Ensamble Studio’s Ca’n Terra recently inserted a spacious, if severe, house into the raw, machined caverns of an abandoned quarry in Menorca. This is not to suggest that in the future we will all live in caves, only that dugout one-offs like these can demonstrate how to recycle castoffs of the past. That archaeological approach can give new life to old scars: dead malls, highway overpasses, decommissioned power plants, and anywhere the violence of thoughtless construction has left a geography of opportunity.

A second strain of today’s post-avant-garde avant-garde brings fervor and urgency to bear on architecture’s environmental impact. Avant-gardes define themselves by rejecting the tyranny of the status quo. The ’68 generation vowed to cast off the grid and the T square; today’s renegades are battling the industrial supply chain, ossified regulations, and the momentum of climate change. Fighting the Establishment now means growing new, genuinely sustainable materials out of living organisms — not just timber but fungus and bacteria, too. It involves learning from traditions that bypass the global circuit of steel beams, prefabricated metal façade panels, and high-tech climate control. In recent years, the Pritzker Prize has gone to architects who work mostly in Africa (Francis Kéré), South America (Alejandro Aravena), and China (Wang Shu), and whose practices are firmly planted in local craftsmanship, frugality, and durability. The Hadid cohort produced highly specialized, hyperengineered buildings requiring fussy forms of upkeep and doomed to neglect when their purpose ebbs. The next generation of pioneers will have to develop new forms of flexibility — buildings that can be endlessly recycled, adapted, and banged back into shape.

A third promising path into radicalism lies in thinking more deeply about how people experience a building with all of their senses. The Mexico City–based Mauricio Rocha — an architect of great gifts but scant international reputation — made some major discoveries when he transformed a rubble dump into a center for the blind and visually impaired. With a meager budget and a crew of only modestly skilled masons, Rocha used tepetate, the locally abundant compacted loose volcanic stone, the textures of which provided users with a tactile guide. He designed surfaces that allowed for the vagaries of unskilled labor. “The accident is not a problem,” he says.

Visual allure wasn’t the point here, so Rocha organized a complex that can be read with the entire body and manages to be beautiful, too. A rivulet down the center of a plaza (reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California) provides an aural axis; the sound of water helps orient people who can’t see, and a pebble-dash border in the concrete floor acts as a tactile railing. Users navigate to outdoor seating areas following the cool of the shade and the smell of magnolias. Each planted zone has its own distinct botanical scent, the olfactory equivalent of color coding. This approach is virtually the opposite of Hadid’s — untheatrical, nonobvious, its complexity hidden from view. Yet which one points toward a more humane and democratic future: the curvaceous condo in Miami or the low-budget complex of muted beauty showing by example that disability can be a generative force? Boldness isn’t passé, but it will be assessed by what it accomplishes off camera. Seeing is not the only, or even the best, way of experiencing architecture.

Is There Still an Architectural Avant-Garde?