Present day institutional critique has met with a forceful opponent; the tendency for a scaled-up architecture. With every new building project revealed by Piano, Gehry or OMA, the voices of individual artists get lost further in the massive, flexible voids they create. Alarm bells sound with cinematic suspense, a script of mobility.
Lafayette Anticipationis an offshoot of Galeries Lafayette, Paris. It opens its doors between the window displays in the direct vicinity of the Centre Georges Pompidou. This area, called Le Marais, is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city and its architecture is protected by a heritage preservation plan. It appears in a courtyard, adjacent to a renovation project of one of Galeries Lafayette’s historical properties: a former industrial, five storey, U-shaped courtyard building, erected in 1891. The Rotterdam-based OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture was responsible for the design that is now referred to as the “exhibition tower”. The exhibition tower accommodates the production and presentation of contemporary art, as well as design and fashion. For the time being it is concealed behind the late nineteenth-century façade of Lafayette’s warehouse but when its mystery is revealed, the adoption of a new art institute by the Parisians is soon to be a fait accompli.
It is about time I drew my favourite card of destruction and say that every silver lining has a cloud. The exhibition tower is a space where those mixed feelings that have grown so intimately attached to the reception of contemporary art are condensed. There is something about its promise, the utopia of its adaptability that evokes this sceptical tone within me. I just have the feeling that an incredulous plan like that is a work of fiction. Its megalomania would never work in reality. I am being asked to suspend my disbelief on a scale that is exceeding the limits of my reality.
I am on the second floor behind the safety fence, looking at the people passing through to Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie below. The chequered stage upon which Ulla von Brandenburg’s Rise Up Mountain, Sink Down Valley (2015) is being performed reminds me how the tower is lying to me and its adjacent building, by pretending that it has always been there.1 It claims that a potential that was not there before has come to meet the public eye, like a woman who just got herself breast implants at a plastic surgeon. The tower claims that not only the appearance of the warehouse is changed by the extension, but that the potential of its body is enhanced by it too.
A late nineteenth century industrial building will be refurbished for Fondation d'Entreprise Galeries Lafayette to house exhibition and production spaces, with a focus on creation, innovation and research. OMA proposes to insert an exhibition tower into the courtyard of the building in which two sets of mobile platforms will offer a large repertoire of spatial configurations; the programmatic flexibility provided will increase the potential of the existing building. A production centre at the heart of the site underpins the Foundation, while the ground floor becomes a passage connecting Rue du Plâtre to Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie and hosts the public programs.2
It is hard for any cultural building to shape itself after the vagaries of contemporary art. It requires an appreciation of the idea that art’s nature is yielding. Mobility, you could say, is a condition intrinsic to a work of art. Instead of creating flexibility, those moving platforms proposed are more useful to me as experiments, pulling the strings; trying to find the point in which mediation stretches art beyond its elasticity span. Pang! I am in the middle of an open plan space that is the size of a hangar or even bigger. It facilitates many disciplines, all kinds of activities; from exhibiting classical paintings to hosting a book fair, a performance festival, some kind of virtual experience or a theatre play. Hybridity is the standard format here; designed to grow in the passages built through, under and over the entrance, reaching out to me, a passer-by.
The premise of flexibility lives in the pockets of Archdaily’s news flashes. “The Whitney asked for a performance space which could work for drama, dance, film and banquets and still change back to a fine arts gallery when required,” says Steven Rust, project manager of Theatre Projects, in an attempt to explain their goal to give the Whitney the ability to adjust the acoustic properties of the room for any event it might host, whether it’s acoustic or electrified music, film, performance art, and beyond.3 The work of art morphs in front of me, recalling Mystique the super villain. Superpowers: shape shifting, superhuman agility and reflexes, agelessness and accelerated healing factor. This shape shifting between the old and the new takes place in plain sight. Every culturally relevant building will have been subjected to it through exhibitions like Cronocaos, mounted in museums or visitor centres, public tours, architectural histories geared toward legal designation, illumination schemes, websites, conservation management plans, and other such designs.4
It’s agonizing that while not so long ago ‘the museum’ was a point of departure for many artists to transform and appropriate, the flexibility of today’s museums is being swallowed as a prefab. In this readymade, ‘playful’ exhibition space, artists can focus on the production of their own work. They don’t have to ask themselves what they want and need as everything they might ever want and need is already being served to them as a gift and a curse.
Rem Koolhaas must have read my mind when he stated that “new architectures are each, from the moment they are realized, on their way to obsolescence.”5 The sustainability of the construction, together with its promise of the future would almost make us forget that obsolescence is a cultural mode of perceiving architecture, and that in order to overcome obsolescence, the exhibition space should be continuously supplemented to keep up with artists.
The site is located in Le Marais, in the heart of Paris, surrounded by artists, craftsmen, ateliers and workshops. This area, in immediate proximity of the Centre Pompidou, is one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city and its distinctive architecture is protected by a heritage preservation plan. The project is based around the renovation of one of Groupe Galeries Lafayette’s historical properties—a former industrial building, erected in 1891 by the founder of BHV department store. The five-storey, U-shaped, courtyard building offers an elegant industrial façade on Rue du Plâtre, while at the rear a covered public passage provides access to the neighboring Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie.
In February 2009, at Columbia University, Koolhaas clarified that preservation is a refuge for OMA to escape from Starchitecture.6 His speech took place in the wake of the mortgage crisis of 2008 in which gigantic financial institutions collapsed. Newspaper headlines were announcing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Koolhaas was not just distancing himself from stardom in his speech, he was also distancing himself from his association with the captains of global finance, and any associations that the OMA might have had with their self-serving and socially irresponsible practices. Koolhaas’ statement is inherent to a manifesto that was put together by artist/architect/preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos.7 Otero-Pailos points out that “in the mid-1980s it was still possible to propose new architecture as an equivalent substitute to historic buildings” but that “by the start of the twenty-first century, that argument was inconceivable in part because of the rise of preservation as an arbiter of architecture’s cultural significance.”8 Otero-Pailos elaborates on the role of preservation as a medium and the way it can operate through the building, light, sound, recorded lectures, smells, videos, websites, journals, legal frameworks and other media.9 Within the context of Otero-Pailos’ text, it is tempting to think of the exhibition tower in relation to the idea that the total demolition of any historical building to make way for new architecture seems unthinkable, even barbaric.10 A preservationist is more likable than an architect, let’s say. Like OMA’s renovation of the old Riga power station that Otero-Pailos takes as an example, this exhibition tower retreats into preservation and claims it a safe origin, for it would have been culturally unacceptable to simply call the design of the exhibition tower a new building, a new institute, even if it radically transforms the identity of the warehouse to a point beyond recognition. We’re back to the implant.
The nineteenth century building will be fully preserved, cleaned and restored to its initial state, and a new exhibition tower will be inserted to fill the footprint of the courtyard (ca.100m²). The tower will feature two mobile floors that can each split into two unequal parts, thus creating four independent platforms. Using on-board motorisation, the platforms will move along a rack and pinion system, to align to the various existing floor levels. Accessible from the original openings onto the courtyard, the new exhibition spaces of the tower will extend and articulate the existing spaces; the mobile floors offer a new curatorial dimension, complementing the traditional use of the preserved structure.
Last October, Otero-Pailos wrote an article for the 66th edition of e-flux journal. In his text “Monumentaries: Towards a Theory of the Apergon” he discusses the neologism “monumentaries” as a way to look at the modification of historical buildings in comparison to making cinematic documentaries.11 He proposes to understand certain historical buildings not merely as documents of the past but to also acknowledge how they can express a contemporary vision. Otero-Pailos claims that this bond between monuments and documentaries is made in the moment that a preservationist adds a supplement to a historical building.12] The theatre stage is brought to the front by Otero-Pailos as a relative of the supplement in preservation architecture. He proposes the following to curatorial practice: the more obvious it is that a supplement was artificially added to an authentic piece, the more space is created for suspense and disbelief.13
My gaze literally suspended, the exhibition tower slows down its satisfaction. As a supplement, the tower keeps me occupied between the two functions of the space I find myself in—department store and exhibition space, negotiating the amorphous and the conclusive. I get nauseous when I imagine how the platforms below me are continuously rising up and sinking down like von Brandenburg’s play. Young children jump inside of elevators, to get a micro sense of free fall. And then I wonder; if the mobile platforms were frozen in any position, how would I know that this institution is constantly in motion?
Located in the basement is a production centre for the arts, a fundamental component of the institution, where invited artists conceive and build their projects. This, combined with the exhibition tower will trigger new ideas and new works; artists will develop projects according to a selected arrangement of the mobile platforms. The total area of the building is 2500 m2.