Capitalism and Decadence

Daniel Libeskind - Denver Art Museum (Photographer: Steve Crecelius/Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, NY Times)

For the 100th post on Eikongraphia I composed something to think about. Something like a mirror to look into, cabaret.

The last weeks a (Hokusai) wave of articles has been published that critique some recently finished ‘iconic’ buildings: the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris by Jean Nouvel, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, also by Jean Nouvel. I will examine here five articles that address the architecture of these iconic buildings and iconic architecture in general.

Not one of the authors discussed here introduces the term ‘iconic building’ in their articles. It seems common language. Yet how easy they all talk about it, how uneasy the iconic building makes them feel. They all criticize it. The arguments revolve around a critique on capitalism (generic consumerism, theme park urbanism) and decadence (too expensive, too impractical, not social).

Daniel Libeskind - Denver Art Museum (Photographer:, NY Times)


An iconic building is not functional. Its form produces impractical spaces.
An iconic building is badly made. Its form is too hard to make.
An iconic building is too expensive, and therefore not social.

The Denver Art Museum seems in race for the most impractical museum in history:

“And if criticizing contemporary architects for creating flamboyant museums that mistreat the art they house has become a tiresome pastime, it is overwhelmingly justified here. In a building of canted walls and asymmetrical rooms — tortured geometries generated purely by formal considerations — it is virtually impossible to enjoy the art.” […] “And unlike, say, Mr. Gehry’s best work, the structures often seem shaped entirely by their own internal logic; their relation to their function and the buildings around them seems strained or artificial.”
A Razor-Sharp Profile Cuts Into a Mile-High Cityscape.

“While most modern art can cope with all this, it is the gilt-framed art from the museum’s permanent collection that suffers most. Denver’s extensive collection is not at its best hung in a series of galleries burdened with taupe partitions, and the overall effect is dowdy.”
Better Out Than In.

“Many of the other buildings to scoop the [Sterling] prize have failed to live up to the praise heaped on them. Critics say architects have become detached from everyday life and are calling for a rethink of the prize so that buildings are judged on how well they stand up to use. Irena Bauman, a Leeds-based architect and one of the government’s design advisers, said architects had become seduced by style over substance. ‘Even iconic buildings, as Stirling buildings undoubtedly are, suffer from a host of minor defects which is forgivable. However, some of them are inadequate for their purpose. This is embarrassing in buildings receiving the highest architectural accolade in the UK.’”
The truth about those iconic buildings: the roofs leak, they’re dingy and too hot.

All buildings have defects, why blame it on the iconicity of some architecture? The right answer:

“Tony Chapman, Riba’s head of awards said the institute was considering this. “We are going to discuss it again, particularly in the context of beefing up the sustainability element of the prize. But the public is interested in architecture and in particular what’s new. It would be something of a dereliction of duty for us not to consider buildings that are new.” He added that no new building was perfect, whether a Stirling prize winner or not.”
The truth about those iconic buildings: the roofs leak, they’re dingy and too hot.

Daniel Libeskind - Denver Art Museum (Photographer:, NY Times)


An iconic building addresses the media. And media are bad. They are liars.
An iconic building pulls in tourists. It is basically a big store that is supposed to get as many visitors as possible that spend as much as possible. Capitalism is bad, consumerism is bad, tourism is bad, the iconic is bad.
An iconic building is not urban. It’s not even real. It is theme park architecture. It is world expo architecture. It is for kids and for stupid adults.

The temptation of the iconic building is suspicious. If you consume this, you are stupid.

“Architects like Nouvel contribute to that transformation. If the Guthrie Theater celebrates the city’s industrial legacy, it is also part of a familiar formula that draws on a blend of cultural institutions, convention centers, sports venues and brand-name architecture in an often desperate attempt to resurrect dying urban centers. This can turn living cities into Potemkin villages: sanitized shopping environments for the global consumer. […] In creating a strong visual link between his big blue boxes of the Guthrie and the industrial landscape that surrounds it, for example, Nouvel is making an aesthetic statement as well as asserting a cultural vision that, like the mass productions of an assembly-line age, is for and of the masses. That romantic, populist message is reinforced by the enormous cantilevered form that projects out from the building’s facade more than 175 feet toward the river.”
If You Build It, Will They Come?

“Both the new Guthrie and the expanded Walker aggressively seek to engage the urban context around them. They present a similar antidote to the insularity of cities whose main public space is often the mall: the city as public spectacle.” […] “Their success will largely be determined by whether it is possible to wed their aesthetic aims to a larger urban purpose, and, more pointedly, by whether it is possible to manufacture urban diversity through aesthetic diversity.”
If You Build It, Will They Come?

“[Denver], eager to mark itself out as a cultural destination midway between the two poles of LA and New York, has embraced Libeskind. He, in turn, is threatening to turn Denver into a personal theme park. He has built an apartment building next to the museum, and he has been commissioned to create plans to redevelop a large chunk of the civic centre - plans that have so far generated more hostility than anything else. But Denver has got what it wanted: a famous architect who has delivered a unique, striking building that will attract visitors away from the coasts.”
Better Out Than In.

“The new plaza is a well-worn formula: museums, shops and a loftlike apartment complex, also designed by Mr. Libeskind, that are intended to manufacture an instantly vibrant street life.”
A Razor-Sharp Profile Cuts Into a Mile-High Cityscape.

“Musée Branly makes you question the whole concept of starchitects. It’s been designed in the manner of a World’s Fair pavilion. By that I mean it’s a hey-look-at-me-I’m-an-architect building, intended to grab your attention by upstaging everything around it.” […] “You have to wonder how starchitects become starchitects on the basis of such track records. Part of it is the media’s joy in creating people who are famous for being famous. Looking at the Branly, we should get off the media bandwagon and admit that once again in this case, the emperor has no clothes.”
Paris museum is no work of art. At the new Branly, Nouvel’s concept obscures contents.

Different authors point to the architecture of World Exhibitions as the paradigm for this iconic architecture. I mentioned this connection before and it is surprising that Charles Jencks has overlooked this connection in his book ‘The Iconic Building.’

The answer to all the failures of the iconic building: the modern box. (It even looks like critical architecture)

“If there is a project that revives one’s faith in the ability of architecture — in its purest form — to have lasting impact on how we experience our cities, it is the recently completed Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art [that is designed by Sanaa]. […] Its low form is composed of a series of curving glass walls, creating the occasional illusion that it is dissolving into its surroundings. Yet it is also a perfect work of art, one of the most delicately conceived I have seen in years. The layers of glass create a series of interstitial spaces that are used to regulate the climate inside the building. These cavities also create the illusion that you are constantly sliding between spaces that you can see but cannot enter, which gives them an added seductive pull. The entire composition has been placed within its garden setting with exquisite care, just off axis from the art museum across the street, as if the architects’ aim were to not disrupt the surrounding cityscape.
The pavilion is proof that a single architectural moment, created out of the deepest sense of humility, can have an impact more resonant than a major planning campaign. It reminds us that there are greater urban values than an endless cycle of consumption. And it begins to create a sense of place within the larger fabric of the city, something that to an architectural tourist may be more important than where you can buy a handbag.”
If You Build It, Will They Come?

Daniel Libeskind - Denver Art Museum (Photographer: Steve Crecelius/Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, NY Times) Daniel Libeskind - Denver Art Museum (Photographer: Daniel Libeskind Architect, NY Times)

This is all bullshit. Personally I think all these arguments are false and cheap. The arguments come from a generation of critical critics (as opposed to projective critics) with their typical ‘if you consume, you are stupid’ rhetoric. But everybody consumes and everybody is happy with it and all these critics all happily consume with us. Everybody loves these iconic buildings, everybody visits them, and the critics happily go there to write about them.

Capitalism and decadence are to a certain extend favorable, especially when combined into art, such as iconic architecture. I am not arguing for an uncritical capitalism. I do however think the arguments that are put forward here too cheap and old fashioned. It seems that if a museum doesn’t resemble a white box critics have a ‘carte blanche’ or should I say ‘tabula rasa’ to hit on it. That is just conservatism. Furthermore I think these critics overrate functionality, while they should have written about experiences and emotions. And last but not least I think that every contribution to a livelier city life is welcome. And among the best contributions seems to me a museum. Why insist on the supposed fakeness of it, and not applaud it?

A personal note on decadence: the NY-based Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg quoted me last week on the subject on his blog.

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