Chinese Hat, by Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban - Centre Pompidou Metz

Chinese Hat

Often I wonder if the work I am doing with this blog is ever useful or not. I like to see it as a sort of online book, but is it? The most extensive part of the work is to couple an image from the internet to a project. That means sometimes scrolling through thousands of images for the right cloud.

But as the application of iconography infiltrates architecture further – the amount iconographic projects that are being announced this year is unprecedented in architectural history –the presentation of the used iconographies change. The trend seems to focus the association of the public by presenting the image of reference - such as the presenting of the image of the Hokusai Wave by Foreign Office – or even present a collage of images in an animation – as in the case of the Watercube by PTW.

At the presentation of the Centre Pompidou Metz this week the image of the applied iconography was provided. Because the iconography of the Chinese Hat has no arguable connection to the program of the building the architect seems to have made up that he ‘found a Chinese hat on the street in Paris.’ We can laugh about that, but it is a clever pointing to the hometown of the mothership of this branch.

The second iconography is a copy of the 1776-feet iconography of the Freedom Tower in New York. The Centre Pompidou Metz will be 77 meters high, ‘alluding to the 1977 opening date of the original Centre Pompidou.’ Another underlining that this building is just a satellite. Or should we call it a ‘parasite’ that won’t survive without its host in Paris?

Shigeru Ban - Centre Pompidou Metz

Shigeru Ban - Centre Pompidou Metz, roof structure 

At the Projective Landscape Conference in the spring of this year the American architecture critic Robert Somol wondered if we could ever move beyond the notion of ‘the ironic’. The ironic seems related to critical theory and is still widely applied in critical criticism as I pointed out in the post Capitalism and Decadence. It is very tempting to point at all the ironic parts of the design by Shigeru Ban. It will make me look good, and you will enjoy it. So what’s the objection? The problem with the ironic is that it doesn’t bring us further; it is unproductive. The ironic is basically an unmasking procedure that criticizes the status quo by arguing it is dishonest, without ever proposing alternatives. Shall we do some?

The most ironic part of the design is its key feature, the roof. Is it a tent? It has a big post at its center and has a white fiberglass membrane that is covered with a coating of Teflon. Is it a dome? It has a laminated wooden hexagonal latticework. Is it a frame? The hexagonal plan features six ‘posts’ at its corners, and one big post in its center. It seems the architect could not choose a single construction-type and decided to make them all.
In architecture historical terms its ironic that a modernistic optimal structure as a tent or dome (I can not figure this building out) is deformed into a non-optimal form by poking rectangular volumes through its canvas, making round holes.
Even more ironic is the fact that the architect takes a ‘high-tech’ modernistic feature as the tent or dome that was once used to avoid representation, and now uses it to create an iconographic building and make a superficial and easy form with it that is easily consumable by the public.
Why has the ‘tent’ these round hobbit-like holes when the volumes poking through them are rectangular?
Taking a closer look at the roof-structure one finds that there are parts of the building that are more ‘holes’ than roof. In Holland there is a cheese-manufacturer that advertises with the slogan ‘the taste is in the holes’.
What does a Chinese Hat have to do with a museum building and the Centre Pompidou, why construct a Chinese thing in France?

Piling up all these ironic features of the Centre Pompidou Metz there seems to be no other conclusion that that this is a horrible building. It is basically untruthful in its structure (is it a tent, dome, or frame?), untruthful in its functionality (boxes poking holes in the tent-roof), and untruthful in its representation (a Chinese Hat for a museum).

I am curious how much of this critical criticism we will hear in the press when the building is completed in 2008. But the really ironic part is that all these untruthful features do not matter at all.

What counts at an iconographic building is its form, its per-form-ance. The Centre Pompidou Metz has beautifully complex form that is described by loads of parameters. An iconographic building is not about being truthful, being pure, being original. An iconographic building is about bullshit, plausible truths, new combinations of existing parts. Describing iconography as a ‘decoi-language’ as Rem Koolhaas did in February this year is applying critical criticism at something that is beyond the critical. Even Alejandro Zaero-Polo’s argument for more constructional truth focuses too much on being honest. Iconography equals narratives, plausible representations and composite materials and constructions. And the Centre Pompidou Metz is a grand example of this new architecture.

The project is added to the Themes and Representation pages.

Shigeru Ban - Centre Pompidou Metz

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