‘We have no need or desire to take on projects of this nature.’ Xavier Trias – the mayor of Barcelona.

So started the debate last week over the proposed ‘Barcelona Island’ project. A 300 meter hotel on a Dubai style artificial island off Barcelona’s coast.

Like a megalomaniac playing Sim City, the proposed project, the tallest European hotel, literally towers over the continent. Incorporating a zero gravity spa, vertical wind tunnel and space theme.

So, does outlandish spectacle architecture have a place in a modern cultural city? Buildings designed solely to attract attention. Non-conformist structures at odds with their character and surroundings, like circus big-tops shouting for our attention.

The Barcelona Island proposal is undoubtedly the extreme, however, Barcelona since the Olympics in 1992 have experienced a number of renowned and acclaimed architects all putting their own mark on this city. The latest being, the Barcelona born, Ricardo Bofill. His W hotel drew obvious comparisons to Dubai and the architectural philosophies of the ‘new’ Middle East.

Another controversial proposal at the time, it has know been generally accepted but somewhat begrudgingly by many. With it’s position now established on the new entrance of Barcelona’s port.

Photo of the W hotel by Ricardo Bofill

Examining the argument of statement design in it’s simplest form, we can evaluate two defining themes. Is there an inherent need for the structure and is the design an object of beauty?

I think the aesthetics of the new proposal, putting it politely, are clearly at odds with any philosophy local or otherwise.

And examining the demand in Barcelona it’s clear the developers lack a clear understanding of this historic city. People travel to Dubai for spectacle, grandeur, & new architecture that push the boundaries of modern conceptualisation. The ‘statement design & architecture’ in such countries accomplish this need by attracting the tourists to areas they may not necessarily have chosen to travel, prior to these attractions.

Cities such as Barcelona, however, attract attention by history, people, culture, & atmosphere. There is no inherent need, and this can be shown in the continual rise in record-breaking visitor numbers.

Anthony Vidier writes in ‘Architecture Between Spectacle and Use’

critics have accused architecture of entering too fully into the “society of the spectacle,” yielding to consumerist display, and trading its historical aims, ambitions, and obligations for celebrity and ostentation.’

Render of the future Dubai skylineOne Spanish city that has famously bucked this trend is Bilbao. The Guggenheim effect, the term coined to highlight the ripple or tidal wave of cultural popularity which washed over the city post Frank Gehry.

However, this spectacle did accomplish both basic aims. The building is magnificent and there was an inherent need, with the city of Bilbao suffering it’s industrial downturn and unable to compete aesthetically with neighbour cities, such as San Sebastian.

Photo of Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank GehryThe points so far are based on the fact we only experience some architecture visually from the exterior. Therefore if we broach the subject from inside the box, a different rhetoric can be heard.

The art critic, Hal Foster warns that such architecture detracts away from the art itself. The purist’s argument being, the art should be the spectacle not the building that houses it.

With the internal function of some of these buildings being questioned, when problems have arisen with damaged art due to unsuitable conditions.

If we therefore examine the future of the 21st century city. Forms, buildings and structures that have lasted to the current day, perhaps should be treated with more respect. The current architecture, even the mistakes of the past, could be altered, added to, rectified and improved. Creating new ‘spectacle’ architecture with the added importance of historical memory.

Or perhaps we are forgetting our own home grown extravagant successes, and when Gaudí in the 1890’s first proposed his buildings with aquatic themes and garish mosaics. Did the people at that time question his logic?

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