The Bilbao Effect: Architecture of Pattern Interruption?

Preamble: this essay about architecture isn't just about architecture; neither is architecture just about architecture.

I generally don't like saying "no" to reality but in this case I'll break my own pattern and resist a trend. But before I get in the way of this pendulum swing, some context. The ouroboros snake of architecture, that's been chasing form with function and function with form, is once again shedding its skin. In Cathleen McGuigan's Newsweek article "Starchitecture: A Modest Proposal" we learn, from the mouth of Rob Rogers, a partner at Rogers Marvel in New York, that the profession of architecture is on an economic diet and "has to cut back, regrow, and reimagine what it is we're all supposed to do." McQuigan explains that "the Bilbao Effect," the trend of building "extravagant, eye-popping" trophy buildings, is over. The pendulum of architectural change appears to be swinging from form to function, from iconic, identity-building architecture towards more functional, more sustainable building. In sum, "In: clean and green. Out: all those pointless pointy tops."

I have a bit of a problem with this either/or (either form/or function) mentality. Let me, first, state this loud and clear: I am all for "clean and green." I am just not so sure about the presumed pointlessness of the pointy tops. Let me explain. I believe that "the Bilbao Effect" is a bit misunderstood. "The Bilbao Effect" is pattern-interruption architecture, i.e. architecture of awakening. You see, mind thrives on clichés, patterns, stereotypes and schemas. Mind likes the same reality cereal for breakfast. So, when the mind stumbles upon the unfamiliar, it chokes and wakes up. Intentional pattern-interruption, as a method of therapy or architecture, surprises the mind-curmudgeon, and, in so doing, leverages presence and mindfulness. Understood as such, Bilbao-effect buildings, in general, and Frank Gehry's buildings, in particular, aren't iconic but iconoclastic, not just pointless slippery slopes of architectural excess but arrestingly provocative challenges to our incessant search for the point of something. Gehry-like architects are daring rascal sages that use form to organize sublime head-on collisions with essence. I don't really know if the Gehrys of architecture consciously operate as the zen masters of landscape but I know this: each Bilbao, on some level, is an architectural koan, and just like a koan, its pointlessness is the very point at which form meets function.

Elsewhere I read that Gehry "declared his independence from the angular" and that he "embarked on adventurous architecture of [...] forms that had no precedent." Good for him and good for us. Independence from the architecturally angular is independence from psychologically linear. Architecture of adventure is architecture of openness. Sure, "green and clean" is logistically pragmatic. But what is emotionally pragmatic is a bit of freedom from pragmatism. Consider Bilbao-effect (not necessarily, Bilbao-style) buildings not as pointless architectural excess but as existentially relevant topographical alarm-clocks for urban consciousness. Indeed, when you look at a building and you don't see one, you see the seer, the witness, the very you in the process of making sense of seeming architectural nonsense. Admittedly, Bilbao-effect, like all meditation, is a means to its own end, an essential opportunity for a rats-race mind to chase its own tail of self-referencing introspection.

Here's my own immodest architectural proposal: each borough needs an architectural ouroboros. No, not some eye-popping dinosaur obelisk of size-worship but something mind's-eye-popping. Stated differently: "Out: mindlessly-conspicuous consumption of form. In: mindful marriage of form, function and pattern interruption."

In sum, I heartily welcome the "green and clean" vision of future architecture. But might we also preserve the invaluable culture of pattern-interruption architecture that, upon encounter, wipes the mind's slate of preconceived notions clean? Economically-responsible clean-up of the environment best begins with mind-detox.

"Starchitecture: a Modest Proposal," Cathleen McGuigan, Newsweek, June 21, 2010
"Great Buildings of the World," Time, 2010