Architecture is not necessarily in bad taste when it enchants its viewers. In search of contemporary glamour and glitter in architecture.

“It was a stupid idea to purchase Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat”, thought Louis XIV. Sitting on a Wassily chair, he languidly twisted the curls of his wig and gazed at the room with its perfect proportions. He simply couldn’t get used to its cubic austerity, enlivened only by onyx marble and Macassar ebony. Furnished with Le Corbusier chairs and Haller shelves, it was the most perfect style of interior design the wealthy could afford themselves today, or so his friend Walter Gropius had claimed.

No doubt the Bauhaus founder was right to dissuade him from buying the “Petit Palais” by Harald Glööckler. That counterfeit pomp, offering less well-to-do people the illusion of buying an upper-class environment, would have cost less than 400,000 Euros. But a detached house decorated with elements of historic style would not have fulfilled his longing for beauty in perfect form either! But at least he agreed with the highly-strung designer on one point: today’s buildings lack glamour and glitter, decorations and zest for life! Formerly, during his reign, he had done everything to promote all genres of art and blur their boundaries. This was the only way for him to create a total illusionary space in Versailles which reflected his power. But what had happened to the joy of enchantment? Sullenly, he began to study the magazines Walter had given him, in order to familiarize himself with the contemporary art of building.

“Glamour is experiencing a renaissance in today’s cultural industry!”, it said there. He read on with growing interest. It was creating a new type of aristocrats who demanded spectacular dream castles, leading towards a pseudo-nobility, an architectural theorist named Prof. Gerd de Bruyn wrote under the title of “The quality of subtle glamour in buildings. What is architecture?” The article advocated austerity in forms and opposed deconstructivist building design. The latter was but a new spendthrift culture, a mixture of rococo with the pop scene. The artistic appearance of the facade was more important than the functional core of the building packaged by it, the forms were so bold that they encouraged press publicity hype and mass tourism.

Bah – that text struck him as inspired by Puritans, but the aristocrat of the old school was fascinated by the pictures! Immense buildings in fanciful forms such as he had never seen before! Intrigued, he looked at the giant, strangely formed sculptures, some curved, some jagged, sometimes playful and some with dynamic shapes. Many had a metallic skin which glittered and refracted the sunlight, or they stood out, bathed in light in a great variety of forms and colours. Names of architects were dropped such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid or Herzog de Meuron. “So there are still people who find pleasure in creative design after all”, the king thought, relieved by the pictures of elegantly shaped opera houses, museums and sports arenas. “As completely different as these buildings are, they are bound to dominate the style of contemporary building construction”, he concluded, but then he stopped short when he read: The expressionism of forms follows the technical possibilities – thanks to digital technology and newly developed building materials. “Democracy really gets everything mixed up! In the baroque era, prestigious buildings exalted the rulers, or God – today they seem to worship technology! Does that explain the mostly white dreariness of their interiors?”

… today they seem to worship technology!”

He leafed through the magazines eagerly, when his eye was caught by the picture of a building surrounded by the sea, in whose rooms the refracted light dazzles and glitters. The caption commented: “From a distance, the dark facade of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM) looks like a wrinkled sponge. But the closer you get, the more delicate and ornamental it becomes – until you discover the actual building behind it, a plain glass cube.” The caption below the exterior view read: “The outer layer made of concrete arabesques clothes and shades the facade, but also offers a spectacular play of light with the sun’s rays, water reflection and facade form elements. Depending on light and moisture, the facade sometimes looks black, sometimes blue, sometimes light grey.” Inspired by this picture, the king’s mind wandered away from what he was reading, he dreamt of the Port Royal he had built himself and ordered the loopholes on the port to be bricked up on the side facing the city …

The play of light and shadow as an engineering masterpiece! “From the 1950s/1960s onwards, the contemporary style culminated in a simplification terror, which is degenerating into the pornographic imperialism of the minimalists. I much prefer the sensual pleasure of Mannerist expression! I am interested in exploring the narrative limits in all buildings, semantically as well as technically”, says the architect Rudi Ricciotti, who understands the museum explicitly as a protest against the moral lead caps of modern style. The play of light and shadow originates primarily from an innovative technique of building with concrete. The ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC) used withstands a pressure of 3t/cm², which is five times more than conventional concrete. It has been on the market for 20 years, but this is the first building made completely of this material. The Ricciotti bureau carried out eleven technical tests to explore new territory in building construction. Here, a wider span, a smaller cross-section of supports and lighter weight are revolutionizing the design vocabulary of concrete, while creating a building to fit both its function and its environment!

The king thought: “Buildings may come with a certain amount of enchantment if they are based on technical innovation. But what has become of the glamorous play with ornaments which used to highlight the structure of baroque buildings?” Here, too, he found answers in an article: Abundance or something superfluous? Since Alfred Loos, ornaments have been regarded as superfluous crimes; but according to the British art historian Ernst Gombrich, they are a basic phenomenon of humanity across all styles and eras. Their function is to superimpose another order on the existing order of a body, object or building and generate a decoration process with grain, patterns, forms, colours, etc. Over the style epochs prior to modern times, the decoration phenomenon escalated to grotesque dimensions. It was radically censored by classicism and virtually eradicated by contemporary styles through reduction to natural material patterns. But just as every human being chooses between nudism, practical clothing and all facets of fashion when deciding what to wear, every architect is also free to make his own choice!

Is it permissible to alter beautiful buildings at will? Is there a need for something more than plain functionality? The answer of the Berlin architect Christoph Langhof is “Yes”. He is one of the rare species of architects who vary their manner of design according to the context and tasks of the building project. In some cases, seamless integration is required, and eye-catching extravagance in others. “Ornaments are architectural stylistic devices which help to set deliberate highlights, to build up tensions and to create symbols in the urban environment. Unfortunately, they are hopelessly undervalued these days”, he explains. Beside the text, an expressionist-cubic object and a residential and commercial building are shown in predominantly minimalistic form. The caption reads: “Corporate headquarters Berlin Waterworks. The small building stands out against its neighbour, which is ten times as large, its unusual facade makes it recognizable as a Management Board residence”, and “Classicon on Leipziger Platz: the ornamented aluminium cassettes have allowed wide window fronts prohibited by restrictive building regulations.” They look continuous from the outside and are translucent from the inside. To comply with the building regulations, the windows have been arranged in projections and recesses to give the base part a vertical structure, and a rhythmic play of shadows.

“Sculptural forms, light and shadow, the aura of materials, facade ornaments where appropriate – the contemporary glamour kit is not opulent. But is interior decorating equally mute?”, the promoter of fine arts asked himself, while starting to peruse a stack of Architectural Digest magazines. What actually was the explanation the AD editor Andreas Kühnlein had once given him? “We also show a lot of glamour, but hopefully no kitsch! Interior design is all about working with contrasts, materials, shapes and highlights. It is the art of combination, dramatic production and attention to detail – here the wheat is separated from the chaff!”

His astonishment grew with every new page! Interior design seemed to offer an abundance of options: “If architecture is simultaneously a science and an art, there can be no doubt about who is responsible for the playful pleasure of creativity! Unadorned as the facades may be, the interiors are alive!” he thought and felt how this tastefully designed abundance of colour, patterns and accessories inspired him when he looked at the spiral-shaped Nautilus house. It grows out of the ground like a flower, just as if it could not be otherwise! A colourful glass window illuminates the social areas on the ground floor, the living areas are located in the spiral and create an experience of the fourth dimension’s dynamism. Beside it, other organically structured pieces of architecture designed by the Mexican Xavier Senosiain are shown. His works have names such as Mexican Whale, Serpent or Shark. Their organically flowing forms have been copied from the animals in a way both artistic and practical; colourful facades and walls decorated with mosaics are a must. “People are still building with imagination, zest for life and decoration not separated from the structure of buildings after all!”, Louis XIV remarked with some relief, but immediately afterwards he found an example of minimalistic glamour carried to extremes by the Swedish architects Claeson, Konvisto, Rune in their “Apartment With Brass Cube”. The altar-like, glamorously shining working block emanates monumental radiance in contrast to the wooden vestibule and white kitchen; in the bathroom, a minimalistic lamp in front of the blue-and-white, Delft-style tiles crowns the round shape of the bath tub. Clear symbols that radiate all the more strongly in their sparsely furnished environment. “Glamour moves from the outside to the inside, sometimes the Protestants seem to get the upper hand, sometimes the Catholics”, the monarch thought.

“ …the contemporary glamour kit is not opulent!”

What fascinated him most were the hotels. They follow a trend of design which enchants people! He saw historizing styles from all epochs, rooms with an oriental, Asian or African touch, but also modern arrangements full of different patterns and shapes. He attentively read a series of articles about designers currently commissioned by the rich and beautiful – to create grand hotels or private residences. One of them is Kelly Wearstler. In her home country, she is known as a modern classic, in Germany she is virtually unknown. Spellbound, he looked at the rooms designed in turquoise, aqua blue and gold. Bold patterns dominate the scene, bleached wood and fresh marble create a calm atmosphere, totem pole-like sculptures set highlights, and the furniture comes in organic forms. The caption comments: “Fresh splendour from the 1970s: at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, Kelly Wearstler has brought in a fresh breeze of design, without betraying the retro-nostalgic roots of the hotel from the 1950s.” “Life without colour is like life without love”, the designer proclaims, and judging from her rooms, the need for love is great! Her style is characterized by explosive colours, bold patterns, metallic highlights and sculptural forms. In America she is known as an interior designer who has revived the glamour of Hollywood; Kelly Wearstler herself claims to be a modernist who keeps providing fresh gusts of wind in design. Outstanding design is the perfect mixture of tension and drama, fun and unexpected combinations. Accordingly, her credo in design is: ”Have the courage to take risks!” And that courage has risen with time and knowledge about antiquities, the use of materials and the organisation of projects. She has been engaged in the interior design of luxury hotels and private residences for 13 years.

“In modern design, ornaments and decorations were abolished as mere gimmickry, but interior designers seem to be bringing them back”, the monarch stated before he started to read the second report: Design as a means of enticement! It may be a paradox, but the García style is regarded as an epitome of modern luxury. After all, it is the glamour of past epochs which the French designer Jacques García brings back to us in grand hotels and private residences. He plays masterfully with the style elements of different eras, his time travel into the past is deceptively authentic, giving preference to the 18th and 19th centuries. From early childhood, he has been a lover of castles and flea markets. His list of references contains names such as the Sultan of Brunei, the Tea Room Ladurée or the Hôtel Costes. One of the secrets of his success is the “lumière obscure”. García likes to design hotels in a way that makes men eager to seduce a woman! “The reconstructions are quite authentic”, Louis XIV thought when he looked at the hotels in 16th-century style, but the photographic path to the Hotel La Marmounia inspired him: it had captured the fragrance of Morocco! At the La Marmounia, Moorish architecture has been united with oriental opulence – majestic corridors, interior courtyards surrounded by columns, filigree stucco and mosaic floors; walls have been shifted to create alcoves and thus the “niches for retreat” which are popular in Morocco. Dim lighting and soft curtains enhance the revitalized mysticism.

Louis scrutinized his villa carefully: “No wonder that the birth rates are declining! No private rooms, too harsh lights, and no encouragement for pleasure in celebrating either! There is no doubt that the ancient times had more glamour and more soul, but should we simply imitate them? That cannot be the solution.” He turned once more to the magazine, and like an answer to his question, his eyes came to rest on the Andaz Hotel in Amsterdam. “Urban history, clothed in modern design!” is Marcel Wanders’ motto for the Andaz Hotel in Amsterdam. The Dutch designer’s unofficial objective was to combine creative fun with functionality and inspiring features. His design focuses on the Golden Age of the Netherlands, Delft ceramics, his own original designs such as the Big Ben clock, and, of course, surreal elements. Best example: the lobby. The carpet depicts astral constellations, the installation on the ceiling is a tribute to ancient models of astronomy, the oversized bells enveloping the chandeliers contribute a surrealistic touch. Lost in thought, the founder of baroque put down the magazine: “With deconstructivism, architecture seems to have found its epochal language, but an equally clear directive of style is still missing in interior design.”

Walter Gropius was quite surprised when he entered the Villa Tugendhat three months later. The king was sitting at the table with a huge sketch plan in front of him and collages from all epochs of architecture on the walls. “There are definitely some hopeful talents – they may come good with further polishing! I have already founded the Académie de Peinture 2.0”, he announced to his friend in answer to his questioning look. “Let us build a new Versailles, to secure a place in architecture for glamour and glitter forever!” With a sigh, Walter sank into the Wassily chair, on whose backrest floral sample cards had been accumulated.

“With deconstructivism, architecture seems to have found its epochal language …”

Text: Rahel Willhardt, rahelw@visvisio.com
Photos: wikipedia.org, Zaha Hadid Architects, London, Lisa Ricciotti, Christoph Langhof,
Xavier Senosiain, Hotel La Mamounia, Jacques Garcia, Hotel Andaz, Marcel Wanders