Art and Culture  Books 

Critical and Chronic

The Construction of Modernity

Miguel Aguiló 

The subtitle ‘A Chronicle of Architecture’ raises the question of why the author calls this compilation of writings a ‘chronicle’ instead of a ‘critique,’ given that his opinion is held in esteem within the profession worldwide. His academic trajectory and his work as the founder and editor of three prestigous international magazines warrant venturing an initial explanation.

In these Alexandrine Years there is little discussion of architecture in the abstract sense; the themes addressed are always actual buildings and their architects. There is no need to get into the lives of these, not even to mention origins, studies, or places of residence as explanations for their works, although career paths are usually outlined, when not a selection of previous projects, insofar as they are relevant. The author prefers to relate building works to news and events, whether current or remembered, and point out the trends set or reinforced by the very fact of their construction.

With this method, everything takes on its best expression: though the articles are critiques on architects and their works, the chronological order they come in throws light not on architecture as an abstraction, but on the complexity of the world we build together. Through the pages parade the most important events of those ‘Alexandrine years’ of millennium change – expectant in the first volume, uncertain in the second.

Coming month after month with a quarterly summary, the critical writings consolidate the book as a chronicle and puts the discipline on a plane closer and more graspable to readers. In making his texts more accessible, the author skirts the traditional demands of architectural criticism. He does not dwell on those distinctions so liked by theorists and urbanists, by which architecture and artists are regarded from elitist intellectual positions. We are spared the commonplaces that give architecture labels like ‘commercial,’ ‘iconic,’ or ‘quality.’ Neither does he bother with justifications or ideological affinities in defending, for buildings and cities, a theoretical model of ‘how architecture ought to be.’

And this is what enables the author to go round the more tedious levels of criticism – the hermeneutic for interpreting works, and the physiognomic for placing works in history or in comparison or contrast with others – and instead position himself comfortably on the expressive level, where he captures everything in “an image, a character, or a simple gesture.” In these essays there is no room for resentment or nostalgia. The texts do not try to prioritize, categorize, or impose aesthetic criteria or values to serve as standards, and he does not bring up ethics either. Fernández-Galiano does not need aesthetics and ethics to convey positions and preferences that are clear, put down, as they are, in terms as exact and sharp as the tip of the pencil he habitually writes with.

Such a succession of metaphors and images interspersed with quotes loaded with meaning – always from well-known sources – results in intense paragraphs that achieve highly efficient portraits. The author manages to place the creative profusion of the latest built works in the global cultural context, while reaffirming the foundations and history of the discipline in timely commemorations of deceased masters.

In March 1996, the resounding end of a whole political era warranted suggestions for stocktaking, which the author cements in a list he presents with certain distance as ‘An Accidental Canon’ but is hugely ambitious. With just five unconnected images – a museum, a sports pavilion, a railway station, a communications tower, and an office skyscraper – he is able to summarize the entire youth of Spain’s democracy. The Roman Museum in Mérida is an example of cultured and cautious regional modernization; Santa Justa Station represents the efforts to provide new connections with the AVE high-speed train lines; the Collserola Tower and the KIO Towers are seen as the two sides of the internationalization process of two Spanish metropolises, Barcelona and Madrid.

This list, from the outset described as “ambiguous, starting out luminous and unraveling in shadows,” is proposed as a model for the winners of imminent elections. In one page, built works are inserted into the country’s political course to form a synopsis and symbol of a period. In his treatise De re ædificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti established necessity as the primary reason for constructing buildings, harbors, or cities, and this remained in force until then, corroborating what is summed up in the list. But the political change weakened the bond, giving way to a use of construction that brought about the following decade’s frenzy of capricious projects.

It was truly opportune to offer this list as a synthesis of a way of understanding the built works, and at the same time to issue the warning – in November 2005, under the title ‘Advent Homily’ – that the inflation of signature architectures was diminishing the market value of spectacular constructions. A reaction was unleashed against the iconic works that in a subsequent crisis would spread to society at large. Yet Luis Fernández-Galiano does not attribute the rejection to reasons of ethics or waste, but rather to the uncontrolled proliferation of works of this kind, with the inevitable dilution of uniqueness and the damage to excellence inflicted by architects themselves, in their incapacity to maintain high standards in the projects they take on. Once again a sign of the crumbling of a certain manner of building, giving way to a period in which, simply, there is no building going on. And this sad state of affairs continues today.

Too often too late, the written word has been used as a refuge against an incapacity to understand and confront the state of the world. But this is not the case of Alexandrine Years. Highly recommendable to anyone wishing to comprehend the cultural foundations of architecture and the city, this very readable must-read presents the principal characters and episodes of the world’s construction as a portrait of what has happened in the past and a portent of what is to come.

Included Tags: