When does news become history? Considering the current threat of climate change, I often wonder if a historical vision will survive the 21st century; but if it does, those concerned with what happened in architecture during the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st would be wise to consult Luis Fernández-Galiano’s two-volume Chronicle of Architecture. He calls the set Alexandrine Years, an arcane reference to the number of years under consideration, 1993-2006, which matches the classical Alexandrine metrics of premodern poetry. While this simile is a bit beyond my cursory recall of iambic pentameter, the title of each volume works more directly. Volume one, The Age of Spectacle, with a picture of Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and volume 2, The Age of Uncertainty, with the iconic image of the flaming World Trade towers in New York City, function as invitations to consider if the times we have lived through can be considered in terms of a Zeitgeist. Where this brilliant wordsmith, whom I should probably call ‘Super-Luis,’ finds the time to teach at the university, run two major magazines, and for 14 years write a substantial weekly column for Spain’s leading newspaper, is beyond my comprehension. He has an extra source of energy along with a very well-balanced mind. I apologize for writing this assessment of his work in the first person, but I cannot hide the fact that I have known and admired Fernández-Galiano for 30 years and have frequently been involved in his editorial and media events. So while I am not unbiased, and indeed dread offending him by making poor judgments about his endeavor, I also know that by habit he will disagree with almost anything I say, in a collegial manner, and then find some glaring error in my factual iterations. This method of accepting while countermanding comes from his strict Jesuit education, combined with his lifetime pursuit to continue the grand Enlightenment project of Denis Diderot toward universal knowledge.
Fernández-Galiano wrote many of his weekly articles for the liberal newspaper El Pais in response to current events like political scandals, economic trends, new exhibitions, prizes awarded, and natural or military disasters. The aforementioned Guggenheim Museum merits no less than three major articles as one of the most newsworthy architectural events of the age. Here we learn of the project as the regional Basque government’s investment in changing the economic status of a declining port city while seeking to overcome its history of terrorism, and here the author uses some of the finest hyperboles applied to architecture that I have ever read. The article ‘Hosanna Guggenheim,’ which should become a classic source for anyone hoping to be an architectural critic, is laced with the correct portions of culture and politics, beginning with a reference to the Brecht-Weill ‘Bilbao Song’ he surmises: “The generosity of the Basque government has made it possible for the Californian Frank Gehry to build a colossal sculpture that competes physically and symbolically with Wright’s, a frozen tempest of titanium recalling a tycoon of copper in a city of iron.”
While the collection is understandably Hispanocentric, Eurocentric, and shall I dare to say ethnocentric, Fernández-Galiano seeks to understand the extent to which theories and models of architecture affect the contemporary setting. His interests veer from his hometown Madrid, about which he is usually horribly disappointed, to the prime public works and housing projects of Catalonia, Galicia, and Andalusia. Rafael Moneo, at this time the only Spanish winner of the Pritzker Prize, receives a large share of his praise for works like the Mérida Museum, the Fundació Miró in Mallorca, and the Kursaal in San Sebastián. As a historian he is keen to remind us of the ingenuity of modern Spanish structuralist architects of the 1950s, such as Miguel Fisac and Alejandro de la Sota, while daring to consider the well-designed new towns built during Franco’s dictatorship. But the gist of most of his work considers recent projects in terms of image, urban values, and technical good sense, without attempting to promote anyone in particular. If he delves into the theoretical role of Rem Koolhaas, it is wholly justified by the ponderous impact of S,M,L,XL, published in 1995, on both architects and the world of fashion. His attention to Latin America and Asia, while not extensive, is penetrating and sets one up to explore the exquisite modern patrimony of Luis Barragán and Eladio Dieste as well as considering the brutal effects of urbanization. The USA plays a leading role, not so much as producer of great buildings than as the matrix of consumer culture, analogous, he notes, to both Superman and Tarzan. Tadao Ando and Fumihiko Maki appear in the pages on Asia, while waiting for Kazuyo Sejima to appear in the second volume.
The articles, which when originally published were given a minimum of graphic support, now have been generously illustrated with color photographs, sometimes four to a page, which adds a stunning visual layer to the texts. While the future historian will find in these two volumes most of the buildings that will enter the canon of architectural history, such as Norman Foster’s Gherkin tower in London and cupola on the Reichstag in Berlin, Santiago Calatrava’s City of Science in Valencia, Koolhaas’s Casa da Musica and Seattle Library, Herzog & de Meuron’s Napa Valley winery, Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Slaughtered Jews of Europe, Peter Zumthor’s KUB museum in Bregenz, Zaha Hadid’s Science Center in Wolfsburg, and the more subtle works of Glenn Murcutt and Francis Kéré, there is much more than just a shooting gallery of great buildings to consider. Fernández-Galiano leads us on numerous excursions into local phenomena, absorbing the violence of the age, such as the destruction of the Sarajevo Library during the Balkan War, and considering the vanity of consumer culture existence, captured in the film The Truman Show. Throughout one finds a good-humored moralist who excoriates the ruin of urban life, the ecological catastrophes unleashed by the forces of greed and militarism, the banality of commercial civilization, and the ruthlessness of capitalist development. Yet his ulterior message offers hope that reason and good sense will prevail. Among the critics and historians of architecture of our times, Luis Fernández-Galiano is the only one left standing, the only one with such comprehensive knowledge of both the world of buildings and the economic and political role they play. He has woven a complex tapestry of a time that few scholars know how to approach, producing an indispensable document for comprehending how architecture responded to the possibilities of this age of spectacle, shrouded in uncertainty.