Davey Talks Tough in Banff

To attempt a synoptic account of contemporary world architecture may be a mug’s game, but The Architectural Review’s long-standing editor Peter Davey was that mug at this year’s edition of the Alberta Association of Architects’ bi-annual Banff Session. Taking the podium as after-dinner speaker, Davey made for a tart dessert as salmon-laden plates were whisked away and the sun set over the blue Canadian Rockies. The 100 architects gathered there heard an involving and eloquent screed–the highlight of the event.

Davey’s talk had it all: a mythical landscape described poetically; an epic quest; some sharply drawn sets of good guys and baddies; and a call-to-action conclusion, replete with thematic odes to the gods. The editor cast himself as Odysseus (or leastwise, his offstage muse), navigating the dangerous waters between the no-hope whirlpool of commercial architecture and the prismatic and blob-like rocks of esoteric formalism in design. So goes–he admitted in later questioning–the editorial policy of The Architectural Review.

Contemporary Dutch architecture in general–he finds the Super-Dutch book a compendium of evil–and Rem Koolhaas in particular received some of Davey’s toughest drubbing. Koolhaas’ Seattle library was criticized as sub-functional, and S, M, L, XL, the cult tome he produced with Toronto designer Bruce Mau, described as “that ridiculously over-inflated, fat book.” Of Koolhaas’ Soho Prada showroom he said this: “There seems to be prostitution going on here.”

Toronto’s current wave of imported starchitects did not fare much better, with a recent Will Alsop elevation for the Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design described as “a building growing boils.” Heavens to carbuncles! In the scary menagerie which is contemporary world architecture, Davey drew time and again on biological metaphors, self-labelling his role, like that of 19th century biologist David Huxley, “as being Darwin’s bulldog.”

Davey tore a large strip off of Daniel Libeskind, design architect for the “Crystal” expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum, for his metaphysical posturing combined with arcane compositional conceits. The editor cited as one example the Jewish Wing for Berlin’s German History Museum, where Libeskind located fenestration by applying “urban plans indicating significant locales of Jewish history, collaged onto elevations. I defy anyone to adduce them without explication,” and went on to pigeonhole Libeskind as the “ultimate middlebrow architect” through his proffering a pseudo- profundity that comes with a “simple secret code.” Since most critics seem too mesmerized by Libeskind to blurt out these simple truths, all praise to Davey for doing so in Banff. “I will admit to being Philistine,” the editor raged further in his plumy tones, silk ascot vibrating as his fury mounted, “but as experienced, the Jewish Wing is not a good building.” Eisenman, Greg Lynn and the Blobsters fared no better, Davey describing the amorphous work of the latter as resembling “the disgusting things one finds living under stones.”

Davey’s assault on these darlings of the contemporary scene may come across to some as philistine indeed, or at least anachronistic, but his criticism was not limited to fashionable celebrity architects. Generic Shanghai commercial architecture (the example shown was designed by Canadian architects) was labelled the exemplar of bad market design everywhere. The beginnings of Davey’s moral mission was announced with his reciting the disturbing figure that if China is to reach the same level of urbanization as Europe, 100 cities of five million people each will have to be built there soon.

Davey’s list of good architects and buildings was not nearly as much fun as his critical diatribe, but perhaps more instructive, as un-fun things are wont to be. One of the most ardent and eloquent students of the Arts and Crafts, Davey is what Thatcherites call “a wet”: sentimental, socialist and vaguely New Age. Charles Correa’s early Mediterranean-looking housing estates outside Mumbai got praise, but his eclectic and confused Bhopal government building did not rate a mention. Kuala Lumpur’s Ken Yeang got praise for his ecological resorts and high-rise towers, though Davey acknowledged that most will not get built. Nicholas Grimshaw’s Cornwall domes and Shigeru Ban’s Kobe paper tube church got praise for their green ethos. Niels Torp was praised, along with almost anything else Nordic, and he had nice things to say about fellow Banff panelist Larry Scarpa.

While Davey was clearly the headliner at Banff, the other speakers too were top rate. Boston’s Nader Tehrani showed his crisp and considered constructions, ranging from a pizza joint to some small museums. Tehrani is heavy on process and voices a moralizing kind of response to structure and materials that makes him a John Ruskin in a black hipster’s suit. The Victorian Calvinist-cum-critic is a hero to Davey, progenitor of Modern architecture’s search for “truth in materials,” and un-named muse to the metaphysical makers who currently dominate the workshops of at least half of Canada’s architecture schools. “Minimalism is not an aesthetic, but an ethic,” says Tehrani in explaining his design orientation, going on to say his own “ethics” are “contingent and strategic,” if that is possible.

“Diagrams generate possibilities of a direction,” said Amsterdam’s Ben van Berkel during his talk, a neat summary of the surprisingly straightforward bubble diagram process he uses to generate his spaces. The 39-year-old van Berkel–like much of his non-Euclidean generation–actually builds the bubbles. One of the most important of these is sure to be a large car museum in Stuttgart, Germany funded by Mercedes, currently under construction, an imposing update of Wright’s Guggenheim for the autobahn crowd. Larry Scarpa showed the socially and formally innovative work his firm, Los Angeles-based Pugh + Scarpa, has built in Southern California, refreshing evidence that a green aesthetic and progressive ideas about public housing do not have to result in dull buildings.

Like the young star who replaced Bette Davis just before show time in All About Eve, Vancouver’s Bing Thom excelled in his replacement of no-show Enrique Norten of Mexico. As new-found entrepreneur of program and function, Thom described how he put together such projects as his massive and very fine Surrey Civic Centre, only to find the very same political forces that created it abandon the new building with a change of government before it even opened.

Several of the speakers commented on the absence of students and young architects. They were at Banff, but lodged in another overflow room, watching it all on video. Register early for the Alberta Association of Architects’ 2005 Banff Sessions, which will be held in Edmonton in conjunction with the RAIC’s annual Festival of Architecture. Since he is so good at it, I will give the last word to Peter Davey: “Just because it is technically possible to do something, but for God’s sake, that does not mean we should do it. Our feelings are too deep to be expressed in words, certainly not in the current emphasis on exteriors solely.” Rage on, brother!

Trevor Boddy is architecture critic for the Vancouver Sun.