China has released a directive that could put an end to the country’s trend for bombastic architecture.
Just over a year after president Xi Jinping called for an end to “weird architecture”, the country’s State Council has released a document calling for all new buildings to be “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye”, according to the South China Morning Post.
The directive is aimed at tackling the problems associated with the rapid expansion of Chinese cities, as well as increased urbanisation all over the country.
It states that cities will no longer be allowed to grow beyond what their resources can support, and that “oversized, xenocentric and weird” buildings will be forbidden. It also bans gated communities and non-permitted developments.
Xi’s original comments, made in late 2014, attacked projects including the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV headquarters in Beijing – one of many unusually shaped projects resulting from China’s construction boom.
Shenzhen architect Feng Guochuan told the New York Times that Xi’s criticism had already influenced local government decisions regarding new projects. “Generally speaking, local governments now tend to approve more conservative designs,” he said.
But the new directive comes as a result of a meeting held by the State Council two months ago – the first of its kind since 1978.
It reportedly stipulates that, instead of unusual architecture, simple modular constructions will be encouraged, and predicts that 30 percent of new buildings will be prefabricated in 10 years time.
Not only will new gated communities be banned, but existing ones will apparently be opened up to improve traffic flow.
Existing shantytowns and dilapidated houses are expected to be transformed, with more parks and green areas created.
Speaking to Dezeen last year, Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher said that work was already drying up in China for foreign architects, partly because the government was trying to promote more local talent.
The firm had previously enjoyed a long run of success in China, delivering projects including the Guangzhou Opera House and the vast Galaxy Soho development in Beijing.
“I feel that there is this attempt by the Chinese leadership to try to make itself more independent and rely on its own talent,” Schumacher said.
Bjarke Ingels Group has released a conceptual design for its latest project in New York: an office skyscraper wrapped in a ribbon of green terraces
Yves Bouvier made hundreds of millions of dollars selling paintings. Was it fraud?
The Geneva Freeport, which may be the world’s most valuable storage facility, consists of seven beige warehouses and a large grain silo in La Praille, an industrial zone a short tram ride from the city’s lakeside panorama of banks and expensive hotels. One recent morning, rain was falling on the chain-link fence that runs through the property, and snow was visible on the mountains to the south. Iris scanners, magnetic locks, and a security system known as Cerberus guard the freeport’s storerooms, whose contents are said to be insured for a hundred billion dollars, but the facility retains a blue-collar feel. There were signs to the showers. Men stood around in aprons and smoked. Everything about the place tells you to look the other way.
The freeport began, in 1888, as a group of sheds near the waterfront. It was one of countless similar spaces around the world, where customs authorities allow duties and taxes to be suspended until goods reach their final destination. In time, however, the Geneva Freeport became legendary. It grew very large, and its official status—the freeport is eighty-six per cent owned by the local government—and kinship with the opaque traditions of Swiss banking made it a storage facility for the international élite. Under the freeport’s rules, objects could remain in untaxed limbo, in theory, forever. Treasures came and they did not leave. A generation ago, these goods were cars, wine, and gold. More recently, they have been works of art.
Yves Bouvier was among the first to see the potential of the freeport as an adjunct to the art market. A blond, compact man of fifty-two, Bouvier is the owner of Natural Le Coultre, a moving and storage company and the largest tenant in the complex. For more than a hundred years, the firm shipped everything from citrus fruit to industrial machinery; during the First World War, Natural Le Coultre supplied prisoners of war with Red Cross food parcels. Since 1997, however, when Bouvier took over the firm from his father, it has handled only paintings and sculpture. Bouvier refurbished the company’s premises at the freeport, which include two showrooms, and encouraged a framer to open a workshop in the building. Since 2013, Natural Le Coultre has rented more than twenty thousand square metres in storage space and has had well over a million objects in its care.
Every item passes through a single packing room, where it is unwrapped, photographed, and studied for damage. On the morning I visited, a Bob Dylan painting had arrived, along with a Picasso bronze from Greece. There were hammers hanging in order of size, and a stack of crates containing works by Léon Pourtau, a minor Impressionist. Ramon Casais, who has worked in the freeport for the past thirty years, agreed to show me a corridor of locked storeroom doors only after he had gone ahead to make sure there was absolutely nothing to see.
Specialist logistics companies, like Natural Le Coultre, are the quiet butlers of the art world. They operate deep inside it but are not quite of it. When an artist has made a sculpture out of butter, or scalpels, or half a passenger jet, it is up to a shipper to get it from Hong Kong to Miami in the same condition as when it left, and to make no fuss. To do their work, shippers must know many things. They are given records of private sales and the names of collectors, in order to navigate customs. In the course of a typical day, stopping by the homes of dealers and the back rooms of galleries, they learn who answers the door and the phone number of the assistant, and see the other pictures on the walls. The shippers’ professional indifference means that they are often in the room at moments of extreme commercial sensitivity. “Imagine that I am in Basel and I need to show a client a painting,” Thomas Seydoux, a dealer and a former chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, told me. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you are going to show it with a transit agent.”
This intimacy means that, once you find your shipper, you tend to stick with him. Relationships last for decades, built on trust and a sense, usually unspoken, of absolute limits. In sixteenth-century Venice, diplomats were instructed to employ illiterate valets, who would be unable to read any secret documents they were asked to carry. A transit agent “should by default be a blind man,” Seydoux told me. “That is the very nature of his job.” Everything works fine, as long as people stay within their allotted roles. Seydoux said, “You can’t win somebody’s trust by saying you are blind and then open your eyes.”
Bouvier speaks an imperfect, gestural English, but he explained that becoming a shipper allowed him to immerse himself in “the feeling and the difficulty of art.” He had no formal training, just what passed through his hands. “It started with the touch,” he said. “You have all the panoply: small, huge, it’s with value, with no value. You have everything, so you learn.”
Shipping also introduced Bouvier to the complicated lives of the rich—their taxes and their divorces—and the other ancillary trades that help the art world go around: restorers, framers, hired experts, operators of tiny galleries in Paris clinging on from sale to sale. He realized they all had needs of their own.
Bouvier financed purchases that dealers couldn’t afford on their own. He sorted out cash flow and bills. He became adept at setting up offshore companies—Diva, Blancaflor, Eagle Overseas—to enable galleries to buy specific works and mask the identity of other investors in a transaction.
“When you buy, it is always to sell,” he said. “You always have the buyer before you have the seller.” On August 16, 2000, he bought a Paul Gauguin landscape, “Paysage aux Trois Arbres,” from Peintures Hermès, a Swiss gallery associated with the Wildenstein family of art dealers, for $9.5 million. Two weeks later, he sold the picture to Mandarin Trading, a Bahamas-based art fund, for $11.3 million, making a profit of sixteen per cent. Mandarin Trading later sued the Wildensteins for fraud, alleging that it was the victim of a scam to inflate the value of the painting. The case was dismissed in 2011. I once asked Bouvier what drew him to particular propositions. “In the mountains, it was the same,” he replied. “I go in the place which is the most complicated, the most risky place.”
Building a collection involves a thousand small, complex tasks: storage, shipping, condition reports, restoration, making copies, framing, due diligence, insurance. For these services, Bouvier would charge an extra two per cent of the purchase price of any painting he sold them.
Major buyers typically build collections through several dealers and auction houses, knowing that they will be charged the maximum the market can bear. To protect their interests, many also employ an art adviser or consultant, who works for them and is paid a retainer or a commission—in the region of five per cent—on the works that they acquire. Very rarely are all these roles performed by one person.
The relationship between art dealer and collector is particular and charged. The dealer is mentor and salesman. He informs his client’s desires while subjecting himself to them at the same time. The collector has money, but he is also vulnerable. Relationships start, prosper, and fail for any number of reasons. It is not always obvious where power lies. Over time, each one can convince himself that he has created the other.
Access to the oligarch was strictly controlled. “Besides his lawyer and his hairdresser, I don’t think he sees normal people at all,” Rappo once told me.
Hidden behind company names and, often, dealers working on his behalf, he tended to disguise his role in transactions. “To be invisible is the best way to make business,” he said.
The income from his dealing enabled Bouvier to expand his storage facilities. For several years, he had been looking to build a freeport outside Europe similar to the one in Geneva. In 2005, he settled on Singapore. In 2008, Bouvier decided to base himself in the country as well. The Singapore Freeport, which required new legislation to be passed by the national parliament, opened in 2010. Bouvier put Tony Reynard, his childhood friend, in charge. The freeport, which abuts the city’s international airport, is an over-engineered hybrid of vault and temple. It cost Bouvier a hundred million dollars to build. At first, no bank would finance it. “They thought we were loonies,” Reynard said.
A freeport offers few tax advantages and scarcely any security features that a standard bonded warehouse cannot provide. But Bouvier’s development in Singapore carried within it two ideas. The first is that freeports will become hubs in the sixty-billion-dollar international art market, destinations in themselves—places for scholars, restorers, insurers, art-finance specialists, consultants, and dealers. The second idea is that the ultra-rich don’t want just another warehouse. “If you buy a painting for a hundred million, what do you want? You want to feel well,” Bouvier said. “Why else do people travel in first class?”
In Singapore, Bouvier specified each component, from the fire-resistant walls, coiled through with steel, to the height of the doors: three metres, to admit the largest contemporary installations. “I chose everything,” he said. “The door handles. I’m obsessive about that.” He used a lighting artist named Johanna Grawunder, whose work he collects, and commissioned an enormous sculpture, “La Cage sans Frontières,” by the Israeli artist and designer Ron Arad, to stand in the atrium.
The opening of the Singapore Freeport, and its immediate success—Christie’s took a space—brought Bouvier international attention. The facilities tapped into a fascination with the tastes and financial shenanigans of the one per cent. Bouvier opened a second, slightly smaller freeport in Luxembourg, in September, 2014, and The Economist noted his role in the development of “Über warehouses for the ultra-rich.” He made plans to replicate the model in Dubai and to act as a consultant for a vast new project in Beijing.
He bought a Gauguin that had not been sold since the Second World War and a lost Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” that had been sensationally rediscovered. On its display at the National Gallery in London, the da Vinci became one of the most talked-about pictures in the world. According to Rappo, Rybolovlev wanted it for the wall of his study. Bouvier brought the painting to the Russian’s apartment in New York, where, Rybolovlev told me, he experienced a profound emotional reaction—“a vibration”—in its presence. He bought the picture for $127.5 million.
ery transaction at the top end of the private art market involves a chain, a cast of characters that stretches from the buyer to the seller: finders, agents, lawyers, lenders. It is rare for the principals to know everyone involved, and it can be improper to ask. Bouvier was a master at making chains—short, long, simple, or twisted, depending on the deal. If he knew that a seller would prefer an approach from an auction house, he would send someone, usually from Sotheby’s. Otherwise, Bouvier would send an intermediary. Often this was a Corsican named Jean-Marc Peretti, who was investigated for running an illegal gambling circle in Paris in 2009. Bouvier is attracted to outsiders in the art world. “The best people are just good businesspeople—they are butchers,” he said.
Bouvier told me that such blurring of who exactly owns what, and when a transaction occurred, is commonplace in the art market. When you walk into a gallery, you never know what the dealer is selling on consignment, what he owns outright, or how prices have been arrived at. “It is not lying,” he said. “There is always a part of the story which is true.” But Bouvier was ruthless in exploiting what was left unsaid. “Joueur de Flûte et Femme Nue,” which Bouvier sold to Rybolovlev for twenty-five million euros, he had bought the day before for just three and a half million. He made a sixty-million-dollar profit on the Klimt.
In the early nineteen-fifties, Rothko began experimenting with powdered pigments, solvents, and egg to lend extra force to the colors in his canvases. He wanted viewers of his pictures to feel as if they were inside them. When Bouvier drew back the curtains, the painting seemed to explode in front of his eyes.
Around this time, I spent a day at the Luxembourg Freeport. The building is made of sixty-five hundred tons of concrete. Heavy doors are locked with six-digit codes.
As he spoke, Bouvier kept four Nokias and a BlackBerry within reach at all times. When one of them rang, he would turn it over, to see which realm of his dealings the inquiry was coming from. He reminded me, in a not entirely unlikable way, of an animal busy in carrion, like a jackal.
“Can I see some hands raised? Who in the audience think of Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park as contextual?” (No hands raised.) “Who think of it as not?” (No hands raised.) “Since apparently none of you know, let me tell you!”
What follows is a lengthy exposé about what, according to the person asking the question, is a highly contextual piece of architecture. Speaking is Jeffrey Kipnis, theorist, designer, filmmaker, curator, educator, founding director of the Architectural Association’s Graduate Design Program and professor at Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University.
The exchange (if one can call it that) takes place during one of the parallel sessions at the biennial. Apart from Kipnis, the session includes Patrik Schumacher, design director at Zaha Hadid Architects; Peter Eisenman, principal of Eisenman Architects and a pivotal figure in American academia (present and past positions too many to list); Theodore Spyropoulos, founder of architecture studio Minimaforms; and me, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The panel has been assembled to express its views on a potential agenda for 21st-century architecture.
The composition of the panel seems odd: most of the panelists’ formative lives have been lived in the 20th century, and all the panelists are from a part of the world to which – unless all current indicators are completely misgiven – the 21st century will not belong.
The venue is The Gold Room in the Congress Plaza Hotel. Tickets have sold at $50 and, while that ticket price suggests the event is in high demand, the room is only half full, making its grandeur perfectly inappropriate for the occasion. One of African architecture’s rising stars speaking at a venue next door appears to have drawn a larger crowd. Still, the modest turnout hardly fazes the panelists. The epicenter of American academia thrives even in the absence of an audience.
Schumacher’s opening salvo is a proclamation of the end of pluralism (delivered with an impeccable German accent) and of the imminent global dominance of a single remaining master-style – his own. Eisenman, who is next, suggests a change of format: “Only Patrik should present, while the rest of us put up a collective resistance.” His request is denied and Eisenman has to content himself with “agreeing to disagree”. His presentation calls for “heroes instead of stars in architecture”. Not something anyone could agree to disagree with, although Spyropoulos tries. But here, in the context of an all-male, all-white stage, his call leaves a somewhat dubious taste.
After Eisenman, it is open season, not just for each of the panelists’ individual obsessions (in order of appearance: parametricism, Alberti, Gehry, Piketty and robots), but also for the audience. Someone, who introduces himself as humble teacher at a humble university, asks why there are no women on the stage. With almost Trumpian bravado, Kipnis replies that he LOVES women, but is dumbfounded by the stupidity of such a question, which he then views as a logical explanation for the career progress (or lack thereof) of the questioner. In an attempt to rescue the situation, Eisenman murmurs that women have become so popular these days that they have become unaffordable. We simply have to assume he means as panelists.
It is Kipnis’ turn. His idea of offering the audience value for money is to subject it to a kind of intellectual waterboarding. His positions are invariably introduced via the same discursive formula: “Did you know…? You did not…? You should! Since you don’t, let me tell you…” It is unclear to what extent – if at all – he is seeking a discussion. Kipnis tempts the audience with long pauses, invariably followed by “let me finish!” when someone interjects.
The main topic of his presentation is the Guggenheim Helsinki museum competition, a competition that to this day has not produced a realised building and doesn’t look like it’s going to any time soon.
He presents the many entries to the competition as a repository of contemporary design intelligence, showing a meticulously categorised inventory of apparently simultaneously emerging families of design solutions to particular problems. Akin to the prolific genres in contemporary music, certain “design waves” are identified and tagged with a name. Any link to the individual authors is discarded. Trends take priority over signatures. Originality is no longer a paradigmatic feature. The myth of individual genius is dismantled in favor of architects as a virtual, yet largely unaware collective.
His argument takes a bizarre turn when he digresses into a strange and unexpected endorsement of Frank Gehry, who in many ways personifies the exact opposite. Unlike the struggling souls of the Helsinki competition, Gehry is the ultimate signature architect. His approach to architecture is his and his alone, it permits no following other than through imitation. In bringing up Gehry, Kipnis turns his own suggestion of architecture as a form of collective progress into scorched earth even before it has landed.
Kipnis seems blissfully unaware of the contradiction. He proceeds to explain Gehry’s design intentions as if he were the oracle of Zeus. The silence that ensues at his question about the contextual nature of the Pritzker Pavilion is not so much a sign of the audience’s ignorance as it is of its bewilderment. Don’t all Gehry’s buildings look the same?
It is clear to everyone in the room (at least to those who have built a building) that whatever the magnitude of the intentions that go into a design, it must ultimately subside to the prevailing perception – however unfair – of its physical presence, at which point the only correct answer to Kipnis’ question is that it is irrelevant. If legacy is ultimately a question of numbers, what constitutes the more significant intellectual fact: one person’s supposed insight into Frank Gehry’s design intentions, or the vast majority’s willful ignorance of them? Who holds the key, Kipnis or the Simpsons?
As the evening progresses, the event turns into a painful X-ray of the current state of American academia: a strangely insular world with its own autonomous codes, dominated by some antiquated pecking order with an estranged value system and no hope of a correction from within. The often grandiose character of the debate stands in stark contrast to the marginal nature of that which is being debated.
The western architectural ivory tower has become a theatre of the absurd, blind to its decline into irrelevance. Self-referencing and obsessed by minutiae unrelated to the built environment, our academics need to break out of their closed information loop and get back into the real world.
Kipnis’ definition of context doesn’t go beyond the immediate physical surroundings of the architectural object. Any notion that architecture might be shaped by a larger political, societal or economic context does not seem to register on his radar. It is as though America’s architectural establishment is preoccupied with studying footnotes under a microscope hoping they will turn into a novel.
Those who attend the dinner afterwards are cautious with their alcohol intake. Even with the debate officially concluded, one has to remain alert. Dinners serve as extra time for the settling of undecided intellectual battles – a last chance to turn defeat into victory. When all other subjects appear to have been exhausted, for some unidentifiable reason the table conversation turns to the brain and the question whether it ought to be discussed as an organ or as a muscle.
Just when the vision of a brain without a skull is about to make me lose my appetite, Kipnis turns to a young woman at the table. He asks her to guess his favorite organ. When she looks at him in shock – she must be less than half his age – he smiles: “Rest assured, my favorite organ is my mouth.” Eisenman points out that the mouth is in fact not an organ. For the first time that evening, Kipnis looks genuinely unsettled, prompting Eisenman to ask the question of the day: “Jeff, have you been drinking?”
It may contain 300 Picassos but few have ever explored the riches in the Geneva free port art storage site, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes reports.
The art boom has led to good times for institutions known as “free ports”: bonded warehouses in which all sorts of commodities, from grain, to gold, to fine art, can be stored, and remain, while they are in storage, exempt from tax and customs duties.
The Geneva free port is, from the exterior, a rather unimpressive warehouse in an industrial area of the city.
Inside, it is said to house the largest collection of fine art anywhere in the world, although it is hard to find out exactly what is in there, as both the port’s management and local customs officials refuse to divulge any information.
“I was led to a storage place where paintings were stored,” he explained, “and I had to go through Picasso works, so I was brought down in the morning and they locked me into the safe.
“At lunchtime I had to ring for them to take me out of the vaults. It was quite a strange environment because I was alone and I was surrounded by so many valuable artworks.”
It is estimated there are at least 300 works by Picasso alone stored at the free port, many belonging to the reclusive Nahmad family, who have been buying and trading art as an investment for half a century.
One Nahmad family member has been quoted as saying that “Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft or Coca Cola”, meaning that they are likely to be safe investments for a long time to come.
“We see art actually as a very good investment,” he said. “It’s a great way to diversify your portfolio, a good hedge against inflation. There are many reasons to consider art now as an investment.”
Still, the current boom in art means free ports are booming too. Geneva is building a 10,000 sq m (108,000 sq ft) extension, due to open next year, and new free ports are springing up in Luxembourg, and in Singapore.
But, said Jean-Rene Saillard, Geneva remains the oldest, the biggest, and the one with the most art.
“It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum,” he added.
As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio. If walls could speak, these would tell tales of bad compromises and angry developers who, dissatisfied with the meagre notion of repair and reuse, are driven solely by remorseless greed.
Meanwhile, bullied into sacrificing historic buildings of merit, cowed planning authorities must take consolation in the small mercy of retaining a facade. The result is that architects are humiliated into creating passive-aggressive structures, like the examples you see below – gross hybrids of conflicted intentions that scream ‘Look what you made me do!’ in bitter petulant resentment.
‘A kind of authenticity’ is British Land’s oxymoronical attempt to sell this approach in their Norton Folgate publicity, as if there were fifty-seven varieties of authenticity, when ‘authentic’ is not a relative term – something is either authentic or it is phoney.