ARQ, n. 62 Consumos / Consumption, Santiago, march, 2006, p. 55-57.


Consumer architecture

Mathias Klotz

Decano de la Facultad de Arquitectura, Arte y Diseño de la Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile.


The tense, awkward but productive relations between architecture and consumption are the first key to this discussion. Issues such as space as a consumer good and commercial place, the role of the architect in the marketplace and how these elements affect the discipline are a part of the proposed argument..

Key words: Architecture, commercial buildings, pavilions, ephemeral architecture, stores, consumer society.

Consumer architecture is without any doubt an emerging phenomenon in the globalized world, which has shaken up many of the dogmas of our profession. In the first place, it fits in better with what we know as ephemeral architecture than what we, (the architects of the past) understand as architecture. Although the concept of ephemeral is generally linked to works of reduced budgets, light structures, transitory, and generally for symbolic purposes, in the case of consumer architecture, these suppositions often tend to become distorted.
The challenge in these commissions is to compete and stand out in an unstable and constantly changing medium.
Ephemeral architecture is generally linked to a specific act, a specific commemoration or a specific representation.
The 19th and 20th centuries were plagued with good examples, arising from pavilion architecture. It was in these pavilions that new manifestos were often put forward, where experiments with new technology were performed, and where large or subtle differences were defined. Their principals were mostly state agencies that saw them as efficient communications tools.
The masterpiece of these pavilions was without any doubt the one in Barcelona, designed by Mies van der Rohe for the Universal Exhibition in 1929, and dismantled some months later. As we know, the purpose of that pavilion was radical, in that nothing was displayed in it other than the pavilion itself. On the other hand, its influence on architecture has been so enormous that, denying its essence, a replica was built on its original site at the end of last century.
As a recent example and in a closer socio-cultural context, we have the Chilean pavilion in the 1992 Expo Sevilla, designed by the architects José Cruz Ovalle and Germán del Sol. Without entering into architectural comparisons, I think that the Chilean pavilion in Sevilla (from the point of view of the show) is a hybrid that clearly reflects the changes and contradictions introduced by present day consumer society.
Instead of a building showing itself as representing Chile as a hospitable country, with a respectable degree of technology and in the midst of an environment charged with nature, the local creative talents –born of the consumer culture, image and appearances– filled it with knick knacks, turning it into a circus that even had a main performance called the iceberg.
Remember that the animal had to be brought back to its place of origin by the Chilean navy in which most probably was the last performance of the creative talents.
I think that these two examples serve to illustrate the potential and the dangers of this, emerging, and hard to control development. On the one hand these commissions have the freshness of the immediate, essential, ephemeral and symbolic, but on the other they have a collective and abstract principal, generally uncouth, called the consumer. Although this consumer by himself does not present a threat, but rather is the justification of the commission, most of the time (unfortunately), he is represented by the same circus creative talents of the iceberg.
Another element that appears in this context is the importance of image. After the success off the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, a mayoral fever for building the picture post card of the city has been set loose. It no longer matters what it is, but how it will look in the photograph. There is no self respecting city in the world that does not have the corresponding Calatrava bridge, or at least “a la Calatrava” which no longer really matters, as even the original is badly copied.
This is the first time in history that the importance of location, of space, of materials and personal experience, have been moved to a second plane, and in which the important thing is to consume architecture in the same way as cool drinks or TV serials.

I believe that consumer architecture takes place in a hostile environment, where everything changes, and where obviously the consumer is, and must be, considered as the center of attention; where fashion and tendencies define criteria, where everything is ephemeral but must give –at the very least– the appearance of permanence, and where the context is often a sort of battlefield where different creative talents struggle, striving to shout louder than their neighbors.
One must also not forget that its only purpose is profit; for this very reason the pressure that the architects that practice it are subjected to is often unbearable, and in general they have not been trained to handle it. The result, added to personal incompetence, is self evident, and our cities look like product display stands.
With this background experience, I believe that taking on a project of this nature today constitutes a new challenge, for which we still do not have sufficient accumulated experience, and where good examples are the exception to the rule. I also believe that herein lies an opportunity that we must grasp in order not to continue to cede positions to professionals of other disciplines that do understand what the codes of these operations are.
The buildings that are presented below are without doubt exceptional works that have managed to resolve the problem, to a greater or lesser extent, recurring to different strategies.
Smiljan Radic’s project resorts to the pavilion tradition. It is set in privileged surroundings, at a reasonable distance from the municipal building, with which it fortunately does not have to relate, and in the middle of a beautiful park designed by the architect Teodoro Fernandez.
In the description of his project, Radic himself quotes Sverre Fehn, with whose work there is an interesting relationship, especially with the Venice pavilion. The similar features, that begin with the materials, are noticeable even in the inclusion of natural elements (trees in one, granite rocks in another), a municipal park in both, and evidently the roofing solution, with a clear relationship. Radic’s project falls into what we might call the ideal scenario. It is built in a park, next to water, with privileged views onto the mountains and with a program that, despite being one of consumerism, is laden with ritual, sweet smell and pleasing light. Radic replies to all this with his characteristic precision, subtly adapting to the surroundings and empowering them with a new element that blends the natural with architectural elements of certain primitiveness. This project will undoubtedly be a contribution to the quest we can recognize in the Rosario Pavilion by Rafael Iglesia or in some of the projects of the new generation of Paraguayans, such as Solano Benítez.
The subject of gas stations is undoubtedly an area to research; in the last decade and in the international arena, Foster’s proposal for Repsol, which basically consists of three inverted pyramidal roofs with the inclusion of the company’s colors, stands out. With regard to Juan Sabbagh’s gas station, it is part of a long personal trajectory in this area, in which the architect, amazingly, continuously reinvents himself over and over again.
As is evident, the central theme of the gas station is the canopy, to which, for some years now, small fast foods sales and service units have been added, which in some cases are not so small. Although this project resolves the dilemma of the roof impeccably and imaginatively, the solution is more conventional with regard to the equipping of the services. Referring back to the first point, the inclusion of large size graphic elements give the supports a new scale, which makes them independent of the canopy and inserts them in the background with clear reference to the materiality of the place. Sabbagh’s desire to make elements independent is so strong, that even the base of the pumps is lifted off the flat level of the pavement and is resolved separately. In the cladding of the canopy he opts for laminated-type solutions, achieving a minimum thickness; the inclusion of built-in light fittings has been given careful thought, which highlights the quality of the element. There are however some independent roofs off to one side of the volume of services, that appear to be dissociated from the project and that furthermore include natural cladding elements. Those roofs are too small to generate much interest and appear to be a hybrid element handled with a certain degree of timidity. Maybe this remarkable gas station would be better without smaller elements; its manner of referring to nature by way of graphics is more interesting than when it materializes it so literally.
With regard to the strip center by the architects Mas and Fernandez, this program constitutes a new field of research where perhaps the most interesting of contemporary propositions come from the Croatian architect Hervoje Njiric. His work has been able to resolve even a Mc Donald’s, among other projects plagued by corporative norms.
Even though these strip centers, or mini shopping centers, are not large scale, they undoubtedly affect the urban mesh, contributing to its dismemberment. I only have one question regarding this project: what is the architectural dilemma to be resolved in this case? Due to their location on the corners of residential boroughs, these centers should resolve the relationship with the neighbors in a civilized way without destroying the corner. Parking is a subject of special responsibility, where simply planting trees is not good enough. If this program could be resolved by just inverting the volume, reshaping the corner and giving continuity to the sidewalk, paying attention to the coexistence with the borough by way of the neighbors, things would be on a better footing.
The Atica shopping center by the architects Bruna and Cerqueria, puts forward an interesting solution of the section of the building which orientates the relationships established between its different programs; unfortunately the project is contaminated by a repertory of formal elements, typical of the most conventional imagery of consumer architecture.
Finally, I applaud the fact that new propositions are appearing, capable of putting forward new points of view regarding this commercial phenomenon, despite the previously mentioned hostility prevailing in this area of architecture. Undoubtedly, Sabbagh’s experience and the context surrounding Radic are factors that make their solutions more interesting, compared to those of Mas-Fernandez and Bruna-Cerqueria, which reply to an obviously more complex requirement with less self-assurance.