Necessity or convention? – West Arch at the Ludwig Forum

The exhibition West Arch: A New Generation in Architecture has just ended. On show was the architecture of a self-conscious new generation, flourishing amidst the art of Richter, Warhol and Ai Weiwei. Not much sweet talking here; instead, a thirst for action sets the tone.

The green, star-shaped urinal blocks of the toilets at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen may have been just a coincidence, but they are very appropriate for what is happening one floor above. For the ground floor is the scene of a changing of the guard, the new generation has confidently knocked a dent in the established Old Guard. Twenty-five emerging architecture firms from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium gathered in a settlement of white pedestals under the trusses of an industrial shed just outside the centre of Aachen. There was little evidence of ‘starchitects’, although one office did have the courage to call itself STAR. With good reason, as a matter of fact. Just graduated, it recently beat SANAA, MVRDV and Norman Foster to win an international competition. Not through reputation but with a simple and convincing idea: a big wheel among the UNESCO palms of Elche in Spain that serves as a revolving visitor pavilion.

What immediately struck here are the many capital letters chosen to represent the selected designers: ROTOR ANORAK V+ BEL NEXT URA NU DUS LOW ZUS LOBOMOB. Smart combinations that seem to conceal an identity of research, dreams and seemingly very many nights spent in the model-making workshop. Also revealed by the polymorphic presentation blocks: DUS built a hut, LOW acknowledged Lars von Trier’s Dogville, NU cast a piece of concrete, and LOBOMOB pumped up a pneumatic igloo. Others resort to stylised scale models (Anne Holtrop/STUDYO/Pasel.Künzel/Powerhouse Company), formal photos (BEL/URA/Office KGDVS), and video footage (Modulorbeat/Artgineering/Space&Matter). What everybody wisely avoid, however, are grand words. Everything is conveyed briefly and concisely in terms of both graphics and text.

Although illustrious names are absent, a genealogy tree of the presented architects would have been illuminating, particularly to find out where they all started out as student interns. The West Arch brochure tells us that a massive exodus of young personnel from established offices has marked recent years, so a fingerprint from the past should therefore be visible. A quick round makes one thing clear: long-windedness is out, and clever remarks are in. But the influence of Koolhaas in particular is apparent throughout. Colourful acrylics, mixed programmes, ingenious presentation books, and piles of sculpted foam: everything fit tightly and testified to enthusiastic ambitions. The exalted shapes of Gehry, Hadid and Libeskind have few or no followers here — OMA lies secretly hidden in foam.

West Arch presents itself as a forum where lectures and related exhibitions raise questions about the relevance of and unexpected connections among a young generation of architects. The method of selection is not so obvious, however. Why each office is invited to take part is unclear. Quality and age seem to have been decisive factors, though a number of equally suitable candidates could certainly have been found in each country (Label, MikeViktorViktor, LPP and 51N4E were among the absent Belgians). Moreover, the premise that an ‘unconventional’ and ‘experimental’ way of dealing with building formed the starting point for this exhibition only made for an uncomfortable stamp. Such labels do not seem so appropriate in view of the many frivolous submissions. Quite the reverse is the case; this architecture should have the courage to call itself ‘conventional’ again, precisely because it demonstrates that good public space and exciting buildings only amount to a form of self-importance under the guise of ‘avant-gardism’. The charged character of the exhibition, with a convincing mixture of nerve and mature control, clearly proofs how refreshing it is to abandon pedantry.

A challenging exercise is to search for similarities and/or differences between the offices from the three participating countries. How do the scales of the projects vary? Which country shows the most ambition? Where are the most interesting new houses? Who leads and who follows? Oddly enough, one scarcely notice the difference. Perhaps that is because every student from the North Sea triangle scours the same schools and tutors, but probably more so because the current architecture landscape has become just one pan-European colour chart. Rotterdam-based Artgineering, for example, features German and Belgian partners; LOBOMOB from Wuppertal is made up of an ‘Italian-German-Moroccan’ alliance; and V+ from Brussels features two Belgians, two French, one Dutch and one Latvian. What is odd is the confined area within the three countries where the offices are located: six of the eight Belgian participants practise in Brussels; all ten of the Dutch entrants hail from either Amsterdam or Rotterdam; and four of the seven Germans work out of Cologne. Was the jury caught for travel time or does it consider the big city to be the measure of the nation just like that?

Sharper criticism came from guest speaker Ole Bouman, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi). He argued that the exhibition didn’t cater for non-architects. His comment could be applied to the work of ROTOR, for example — which exhibited blown-up pieces of plastic — but it was contradicted immediately by the easily digestible photos, models and plans by Far Frohn&Rojas and BEL. Incidentally, visitors who cycle here to see the collages by Rauschenberg would also be able to cope with the reasonably normal appearance of this exhibition. Bouman also voiced criticism of the moderate tone of the organisers and the defensive response of the designers present. ‘From image to action!’ he lectured, elaborating on the ideas of his Architecture of Consequence, the title of the book he released last year. He appeals to the new generation to move beyond its comfortable like-knows-like circle and instead offer decisive answers to social concerns. It’s perhaps a more relevant comment, for the majority of the participating offices are seemingly oblivious to acute global themes. Here, too, the hesitant selection behaviour of the exhibition compilers seemed to be at issue: ecological reflexes were largely absent in West Arch, or they remained limited to the easy discovery of solar panels on the roof. Only the Dutch office 2012 Architects — and, to a lesser extent, DUS — appears to advocate a clear vision that links design to cradle-to-cradle principles. With comical mobiles (such as a pavilion made from washing machine parts), 2012 succeed in exciting and proofs it is the only office with an alert eye on the future.

So despite the careful selection, West Arch raises few questions. And it offers few answers too. The lack of a genuine theme means that the quality of the designs is all that determine the agenda. And owing to the high level, current issues fade all too easily into the background. Even so, the exhibition introduces twenty-five contemporary ensembles who are busy building with bravura. Their architecture is one without big truths but with international ambitions and seductive answers: ‘Extraordinary’ or ‘Supernormal’, Andy Warhol gradually sees stars in Aachen.