While touring us through Gesamtkunstwerk at a recent media preview, curator and architecture critic Trevor Boddy assured us that the show is not a sales office. Still, one of the realtors attending the preview insisted on handing me her business card. Poor dear, she clearly didn’t know that freelance writers are not exactly promising material as home buyers.
Gesamtkunstwerk is the curious title of an architectural exhibition intended to introduce the public to an ambitious building project, seven years in the planning but yet to be realized. The word is German and translates as “life as a total work of art”. Among its other connotations, it was used in the 1920s and ’30s to signify the total-design ideal of the Bauhaus, the famed German school of modernist architecture and applied arts. In Vancouver in the postmodern now, gesamtkunstwerk is meant to describe the concept behind Vancouver House, a 52-storey residential tower and its attendant structures and amenities, all under development by Westbank Projects Corp.
Designed by the accomplished young architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), based in Copenhagen and New York, Vancouver House is scheduled for completion in 2018. The project promises to make innovative use of a difficult parcel of land in the 1400 block of Howe Street (where a storage facility and the exhibition are now located). BIG has accommodated building restrictions on the site by designing a spectacularly torqued and cantilevered tower of condos and rental apartments, with a series of low-rise offices, retail units, galleries, and public amenities at and near its triangular base. In partnership with the City of Vancouver, the project also promises to make lively use of the gloomy zone beneath the bridge and around its on- and off-ramps.
The exhibition includes drawings, photos, maps, computer renderings, architectural models, video displays, samples of building materials, outlines of social and environmental features, and copies of planning submissions. Text panels, an exhibition catalogue, and an audio tour complement the visuals. All are intended, we’re told, to make the entire development process as transparent as possible.
Although Vancouver House promises to be a spectacular exception to our snoringly boring stock of condo towers, what interest me most about the show are Boddy’s eloquent history of Vancouverism (the term used to describe this city’s urban-planning style and “tower and podium” architecture) and the notes and images concerning the public artworks proposed for the site.
One of the possible future artworks is a series of large photo-transparencies, created by Emily Carr University students and mounted in lightboxes—like ceiling fixtures—on the underside of the bridge. And, okay, they could be a pleasantly neck-craning way of enlivening the space, although the consultants’ analogy to the Sistine Chapel is a tad overwrought. The most vaunted and controversial proposal here is Rodney Graham’s Spinning Chandelier, also intended to be hung under the bridge, over Beach Avenue.
Graham is one of Vancouver’s most internationally acclaimed artists, whose often humorous, idea-driven practice includes video, film, sculpture, photography, and painting. His references range across art history, literature, music, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, to which he has often appended ideas of optics, entropy, and failure. Spinning Chandelier is imagined as a four- by-six-metre kinetic sculpture in the form of, yup, a chandelier that spins. Made of faux crystals, it will very slowly turn and ascend during the day and then, at 9 each evening, it will rapidly descend again, spinning in the opposite direction, its crystals flaring outward like a twirling skirt.
Obviously, this work presents immense technical challenges, including how to keep its multiple moving components safe, clean, and consistently functioning. But Spinning Chandelier also poses the problem of what it might signify. For many of us, chandeliers symbolize immense wealth and privilege—or their aspiration. Graham has observed that the work’s presence will be in extreme contrast to its dark concrete setting. Vancouver House folks promote it as a gorgeous spectacle that will attract crowds of viewers each night to watch its twirling descent. Still, based as it is on an earlier film loop of Graham’s, Torqued Chandelier Release, this proposed public artwork suggests an eternal process of creation and entropy.
Perhaps it’s about the great cycles of history, although what an antique European chandelier has to do with the cultural and geographic particulars of this site is puzzling. Still, I’m willing to be convinced about its relevance when it is completed and installed—in the foreseeable if not fully comprehensible future.
Read the article online at the Georgia Straight.