On a recent weekend, whilst struggling to find a subject to dig into and discuss in this column, I came across the Guardian's architecture critic reviewing the new Luma art complex in Arles. The article can be found online as the Guardian generously makes its content available — but do not forget that any effort to carry out journalism with integrity and intelligence always costs money, so consider a subscription if you enjoy and value what you see.
The article caught my attention in part because it describes a part of southern France that resembles my native Portugal. With its very special light, salt flats, hills in the distance and gentle climate, it feels close to the landscape around our factory and the towns of my colleagues who work there. It also permitted a little fantasy travel after a year where I have remained in the UK, since my last trip to Portugal was in early September of last year.
The Luma art complex was built with the support of a very wealthy Swiss woman and sits in the ancient town of Arles within what was once a large industrial workshop for the French railways. These post-industrial buildings litter all kinds of landscapes, including the ones we see in Portugal as we take the Linha do Norte from Porto to Lisbon; in fact, quite a few abandoned factories come up near where we get off to visit the factory. Perhaps someone with resources will feel sorry for some of them and bring some of them to new use.
So these resources have allowed for the work of some exceptionally creative people to contribute to the project including architect Frank Gehry, made famous, amongst other things, for the design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and Belgian landscape designer Bas Smets who created an astonishing park enveloping the buildings that make up the campus.
The review is courteous and the sponsor of this project can be pleased with the words of the critic, who attributes an air of benevolence to the entire project. There is a twist, though; that is revealed at the end and I shall let you do the reading of the article yourself.
This is the moment that we have to reveal that the totem pole of the project, the iconic building that seems mandatory for these things, is a large tower clad in what I understand is aluminium, a material Gehry works with great skill. This tower shimmers in the southern light and, as the critic says, feels the result of a herculean fist squashing a soft metal, leaving hundreds or thousands of facets for us to admire. An iconic monument indeed, and the Luma at Arles now will be hard to forget. But the purpose of this tower within the context of presenting art is unclear, as it does not seem to be much more than a portal to the rest of the complex. And you can go to the top and admire the view.
A project on this scale was not planned a few months ago and a generous soul would argue that if the first plans were made more than a decade ago then the sense of urgency that many of us feel right now would not have been present and, a bit like the Titanic, a large scale project is difficult to redirect or stop. If that is a reasonable argument so be it, but the responsibility upon every new project is increased as the damage is done and somehow should be mitigated.
At this point, the tower in Arles becomes morally indistinguishable from the stadium that many visitors to the factory are able to see on their way to us, the hideous Municipal Stadium of Aveiro, built to hold 30,000 people for an international tournament in 2004. The rather favourable Wikipedia page dedicated to it describes it at some point as a big toy. A big toy that apparently cost over €60 million euros to build and currently does not have a resident football team.
Am I being harsh to compare an absurd building with the latest and greatest investment in the world of culture and art? My answer is an unequivocal no. It is time, and our friend the architecture critic makes reference to this, that we seriously look at ourselves in the mirror and remember that every time we build we consume vast amounts of energy. There is simply no way around this, and the starting point of construction should be the refurbishment of what exists. Luma comes so close and yet is so far, as an important part of the fabric of the complex is the refurbished workshops. Why must we, and I do not wish to shame or blame anyone so I use the collective we to make you think about society in general, fall for the totem pole, for the icon, when it comes at a high cost to the urgent quest to redesign our society, our energy use, our consumption, our sources of energy, to prevent the worst outcome of climate change which humankind has now triggered?
I have a story of my own to share, that goes back a few years, when as the business grew I felt an urgency to improve the facilities available to staff and visitors. A new building was planned, and a building that was a legacy of the original founders of our factory, a building I detested as much as the carbuncle that poses as a stadium, was to be demolished. A budget for the demolition was produced, and I was pleasantly surprised by the low cost. I gave little thought not only to how absurd it was to knock down something in order to build something else, but also to where all the rubble and other waste would end up. Fortunately, something came along, either money wasn't quite there to be spent or other distractions, and I did nothing. But when I came back to the issue, a little older and wiser, I saw the stupidity of my proposal. And so our factory, built out of brick and concrete, remains as it is, without, for example, any of the new fangled aluminium or steel panels that everyone who builds an industrial building in this day and age uses. This seems to be an easy way to make an ugly thing look shiny, hence the temptation. But as anyone knows who understands the energy required to create any metal component multiplied by the vast surface areas of large buildings, this is just silly. So our factory stands, perhaps looking a little more humble than the neighbours, but I feel our heart is in the right place. The moral of the story for me is that there is little excuse for ignorance and that we should examine ourselves before rushing into anything on this scale. Only chance helped me here, but then again so did a recognition that in the end a set of modest buildings, inherited from previous owners who built the factory 36 years ago, is no bad home compared to the cost to the environment of demolition and new construction.
And this approach must apply to almost any new endeavour. In fact, there is a special burden on those of us who work in the world of design, culture and the arts. The burden on our shoulders is for us to be a shining example within our means, rather than to end up with a shining tower on the southern coast of France.
ILLUSTRATION BY RIMA STUDIO