Navigating without a map
The title 'Vertigo', for what is meant to be one of Glasgow 1999's major exhibitions, calls for explanation. Ten large-scale, sometimes spectacular projects from Europe, Asia and America are featured: they range from Bankside Tate via Chek Lap Kok airport to the 200,000m2 of the Ontario Mills shopping centre in California. 'Old ideas of order no longer prevail,' writes curator Rowan Moore. 'There is a dizziness, sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing, that comes when the certainties on which we stand are blown away . . . This dizziness is, by another name, vertigo.'
Well, maybe. I favour another of his propositions: that although the millennial built landscape is one of increasing 'global homogeneity', in which local conditions are apparently irrelevant, 'old, inherited fabric lingers sufficiently to contaminate the homogenising ambitions of the new'. This leads to an urbanism with incongruous juxtapositions of type and scale, and to a 'friction' between the pressure towards sameness and what resists it. In as much as anything supplies coherence to the exhibition, it is this concept of friction, and an implied tension between the generic and specific; one can't but consider how far the chosen projects are a recipe for almost anywhere in the world or more tailored to their particular place.
Each has its own room or half a room in the installation by Caruso St John. In places the white-painted plasterboard insertions on a galvanised- steel frame reach up to the roof of the Old Fruitmarket, but as a rule they are cut away to reveal the building's trusses, columns, galleries and surviving fascias - an effective interplay of new and old. With its kerbstones, road markings, manholes and changes of surface, the floor of the Fruitmarket betrays its former function; demarcated by the plasterboard partitions into more abstract arrangements, however, it begins to look like one of Mark Boyle's painstaking replicas from the 1970s, ready for upending on a gallery wall. Supporting such exhibits as a luxurious Rebecca sofa and a Le Corbusier coffee table - not what one usually finds discarded on the pavement - this floor gives a somewhat surreal air to the show at times.
The presentation of the individual projects varies considerably: in some instances, informative and imaginative, in others rather less so. Among the former is Bankside Tate, where a fine series of construction photographs by Christine Sullivan and other photographic works by Thomas Ruff (a longstanding collaborator of Herzog and de Meuron) accompany models and a dense array of drawings. Satisfying too is the section devoted to the Lake Las Vegas Resort - a de-luxe desert settlement around a 130ha man-made lake - where one can lounge on the Rebecca sofa, leaf through the lavish sales brochure, watch a 'promo' video, and listen to interviews with residents.
By contrast, the treatment of Berlin, trying to encompass the Reichstag, Jewish Museum and Potsdamer Platz on just one wall, seems very insubstantial, as does that of Chek Lap Kok. Oblique presentation can refresh a well- known scheme, but just four of Foster's advertisment display-panels, some Tubis bench-seats, and videotapes of passengers in transit takes obliqueness too far.
'Some nice exhibits but why are they here?' is one comment in the visitor's book. Along with the patchy explanation of its projects, 'Vertigo' - though diverting to visit - does seem like an arbitrary assemblage. Its accompanying book (Laurence King, 1999. 208pp. £19.95) is then obligatory for anyone seeking its raison d'etre, where the essays (Brian Hatton on Berlin, Martin Pawley on Chek Lap Kok) often compensate for the show's omissions, and Moore elaborates on his choices.
But, returning to the generic versus the specific, the taxonomy that governs both book and exhibition leaves unanswered questions. Chek Lap Kok is accommodated under the heading of 'international space', for instance, and Lake Las Vegas Resort under 'private housing': is the latter really supposed to be as representative of its type as the former? And, while Moore notes the current ascendancy of the theme-park and the 'imagineered', can't qualitative distinctions still be made? Doesn't the visitor to Latz and Partner's transformed Ruhrland steelworks at Duisburg-Nord find something more 'authentic' - both in what remains from the past and in the nature of the new - than the consumerist fictions of Ontario Mills?
City and countryside
Away from the city centre, with parkland in view, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is an apt enough place to find a very different urbanism - that of Frank Lloyd Wright. Claiming to offer 'a new way of understanding his continuing architectural development', this touring exhibition organised by the Vitra Design Museum aims to relate Wright's designs for different building types to his ideas about urban decentralisation. These were first outlined in The Disappearing City (1932), made tangible in the splendid 12ft-square model of Broadacre City (exhibited in 1935), and found final expression in The Living City (1958). The concept of the show is excellent - but not its execution.
The installation doesn't help. Visitors have to wait until they are half- way through before they find any exposition of the urbanist theme, being greeted intially - and arbitrarily - by a selection of Wright's 'buildings for worship'. When that exposition does come, its centrepiece is a newly made 'hypothetical study model' in plywood, which lacks the polychrome seductiveness of the Broadacre City model but incorporates revisions and additions from perspectives drawn for the 1958 book.
With their now bizarre predictions about road and air transport, these perspectives are from the time when Wright could have been a set designer for the sci-fi B-movies that were such a Cold War staple. The model omits these curios but not the architecture which Wright was working on at the same time; so kitschy Marin County Civic Center (1956-62) is conspicuous, placed in implausible proximity to the grandiose unbuilt Pittsburgh Point Park Civic Center (1948). Wright's late designs are seldom an advertisement for his urbanism.
With its 'minimum of an acre to the family', its welcoming of the highway and car, and flexible embrace of every facility that its citizens would need within a radius of 150 miles, Broadacre City - fusing city and countryside - was Wright's benign alternative to the suburban sprawl that he presciently anticipated. The ethos of the Garden City informs it as do the thoughts of Henry Ford, who in 1926 had proposed a linear city along 75 miles of the Tennessee River Valley. Not the least of its appeal lies in Wright's acceptance, but continual modulation, of the American grid, and his response to accidents of topography (now more apparent in the hillier new study model).
But these ideas aren't subject to any critical evaluation in the exhibition, with its minimal and simplistic texts - nor, for that matter, in the accompanying book (Vitra Design Museum/Skira, 1998. 334pp. £25. Distributor Thames and Hudson). What we have are clusters of wall-mounted lightbox reproductions of drawings, of built and unbuilt schemes, supplemented by pages from the Wasmuth folio and occasional photographs. Lightboxes give an image instant impact but they don't encourage its closer study, and the absence of original drawings, where personal touch is unmediated, soon becomes felt.
At intervals are islands of furniture and artefacts - leaded glass from the Avery Coonley Playhouse, a pentagonal chair from Florida Southern College - which only sometimes correspond to the thematic divisions of the show. Three striking models - of the H C Price Company Office Tower, The Mile High Illinois Skyscraper, and the Great Workroom of Johnson Wax - are very welcome, though if the last of these was closer to eye-level it could be examined without discomfort.
Broadacre City had its contemporary critics: Meyer Schapiro, for instance attacked its 'reactionary character' and Wright's disregard of 'the economic conditions that determine freedom and a decent living'. What of its legacy - its connection, perhaps, to development in the Netherlands and Northern Italy in recent years? And what of its relevance today? Wright's 'Living City' should be seen from the perspective of 'Vertigo', but visitors to the two shows must, unguided, draw their own conclusions.