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The universal value of architecture

Paul Finch
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Post-election honeymoons are good times to reflect on fundamental values, writes Paul Finch

In 2013, the World Architecture Festival’s theme was ‘Value and Values’ – ie the economic, cultural and social value that architecture brings to individuals, communities and cities; but also the ideas and attitudes that inform the life of the profession.

I was reminded of this last Friday, when, in the wake of the extraordinary election result (which I predicted publicly at an AHR Architects’ dinner two months ago), I flew to Barcelona for the awarding of the EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture, the Mies van der Rohe Award. As the ceremony took place in the Mies Pavilion, WAF memories were accentuated, since we had the privilege of using the pavilion for celebration receptions and dinners when our festival was located in that superb city. On this occasion it was stuffed with chairs and  TV cameras, finalists, local architects, politicians and EU big-wigs.

A speech by one of the latter suggested that the Mies Award represents the importance of European values, though exactly what these were was not specified, other than that they involved ‘tearing down walls’ (hastily followed by the assertion that this was of course accompanied by the expression of identity). Something to think about as we sipped Cava and nibbled dainties on the pavilion terrace afterwards.

An exhibition of the best of the 420 submissions to the award was held later that evening in a converted olive oil factory in Poblenou, the former industrial area given a makeover as part of the 1992 Olympics programme. The exhibition was good, albeit the only opening in living memory where neither food nor drink were available, not even water.  This was surely an abandonment of at least one significant cultural aspect of European values – the convivial celebration of success.

The Mies winner represented the multi-national nature of architectural production

The Mies winner (The Filharmonia Szczeci´nska by Barcelona-based Barozzi Veiga), certainly represented the multi-national nature of architectural production, and therefore conformed to the notion that national boundaries are there to be eroded. Presumably the fact that the winner was a response to destruction during World War II also helped, that conflict no doubt interpreted as the nadir of the idea of the nation state.

A little thought cast doubt on this proposition, coinciding as it did with VE celebrations across Europe. Hitler’s idea of eroding boundaries is obviously not something the EU would admire, though it certainly supported his one-currency proposition with relish. Unfortunately, a long line of political figures have supported the idea of a united Europe, provided it is under their control. From Roman emperors to Charlemagne to Napoleon and Adolf himself, control begins to look like a value system in operation, extended via colonialism across the world. Only one thing has ever stopped megalomaniacs and colonialists from succeeding: the resistance of countries, either nascent or existing.

Western leaders’ shameful failure to be represented at the VE event in Moscow (WWII deaths: 25 million) is partly understandable in the case of the German president. It won’t do for the war allies, whatever is happening in Ukraine. I don’t suppose one can count amnesia as a European value, though it appears to be increasingly convenient when it comes to sanctions, whether economic or cultural.

My overall conclusion, having listened to the speeches and looked at some wonderful architecture in the Mies Award exhibition, is that architecture is more about universal values than those of one community, country or continent.  There is little point in being a Little European in a world where innumerable barriers have been elided, but those of country and language remain, a reminder, like architecture, of the benefits of difference.

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