I encountered an interesting bit of 'Shape-ism' on my travels last week, got me thinking about this whole absurdist argument again.
Depending on your point of view, 'Shape-ism' is either the most egotistical episode in the history of architecture, or it is architecture's dormant artistic wing rousing itself from a long hibernation.
Either way, 'Shape-ism' is out there in the ether, tranmitting subliminal messages to architects everywhere telling them that they are just one good blob or angular 'F' frame away from iconic standing and loadsamoney.
When did 'Shape-ism' start? with Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic Hall,or Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House in the 1950s? or did it not really start until Gehry got bored with deconstructivism and Libeskind started cutting up his shapes and winning competitions in the late 1980s?
If I had to stick my neck out, I would say the Sydney Opera House started it all, even if it took a long time before something approaching it's signiture status was delivered again with the glittering voluptous Bilbao Guggenheim and the grey angular severity of the Berlin Jewish Museum. The SOH had it all, the wilful, yet elegant shapes, the relaxed, almost accidental, composition, the sublime setting, enduring public adulation from the start and, best of all, it was designed, as a competition entry, by a virtually unknown Danish architect, giving hope to us all.
The 'Shapist' building I encountered last week, is an oceanographic museum, the Deutsches Meeresmuseum
in Stralsund, on the German Baltic coast. It was designed, also as a competition entry, by Behnisch Architekten of Stuttgart in 2001 and you can see in it a direct lineage through Bilbao to Sydney in the assemble of similar parts forming a casual composition above elements of a contrasting solid base or podium.
One of the most interesting aspects of the design is the wafer thin outer skin which happily swirls out over the adjacent cobbled streets and consists of huge steel plates moulded to the required shape and invisably fixed to the structure, as if held by magnetic force. The plates are perhaps 25mm thick and whereas there could have been a danger of the scheme ending up looking like a civil war iron clad, the whole thing is handled with a real lightness of touch that is smile, rather than anger, inducing. Oddly for German engineering, some of the steel plates do not perfectly line up, but I imagine that some sort of dental braces will be applied in due course to iron out these kinks.
Even in it's unfinished state, the museum looks to me to be, potentially, a very successful piece of 'Shape-ism' that proves again that the dynamic of a 'special' building and a wilfully 'expressionist' design is an irresistable combination that is anything but 'absurd'.
Where 'absurd' comes into the equation is where a wilful and horribly expensive 'Shape-ism' is employed on an 'ordinary' building, making simple things complex and contorting usable space into photgenic, but unusable, space and making faux opera houses out of office blocks until the logic is as twisted as the architecture.