Artistic practice as a tool for the conservation of the memory and essence of Modern architecture.
The case of the Lluís Vives Hall of Residence in Valencia. Spain.
Paco de la Torre; Eduardo Serrano
17th Docomomo International Conference
Docomomo International Conference 2022 Universitat Politècnica de Valencia. 2022
ISBN: 978-84-19286-58-1 / 978-84-19286-59-8
This communication draws on a reflection motivated by the conflict arising from the restoration of the Lluís Vives Hall of Residence of the University of Valencia.
The interpretation of the building’s degree of protection has led to a disagreement between the various institutions involved, which reveals the following question: How can the essence of modern architecture be defined in order to preserve its memory?
We will try to tackle this issue with the following objectives in mind. First of all, we will analyse the rehabilitation project and the different positions adopted by the actors involved. From the exposition of the case, we will address the concept of the building’s identity by studying the value of memory in architecture and the risk of heritage musealization. Through the study of different contemporary proposals, we will then present artistic practice as an alternative for the conservation of architectural memory, concluding with the contributions of the authors in reference to this case.
The case of the Lluís Vives Hall of Residence
The construction, included in the Iberian DOCOMOMO Register since 2009, is involved in a conflict caused by the questioning of the reform project proposed by the University of Valencia as the owner in 2012. The Lluís Vives Hall of Residence, built between 1935 and 1957 by Javier Goerlich Lleó (Valencia, 1886-1972), in addition to being the witness of an era and a true exponent of valencian university life, is one of the few remains of Spanish rationalist architecture-with its characteristic boat style- and a key element in 20th century Valencian architecture (Llopis, 2018, p. 64).
In defence of culture and its legacy, in 2013 the Goerlich Foundation appealed the proposed intervention for its adaptation as a residence for researchers. In its allegation report, it pointed out that the emptying of the building constituted a serious attack on the heritage. For its part, the local council refused the building permit, backed by the municipal heritage commission and fire service’s reports (G., 2013).
The works, announced for the year 2022, will follow the new rehabilitation proposal signed by the architect Tomás Llavador. The new proposal interprets the maximum level of intervention allowed to work in coherence with the listed values defended by the Foundation, thus, respecting the defining elements of the architectural structure. In this case, the interior open spaces, the heights and frameworks, the hierarchy of interior spaces, the main staircases, the façade, and the rest of the building’s features. All the singular elements will also be preserved, such as the exterior locks, the wooden joinery in the main hall and the decorative false ceiling on the ground floor.
Memory and architecture
In view of the issues posed by this case of architectural rehabilitation, it is worth questioning the operations of emptying architectural interiors in order to adapt them to new functions, as well as assessing the relevance of preserving their identity and memory.
Therefore, in order to define the overall identity of the building, we will review the relationship between form and function as key to the project developed by Goerlich. Adolf Loos (1972) broke with historicism by promoting modernity based on technical advances that allowed the forms and spaces to adapt to the needs of a studied and preconceived function. In rationalist architecture, form thus follows function (Sullivan, 2017, p. 4)and, hence the hall of residence should not renounce to its architectural programme if its identity is to be preserved.
If the utilitarian becomes aesthetic, relegated to a “museum relic” within a new space, it becomes a commodity in a capitalist world where design is complicit in a circuit of production and consumption where the packaging would replace the object itself. And the façade of the building would end up replacing its own identity, converted into an empty consumer product endorsed by its author through «a redemptive project of reunion and reanimation» accredited by the history of art (Foster, 2004, p. 71). The recovery of a historic building, with the aim of preserving our architectural heritage, would show us the danger of falling into its musealization as a witness to this redemptive will that attempts to maintain and revive the breath of a memory lost in another time.
The preservation of memory
In the case of modern architecture, we would be faced with an avant-garde style, historically misunderstood by citizens and politicians (Arean, 1995, p. 25), poorly built under obsolete rules and object of real estate speculation. The DOCOMOMO foundation reveals how to safeguard it by awarding rehabilitation projects , such as the one carried out by David Chipperfield Architects in the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. For its part, the institutional alternative is to grant legal protection managed by the city councils or to classify it as an Asset of Cultural Interest. The current urban museography is committed to a musealization of the gentrified city as a tourist attraction, converted into a location for travellers’ selfies to be exhibited as trophies on the walls of social networks (Augé, 2003, p. 66).
It is in this context that the so-called façadism, a practice based on the emptying of buildings and, by extension, of their memory, would triumph. It would be enough to maintain the architectural façades as the scenography of a set that fulfils the function of a theme park; a simulacrum that identifies a city that protects itself from globalisation by constructing a particular Disneyland, where architectural styles intermingle in a world of simulation (Baudrillard, 1978, p. 25). But we must not forget that rationalist architecture is more than just part of the heritage of the museum-quarter, turned into the unified spectacle of the economy of abundance (Debord, 1999, p. 68-69). It constitutes the testimony of a revolution, the failure of a utopia set out at the beginning of the 20th century, when creators thought that art could guide humanity towards a brighter future (Marchán, 1986, p. 24).
This conservative will of historiography, in Panofsky’s words, would not be faced with the task of stopping what would otherwise disappear unnoticed, but of reviving what would otherwise remain dead (1983, p. 32). This idealistic reanimation of the past would clash with the materialist perspective of Walter Benjamin, who reverses this question in the Thesis on the Philosophy of History by arguing that «to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it as it really was (…) it means to seize a memory when it flashes in a moment of danger» (1968, p. 255). In this way he challenges Panofsky’s approach, by emancipating the fragments of history from a dependence on the ritual re-enactment, allowing them to be aligned with political purposes.
The commitment to the prevalence of these spaces, understood from phenomenology as spaces of memory, would be inextricably linked to their identity. In our case, both Goerlich’s architectural conception – taking into account its form and function – and the life of the building itself – the experiences and memories of those who lived in it – would form the totality of its identity as a space. Memory, beyond dates, documents or images, would encompass a sum of intimate and collective stories that take place in an indeterminate time in the rooms of a specific space; matters of art and poetry that would form an essential part of the preservation of its identity.
Memory, understood as a vital human activity that defines the way we relate to our past, as Andreas Huyssen (1993) puts it, also defines us in the present. The Past, the building’s memory, is necessary to establish its identity and to find a vision of its future.
If we take up the function of this building as a residence, as a home for the generations of students who inhabited it, we will then understand that their memories are also linked to it’s identity. This leads us to ask, with Bachelard (1965), «What was, has been? Have the facts had the value that memory lends them? (p. 90). The hall of residence, after us, would come back to us, turning the whole reality of the souvenir into phantasmagoria. Memory would not be a solid, unique or absolute image, but would instead be shaped collectively by the memory and experience of its inhabitants, finding in artistic practice the means to reveal itself.
Contemporary artistic practice
By conceiving the Lluís Vives as an anthropological place (Augé, 2004), we are preserving a singular place where socio-pulsional trajectories converge. But let us not forget that in preserving heritage, we run the risk of falling into monumentalization, establishing a continuous timeline in which events, inaccurate memories, history and the experiences of a community, are mixed, as Fernández Mallo points out, far removed from the local reality of a present time (2018, p. 101).
As an alternative, contemporary artists propose through their practices a recovery of the non-melancholic space – via its uses, experiences and stories – as an alternative to this manipulated and fictionalised conservation of space. With the transition from object art to concept art (Marchán, 1986), the artist resorts to techniques from history, anthropology or the social sciences, giving a fundamental role to the archive (Guasch, 2011).
Below, we present some significant examples of artists who have worked on «the construction of the city in time» (Rossi, 1992, p. 60), reflecting on memory through archival practices to generate conceptual discourses about a new way of thinking about space, the past and the present, and their relationship with art (Guasch, 2021, p. 13).
For our case study, we highlight the objective photography used as a resource to transform the fragmentary or marginal material of a hidden fact, based on accumulation, sequentiality and series (Guasch, 2021, p. 206). This conception was advocated by Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1960s. Their use of the photographic archive as a legitimiser of cultural history proposes a perspective that breaks with the linearity of the historicist study of cultural memory. Their works are based on the repetition of the architectural icon, photographed through a strict frontal perspective and a wide shot of the object represented. The register of old German industrial architecture under the singularity of the object presents a clear anthropomorphic reference that would bring it closer to August Sander’s portraits. The images are organised according to typological series that respond to the premise of «accumulating and classifying a part of the collective memory based on the concept of repetition, typical of the hypomnemic archive» (Guasch, 2011, p. 52).
Bernd Hilla held the chair of photography, together with Hilla as assistant, at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where he transmitted his interest in documentary photography and architecture to the artists of the New Photography movement. In relation to our study, we have selected the work of Thomas Struth, in which we can appreciate the frontal perspectives and detailed observation of the passage of time and the traces inscribed on the buildings as a reflection of the ghostly human presence; an urban archaeology that, through the relationship between the individual and architecture, reveals the impact of historical processes on the collective memory, placing the spectator as co-responsible for his or her time and space.
Qualified as an “anarchitect”, Gordon Matta-Clark uses his artistic and architectural training to develop his interventions in buildings, called building cuts, where he manifests a critical activism against speculation and the capitalist use of architecture. Of this futile act of artistic resistance, carried out on buildings in the process of demolition, all that remains is the testimony of a memory on the verge of disappearing, registered in drawings, photographs and recordings. The work with these abandoned structures stems from his concern for the life of the city and the metabolization of old buildings (Moure, 2006, p.120). In Conical Intersect (1975) he made a complex cut-out of circles in a residential building, next to the Georges Pompidou Art Centre under construction, reflecting on the memory of a city that is disappearing in the face of the advance of progress.
Chisto and Jeanne-Claude develop their work around the space manipulated by mankind, offering a new vision of architecture and urbanism from the perspective of artistic practice. Particularly significant to us are their installations based on Wrapped, where, through this transforming principle, he creates a new vision of architecture. By wrapping the construction in his packages with his fabrics, he confronts us with the wrapping, the façade, preventing us from knowing its interior and its identity. A poetic image that drastically breaks the relationship between inside and outside, with which Christo claims the indivisibility of the space built in the architect’s mind. The image of the building hidden under the sheet questions the superficial gaze of the contemporary subject, demonstrating our inability to recognise a space that has lost its identity, reactivating our perception and thought: «revealing an object by concealing it» (Chiappini, 2006).
The Labyrinth Project collective, in collaboration with experimental artist Pat O’Neill, realised the project The Decay of Fiction (2002). An archaeological exploration of the role in Hollywood’s story of the famous Ambassador Hotel at the onset of decadence, evoking the feeling of nostalgia coupled with the notion of loss. Its Cocoanut club, from the opening in 1920, had been the stage for the nightlife of the city of Los Angeles. The complex was demolished in 2008, due to the technical impossibility of preserving part of its structure as a testimony. However, it would be preserved in the interactive DVD-ROM where the piece is presented, allowing users to access its memory through multiple layers of reality in the form of fiction and non-fiction structured through the use of architectural elements and a database-narrative.
To conclude with the exhibition of proposals put forward by artistic practices for the conservation of architectural memory, we present the contributions of the authors with reference to the Lluís Vives Hall of Residence.
Paco de la Torre will work in his audiovisual essay Humor vítreo (2007), which addresses the memory of his stay in the facilities of the residence as a student during his Fine Arts studies in the eighties. The study of pictorial space has been present in his work since the beginning of his career, with painted architecture acquiring an autobiographical role from the time he tackled the work of the rationalist architect Guillermo Langle. Years later, the discovery of Goerlich as the author of the school and its rationalist style led him to reflect on the place he had lived in. Based on the film Last year in Marienbad by Alain Resnai, discovered in the residence television room, he establishes a filmic parallelism between the main hotel and the Lluís Vives. Through the insertion of still images from his pictorial series based on his school experiences, he elaborates a personal vision of an architecture destined to lose its memory.
In Reservat Col-legials (2022), Eduardo Serrano reflects on the memory of architectural space through archive images. In his work, furniture is presented as a silent witness of memory, as well as a reflection of an era in the present, given its capacity to become a container of stories. As he has proposed throughout his research and artistic career, through the dialogue between images and signs, he develops events that took place in an inaccurate time that return to offer us a new story. These keys are present in works such as Biting the dust (2020) or Futures that became present (2019), which make up this graphite on paper where he investigates the memory associated with the Lluís Vives building.
Having carried out the development based on our objectives, we can respond to our hypothesis in a positive way by the prior identification, in the studied artistic proposals, of alternative keys for the conservation of the essence of modern architecture.
The role of memory in this preservation process would be inextricably linked to form and function, shaping the building’s identity. Therefore, as an alternative to the musealization or extinction of these spaces, we propose a preservation of their memory through interpretation and collective experience; a matter that is object of study in contemporary art through archival practices and interdisciplinary techniques coming from history, anthropology or social sciences.
We will conclude by pointing out that the identity of the architectural space is shaped as much by its function as by its form and its memory, and that artistic practices represent a possible way of projecting this legacy into the future.
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