The ruins of the future
The end of 2015 brings the curtain down on one of the more peculiar constructions in the greater Bilbao area. The abandoned Vizcaya Amusement Park, a singular example of brutalist architecture, is due to come under the wrecking ball, joining a number of other examples of the genre to be abandoned and demolished over the last year.
The brutalist style is characterised by repetitive angular geometries and the fact that both the concrete used and the textures of the moulds are left visible. It takes its name from the French term béton brut (raw concrete). The movement developed on some of Le Corbusier’s ideas of the utopian city. Through the “Unité d’habitation” (or housing unit), Le Corbusier had sought to standardise production of a model that would provide housing units to preserve the privacy of individuals while at the same time freeing up more space for public life.
The model was intended to be installed anywhere in the world. However, by the 1970s, it had come under criticism for its anonymity and coldness and sometimes even for a lack of functionality and the segregation it fostered. Indeed, in reacting against it, some postmodern architectures fell into the trap of going to the other extreme, creating the staged, thematized city.
Nonetheless, as an architectural style, brutalism also spawned some truly unusual and important constructions, even though in more contemporary times it has sometimes been dubbed “brutist”, and even considered inappropriate for certain urban contexts. However, other perspectives have sparked debates about the heritagization and consequent protection of these architectures.
One recent example is the case of the Orange County Government Center in Goshen (New York State). The building had lain in disuse for decades until in 2011 it was damaged (though not severely) by Hurricane Irene, bringing it back into the field of public debate. New York architect Gene Kaufman proposed buying the building to transform it into a residence for artists with an exhibition space; in parallel, he offered to design an adjoining building to house the new government centre at a much lower cost than that initially envisaged by Orange County. Although many felt that Kaufman’s offer represented a good opportunity for both the building as such and Orange County more widely, the proposal was vetoed by the executive, which instead opted to demolish the 43 year-old building, leading to accusations of overspending and nepotism. Other examples of brutalist architecture demolished in 2015 include the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, designed by John M. Johansen, in Baltimore and John Madin’s Central Library for Birmingham, England.
The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, designed by John M. Johansen, in Baltimore in 2008. (Allie Caulfield/Flickr)
The Vizcaya Amusement Park differs in one respect from these other examples – it is sited outside the city of Bilbao, high on the slopes of Mount Artxanda. The complex was built in the early 1970s during an economic boom time for the city, to provide a venue for a family day out. From the outset, however, the project ran into a series of problems, with the park’s out-of-the-way location meaning that it failed to attract the anticipated crowds. Finally, after 25 years lying derelict, with a high cost in surveillance, it has been decided to demolish the complex. In recent years, it had attracted a new brand of visitor, with guided tours for people who were children during the park’s heyday and now returned to reflect on the park and the city. Organisers included the cultural production company consonni, which published a booklet with texts and images on this abandoned icon, together with a website.
The Vizcaya Amusement Park
The park hosts a fascinating juxtaposition of brutalist constructions (typical of their time) and other lighter architectures (such as the pyramids that dominate the complex), in a sort of impossible synthesis between the community utopia of Le Corbusier and the staged architectural postmodernity of Las Vegas. Throw the current dereliction into the mix and the who spectacle begins to look not just like another example of a project abandoned through lack of political will (or the impossibility of rehabilitating it), but as a metaphor for the failure of modernist utopias and the subsequent postmodern boom in banal spectacularization. From a more contemporary position, though one cannot help seeing it as a sort of sign, a memory of the future of the welfare state, in which we run the risk of seeing ruins as contemporary monuments, and vice versa.