Beyond Buildings


Playing with Blocks: The Mediocrity of MIPIM

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Abu Dhabi's presentation at the MIPIM. Courtesy Aaron Betsky.


I always wanted to go to MIPIM. “The international real estate show for professionals,” as it describes itself, might not be something American builders care about, but in the rest of the world, it has the same status as the film festival that takes place in the same city, Cannes. Every year, developers, financiers, city planners, and those architects, who want to turn their desires into concrete reality, descend on this resort to sell their wares. Imagine an AIA convention in which real estate financing mechanisms replace faucets, developers rather than architects are the stars, every town from Lyons, France, to Seoul, South Korea, touts its wares, and blue suits with red ties are a uniform—and you have MIPIM. I have never seen so many well-dressed men and women crowding around what at first seemed only something related to what I care about, architecture.


I was there as part of my duties as a member of the Urban Design Council for Skolkovo, the new city of science and arts that will soon start construction outside of Moscow, and I must say we put our best foot forward. The Skolkovo Foundation rented the second-largest tent of the fair, along the harbor, and filled it with models and interactive displays showing the work that Pierre Herzog, Kazuo Sejima, OMA, and many others had put into making this not-your-average new town.

Abu Dhabi's presentation at the MIPIM. Courtesy Aaron Betsky.


It was easy to stand out. The fair grounds abounded with plastic blocks representing apartment and office towers that will rise, if money, permissions, and buyers come together, in whatever community was presenting itself in that particular stand. I imagined all of it being built, from the shores of the Caspian Sea to far reaches of Eastern London, and a shiver went down my spine. In cities such as London and Paris, ambitions were as large as imagination was small—as was the likelihood of most of the internally lit baubles ever being occupied.


There were no more than three or four buildings I would like to see happen in the whole fair: a triangular block designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the outskirts of Paris; the Morphosis tower now under construction at La Defene in the same city; a few structures in a new neighborhood outside of Copenhagen; and the towers that my friend Andy Bromberg imagines flowing out of the underground high-speed train station he has designed for Hong Kong. For the rest: I hope they never rise. I hope all these blocks dotting Paris, London, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, remain just models.


The most you could say for most plans was that they would not completely destroy the urban environments in which they were supposed to rise.


Veterans to MIPIM tell me that I missed the glory days, when cities in China, the Stans, and even America (here only present, as far as I could see, with the mediocre projects for the rail yards west of Penn Station) presented visionary schemes that proposed new ways of living, working, and playing, as well as urban forms that would have rethought how we can come together as communities. I groaned when I entered the Dutch area (I learned about MIPIM there, and heard Dutch everywhere—surely they would be showing us how to build in an environmentally and socially sane manner that would create a sense of place?) But their collective effort was housed in some of the cheapest real estate in the back basement of the pavilion, and consisted of nothing but just more listless Lego blocks.


At least as I understand now what planning has become. As Boris Bernaskoni, the Russian architect who wandered through the fair with me, explained: “Planning is not planning. It is selling. It is like the beautiful women at the stands that make you want to invest.”


The final indignity I experienced was to walk out of the pavilion to the beaches of the Cote d’Azur, and see what a century or more of bad buildings can produce: a spectacular environment transformed into mindless blocks hogging space as close to the liminal sites as possible. As the sun set over the azure sea, and the pines stood out in dark against the orange of the dying light, I imagined what this world could be without developers–and the architects who work for them.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:33 PM Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    The Modern Architecture as a style is the refuge of architectural education’s truly dim bulbs. It is the home of the C student. That is to say, the student in design studio who could never produce anything of interest or originality but, more importantly, never had a glimmer of understand that what he/she presented had no interest or originality. The Modernist style is the ADA ramp for the dull who shuffle along long enough to reach senior firm positions. Modernism makes no sense to the observer. It makes architecture appears to be a lazy man’s profession. The simple truth is, it is Modernism is devoid of meaning. This is because the designers architects have nothing to say. Since 1950 it has been a settled science. Buildings in the style are of no lasting value and so can be razed every 20 years without an objection from the Historic Preservation Review Board. As for sustainability, the term really means the ability to be demolished hygienically.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.