Screenshot of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Google Maps Street View
Google Maps Screenshot of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Google Maps Street View

Writing about the commissioning of Smiljan Radic to design this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion earlier this week was difficult for me, because I have never seen his work in person. I try to make it a rule never to write about subjects with which I am unfamiliar, of course, but in the case of art and architecture criticism, that stance takes a particular form: If a work has been made, I do not want to write about it unless I can experience it.

In these days of instant, high-quality reproductions (like on the Google Art Project), in which you can virtually walk through just about anything—including the villa once inhabited by former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych—that might not seem so logical. However, I hold to the idea that seeing either a work of art or a building in the flesh is a radically different experience than seeing it as a reproduction.

Screenshot of featured Google Art galleries
Google Art Project Screenshot of featured Google Art galleries

A large part of that difference is due to context. In the case of a work of art, that means, more often than not, an art museum. Museums are giant frames. Not just the building, but everything from the advertising to the guards to the lighting to the labels can help contextualize the work of art, heightening its importance and our ability to see everything in it that is worth knowing. The work of art might not have been made for that setting, but its meaning and its beauty now depends both on its literal placement, and on the place it takes in a wider cultural discussion.

In the case of buildings, it is their setting that does the trick. Even when a building is the result of a standardized design, it reacts so strongly with what is around it that I cannot imagine seeing it loose from that environment. Ironically, it is often the most abstract buildings that have the strongest relationships, exactly because they become blank slates that heighten our awareness of what is around. That does not mean, by the way, that buildings always need to fit in. Some of the world’s best buildings, from the Pantheon or the Taj Mahal to the Chapel at Ronchamp or Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, do the opposite.

There is also something about the very materiality of works that you have to experience in real life. Even if you can see every brushstroke in a high-quality reproduction, or can walk through every room of a building, our ability to apprehend the relationships between the nuances of each work’s elements get lost in the flattening of reproductions. In architecture, there is the added dimension of the haptic or spatial relations that create a strong resonance with our body and that do not exist in a virtual fly-through.

Beyond such factors, there are larger issues at play. A bigger context, such as whether you experience something alone in a field or in the middle of a city after worming your way there through narrow streets, is of importance. So are the economic and social issues that might be present in function, but extend much further than the building’s singularity. I would argue that what makes a building good has a great deal to do with being able to crystallize such forces so that we become aware of them not as abstractions, but as a built reality.

For all these reasons, it is difficult for me to tell whether Radic is a truly good architect, or whether he is a good weaver of tales whose buildings photograph well. I suspect the former, which is why I await the construction of the Serpentine Pavilion with such eagerness.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.