Masterpieces are dumb

by Davide Tommaso Ferrando, Martina Motta, Giacomo Pala, Bettina Siegele

The first recordings of the word “masterpiece” (1) date back to the guild system of the late 16th century. Originally, the term was used to indicate a piece of work that an apprentice had to produce in order to become a master craftsman (2). The work would be judged by a commission and, in case of a positive evaluation, the author would be entitled to a guild membership (3). Today, the word has acquired a quite different and loose meaning, being commonly used to indicate a work of outstanding quality: possibly (not necessarily) the greatest in the career of its author; widely praised by critics, theorists and historians; and influential enough to generate its own lineage of works. As far as its meaning is historically defined, and therefore subject to change, it is fair to question if the concept of masterpiece indicates properties that are already inherent in a designated object, that are produced by its interaction with a particular network of actors, or that emerge from a dialectic between the former and the latter.

The case of the German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929 is quite exemplary in this sense. Although positioned in a visible location, during its six-months of existence the building went almost unnoticed by the specialized press, which seemed incapable of detecting its relevance (4). Dismantled in 1930, it is only from the 1950s that the pavilion became recognized as one of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, mainly thanks to the mediatic impact of a 1947 MoMA exhibition by Philip Johnson, which was entirely dedicated to Mies. In the critical text of the catalogue, whose cover shows what has now become the most iconic photograph of the Pavilion, Johnson describes the project as “the culminating achievement of Mies’s European career”, “one of the milestones of modern architecture” and “truly one of the few manifestations of the contemporary spirit that justifies comparison with the great architecture of the past” (5). And yet Johnson – who had already reviewed the very same project, although with much less enthusiasm, in the catalogue of the International Style exhibition of 1932 (6) – had never seen the Barcelona Pavilion in person: having missed the exhibition, he could only look at its black and white pictures and drawings, just like the majority of the critics who raised it to the status of masterpiece in the following years.

The story of the Barcelona Pavilion is relevant, since it clearly shows some of the factors to  be taken into consideration, every time the topic of the masterpiece is investigated. These include, among others: the agency of media and language, the tension between the object and its representations, the weight of authors and institutions, the existence of meta-prescriptions, the change in perspective produced by historical distance, the comparison with the great works of the past as well as their canonization. Still, it should be stressed how these factors too, are historically defined, and therefore subject to change. The role currently played by exhibitions in the production of architectural knowledge, for example, is hardly comparable to that of the 1950s: not only due to the proliferation of this specific kind of media, but also for the dramatic changes that are affecting architectural culture under the influence of digital communication technologies, which participate in questioning the formats and functions architecture exhibitions should assume.

Things get complicated further by the fact that the current multiplication of architectural genres, design methods and languages (as predicted by Charles Jencks (7) and definitively stated by Ignasi de Solá-Morales (8)), has somehow hindered the possibility of establishing clear values and hierarchies among a growing diversity of seemingly unrelated projects – what is more relevant: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Shed, Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy, Valerio Olgiati’s Plantahof Auditorium, Eric Owen Moss’ Culver City, or Andrés Jaque’s COSMO? 

What is more, the progressive extension of architectural practices toward disciplines and techniques that do not necessarily involve the design of buildings, has put into question the traditional notion of the architectural work, at the very same time in which, paradoxically, we witness a renewed interest in the architectural object and so-called disciplinary issues. And what about our relationship with the past? It is by now very clear that the contemporary is not even synchronous with itself, therefore, we must deal with the fact that some past projects may be fresher, or even more timely, than others built or designed today.

But just as many great works from the past have been forgotten and then rediscovered, what is today considered to be a masterpiece may not necessarily be so in some decades, and vice versa. On top of that, the common research strategy of extrapolating meaning and value from works that were never meant to be architecturally relevant, but that are nonetheless capable of expressing in a paradigmatic way a particular historical, cultural, social or political condition – the Strip, the Downtown Athletic Club, the Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment – has gradually weakened the narrative of the masterpiece as the main object of architectural scrutiny. Obvious and common-sense consequence: if anything goes, everything is architectureand we can learn from Las Vegas, one may be led to think that we don’t need masterpieces after all. But is it really that simple?

It is hard to deny that our understanding of architecture is based on a solid sequence of masterpieces, which compose the personal traditions from which we observe, understand, criticize and then participate in architectural culture. In this sense, it can be argued that one of the very foundations of architectural education has always been the construction and transmission of highly selected atlases of paradigmatic projects: a function that was once shared with architecture magazines and books, and that has now been taken over by digital archives on Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, which provide students and professionals with their own boards of forgotten architectures – but is it possible to forget after Google? Or, even: is it possible to remember at all?

And yet, it is enough to do some online search to observe how the word masterpiece is being still used, although more often in non-specialized than in specialized platforms: mostly to praise the iconic works of mainstream architectural firms (9), or to legitimize real estate operations (10) without formulating any critical judgment on them. As if the concept had become another taboo within highly-refined-cultural-circles: something too obscene to use, if not to bring back to memory the unachievable works of the masters of the past. Thus the word, from pointing to a category capable of disclosing a more articulate understanding of what architecture can be and do at its best, ends up turning into a tool for propaganda in the hands of constructors, politicians and PRs.

Still present in our language, the word masterpiece has changed its meaning and function with the passing of time. Our aim is thus to understand if the new meanings and functions it has acquired, allow us to draw a map of the territories in which artistic practices move today. Where does the traditional meaning of the concept of masterpiece come from? What are the actors that collaborate in defining a masterpiece? How do politics, economy, technology and media influence the use of this concept, if they do? Is the masterpiece pre-defined by a certain number of notions? If so: how are these created? Is the abandonment of these notions problematic or desirable? What function does the concept of masterpiece perform in contemporary culture? How has the concept of masterpiece evolved in different artistic fields? How is academic education involved in the formulation of this concept? These are only some of the questions that Viceversa bits aims to address.

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1. Translation from the Dutch meesterstuk: “work by which a craftsman attains the rank of master”.

2. In any craft, from painting to goldsmithing.

3. An echo of this custom can be found today in art and architecture academies, where students are asked to submit a diploma work in order to graduate.

4. Beatriz Colomina, La Domesticitad en Guerra (Barcelona: Actar, 2006), p.170.

5. Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1947), p. 58.

6. Modern Architecture: International Exhibition (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1932), p. 115.

7. Charles Jencks, Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods(London: Studio Vista, 1971), pp.46-47.

8. Ignasi de Solá-Morales, Differences (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1997)

9. Sam Lubell, “25 Masterpieces That Prove 2016 Was an Incredible Year for Architecture”, Wired, December 30, 2016.

10. Amy Dobson, “Zaha Hadid’s Futuristic New York Masterpiece On The Market For $50M”, Forbes, November 5, 2018.

© Bettina Siegele 2020

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