Monday, 12 October 2009

SEFO - Return of the Blob?

The planned Central European Forum is intended to be a modern art gallery and museum of world class, so an innovative, memorable and striking work of modern architecture is ideal. But does such a thing belong in the centre of the second largest, second most valuable historic preservation zone in the Czech lands?

The purpose of the Forum is to provide a space for Central European art as an entity. The project documentation points out that fine art in the “neighboring countries has many similar one has ever attempted to cover and present it systematically in its entirety”. And that “Forum is a much wider term than museum or gallery. Apart from its essential activities, various discussions, lectures symposiums and other events will be organised”.

The planned buildings of Central European Forum (Středoevropské Forum or SEFO) will be an extension of the Olomouc Museum of Modern Art on Denisova ulice where five historic houses were demolished in 1969. The site is currently vacant but if funding is obtained for the project it should be completed and opened to the public by 2014. The first proposed designs for the Central European Forum were presented to the public last week and have provoked enthusiastic debate.

The modern design is for buildings of poured concrete mimicking the height and shape of the residential houses along the street, but with a smooth finish devoid of any decorative detail. In addition to exhibition halls, the forum will include a library, bookstore, performance space, garden amphitheatre, cafe, and multimedia archives. Director of the Olomouc Art Museum, Pavel Zatloukal says "The new museum will not be a place where people whisper and walk on tiptoes. On the contrary, we want visitors to become active participants creatively and artistically" and therefore generous space will be reserved for artistic activities.

The plans for the forum are the subject of an exhibition in the Olomouc Museum of Modern Art lasting until next Sunday the 18th, or you can see photo galleries here and here and a virtual tour here or here.

Opponents to the design say that it looks like a air raid shelter and the style of architecture doesn't belong in the valuable historic centre of baroque Olomouc. The site is directly opposite the recently restored Stará Škola ( the oldest part of Moravia's oldest university) and the monumental baroque church of the Virgin Mary of the Snows.

Olomoucký Deník explains that priest Pavel Bačo will look across at the forum every day and quotes him as saying the design is “like a fist in the face. That style of architecture doesn't belong here and it would be better to build nothing at all than something like that. If there's a petition against the design, I'll support it”.

There's an impassioned discussion on this website but like most internet discussions the commentators say more about themselves than they do about the subject. Between the pointless insults, the consensus among opponents to the design is that it doesn't suit its surroundings. Some compare it to a crate of milk bottles waiting to be collected, a mouthful of teeth with one missing or a row of recycling bins. Supporters say it's outstanding and original and compare it to the Kunsthaus in Graz, the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Eiffel tower.

One prominent supporter of the design is city mayor Martin Novotný who likes the suggestion of the five buildings that previously stood on the site and says that the design is memorable enough to become its own logo. Mayor Novotný was however careful to point out that his opinions don't represent an official reaction from city hall and that a vigorous public discussion can only be good. The National Historic Preservation Authority is yet to publicly comment.

For my part, I'm really not sure what to think. It's reassuring that the same architects are those responsible for the wonderful interiors of the Olomouc Archdiocese Museum, I'm a fan of Prague's dancing building and I'd be pleased to see architect Kaplicky's blob library go ahead. Any city would be proud to have a museum like Graz's Kunsthaus or Bilbao's Guggenheim.

The thing about daring projects though, is risk. Sometimes you get away with them and sometimes you don't. If this version of the SEFO project goes ahead successfully, Olomouc will reclaim its place among the cultural capitals of Central Europe. If it turns out looking like grain silos or an air raid shelter, it will spoil a prominent part of the historic centre and confirm the prejudices of smug Praguers who think that everything past the end of their Metro line is an overgrown village populated by mullet-wearing bumpkins.

While I'd like to think Olomouc has the pizzazz to bring this off, I'm not completely convinced. What do you think?


sansIcarus said...

Hiya Oddsocks,

I love this quote: "like most internet discussions the commentators say more about themselves than they do about the subject." It's brilliant.

I love the design concept. It has a gorgeous aesthetic where the unfilled flat space is really striking.

I think people have a tendency to want to fill blank spaces - physically, with advertising, or in terms of conversation they feel a need to fill every silence with their own voice.

There's a stillness to the design which reminds me so much of what can be beautiful about silence.

Michael Svec said...

The interior spaces look great but the outside just doesn't do it for me. My first responses was also ugly milk cartons. I would prefer that space be filled with something that is at least complementary to the surroundings like the dancing building in Prague which does match the surrounding building's scale but makes it own striking contribution. Architecture is personal preference and I don't like the large cold feeling and the lack of connection to outside or the surroundings. I think that building would make a more striking comment if it stood by itself in a park surrounded by green trees that provide contrast, not in the city center. Besides, why do something to impress Praguers, the only mullet I saw in Moravia was one in Ostrava worn by a 10 year old.

Mark Webster said...

My initial reaction was "wow". But further study leaves me uncertain. It's bold but I'm not sure it's the kind of modern that will endure. I reckon it will also get dirty and that will make it look rough. But, you wont be able to miss it and its design will undoubtedly be a draw - so in that sense perhaps the building will be a tremendous success.

sansIcarus said...

Another thing I like about the facade is that it's essentially creating a public canvas. Artists can be commissioned, perhaps on a to bi-annual basis, to put a design on the front of the building.

Francie said...

I think the interiors look great but the exterior is for me a problem. I'll be willing to accept that the final result will likely turn out better than the mock-up suggests, but without colour and texture, it really just looks like unwashed milk bottles sitting in front of someone's door.

Now, if they filled those milk bottles with 'flavoured milk' that adds a bit of colour and go a little further to reminding us of the buildings that used to be there, then I won't be in opposition.

Just think of what it would look like on a grey sky day otherwise.

Captain Oddsocks said...

I really like the interiors too. In one of the performance halls there are going to be stands that move around on rails, and there are other playful little touches that don't come out so well in the photographs. (try the video tour).

The exterior though I'd like to see moved back from the street a few metres. That way it would only be visible when you reach it and not intrude on the historic streetscape.

The open space created in front could be home to trees, sculptures, water and light installations and would make a space to meet friends before and after performances.

As the design stands now, it's not going to be much of an improvement over the current wooden fence. Unless you're a graffiti artist in search of a smooth surface.

Francie said...

I very much agree with the idea that the buildings could be moved back off the street front. A metre or two would make the difference and would give the building a chance to be judged on it own merit, rather than as something that degrades its surroundings.

I still think colour would help too.