And the Band Played On

Every once in a while, an event reflects the cultural currents in an uncanny way, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist. The Marché International des Professionnels de l’Immobilier (MIPIM) is one of those singular gatherings. Held in Cannes, France, and promoted as “the annual exhibition, conference and networking event for the international real estate industry,” it’s the celebrated film festival without the celebrities. Rather than paparazzi and A-list actors, there are mobs of anonymous businessmen (very few women) dressed in black and carrying briefcases like the villains from The Matrix. At the intersection of real estate investment and architecture, MIPIM is a massive spectacle of power and decadence that dwarfs the American Institute of Architects’ National Convention and the Venice Biennale.

I heard about MIPIM through Zaha Hadid, who was charmingly disarmed during a lunch with one of the Pritzker Prize jurors. She effusively suggested that I attend the conference to meet new clients and get fabulous jobs. Who am I to deny Zaha in a moment of unguarded generosity? Thousands of dollars later—the entry fee alone was about $2,500—I can say that Zaha understated the magnitude of the event. Begun in 1990 as a modest gathering of about 3,000 developers, investors, and architects on the docks of Cannes, it now hosts more than 29,000 attendees. Convention halls overflow into numerous adjoining pavilions, tents, and even huge yachts, representing banks and devel­opers such as Tishman Speyer and the biggest one of all, Aldar, the property-development firm of Abu Dhabi.

The setting is spectacular, an unparalleled site where the medieval town atop the hill overlooks the Mediterranean. The Croisette, a curving 19th-century boulevard, extends along the city’s harbor, where the great hotels—the Majestic Barrière, the Carlton, and the Martinez—double as event locations. Tents were set up directly on the Mediterranean for late-night parties. The entire inner and outer harbor was filled with floating palaces, the setting for private meetings and nightly parties straight out of Octopussy.

MIPIM now spans some 1.1 million square feet in Cannes; the original stands occupied just 84,000 square feet in the festival hall. Here, I was fortunate to have as my guide Gene Kohn, of Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects (KPF), the éminence grise of MIPIM, who began attending in 1991 after hearing that Bernardo Fort-Brescia, of Arqui­tectonica, had gotten two projects here. I worked at KPF years ago and have fond memories of the firm. Walking around with Gene, who is a bona fide celebrity here, gave an insight into the workings of MIPIM. It’s a schmoozefest, a networking event in the digital age, bringing the global marketplace back to the scale of human interaction. All the ­players—developers, investors, brokers, bankers, marketing firms, and architects—socialize, catch up with one another, and learn about new opportunities. Architects are poorly represented; those who attend mostly hail from the elephantine corporate firms with initialed monikers (SOM, HOK, HKR, et al.) and European companies that have lately been behaving like the mergers-and-acquisitions departments of the financial world. RMJM, for example, has bought Hillier (no small potato itself), and Aedas has absorbed Davis Brody Bond. (KPF seems quaint for having actual living partners.)

On the main level of the hall, grandstands exhibited the latest development projects of the great cities of Europe in over-the-top displays that recalled automobile and boat shows. Looking to attract investors, especially in the Russian sections, stunning, leggy Bond-type “hostesses” stood beside models of turgid towers. These statuesque Amazons caressing the tops of luminous erections were a perfect pairing of sex and real estate. As in the AMC drama Mad Men, time at MIPIM has stood still since 1960. Metrosexuals need not apply.

London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Hamburg, and Berlin all had gigantic displays. A model half the size of a basketball court depicted the city of London. I had to wonder: Where was New York? Even just to attract euros, it would behoove Mayor Bloomberg to drop the provincialism and dispatch the city’s planning director, Amanda Burden, to represent La Grande Pomme.

Within each city model, new projects were represented by intricate LED-illuminated plastic maquettes. Most towers were straight out of German Expressionism and Bruno Taut’s City-Crowns of glass. Flickering flames and facets are the style du jour and “twist and shout” the theme. Even Bob Stern is not immune. The architect whose reputation is based on traditional design and faux-Italian villas has gone à la mode in Paris with a faceted glass tower in La Défense for Aviva France with the Hines Organization. Next to the Grande Arche, Morphosis’s tower looks like a cross between a horse’s hoof and a dog bone. Clearly, the age of theory and ideology in architecture is long over. What Thom Mayne is trying to accomplish at La Défense—with a hell of shapes out of Hieronymus Bosch—is beyond me. Unfortunately, the building will be so tall that it will be visible from old Paris as well.

To the surprise of many, Sir Norman Foster presented his four Russian projects to whoever happened to show up at his unpublicized event in the RussianLand display. You know that sustainable architecture is fast becoming a disingenuous sales tool when Foster proclaims, “In Russia today, green and sustainable architecture are the most important parts of the design!” This for a spiky, triangular tower that also had “two means of escape on every floor.” (Now we’re talking about the new Russia!) Thankfully, two other low-scale projects in Moscow and St. Petersburg actually fit into the neighboring historic fabric. In the Siberian town of Khanty-Mansiysk, a place in the middle of nowhere that has clearly caught Bilbao fever, Foster also designed a bizarre tower that looks like a frozen gas flame. Another Foster project, called Orange, was literally the shape and color of the fruit, unpeeled, sliced, elevated, and opened up (condos, of course). Winy Maas, of MVRDV, also attended, giving a lecture that seemed way too academic for this crowd. Using his typology of architectural themes, he showed a variety of his projects using a panoply of evocative words.

For years, architects have wanted to be acknowledged as adding value to developer buildings. Now that they’ve gotten what they asked for, it’s not a pretty picture. It’s hard to know what’s worse: the repetitive, Mies-inspired buildings of the 1950s or the preening, narcissistic, pseudo-sculptural expres­sions that litter today’s architectural landscape. Urban planning has suffered the most. Towers are now strewn helter-skelter without any sense of order or place-making. Landscape and siting issues have generally been discarded, with nothing to substitute as a tenable alternative.

There were Russian developments that looked more like jeweled brooches or music boxes than city plans. Dubai was the rock-bottom pit, where architects have been asked to come up with ever-wackier shapes—just as long as they’re not what the other guy has built. Mostly, there were glassy modern towers of every shape and size. For all the straining desire for novelty, there was a queasy sameness to most of the designs. One longs for Kenneth Frampton’s “critical regionalism” in this bulimic sea of construction (and we haven’t even begun to consider MIPIM Asia).

The event culminated with the awards ceremony, an extravaganza that made the Oscars seem tepid. With a Bob Barker–like emcee accompanied, of course, by a buxom blond, awards were given out in categories that acknowledged the best built projects of the past year. The campy quality of the presentation, with cheesy background music and wafting plumes of dry ice, at first seemed amusing but actually diminished the serious achievements of many of the projects. There were some good ones in each category, including green buildings, towers, large urban projects, offices, residential, retail and leisure, renovation, and adaptive reuse. The award went to the entire team of developer and architect. This year, after 19 years in the desert, KPF finally won a MIPIM Award for the Unilever House, in London, a “refurbished historic office building.”

Tents were set up for a mile along the strand of the Croisette, where the Mediterranean lies straight up against the narrow beach. On the last night, I showed up at the party of the Mirax Group, a conglomerate of Russian developers, where the nearly naked tattooed dancers gyrating atop pedestals set the tone for the vodka-drenched affair, as laser lights sliced the tent from boats deep in the harbor. Drunken revelers fell headlong into the sea as the music played on. Real estate, architecture, and the apocalypse of money, sex, and power, a lurid story of yore, were being replayed at high volume on the beach of Cannes. Unfortunately, as Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only plant vines.” Alas, the best parties were at the end of the Roman Empire. And yet, will I attend MIPIM next year? You bet!

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