Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Euro Bridges and Other Imaginary Architecture

“Everything you can imagine is real.” - Pablo Picasso

Robert Kalina’s bridges are amongst the most well known landmarks in Europe. The only problem is that they don’t actually exist.  

When the European Union introduced its common currency in 2002, Euro banknotes were introduced in seven denominations. One side of the notes displays images of windows or gates drawn from Europe's cultural history from the Classical to the modern, representing Europe's openness and cooperation.

With respect to individual national sensitivities of the Euro nations, Austrian artist Kalina designed seven fictional bridges to illustrate the reverse of the notes.  This use of imaginary architecture artfully avoided the difficulty of allocating any specific nationality to banknotes that would be shared across the union of 23 countries.

Now, a decade later, Dutch designer Robin Stam is building all seven bridges for real.  They will span the canal that borders a new estate in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam.  The first six bridges have been completed, beginning with a red Romanesque bridge from the €10 note and an orange bridge in the Renaissance style from the €50 note.  These were followed by the €20 Gothic, €100 Baroque and Rococo, €200 iron and glass and €500 modern bridges, each tinted in the distinctive colours of their respective banknote designs. 

Robin Stam's Bridges of Europe

For Stam, the proposal began as something of a playful joke until the enthusiastic Local Authorities in Rotterdam encouraged him to realise the project.  This whimsical demonstration of the direct influence of art on life, however, is not a particularly new idea.

Leonardo da Vinci may not have invented the helicopter but he did draw the first picture of one.  Unrestrained by humdrum practicalities, artists and writers have long dreamed up countless theoretical ideas, situations and inventions.  It stands to reason that eventually many of them will become a reality.

It is often observed how writers of Science Fiction have informed much of our science fact.  Carl Sagan, the noted scientist and writer of Science Fiction, reflected eloquently on this relationship in Pale Blue Dot, a non-fiction book that explores the place of humanity in the universe:
"As far as I know, the first suggestion in the scientific literature about terraforming the planets was made in a 1961 article I wrote about Venus. The idea was soon taken up by a number of science fiction authors in the continuing dance between science and science fiction - in which the science stimulates the fiction and the fiction stimulates a new generation of scientists, a process benefiting both genres."
Conceptual pioneers from Da Vinci to Sagan not only inspired technological advances but also the language and look of the future.

The proposed Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid and its fictional inspiration, the Tyrell Building
from Blade Runner (1982).  The Mega-City Pyramid is currently awaiting the sufficient technological
advances to allow its construction.

In a similar but vastly more ambitious example of a fictional architecture made real, the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid is a proposed project for the construction of a massive pyramid over Tokyo Bay in Japan. If completed, the structure would be 14 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza and would be the largest man-made structure in history.  The design is directly inspired by the iconic headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation as featured in the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner.  That such a real life act of unrestrained hubris could be inspired by such a fictional depiction of unrestrained hubris might even be enough to make some more paranoid purveyors of fictional dystopia just a little more careful with sharing their nightmare fuel in future.

Science Fiction, of course, is often intended to be prophetic by design, yet the influence of art on our real life extends much further than mere design.  Countless academics have explored the complex relationship between art, perception, imagination and reality.  The ideologically driven architecture of the Bauhaus school pretty much invented the modern cities of the late 20th Century whilst  Leibniz's theory of Possible Worlds posits that if we are capable of imagining something then it must exist – at least in a parallel universe.

I find the most subtly compelling of these theories to be the philosophical position of Anti-mimesis, which holds that art actually has the power to dictate the way we see and understand our world.

Anti-mimesis holds that art does not imitate life but rather sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life. What we observe in life and nature is not what is truly there but is instead that which artists have taught people to find there through art.  A famous proponent of this theory was Oscar Wilde, who noted that although there had been fog in London for centuries, one only notices the beauty and wonder of the atmospheric phenomenon because "poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects...they did not exist till Art had invented them."

All of which brings us back to Stam’s bridges.

Robin Stam's 200 Euro Bridge,

To avoid any unpleasant surprises, Stam asked the Dutch Central Bank and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt whether they had any objections to the project but they gave him their full approval, unconcerned that these universal European symbols would soon be Dutch.

Nevertheless, there have been some dissenting voices who have suggested that the construction of the bridges in Holland is contrary to the original intention of European solidarity.  I would argue quite the opposite: that Stam’s project actually adds another, more enriching layer of universal meaning to these symbols.  To me, these fictional vistas that have been conjured into existence may now serve to celebrate the power of our dreams and ideas, remind us that the function and form of the world is not preordained and serve as a reassurance and modest inspiration for all those who long to see our world change shape and move forward again toward something new and better.

Perhaps I’ve given too much credit to the symbology of money but to extrapolate a quote from the great Saul Williams: words, ideas and dreams matter because words, ideas and dreams are matter.  Or, as Pablo Picasso put it more succinctly, “everything you can imagine is real.”

Surely that’s a better thing to celebrate than the musky nationalism of old dead white men and the baleful antipathy of weary monarchs?