With the internet buzzing about the impending rise of the metaverse and the rapid development of A.I.-generated art, it seems like the distinction between digital and physical creativity could someday seem like an insignificant one. Over a few short decades, computer-generated art has infused nearly every medium—generating previously-impossible sounds, de-aging actors, and performers, and even creating original images whole cloth. And while in-person performances may seem like a safe exception to this digital intrusion, that may not last for long. Because computer-generated avatars are already playing to 3,000 real fans a night.
While some super-fans flock to Las Vegas to see their idols in the flesh, the disco-faithful are making a pilgrimage to London to witness a particularly futuristic kind of spectacle: ABBA’s “virtual” residency. ABBA Voyage offers fans the chance to party with the Swedish megastars, preserved in algorithmic amber to appear as they might have at their 1977 peak. However, Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid are never, actually, in the building.
Backed by a live ten-piece band, four animated “ABBA-tars” appear on a giant high-definition screen at center-stage, pre-rendered by more than a thousand tech geniuses at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Like many Star Wars characters, the ABBA-tars were created through an extensive motion-capture process, with band members donning special suits and performing their setlist for 160 cameras over five weeks. These sessions were then blended with footage of period-appropriate body doubles and animated to create a career-capping reunion set. The result is a highly-synchronized extravaganza of light, sound, and surreal visuals. It’s time travel to a place that never quite existed in the first place.
Of course, such a state-of-the-art attraction deserves a venue to match. Rather than occupying an existing theatre, ABBA Voyage needed a canvas attuned to the intricate demands of the production. For that, producers turned to Stufish Entertainment Architects, seasoned experts in the field of elaborate stage shows and purpose-built theatrical environments. Their experience mounting massive stadium tours would be relevant to the Arena’s construction. Because in order to win approval for its Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park location, ABBA’s new venue would need to be a temporary structure, built with demountable materials.
However, ABBA Arena is far from a glorified circus tent. Its sleek design evokes a mysterious extraterrestrial craft—if the aliens inside were passionate fans of Scandinavian design. Built from steel and sustainable timber, the arena feels both classy and cutting-edge. Optimized to be as light as possible to reduce load on the building’s foundation, the building features a prefabricated steel dome that can be assembled in situ and mounted with 18-strand jacks.
The audience’s journey into the venue is just as considered as their experience of the show. A generous concourse area welcomes them through a striking timber canopy to shield them against London’s notorious rain. Once inside, two dramatic (but accessible) corridors lead audience members to the hexagonal showroom, selected to offer generous sight lines and allow audience members to see each other and enjoy a collective, human experience. Fans can choose from balcony seats, a general-admission dance floor, or a private “dance box.”
Early reviews have been enthusiastic, with critics praising the show’s obsessive attention to detail—including an interlude that allows the performers to “change outfits.” However, there’s also plenty of enthusiasm for the venue itself, which was clearly conceived not as a container but as a kind of disco pavilion to be judged on its own merits. Only time will tell if the project earns back its astronomical £ 140 million budget. If it does, expect a bidding war between cities clamoring for the ABBA UFO to touch down in their backyard.
If ABBA Voyage does succeed, it’s not hard to imagine the proliferation of digitally-reproduced legacy franchises, taking the idea of “remastering” to a new level. In a few years, demountable venues might be touring the world with digital roadshows, resurrecting history’s greatest acts in ever-higher definition. After all, who wants to see an aging musician when they can see an act exactly as they remember it: in the perfect glow of nostalgia?
Visitors to Italy have plenty of pilgrimages to choose from. You can tread the cobblestones of Florence to see Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi galleries. You can charter a gondola to peep the underside of Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge. And soon, you’ll be able to make the trek to mountainous Brembana Valley in northern Italy to seek the source of San Pellegrino, one of the world’s best-loved mineral waters. It’s a trip that hydration fanatic Leonardo Da Vinci made in 1509, inspiring a treatise on the subject of water. In those days, San Pellegrino was a far humbler alpine destination.
The San Pellegrino Flagship Factory
Once the San Pellegrino Flagship Factory is completed in 2022 or 2023, pilgrims will find a state-of-the-art, $95 million headquarters. Serving as a bottling plant, visitors’ center, and monument to the green-bottled brand, the Flagship is the effervescent brainchild of Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), selected in an international design competition for the job.
As one might expect at a cathedral to mineral water, a sense of geology is at the heart of the experience. The building’s storytelling is meant to evoke the thirty-year journey of San Pellegrino’s flagship product from the summit of the mountain to its source. And in the building’s courtyard, visitors can see a core sample of the mountain’s stratified rock that gives the water its mineral quality. Aesthetically, the complex is inspired by classical Italian forms. Visitors are welcomed by an open piazza of undulating brick and a wall of minimal stone archways. These simple arches dominate the complex, acting as porticos, bridges, and sculptures throughout. The overall effect is to distill a history of architecture into a single expression as timeless as the water that’s bottled there.
However, there’s clearly another inspiration for the building’s sensibility: San Pellegrino’s brand itself. Inviting but austere, aspirational but democratic, the project feels just as informed by a high-level creative brief as much as it does by architectural drawings.
At some point—long ago—the idea of a “brand” was straightforward. Designed to help differentiate a company’s product or service from the competition, a brand might include a company’s name, logo, and color palette. Today, however, the concept of “brand” has grown to encompass myriad associated concepts, from sponsored content creation to meticulously planned experiences to apparel partnerships. The idea is that consumers will form a positive collective impression from these disparate touch points and, ideally, buy more of your company’s fizzy water instead of someone else’s. Unsurprisingly, brand thinking has also entered the architectural realm, guiding decisions at the highest levels.
Branded architecture also drives another of BIG’s high-profile projects: The Plus. Designed for Norwegian outdoor furniture brand Vestre, The Plus bills itself as the world’s most environmentally friendly furniture factory. Acting as a manufacturing plant plus a visitors’ center, it’s not hard to glean the reason for the all-in-one building’s name. It’s also shaped like a giant plus sign. In the world of branding, subtlety isn’t as important as clarity and consistency.
Vibrant and whimsical, the facility is a LEGO–futurist marvel that practically shouts Vestre’s five-point brand manifesto at every turn. Brightly color-coded to elucidate the furniture-building process, the interiors resemble something between a giant subway map and a board game for toddlers. Curious visitors can follow furniture’s progress across the four wings: Wood Factory, Color Factory, Assembly, and Warehouse.
Nestled in a forest, The Plus is surrounded tightly by trees, while the building’s circular-open-air hub brings the outside in with a playful spiral staircase. Snaking paths surround the facility, encouraging visitors to explore, play, and even camp out near the factory. For a company that builds bike racks, picnic tables, and planters for public use, it’s only fitting that the headquarters feels inviting, encouraging, and filled with wonder for nature.
In a sense, branded headquarters are nothing new. Every corporate visitors center ever built has made some attempt to turn curious fans into lifelong loyalists. However, what may be new is the BIG’s ability to elegantly translate a brand’s intangible qualities into a designed space. If more brands boasted a headquarters as compelling as San Pellegrino or Vestre, it’s entirely plausible that we’d start to see an emergence of another kind of tourism: the brand pilgrimage. Already common for breweries, distilleries, and vineyards, one can easily imagine eager tourists planning their vacations around seeing the homes of the brands they love best.
Nearly three years ago, the world watched in stunned disbelief as Notre Dame de Paris burned. To watch one of the world’s most iconic landmarks engulfed in flames was a surreal reminder that nothing can be permanent or certain, no matter how central it is to our collective imagination.
After fifteen hours of firefighting, the blaze was finally extinguished. While the fire damaged the lead and oak-beam roof extensively and destroyed the building’s flèche (a spire towering above the nave), much of the building—including its two towers and its breathtaking stained-glass windows—survived. Almost immediately after the fire, conversation turned to swiftly rebuilding and restoring the landmark. And it didn’t take long for that conversation to turn into a spirited argument.
Over the course of 850 years, Notre Dame de Paris has often been the object of dispute, a crown jewel constantly changing hands, shifting meanings, and reflecting the moments that make up France’s turbulent history.
Sitting on a site that’s believed to have once been a Roman temple to Jupiter, the cathedral has been renovated, expanded, and re-contextualized so many times since that a short history is impossible.The cathedral held the relics of the Passion of the Christ, including the crown of thorns said to have sat on Jesus’s head. During the French Revolution, Notre Dame was desecrated, stripped of precious metals, and converted into a Temple of Reason. Soon after, the cathedral hosted the coronation of Napoleon. Later in the 19th century, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in an act of architectural advocacy, raising awareness of the building’s neglect and decay leading to a restoration effort that would cement Notre Dame as a national symbol. By the 21st century, it was the most visited monument in Paris.
It’s no wonder, then, that emotions ran high in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 fire. When the French government announced an international design competition to design a roof and spire “more beautiful than before,” backlash was swift and strong. The wounds of the fire still fresh, there was little appetite for contemporary reimagining, and soon French president Emmanuel Macron backtracked, vowing that the restoration would be “exact” and completed in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Thanks to Covid-related delays, Macron’s timeline may need a series of miracles.
Logistically, the restoration will need to go to elaborate lengths to match the cathedral’s condition pre-fire. In 2021, a national search was conducted to source the 1,000 oak trees required to reconstruct the “forest” of wooden roof beams that fueled the fire. Crews scoured forests throughout France—sometimes by drone—for trees 150 years and older. The effort drew considerable opposition from ecological groups who objected to the harvesting of such old-growth stock.
Concerns about potentially-dangerous fallout from the building’s incinerated lead roof also linger, especially among the neighborhoods around the cathedral. France’s aggressive timeline for restoration could put workers at risk, as testing of the site has shown lead levels hundreds of times higher than the safe threshold. And yet, the restoration’s plan calls for continued use of the toxic metal for the roof and spire. Perhaps ironically, the spire in question dated back only to the 19th-century restoration when Eugène Viollet-le-Duc recreated the weakened medieval-era flèche.
More recently, alarmist scrutiny has turned against proposed updates to Notre Dame’s interior, drawing fire in a larger, ongoing culture war. Those who see “traditional” French history and iconography as under threat have begun to panic about a “woke” and modernizing restoration of Notre Dame. Intended to invite wider audiences into conversation with the divine, the additions include more open space, digital projections of welcome, and the incorporation of contemporary art.
Objections to the updates may have more to do with freezing Notre Dame in time than the intent of the cathedral. The building’s many sculptures were intended to offer a “liber pauperum” or a “book of the poor,” illustrating biblical stories for illiterate visitors. Multilingual digital projections may serve a similarly inclusive purpose.
No matter how it’s done, Notre Dame’s restoration is bound to incur the wrath of some concerned party. And if Notre Dame reflects our times, maybe it’s fitting that its current incarnation is that of the subject of virulent debate.
IN THE REALM OF historical architecture, perhaps no question is as perplexing as that of restoration. To put it simply: where do you stop?
The clichéd goal of restoring a structure to its “former glory” isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. First, you need to decide which version of the building you’re trying to recreate. Buildings evolve over time—adding features, removing components, and adapting to current trends. Restoration, then, can sometimes be a matter of undoing unwanted renovations to better suit your target period.
Next, there’s the question of just how extensively to restore. Do you want to return the building to pristine condition? Careful. If your building is old enough, its deterioration could be part of its charm. For instance, while scholars have fiercely debated certain renovations to the Acropolis, few of them would advocate for a truly period-accurate renovation of its buildings. Such a makeover would see the Parthenon painted in eye-popping bold and bright hues. Despite our visions of gleaming, sun-bleached stone, the Ancient Greeks embraced color in ways that would shock a modern sensibility.
The truth is that when it comes to our oldest buildings, many of us prefer the aesthetics of ruin. While we’re enamored with the idea of an enduring icon, we also need to see the patina of time written on its face. And so, restoration is always a fine balance. It freezes buildings in the amber of our imagination in a way that both conjure a bygone era and evokes the gulf of time between then and this moment.
This precarious balance between persistence and decay has brought millions of visitors to Rome’s Colosseum. Completed in 80 A.D., the building persists as Italy’s most popular tourist attraction. And over the past decade, it’s been the object of extensive renovations.
At peak use, the 80,000-spectator amphitheater hosted dramas, gladiatorial matches, animal hunts, and was even flooded for mock sea battles. Despite its subsequent uses as a cemetery, as living quarters, as a fortress, and a shrine, it is the era of bloodsport and spectacle that captures our imagination. To visit the Colosseum is to picture fighting for one’s life in front of thousands of eager spectators.
Thanks to a three-stage, $29.8 million effort, this kind of speculation should become easier. Funded by the Italian fashion brand Tod’s in a private-public partnership, the restoration seeks to let visitors to stand where gladiators once did, fulfilling their cinematic Gladiator fantasies. This past summer, after an extensive, years-long cleaning effort, a team of archeologists, engineers, and topographers completed the renovation’s most extensive phase: the excavation of the hypogeum, a warren of underground tunnels and chambers beneath the Colosseum. In this once-hidden, candlelit area, enslaved gladiators prepared for battle and workers prepared props, animals, and scenery to be raised on elevators to the arena’s wooden floor. Today, tourists can wander the exposed passageways, illuminated by natural sunlight.
Soon the hypogeum will be covered once again. The third phase of the restoration will replace its floor with a cutting-edge solution by 2023, permitting visitors to imagine themselves at the heart of the action. Fully retractable, the carbon fiber and wood floor will also let visitors see the hypogeum’s corridors from above. Critics of the renovation deride the proposed floor as an excessive and indulgent architectural gesture—a triumph of experiential tourism over archeological integrity. After all, for the past few centuries, the charm of the Colosseum was how open-ended it seemed to be. Thanks to centuries of earthquake damage and “quarrying,” in which builders pilfered its stone for other projects, the building resembled a kind of cross-section of itself. Any attempt to fill in the gaps will always feel absurd when you remember what’s left is a mere skeleton of the original building.
However, the soul of the Colosseum was always one of artifice, theatre, and myth-making. It hosted elaborate scenarios aided by lavish set dressing that included real trees, exotic animals, and thousands of people. While an $18 million vantage point isn’t period-accurate, it will serve the same impulse that the Colosseum once did: to indulge fantasies. Ultimately, all restorations are works of fiction. While the Colosseum was a state-of-the-art facility in its time, boasting running water, an elaborate sun-shade mechanism, and marble facades, the recent renovations still serve an important function. They give us a better view of what we want—a beautiful ruin.
EVERY STRUCTURE TELLS A story. Sometimes, it’s the relatively straightforward story of its function: train terminals, grain silos, and sports arenas generally follow the contours of their purposes. Sometimes, a building’s story is bound to commemoration or dedication. The Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, and the Parthenon all pay tribute to gods and favored mortals. And sometimes, a building’s iconic design becomes the story—as is the case with the Sydney Opera House, the Chrysler Building, or the Eiffel Tower.
However, in each of these stories, there’s room for interpretation. The Eiffel Tower’s stark geometries were famously the subject of fierce aesthetic debate. One can find both enduring romance and troubling ostentation in the Taj Mahal. And as we saw in our last issue, a train terminal’s story can launch an entire movement to restore historic architecture.
But now, in an age of monumental gestures and tourist-courting designs, we may be seeing the rise of a new class of buildings. These structures tell stories that are more didactic than open-ended, with their stories printed right on their skin. While murals, mosaics, and frescos are nothing new, these two buildings come with their interpretations pre-loaded—as if serving as architectural press releases for their regions.
Northwest of Hong Kong lies the Chinese city of Guangzhou, a wealthy port that historically connected the Pearl River to the international traders. It was here that the Silk Road met the South China Sea, and today it’s surrounded by China’s most populous and developed metropolitan region. Like many Chinese cities, Guangzhou has seen a surge of construction in recent decades, including the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre.
Billowing like a silk scarf in the wind, the Grand Theatre would be notable enough for its rippled aluminum cladding, made up of thousands of triangular tiles. The nearly windowless crimson structure was purpose-built by Steven Chilton Architects for Franco Dragone, a theatrical impresario, and Cirque de Soleil alumnus with a flair for the flamboyant. The theatre houses a round amphitheater, rigged for acrobatics and containing a 9-meter-deep pool that can be raised or lowered for aquatic performances.
Perhaps most notably, however, is the Theatre’s embellished facade. The building’s bright red exterior boasts two layers of graphics. The subtler, darker background print recalls contemporary tattooing with its intricate, radiating line-work. Superimposed over this is a layer of golden illustrations that recall delicate embroidery and complete the effect of narrative tapestry. Based on a local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix,” the building itself becomes a kind of allegory for art, patronage, and performance. The effect is like a picture book, as the building makes its case for Guangzhou as a hub for artistic endeavors.
Thousands of miles away from Guangzhou is another wealthy port city with a daring, donut-shaped cultural center: Dubai. In this case, it’s the audaciously named Museum of the Future, whose relatively vague mandate promises “a hopeful future for all” and pledges to be “a place of tolerance, inviting varied cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual outlooks.”
The $136 million project, led by Dubai’s Killa Design, contains four floors of exhibition space. Its 77-meter-tall metallic form looks like a stretched, asymmetrical ring—an opulent and shiny sculpture in the middle of the desert. Like its neighbor the Burj Khalifa, its goal is clear: to signify Dubai’s presence as a global beacon for trade and wealth and draw seven-star tourists to the lavish city.
Any reading of the Museum, however, is dominated by the building’s bold incorporation of Arabic calligraphy on its façade. The building is inscribed with excerpts from a poem written by the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. At night, the script—which also serves as the structure’s windows—is illuminated from within. Ironically, despite their prominence, the designers have yet to specify what the quotations actually say or signify. Without a transcript, the fragments mainly serve as an elaborate signature of the country’s autocratic leader.
As with the Grand Theatre, the Museum of the Future made extensive use of digital modeling technologies. Both projects feel so thoroughly contemporary that one can’t imagine them without software’s role in their conception. In fact, many of the Museum’s components were 3D-printed to bring its precise rendered forms to life, and the project even leveraged a “digital growth algorithm” to manage its wildly complex logistics.
With both buildings, one also senses the designer planned a digital appreciation, too. Both buildings feel tailor-made for Instagram feeds and blog posts with their singular ideas and narrative hooks. It’s fitting, then, that their stories are prescribed, controlled, and brief. It’ll be fascinating to see whether there’s room for interpretation of their stories in the future, or whether they simply serve as very expensive essays.
HISTORY IS NOT ALWAYS kind to great design. What seems like sure-footed progress in one era can often look more like series of missteps with additional hindsight and changing values. We’ve all seen renovations that only made things worse, robbing a property of its original charm, mistreating historical materials, or simply ruining the romance of a space.
However, what happened to New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 stands alone as a crime against architecture. Its decapitation to make way for the new Madison Square Garden overhead—was so regrettable that it launched the historical preservation movement in the United States.
After more than five decades, New York is still reckoning with the legacy of the loss. However, in January 2021, the city partially healed an architectural wound with the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall. The result of a $1.6 billion conversion of a historic post office facility, the project finally returned a worthy threshold to one of the city’s busiest transit hubs through a little creative problem-solving and a commitment to civic grandeur.
Many young New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that Pennsylvania Station—a rundown and cramped punchline of a place with its low ceilings and confusing underground tunnels—once rivaled Grand Central Terminal in majesty. But when it was completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was an absolute marvel, spreading over two city blocks and flanked by dozens of elegant columns.
Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the Beaux-Arts icon, when it opened it was the largest indoor space in the city, rivaling St. Peter’s Basilica in scale. Modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the station’s immense, light-filled main waiting room had a 150-foot ceiling, welcoming travelers to the city with a generous and impressive flourish.
However, as rail travel fell out of favor and the city’s priorities shifted, Pennsylvania Station gradually lost its luster. The building’s pink granite had taken on the grime of the city and haphazard maintenance left the building a shadow of its former self. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was seeking a buyer for the building’s air rights, citing upkeep costs for the massive complex.
But when the wrecking balls came in 1963, the citizens found themselves shocked by the station’s perfunctory destruction. When a New York Times photographer captured one of the building’s sculptures in a New Jersey landfill, regret came quickly. Within two years, the city passed a landmarks preservation act, which would save Grand Central Terminal and prevent the destruction of countless other historic buildings.
For decades, New Yorkers bemoaned Pennsylvania Station’s lost glory. But serendipitously, Pennsylvania Station wasn’t the only massive Beaux-Arts building in the neighborhood. McKim, Mead, and White had also designed the James A. Farley Building, which still stands on Eighth Avenue. Originally meant to adjoin and complement the station, the complex served as a mail-sorting hall with direct access to some of the tracks.
Throughout the 1990s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, began lobbying to repurpose a section of the Farley Building as a new train hall. In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo seized the reins of the project and deputized Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to perform the conversion. Despite the pandemic, the project came across the finish line early and under budget, opening on the first day of 2021
The result is breathtaking—an optimistic and audacious combination of historical splendor and smart modern design. With its ample public space, retail tenants, and handsome waiting areas with walnut benches, it’s sure to become a destination for Instagram tourists looking to capture the New York of tomorrow.
The train hall’s stunning glass ceiling boasts exposed steel trusses and four bulbous vault sections that jut dramatically into the sky. And in the heart of it all is a beautiful Art Deco clock, reminiscent of an era when we looked up for the time instead of squirreling for our phone in our pockets and purses.
While the Moynihan Train Hall isn’t a full replacement for Pennsylvania Station, it gestures in the right direction: ahead. Talks are already underway to connect the building with the High Line pedestrian park and a long-planned initiative promises to extend the regional Metro-North railway system to the west side of Manhattan.
While Pennsylvania Station will never match its former glory, it could still return to its former prominence as old ideas—like rail travel and prominent civic spaces—come back into style once again.