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What the Hell Does Gesamtkunstwerk Mean?


I'm a big fan of Canadian developer Ian Gillespie and his firm Westbank. They are the developers behind projects like the Shangri-La Vancouver, the Shangri-La Toronto, the mixed-use Woodward's complex, and the upcoming Vancouver House (shown above) designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (who just so happens to be one of my favorite architects). I would easily count them as one of the preeminent city builders in the country today.

In support of their commitment to city building (and as a way to offer the public a peek of Vancouver House), they recently staged an exhibition called Gesamtkunstwerk. I think this is great on so many levels. Not only was it probably a great sales tool, but it's also introducing the public to a largely obscure and academic term, and showing off a deep commitment to design. Unless you studied art, architecture, or something like the philosophy of aesthetics, you probably haven't come across this term before.

Gesamtkunstwerk is a German word, which literally translates into a "total work of art." It was introduced in the 19th century by an opera composer by the name of Richard Wagner, who felt that opera represented a total, or complete work of art. Later, the term was picked up by architects. Some interpreted it to mean that architects should be responsible for everything from the building itself to the furniture and everything else that goes inside of it. Everything was art.

Westbank now wants to introduce the idea of gesamtkunstwerk into the real estate development business. They want to use it as a guiding philosophy for all of their projects. And what that means is that the building itself and its relationship to the greater city should be thought of as a "total work of art." They seem to be reintroducing the term with an inherent city building tinge—one that I don't think was ever there before. 

What a great philosophy.

Image: Westbank