Souvenirs For Buildings That Don’t Exist

There is a moment in Superman III when good Superman returns from having defeated Robert Vaughan and undoes all the errors of bad Superman. Early in the film, high on the effects of low-grade kryptonite, he straightened the leaning tower in Pisa but he has now come to his senses and returns the Pisa to its inclined state, causing the vendor of straightened souvenirs a further level of frustration, having already destroyed all his previous inclined models. (There is probably one of the best double-takes I’ve ever seen in the cinema in this clip.)

I was reminded of this episode when I was given special dispensation to take photographs of the architectural souvenirs in the CCA Collection vaults. Instead of inclined towers in Pisa I was surprised by the inclined tower of the Stade Olympique in Montreal. This model piqued my interest not just because the Olympic Games is a huge and very particular fascination to me – see, just for example this post – but because this is a souvenir of a building that doesn’t actually exist. Or rather, it exists but not in this form. As I suggested in a previous post,  one of the main reasons for Montreal’s complicated relationship with the Olympics is not simply that costs over-ran but that on the day, the stadium wasn’t ready. This souvenir apparently captures that failure.

Depicting the building not as how it was planned but as it actually looked when the games started, the model shows a truncated inclined tower. Instead of the corbra-headed wonder apparently holding up the roof of the stadium with high-tension cables that appears today, the toy looks like a drunkenly assembled version of a USS Enterprise replica with the main disc – forgive me Trekkies for my lack of structural knowledge – rammed into the base of the stem rather than balancing gracefully on top.

Indeed, unlike the majority of souvenirs in the collection, which are made of ceramic or metal, the Stade Olympique is made of plastic. Made in the early months of 1976 one presumes, the souvenir predates the merchandise sold around Star Wars, released a year after the Montreal Olympics. However it is made of similar plastic and presented in a very similar way. It actually and perhaps inadvertently captures the spirt of boldly going forwards in its material and its presentation.

Ironically as collector Ron Salvatore writes on his blog, the Kenner company, who in 1977 were a small-scale manufacturer of toys, also faced delays . Serial production is not always straightforward:

“In late 1977, the company couldn’t get their Falcon toys to market fast enough. Forced to push their operation into overdrive in order to capitalize on the film’s enormous popularity, they had employees working overtime building the massive wooden pattern that was needed to create the Falcon’s steel production moulds – the same steel moulds that would be used to produce thousands of the toys for Christmas of ’79.”

Whilst Montreal’s architects were unable to complete the stadium on time, its commercial team and the Quebec-based toy company were able to get the toy out in time. No small feat as we can see from Kenner’s experience.

It is disconcerting too to see the World Trade Centre in New York as a souvenir, especially given that it is a post 9-11 souvenir, inscribed with the words “The World Trade Center, 09-11-01. The Memory Lives On.” Of course, this could be a sick perversion of Superman III – a souvenir of the building before it was destroyed, with the memory of its demise bolted on afterwards. Even if it isn’t, to me it is a strange thing to memorialise. The Ground Zero site is plagued by souvenir hunters who thrive because they provide a popular service. How odd that you would need a souvenir of the Trade Centre. Here for the very specific reason of the terror caused by its destruction we do not remember the building at all, only its hideous collapse

On one basic level, I would say from viewing these pieces ranked together on their racks like miniature reordered cities, it is important distinction that these are not memories of the building, but memories of being at the building or, disconcertingly in the case of the World Trade Centre, being at the non-building. I have my own strange take on that. I was looking back at some photographs I took when I went to Pisa and I though I don’t have one of the tower, I have two of merchandise. (I’m showing the non-rude one here.) Perhaps I was subconsciously inspired by Superman III and I realised that here was a building more famous for being memorialised than for actually existing.

The strange affect of the souvenir is actually to make us forget the original. There are a huge number of stadiums in the Collection but then that is surely because they make such good ashtrays, including a model of the L.A. Angels Baseball Stadium with rests for 8 different cigarettes. You can feel your lungs congest just by looking at it and perhaps because you are imagining a scene of second rate Mad Men socialising from sometime in the early sixties, it is hard to remember think of the original. For architects, I can see why this would be intriguing: mass produced items that replicate the single object. Is it a taunt from popular culture on the failure of architectural production to suit itself to the age of mass consumption?

I don’t think so. It adds a charge to them certainly but one would have thought that the era of architectural icons would be perfect for souvenirs, but it isn’t. Souvenirs have to be simple shapes to be made. Towers or blocks are best. It’s or that reason that Norman Foster seems pretty good at making souvenir-able architecture: 30 St. Mary Axe and the Hearst Tower both make a showing, but it is only really what happens to a building after it is completed that can control whether a souvenir stands out from the crowd of other more generic items. Souvenirs don’t memorialise objects, which is why the originals sometimes fade from view when we look at a souvenir; instead they act as intersections between the narrative of a building and the narrative of a person.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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