Notes on Kitsch from an Oriental Lagoon

Notes on Kitsch from an Oriental Lagoon

Kitsch eludes definition, it is often associated with a negative meaning, confused as a synonym for “bad taste”. Looking at the state of the art, the concept is traversed by a dual condition; on the one hand, it appears largely outdated, belonging to social and cultural conditions long gone; on the other hand, it seems to have recently returned inside the contemporary debate, which, overturning its meanings, proposes kitsch as an attitude that permeates many spheres of life. Secretly running behind the dominant design culture, it now draws many of our spaces undisturbed: from Philippe Starck’s dwarfs for Kartell to Chiara Ferragni’s inflatable flamingos, which rewrite and rehabilitate some of the symbols of 20th-century kitsch; from the MET’s 2019 exhibition Camp. Notes on Fashion (1) to a recent publication by Marco Belpoliti and Gianfranco Marrone (2).

From the perspective of architecture, declinations of the word emerge that are still operative today: kitsch can be synonymous with “waste”(3) and with “overuse”(4); “simulation and copying of elements”(5), “alteration of context”(6), it is a synonym for “authentically false”(7), it is “essentially conciliatory”(8), it designs “restful and moderate spaces”(9); it pursues the “immediate identification”(10); and it narrates new stories. In these terms it becomes a parameter through which to systematise certain contemporary design dynamics and a possible tool through which to read the reality in which we are immersed(11).

There is nowadays an abundance of “restful and moderate”(12) spaces that emphasise the concentration of design on building comfortable, satisfying, peaceful, and conflict-free situations. The tension towards domestic and ordinary contexts, i.e. familiar places where the user can always feel at home – this is after all the mantra of firms like Ikea –, produces the unleashing of desire, the bizarre, the different and the unknown. Reality thus oscillates between truth and metaphor, increasingly reinforcing the stories of place. Narration overcomes space, imaginary overcomes reality: “We are seeing that the city is no longer built mostly of substance that is necessary for our survival, but of substance that we essentially do not need, and for which different metaphors are becoming applicable”(13).

The project we propose to observe uses these superimposed metaphors as part of its design actions: it is the recent Tainan Spring completed in 2020 by MVRDV, with The Urbanists Collaborative and Progressive Environmental Inc. in the city of Taiwan.

The intervention transfigures the 54,600 square metres of a former shopping centre built in the 1980s into an urban lagoon, a rewriting of the many copies of Venice with the absence, in this case, of its architectural symbols in favour of the reproduction of some of its spatial dynamics. The building is located near the old port in an area that was previously crossed by canals and had a more direct relationship with water, a relationship that has been lost over the years and with urbanisation. The project therefore decides to recover this forgotten feature of the city by re-proposing it in a new way through the appearance of a lagoon environment. The lagoon is connoted by a fabric of sand dunes that articulate the large pool of water, the project makes use of the introversion of the courtyard space that is created inside the shopping centre as a separated place from the urban context. The old building is only partly decommissioned, leaving some structural elements as a reminder of the old ruins, a design action of a strongly European nature, such is in fact the provenance of the group of architectural designers. The half-destroyed ruins of the shopping centre emerge provocatively from the building’s footprint, surviving as bones.

The image that is created is that of an abandoned space in which the lagoon has re-emerged from underground by chance due to natural events and the course of time. The artificiality of the project is total: apart from the vegetation installed in a few well-defined spots, the dunes are artificially constructed and equipped with a vaporiser and a system for raising and lowering the water – which is also artificially clear in colour – to simulate a natural trend of the tide, responding to the seasons and weather forecasts.

The project plays on a double field of interpretation. The characteristic of unexpectedness and estrangement created by the internal conformation of the intervention with respect to the surrounding urban context has the intention of modifying the behaviour of the people who therefore move and enjoy the space as if in a place by the sea, on holiday, a place far removed from what they have just left when they crossed the door of the building, producing and triggering a desire for elsewhere. The unexpected change in the conformation of the space, mainly due to the raising and lowering of the pool’s water level, determines a degree of adventure and uncertainty that defines a verisimilitude with a natural environment, a form of mimesis and reproduction that recalls 19th-century landscape practices or, more recently, the great American theme parks. Therefore, reality is imitated to the point of reproducing even its degrees of uncertainty and danger; but, at the same time, the circumscribed and artificial context tends to make the space resemble a playground, defining an inseparable duality between adventure and reassurance, between hyper-reality and dream.

The translation to the East of the concept of reuse and connection with history that is typical of the European continent is one of the elements on which the Dutch architectural office’s project plays, defining a decontextualization and a geographical vector that imprints a design mode on another continent(14). On the one hand, the project works on the forcing, even ironic, re-emergence of traces from Tainan’s history, such as the relationship with water, the relationship with the natural landscape just outside the city, which is re-proposed through traditional vegetation and a controlled water with which one can live. On the other hand, this European-style design approach is contaminated and enriched by the imagery of a playground and artificial nature, which, instead, has been widespread on the Asian continent. The collision of the two design approaches defines a new trajectory in which reality and imagery add up and blur, defining an impossibility of determination between intentionality and involuntariness in the design process.

Above all, it is the political act of the authors who brings the sea into the city for the use and pleasure of all, through a game of water and irony and through how behaviour can change within an – otherwise absent – public space. It is from the collision of different metaphors that kitsch comes to redesign the spaces of conflict and tension in cities, thus through apparently naive and loisir-only “restful and moderate” actions, it shapes the underlying desires. Now that the contemporary shows us more and more how “the ‘all true’ is identified with the ‘all false’”(15), kitsch reveals itself as a strategy of action on reality.


[1] The exhibition took its title from the famous S. Sontag, Notes on “Camp”, in Idem, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1966.

[2] M. Belpoliti, G. Marrone (eds.), Kitsch, Riga 41, Quodlibet, Macerata 2020.

[3] M. Calinescu, Five faces of modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Duke University Press, Durham 1987, pp. 234-235.

[4] U. Eco, Apocalittici e integrati, Bompiani, Milano 1964, p. 100.

[5] C. Greenberg, Avanguardia e kitsch, in Idem, Arte e cultura. Saggi critici, Allemandi, Torino 1991, p. 22; Y.-A. Bois, Kitsch, in Idem, R. Kraus, L’informe, Mondadori, Milano 2003, pp. 114-122.

[6] G. Dorfles, Il Kitsch. Antologia del cattivo gusto, Mazzotta, Milano 1968, p. 19.

[7] A. Mendini, Introduzione. Per un’architettura banale, in A.A. Moles, Il Kitsch. L’arte della felicità, Officina, Roma 1979.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A.A. Moles, Il Kitsch. L’arte della felicità, cit., p. 43.

[10] C. Greenberg, Avanguardia e kitsch, cit., p. 26.

[11] Kitsch was the topic of the PhD thesis defended in April 2022 at Sapienza Università di Roma entitled Paesaggi Kitsch. Artifici e nature nel progetto contemporaneo.

[12] A.A. Moles, Il Kitsch. L’arte della felicità, cit.

[13] R. Koolhaas, Dilemmas in the Evolution of the City, conference at the Commition for Architecture and Built Environment, London, 16/01/2006; tr. it. Testi sulla (non più) città, edited by M. Orazi, Quodlibet, Macerata 2021, pp. 195-196.

[14] This design intention is especially evident from the words of Winy Maas: “In Tainan Spring, people can bathe in the overgrown remains of a shopping mall. Children will soon be swimming in the ruins of the past”., accessed 10/08/2021.

[15] U. Eco, Nel cuore dell’impero. Viaggio nell’iperrealtà, in Idem, Dalla periferia dell’impero. Cronache di un nuovo medioevo, Bompiani, Milano 1977, p. 17.


Elisa Monaci, Architect, PhD, she is a research fellow at Università Iuav di Venezia. She is a member of the editorial staff of the scientific journal “Vesper. Rivista di architettura, arti e teoria | Journal of Architecture, Arts & Theory” and she participates at the research activities of the Iuav unit for the PRIN “Sylva” and at the Iuav research unit “Tedea. Teorie dell’architettura”.