genius of the place

Who critiques the critics? Well, Jack Hughes has a try. He's interested in the pack mentality that raises some architects to prominence, and dashes others to pieces. Or worse ... that ignores vaste swathes of what gets built.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Empty Rhetoric or Without Rhetoric: you decide

What does a man do these days if he sympathises with the aspirations of Prince Charles and his Foundation, but also thinks that so-called Brutalism was not entirely without its merits? Venetia Thompson, in her piece in The Spectator last week, doesn’t leave a lot of options. She has decided that the best way to praise the prince is to damn the alternatives. And the result (not to mention the lamentable introductory paragraph, riffing on Robin Hood, which also manages to suggest – wrongly – that Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons has a tower block) is unconvincing.

Which is not to say that a better journalist could not have raised some unsettling questions about architectural visions as against built realities. Ms. Thompson is, of course, the “23-year-old ex-public schoolgirl … apparently known as Posh Bird and Airbags - ‘on account of my breasts’”, who wrote herself out of a job in the City earlier this year. Her previous life as a junior broker may give some weight to her statements about the added value inherent in traditionally-designed houses at the prince’s Poundbury (and other places inspired by Poundbury), but her take on the “style wars” (to revive a nasty phrase from the ‘80s, where much of Ms. Thompson’s article belongs) are almost entirely without merit.

The Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation, an American urbanist called Hank Dittmar, makes an interesting point at one juncture: which is that, if confined to mere words, he (representing Prince Charles) and an architect like Richard Rogers (to whom the prince has been a longstanding bĂȘte noir) might argue for exactly the same things; it is only when pen is put to paper that the deep differences become apparent – “it is not”, he says, “until something is actually drawn that you can see people’s intentions”.

If we review Robin Hood Gardens in light of this – a building that Lord Rogers has recently come to the defence of – we have to face an important fact: it has failed (if indeed it has failed) despite its architects having the highest ethical ambitions of any architects of the last half-century. It is simply sloppy and unthinking journalism to conflate Robin Hood Gardens with the rash of shoddy tower blocks that were rolled out during the 1950s and ‘60s. Alison and Peter Smithson sought, and largely achieved, in Poplar an architecture “without rhetoric”, a Bath Royal Crescent for a less strident age. And they honed their sensibilities on the teeming streets of Bethnal Green; this was no pre-formed vision dropped on to the site from space.

And yet, ironically, the residents do report that it has become a social nightmare. Under these circumstances I think that the only thing a man can do who sympathises with the aspirations of Prince Charles and his Foundation, but also thinks that so-called Brutalism was not entirely without its merits, is to lament the extreme positions often taken on issues like this – aided and abetted by ill-informed wordsmiths such as Venetia Thompson.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Morally-bankrupt building

One of the assumptions upon which modernism built its post-WWII moral superiority, was that classicism (and certain strains of vernacular building) had been irremediably tainted by its association with Hitler’s Germania. The zeitgeist of the ‘60s and ‘70s – the assumption that all architecture had been merely a veil drawn over the naked exercise of power – made it nigh-impossible to design buildings or places in a classical or traditional manner without being accused of, and/or feeling guilt about, collaborating in some great social conspiracy.

The resurgence during the 1980s – to a greater extent in Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, the USA; to a lesser extent elsewhere in the world – of classicism in building and city design was continually attacked for, in the memorable phrase of Norman (now Lord) Foster, putting “lipstick on the gorilla”. In Britain and the US it was a truism in some circles that New Traditionalism, or Post-modern classicism, were simply the “acceptable” face of a Thatcherism/Reaganism despised by left-leaning architects.

How all this has changed. It is hard, reading Robin Pogrebin’s piece in The New York Times on the reasons “starchitects” give for serving autocrats, to detect any trace of that old moral superiority. Some of these architects bring post-modernism and deconstructivism to the rulers of Kazakhstan, China, and Dubai; others seem happy to flatter Russian oligarchs with historical ornament (see Foster's "Crystal Island" above)! When questioned about their motives, they seem to think that a) there is a chance that their buildings will do something positive in the society in question (the multi-award-winning Thom Mayne calls his an “architecture of resistance”), or failing that b) architecture is above politics.

The question, I suppose, is why are classical/traditional architecture and urbanism regarded as representing the regimes which commission them, while anti-traditional work is seen as subverting those regimes? Autocrats are, after all, quite deliberately throwing in their lot with the avant garde, in an effort to look modern, open, liberal, engaged with the world (in fact Pierre de Meuron, part-author of the famous “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing, talks of his work in Pogrebin’s article as “Engagement”, in the same way that those attending the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics speak of engagement).

Aren’t they having the last laugh over those starchitects who kid themselves that they are thumbing their noses behind the big men’s backs?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Straw Man in Venice

The rejected scheme by Eric Owen Moss for this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, raises some interesting issues. Moss, in common – one expects – with a number of “cutting edge” US architects, must find the idea of his and his peers’ designs being exhibited in a neoclassical pavilion of brick and stone galling, to say the least. Moss’s constructions push the envelope; they are tricksy, nervous affairs that seem intended to throw the viewer/user a little off-balance. A number of them seem preoccupied with expressing through architecture a caesura between past and present: for example, a museum project for Perm, Russia, features two “Sky Blocks” that jut out of the earth like the victims of some tectonic shift, reading from a distance like a block of wood broken over the knee. It represents, we are told on Moss’s website, “the separation of the City’s past from the City’s future”, a “transition in the City’s life”.

A similar visual break was intended by Moss in his proposal for the Architecture Biennale. The past that required extirpation here was the one represented by Delano & Aldrich’s 1930 American Pavilion. Lebbeus Woods – with whose blog this writer often finds himself agreeing – wrote last Friday of the existing pavilion, which he described as “a piece of neoclassical design that strikes an odd note, especially among other national pavilions speaking more eloquently of modernist aspirations”. He went on to lament the rejection by the US Department of State of Moss’s proposal, which would – unlike its “neoclassical” counterpart – have helped to “subvert … the current perception of American behaviour and American prospects around the world”.

The key message in Moss’s proposal was that American architecture was an unfinished project (with reference both to what was being put out by US architects, around the world, and what was being taken in to the canon from around the world); that its present form is transitory. By contrast, so the argument goes, a neoclassical building in an overseas outpost shows an inappropriate level of self-confidence, of fixity, certainty, unwillingness to change. But surely Woods has taken on the wrong set of neoclassical architects here. The firm of Delano & Aldrich was a byword for a sophisticated modernity in the use of classical precedents. OK, in Venice we’re talking about an inexpensive exhibition building, with sophistication kept to a minimum, but there is still sufficient of the D & A spirit about it to resist such a glib dismissal as Woods attempts.

The kind of changeability that Woods and Moss prize (Moss the more so) is the kind that demands root-and-branch revision; a back-to-square-one questioning of the foundations of architecture and – by an extension sanctioned by Woods’s own piece –of public policy. Delano & Aldrich, by contrast, expressed the distinctiveness of their times through variations played on well-worn themes. “There is much that is new to be said in architecture today” Delano opined, “by a man of imagination who employs traditional motifs as there is in literature by an author, who, to express his thought, still employs the English language”.

We have seen only recently how America’s presence in the world can be declared with uncompromising brashness (pace the new US Embassy in Baghdad) or with an engaging level of equivocation (pace the about-to-open Berlin Embassy). Both approaches – judging by the ensuing discussions – are capable of being found wanting by critics suspicious of American motives; neither have anything to with neoclassical versus modernist aspirations.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Who to trust on housing

Jonathan Glancey is the Grand Old Man of UK architectural journalism: he must have been writing for The Guardian for 20 years at least. To last that long in such a business, you need to have something of the Vicar of Bray about you. So what is Glancey braying about now?

He is exercised – as are many UK journalists at present – by the question of how 3 million new homes get built without them becoming dully formulaic. On the surface of things Glancey seems to be pointing us to traditional sources of inspiration. In a piece on 17th July he praised dMFK’s houses-for-rent at Manchester’s New Islington (a neighbourhood masterplanned by Will Alsop) for being “foursquare”, built of “local bricks”, and standing on “a proper street”. What’s more, the architects had “listened carefully to the future residents”.

A week later – after the alarming flooding of large parts of the west north and Midlands of England – Glancey used his blog to return to this theme. He singled out the ancient town of Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, for retaining some integrity after its inundation by the Rivers Severn and Avon: commenting on its “dense weave”, its “proper streets and squares” etc. He regards the town as an object lesson to those responsible for planning and building for the future: suggesting we need "more towns like Tewkesbury" -- dense and compact “new towns” of a traditional type.

Why do I call this “braying”? Because if you turn to the same author’s compact book on C20th architecture from 1998, you discover a rabid attack on Prince Charles’s model town at Poundbury in Dorset: a project that spearheaded the adoption in the UK of precisely the urban values Glancey now wants to be seen championing. In prose dripping with contempt he wrote there of a town that was “intended to be the forerunner of an entirely new way of living, a kind of idyllic “urbs-in-rure” in which houses and shops newly built to look old-fashioned would doff their cornices to renaissance style piazzas” etc. etc.

Now that the utter good sense of the Poundbury approach (of high density, streets and squares, local materials, and community participation) is widely accepted, Glancey has to walk a fine line: love the urbanism, hate the buildings (and hate those, like Prince Charles, who had the temerity to challenge architectural received wisdom). For all his praise of Tewkesbury, when he visited the medieval market town of Ledbury in Herefordshire (in a piece on July 2nd) it was to praise the “architectural daring” of an “armadillo-like” new design showroom, which had succeeded in breaking the historic mould. But then critics love this kind of stuff, on the whole: Eric Parry’s new museum scheme for the city of Bath may have “the denizens of Bath in a lather”, as Ellis Goodman informed us in The Daily Telegraph, but the critic concluded that “on this site if nowhere else … the normal rules should be suspended”.

Glancey’s instincts as a critic are generally good, but to stay where he is for the last two decades he has had to satisfy both influential members of the profession, and his own peers: and it is this, more than anything, that occasionally leads him into his intolerable prejudices and contradictions.

Less constrained by such pressures (his much-noted and timely departure from the sinking ship that was the Millennium Dome in Greenwich having given him celebrity above other critics, as well as a reputation for good sense) is Stephen Bayley, who is maturing brilliantly as a critic. He wrote on July 15th, also in The Guardian, about the looming 3 million new homes. “Why are we so very bad”, he asks, “at making good, ordinary houses?” But he takes some heart from clues as to what the next generation of architects might achieve (and, of course, like a lot of critics Bayley believes that if architects were responsible for more than the 25% of new housing they currently get involved with, then the world would be a better place). And his selection of the best of the new is commendably wide: from Richard Rogers’ eco-houses in Oxley Woods to Clague Architects’ version of the Kent vernacular at Whitstable. These architects know that “the housing question is not about luxury or austerity, traditional or modern, but about good or bad”, and they “design without prejudice”.

To return to the critics: I’m sure the Glanceys of this world would argue that all they are trying to do is separate the good from the bad. It’s just unfortunate about the prejudice that so often accompanies it; and that means we can’t always trust their judgment.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Prophets Without Honour?

The new Director of the Design Museum in London, Deyan Sudjic, is intensely media-savvy. This explains why Britain has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by articles on, and TV coverage of, the subject of his first exhibition as Director – Iranian-born, naturalised-British, architect Zaha Hadid. The exhibition comes just a year after a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York City.

Hadid fits the stereotype of the Prophet Without Honour in her own (adoptive) country. The UK (Wales, actually) treated her shabbily over her (twice) competition-winning Cardiff Opera House design, so she has been forced to look for work (and recognition) elsewhere. She is not the first British international name to seek thus to instil guilt in her compatriots for not giving her a job: it’s been tried in the past by James Stirling, and also by Lords Rogers and Foster, who now seem to be selected to build everything.

Hadid brings out the worst in some critics. The “reactionaries had better brace themselves”, warns Richard Morrison in The (London) Times – desperate to keep the “style wars” alive – for the arrival of her summer pavilion in Hyde Park, and another five London buildings which will follow. Hers is, he concludes, “nothing if not a brazen vision of the future”.

The vacuous Dominic Bradbury in The Daily Telegraph celebrates the fact that "Britain is at last recognising Zaha Hadid", but also hankers after a more innocent age, when the critic could see things hidden from the general public. His article opens with a manifesto-like flourish, characteristic of this critic: “There is an international revolution underway in architecture. We are in an era of liberation,” etc. etc. And – a hoary trope this – should we bristle at the “innovation and ambition” of a Hadid, and worry at the excessive costs of building her visions, then let’s remember Christopher Wren came in for the same criticisms in his day.

The South Bank Show on ITV, hosted by Melvyn, Lord Bragg (and sponsored by UBS, great promoters of modernism in the arts – Laura Cummin recently had a provocative piece on the bank’s suspiciously-close relationship with the Serota tendency) was full of luscious, often CG, images, but with no critical “bottom” to it. So one turns with relief to the redoubtable Stephen Bayley (late of the Design Museum himself) in The Guardian. When Bayley calls Hadid, post-Cardiff, “a rejected heroine, a champion of the future”, you can’t miss the irony in his words. And then, unexpectedly, he quotes with approval the words of one Robert Adam (a contemporary classical architect) describing Hadid’s and her fellows’ output as mere “global status products”; unwilling to consider Adam, as most of his fellow critics would, a risible anachronism in today’s thrusting world.

But what is most laudable about Bayley’s piece is that he stands up to the hype that surrounds the Great Lady. Where The South Bank Show merely fawned over her prototype automobile. Bayley – who knows a thing or two about cars – argues that “shape-making is no longer a driving force in the automobile industry. The big interest there is in fuel-cell power systems, not techno-organic blobbismo. Any student can do that. But it will be much photographed, which is the point”.

But even with the best of critics – which, in the UK means Bayley, Pearman, Moore … occasionally Dyckhoff – there seems an absence of real judgment, real criticism on architectural grounds. They would probably argue that the public doesn’t need it, and is content to have architecture put in context as a cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is precisely this approach that has allowed the cult of celebrity to form around the “starchitects” – Hadid included. Hugh Pearman of The Sunday Times is great company in print. “I love her”, he wrote recently of Zaha, “Her buildings deal in pure, unsettling beauty”. But when a “Tate Mod PR person” points her out to him at the launch of that museum’s new Global Cities exhibition, he demurs: “Look, she’s great, but I really must dash. There are days when I just don’t much fancy the big business of world architecture”. But Hugh ..! Come on! It’s oxymoronic phrases like yours – “pure, unsettling beauty” – that uphold that “big business”, and I really think you should have to pay the price once in a while, by at least crossing the room to engage in some small talk with your Frankenstein monsters.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Nobel Prize

Architects and critics are obsessed with prizes, so maybe, on the strength of Philip Nobel's recent dissection of their mutual back-slapping tendencies (see yesterday's post), I should institute a Nobel Prize for Craven Criticism.

However, I don't think Chris Ayres -- LA Correspondent for the London Times -- would have won it for his piece at
TIMESONLINE on Frank Gehry. His is just Dumb Criticism, utilising a technique that would be an insult even to Paris Hilton. He's never read any other interviews with Gehry, evidently: asking him to tell the story about the carp in the bath-tub, and registering Frank's reaction to the question -- "Oh, that's an old story", and "[heavy sigh] you don't want to go into all that, do ya?" -- without a hint of self-awareness. And he clearly has no conception of how an architect works: asking why there is cardboard all over the floor, and then wondering why Frank leaves the room for 15 minutes. Still, it neatly puffs Pollack's Sketches film about Gehry, just released in the UK -- which I suppose is all an LA Correspondent is for.

This is the Toby Young school of car-crash journalism, and sheds no new light whatever on the "Great Man". Is there any new light to shed? you might ask: I'm sure Tom Dyckhoff -- the Times's real, and rather admirable, architecture critic -- will do a better job in finding out, after spending two whole evenings conducting public interviews with the architect: last night and tonight.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Architectural Criticism: Good and Bad

It's rare to find a piece of architectural criticism as altogether heartwarming as the one that appeared on May 18th in Metropolis Magazine. The author -- the smart, Brooklyn-based Philip Nobel -- addressed the artificial "bidding up" of architects' reputations, which "the critical establishment" indulges in to make its predictions look sound, and city administrations allow to happen so they can cash in their share of the "Bilbao effect", or whichever effect they are sounding off about right now.

What ensues is a refreshingly clear-headed take on NYC-based DS+R's new ICA building in Boston Harbor. In Nobel's view it is "disappointing", with a "grand gesture to the sea" (a cantilever that succeeds in throwing a harborside public space into the shade) to please the picture editors, undermined by a non-too-well-groomed, poorly-detailed, rear end. Elsewhere problems of the architects' own making are badly resolved; "details are sloppy throughout". It is, he concludes "a botched box".

Such honesty is a rare thing, and will probably earn Mr. Nobel exclusion from one or two parties in future.

What about the redoubtable Robert Campbell of The Boston Globe? Similarly party-shunning, or toe-ing the party line? The latter, unfortunately. Campbell calls the building "inventive" and "interesting" (which, charitably, might be considered damning with faint praise). He remarks on its intense invovement with the sea, but says little about its relationship to the land. He is enthralled by the technology of the cantilever in a way that Nobel resists, and waxes lyrical about a folded hardwood plane that runs up through the building -- which Nobel terms "an image ... a fake". He also quotes the architects own words uncritically rather too often, and takes their side on an unfulfilled (and rather barbarous-sounding) ambition for one of the windows.

Could do better, Robert.

The vulpine Hugh Pearman covered the building for the English Press. Curiously he offers a costing for the building which is over 50% higher than the one provided by Campbell: $65m as against $41. In other respects, though, he's Campbell's doppelganger, though with an enthusiasm tempered by an amusing lightness of tone and sly wit.

So is Pearman in the pocket of these future starchitects', as Nobel would have us believe? Well, the article begins "When Elizabeth Diller - Liz to those who know her ...". You decide!