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.

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.

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