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.