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, 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?

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