Monday, 10 November 2008


I was sorry to miss Owen’s paper at HM the other day, so am unable to tell how it went down. His paper is typically excellent, but we feel compelled however, to if not exactly contradict, at least muddy the waters a little.

I will take Owen’s theses to be thus – that there is currently an architectural moment that can be described as Pseudomodernism, which is identifiable as ‘postmodernism’s incorporation of a Modernist formal language’. This Pseudomodernism is understood to be the architectural manifestation of the current form of neoliberalism. At one extreme of this system is the Iconic building, and Owen states that this has more in common with Googie, a crass American form of architecture than the modernism it would claim to be descended from.

1. Ever decreasing circles.

If we understand Po-mo to be the architectural discourse whose language was found most suitable for expressing neo-liberal messages in the built environment, then it is not too difficult to understand the current form of expression’s turn towards a language drawn from modernism. Owen is right to point out that, just as New Labour Thatcherism speaks a more socially aware public language than the did the original Thatcherites, so the architecture is expressed in less dominating terms. This raises a few questions, however; part of the original reason for the rise of Pomo is the perceived inhumanity of Modernism. An architecture of ‘sign’ was supposed to create a semantic bridge between the public and the institution embodied in the built form, thus lessening the dominating effect. The abstraction of form (despite its self and intra-movement referentiality, Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, after all) was seen as lacking accessibility, and the materialistic expressions were considered inhumane. Never mind that a large part of the reason for Modernism shearing itself of ornament was the complicity with inhumane exploitation that bourgeois, classical architecture represented. Pomo faltered for a few reasons, for example; the hegemonic success of British Hi-Tech, which suited a desire for ‘transparency’ in the world of shady business has been very influential in making a ‘modern’ style appropriate for institutions. As has the reaction to the shoddy quality of a lot of Pomo work. It is not exaggerating to say that most architects are ashamed of that period, and its ‘loadsamoney’ vacuousness. To reinvigorate architecture, a new modernism was sought, shorn of the inhumanity of the monolithic Corbusian legacy (I certainly saw posters in school decrying Corb for ‘crimes against architecture’). For this young architects looked to Aalto, Barragan et al, architects known for their ‘regional’ attempts at the international Modernism, as well as the Team X renegades (at least the more cuddly ones, like Van Eyck and Herzberger). This attitude of Modernism with a human face has coincided perfectly with the ideology of Nu Labour, if perhaps approaching each other along different vectors.

2. the meaninglessness of architecture

Unfortunately, it is not as if all the Pomo architects were born in the mid 70’s and died in 1997. Owen points out Farrell as an example, but the sorry fact is that an ideologically consistent architectural practice is an extreme rarity. Some of the original British Pomo was brought over from the U.S, in the form of one time arch modernists like SOM (Unilever Building?) or KPF. Most architects above a certain age have a few pedimented skeletons in their closet, and if you look a little further back, most of the Brutalism in the UK that Owen might imbue with transformative potential was designed by architects who then happily switched to Pomo, and then more than happily switched to pseudo-modern, decorating the outside of the office blocks with barcode facades and 3m high lettering that they saw in a copy of BD focussing on the latest in Dutch.
Both British Hi-Tech and Decon are both styles that found themselves in vogue, after lean periods. The French gamble on Rogers & Piano led to Lloyds, the most avant-garde building in Britain containing one of the most reactionary typologies. The large success of Gehry has led to more intellectual ‘decon’ architects being accepted, but only after their florid conceptualising is dropped as so much baggage, merely useful for gaining academic promotions and book publishing deals.

3. Googie: the architectural insult.

I am still unconvinced that Googie is the answer to Iconic architecture. Yes, of course it allows us to see just how far Iconic architecture is from having any high-minded or moral quality when it unwittingly shares the logic of outré form=logo with Californian pap, but this is not the whole story. Googie seems to me to be part of the ‘outsider architect’ tradition, from FLW and Bruce Goff in the US, individualists who have a particularly ‘American’ take on praxis, who have affinities with turn of the twentieth century expressionism – Gaudi, Mackintosh, Guimard, etc… Perhaps this works, except the particular thing about the current period is how this individualism can be so very homogenous. Altogether now – “We are all different!!!”

4. Victoriana

If I can make a couple of points regarding the revenge of Victorianism; let us not forget the ideological battles of eclecticism. Look at the Houses of Parliament – a classical building dressed in gothic garb. What about the museums of Albertopolis? The train stations up and down the UK (on which more in a second)? A century and a half ago the same problem existed; architecture was semantically drained. A plethora of approaches could be taken, and none would express a different code (despite what Pugin would say). Perhaps this is a potential that Modernism had - to set up a language of authentic communication, a powerful yet vulnerable idea. It was a project of Thatcherism to make sure that Modernist architecture became coded in the correct way – as cold, brutal, unforgiving, monstrous, carbuncular etc… a project which, it has to be said, was almost entirely successful. Nu-Labour arrives, and instead of changing the paradigm, it merely expresses it with smiles and caring rhetoric. Cameron is soon to arrive, and with him a return of philanthropy and 'giving something back' from what has been cruelly taken.

5. Brunelesque-y

One of the most exciting discoveries in my own work on Victorian architecture was just how much and in what way the iron and glass developments have been coded. Ever since 1851, the Crystal Palace has been understood generally as a remarkable achievement of engineering, and also the origin of the ‘Plan Libre’. These two points are correct, but it is far more complex. This purely material point of view is often accompanied by a qualification about the over-celebration of empire, and how this is BAD, but the cultural consideration usually doesn’t go much further. However, from a viewpoint at the beginning of the 1900’s, the train stations of the previous 50 years would be understood as marvels of science and ingenuity, although requiring a classical disguise to hide their shed-ness, but the Crystal Palace typology would be looked at as glorious follies: for every glasshouse or people’s palace that survives now, there were countless more that opened and closed dejectedly, the optimism of their birth unmatched by the income they generated. As Benjamin said; ‘The light that fell from above, through the panes between the iron supports, was dirty and sad’. This legacy of failure and melancholy, admittedly marginal, has disappeared in favour of an inherited rhetoric of structural progress; Brunel is the figure that most haunts British Hi-Tech, more than any other.

This has been a long way of coming round to the point that one pernicious idea in architecture has been the engineer’s interpretation of Modernism; a new technology must be used, because, well, it’s a new technology. The Decon crowd may have started plying their trade pre-computer, but the advance of computer technology has been one of the main factors in the acceptance of ‘Iconic’ architecture. Eisenman started reading Deleuze when computer-literate students entered his office; the vanguardism of the US scene, developing digital skills and tools led to the short lived late ‘90s ‘Blob’ phase of architecture, where hi-tech digital tools were coupled with nomadic / folded rhetoric to postulate a semi-virtual hybrid form of future information womb-space. The truth of an idea, though, is what happens when idiots start using it. Greg Lynn is not the truth of digital design, Ken Shuttleworth is. Right now we have a great many intelligent people developing ways to remove the architect from the design process. This may seem, in the academic environment, to provide myriad possibilities for opening up the discourse of architecture, reinvigorating the field of potentialities, but if past form is anything to go by, all the parametric revolution will give us are cheaper, quicker buildings that signify even less.
This, I think, is the hauntological problem of architecture.


owen hatherley said...

A brilliant post which I agree with 97% of - but may I muddy the waters on your muddying of the waters...

Googie - I don't conceive this comparison wholly as an insult, as in its 1950s form this was lively stuff, particularly by contrast with the Miesian decline of the Neues Bauen into a glassy urban ornament. The comparison was a) formal, all those cantilevers and paraboloids, the 'logo-ness'; b) precisely because of the way that a certain unruliness became conformism in the 1950s. If you look through Alan Hess' Googie book (and I recommend you do, it's excellent) it becomes obvious that although it may derive from 'outsiders' like Lloyd Wright or Lautner, as employed by its main firms - Stanley Meston, Armet & Davis - it quickly became an instantly recognisable style, a conformism of nonconformism, which describes pseudomodern decon pretty damn aptly. Having said that, The fact that in Googie's case it is done for fun and profit rather than edification and PFI sort-of-profit stands very much in its favour.

Benjamin & Brunel - this is really very strong, and reminds me that you really ought to put your dissertation up. But more to the point, there is one thing here which I think reduces Benjamin to a Beckettian prophet of failure which is NOT what the Arcades is about at all. This leads I think to this claim:

The truth of an idea, though, is what happens when idiots start using it. Greg Lynn is not the truth of digital design, Ken Shuttleworth is.

Really? The 'truth'? Let's rephrase this thus: 'The Unite de Habitation is not the truth of Modernist social housing, Ronan Point (or insert other asbestos/newspaper/concrete system-block here) is', or indeed 'Antonio Gramsci is not the truth of Communism, Leonid Brezhnev is', and so forth. It's an incredibly defeatist claim. In the Arcades the point is that the failures of the recent past (while not offering the 'truth') suggest a reinterpretation of history, a breaking open of the continuum into a space which a revolutionary subjectivity can enter. The 'truth' is not in the failure or the protected monument, but the failures can at least break up the ideology of uninterrupted progress: which High-Tech, (especially in its current degenerated, conformist form) was all too keen to rehabilitate for the purposes of furnishing Blairism.

Dominic said...

Is the notion here that the "truth" of an apparent novelty is its transmissible component, the part that "sticks" or produces ongoing effects? If so, it isn't obvious that it's always the "idiot" version that will endure; but it may be that there are conditions under which the idiot version is all that *can* endure...