Monday, 18 January 2010

Dialectic of Hi-Tech - response!

Well, basically, thanks to SDMYBT for responding to my last post so very quickly. In order to push the ideas a bit further on, I’ll be partly responding to him, and partly looking at another text I recently read; ‘Plateau Beaubourg’ by Alan Colquhoun, a contemporary critique of Richard Rogers & Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre (1971-7).

After the astonishing paroxysm of Lloyds, where the Marcuse-quoting Labourite gives capital the best fucking building it's ever going to have, High-Tech had the choice of going further in that direction, creating an accelerationist architecture, essentially, or of pretending that this 'changing society' was still changing for the better, and toning down the harsh elements of their architecture in favour of an ornamentalism of struts that eventually ends up in Terminal 5

This is a fascinating point. Now, normally I find ‘accelerationism’ an incredibly dubious political position, whether it be the anarcho-animist Deleuzo-Guattarian type or the trendy-gauloises-nihilism type we see a lot of about these days. Now’s not the time for a proper critique of accelerationism (not that I’d be capable of it), but on a very basic level I think that it’s the wrong conclusion to draw from the obvious fact that while modern capitalism has benefited a lot of people, developing many technologies that even communist societies would use, it is simultaneously destroying everything, including the world itself. I mean; how do accelerationists organise? What is an act of accelerationism? What’s actually the difference between Paul Wolfowitz and an accelerationist?

above: Fleetguard Factory. below: Coin Street

Nevertheless, ‘accelerationist architecture’ is a fascinating concept. What was the step beyond Lloyds? I mean, chronologically the step beyond Lloyds was the Fleetguard Factory (1979-81), which is a far more sensible (dare-I-say-it?) solution to a design problem. It’s one of those early High-Tech projects with a tension-cable roof, allowing for a lighter span and a more dynamic structural presence, most of which look rather sad now, all dirty and unloved. But there’s a couple of other projects that Rogers undertook that at least come close to what Lloyds was attempting. The unbuilt Coin Street plan (1979-83) was essentially a series of Lloyds towers running around the back of the National Theatre, except in this case they were to be used for offices and housing, with a shopping arcade running along underneath. It’s strange because it’s programmatically one of those vulgar mixed-use schemes that have dulled our cities so much in the last decade, albeit in the same astonishing brutalism-in-steel-and-glass style as Lloyds. In much the same way that we hate the client of Lloyds while still loving the building, we can imagine walking around the arcade of Coin Street, marvelling at the madness of the architecture while bemoaning the fact that it was filled with nothing more than Wagamamas underneath banks, underneath flats for the very rich.

above: Patscentre. below: Inmos microprocessor factory

The Patscentre (1982-5) and the Inmos microprocessor factory (1982-7) are ridiculously constructivist buildings with a very clear logic, although again, revolutionising the factory was never going to be easy when you’re dealing with bottom-line architecture. There’s a reason why factories are built the way they are, and there are other reasons why clients might occasionally pay for a Rogers factory. What would have been more interesting here would be the same approach being used for another programme, perhaps housing, or something urban (I don’t count Homebase or an Ice-skating rink). It’s as unlikely as ever, however.

The exhibition London as it Could Be (1986), however, shows an architectural step beyond what we saw in Lloyds and Pompidou, although it again owes masses of aesthetic influence to the constructivists. On the one hand we’re seeing the crystallizing of Rogers’ urban theories – the linear parks, café culture, pedestrian routes and high density mixed-use development (beside a redundant river, natch!) that would eventually lead to Blair-space, but we shouldn’t forget that it was a polemical project aimed at the Tory bastards in power at the time, and Rogers also expected that proper, genuine state involvement would be required to make these things happen. The Blair-space we’re now unfortunately stuck with was the right idea, built for the wrong people by the wrong people, in the wrong way. Oh well. But! Look at the audacity and genuine madness of the proposal, the suspended bridge, the flamboyant structure and massing, the wilful lack of conventional order or proportion; it’s almost a forerunner of one of those deliberately ugly unbuilt OMA projects with the blue foam blocks rammed into each other willy-nilly. As far as ripping off the constructivists goes, one should take this theoretical project over early Zaha Hadid any day, as at least here we have the aesthetic being deployed with full knowledge of its radical political overtones, rather than as a plunderable bag of shapes.

two Bartlett projects c.2004

some expressive Miralles structure.

But that’s not really enough; London as it could be is a step forward but also a very obvious step back, invoking historically radical aesthetics as a deliberate provocation. It’s actually very hard to imagine a step beyond Lloyds, a more powerful expression of building services (as previously noted; the genuine engineering vanguard of the 1960s onward), a building with a more fragmented edge or envelope, lacking even any kind of façade. There are definitely historical aspects to Lloyds – the retained façade, the roof that riffs off the Crystal Palace, the oak panelled room high up inamongst the polished steel, and of course many of its details are dependent on brutalist convention, but its belligerent, alienating, anti-classical, even anti-modernist aesthetic has rarely if ever been approached since. For hints, perhaps one might take another look at the ‘Bartlett Style’ (circa 2004) of architecture; not something I usually recommend, but within this argument it would be very interesting to see a built architecture with as much perforation and resistance to ‘edge’ as some of those frivolous student projects suggested; all those hanging wires, silly devices and superfluous lines that don’t refer to anything whatsoever, they are of the same family as the overpowering texture and depth of Lloyds/Pompidou. Or maybe one could look at the expressiveness of the Catalan Modernism of Miralles et al: the flamboyance of structure, proliferation of detail, warped contextualism and symbolic formal language; one of only a few post ‘68 styles that is worthy of the ‘high modernism’ tag, a deeply knowledgeable architecture that achieves a ‘specialness’ that, at the end of the day, we humans seem to need. But neither of these two avenues are really as interesting as that first flowering of avant-tech architecture, neither are they particularly concerned with the politics of architecture – they both tend towards the ‘ornamentalism of struts’ that Owen mentions. Maybe one should look to the utilitarian structures such as the support structure I recently wrote about, structures with almost no style whatsoever. Or perhaps we have to look to science fiction for ideas, but that’s not really been my style – I’m not a futurologist – but I’d love to hear about any future cities that could be looked at as serious considerations of this idea. At the end of the day, it’s just a shame that Rogers basically gave up, becoming a polite version of himself, with nobody really pushing the ideas further. Knowing what we know now about the iconic boom, he could probably have held onto his early architectural language for long enough that big projects started rolling in again…

I'm generally not that bothered about the sin of 'solutionism' any more than I'm bothered about the 'ethical fallacy, at least until it becomes (with varying degrees of regularity) a massive fib, or at present both a fib and a pernicious cliché.

Well; yes. Perhaps my argument was too strong there. I didn’t mention Bucky Fuller in the last post partly because Foster didn’t really begin to get close to him until the seventies; but of course any reckoning of technologically focused architecture has to deal with him… but still: one of my biggest problems with solutionism is that it basically neglects any kind of reckoning with consciousness, of both the personal and the collective type. I don’t deny for one second that any major improvements in society will have to involve learning from and utilizing the architectural methods of retail parks, supermarkets and malls, but my point still stands that if you articulate a position that is so willfully blank on some of the most important aspects of architectural culture, these gaps will be quickly filled with shit. The inevitability of this outcome is of course difficult to really ascertain, I know the astoundingly negative quality of a critique that says that a theory is only as good as its ill-use, and of course a theory can only cover so much ground; there is no all-encompassing system that cannot be co-opted or applied poorly… If you’re not careful with this you end up with the faux-consensual logic of the least-worst. Having said that, perhaps there’s an irony that I’m not properly appreciating: inasmuch as all ideas fall flat, there’s a qualitative difference between the failure of, say, the ferro-vitreous ‘palaces for the people’, the post-war utopian experiments in communal living, and an architecture whose sole ideology is that it is the most efficient and sensible solution. I refer back to Spitalfields Market – the piss-poor application of what is already a very dry rhetoric is heartbreaking - “This is nothing less than the answer to what you really want!”

Or perhaps – if you’re bound to fail, then could you at least aim high?

So, anyway; Colquhoun’s essay on Beaubourg has some really prescient things to say about the problems of solutionist rhetoric. With particular significance for what I was just saying:

Once it is admitted that “functionalism” is a system of representation and not a mere instrument, then it becomes a matter of legitimate discussion as to whether the values symbolised by this architecture are desirable or not. But such a discussion is cut short by the bland statement that architecture expresses nothing but its inherent usefulness. Any questioning of its forms can then be attributed to the fact that the questioner has not yet come to terms with the “facts” of modern life.

One must never forget however, that solutionist rhetoric is something that has always been partially about relationships between stakeholders in the construction of a building – generally people want to feel that they’re getting value for money. If you went into a meeting armed with a presentation explaining the ideological system that your façade expressed, you’d find yourself without a project to finish. So one has to always be careful that one does not mistake simple business seduction with solutionism, but on the other hand that is perhaps what makes solutionism solutionism; the use of the rhetoric beyond what is pragmatically necessary for smooth dealings with clients and so on. What was that I previously said about those characters from Zizek? There is a reading to be made where the solutionist over-fondness for functionalist rhetoric opens the door for the taking seriously by others of that same rhetoric… This perhaps is neglecting the economic pressure of the construction industry somewhat, but we mustn’t also neglect the power of ideology in getting people to spend money… Going back to the Colquhoun quote, I think that it’s very important that this point is stressed against ‘pure’ functionalism. For the economic and interactive reasons mentioned above, solutionism becomes a foreclosing rhetoric, pre-emptively blocking off criticisms through a language of efficiency and inevitability.

This attitude assumes that architecture has no further task other than to perfect its own technology. It turns the problem of architecture as a representation of social values into a purely aesthetic one, since it assumes that the purpose of architecture is merely to accommodate any form of activity which may be required and has no positive attitude toward these activities. It creates institutions, while pretending that no institutionalisation of social life is necessary.

This leads us to question further; there have been radical relationships to technology before, or at least there have been more complex relationships to technology in the past. Right now, the digital manufacturing ‘scene’ has a much more complicated relationship to technology (reckoning with which is outside the scope of this piece), even beard-and-sandals environmentalism has a more subtle relationship to technology than solutionism does. I will state strongly that a pure, or at least over-invested functionalism cannot ever be adequate for the creation of architecture, as long as there is culture. Service of function is not all of what architecture, or indeed technology in general, does. Culturally, we absolutely need some kind of ‘figuring out’ of our relationship to technology, and in architectural terms, we need something better than parametric wibble and hair-shirt mud huts. The reason I bang on about Victorian ferro-vitreous architecture is because I think there is something there that is neglected that might just help figure out a few cultural problems (of architecture) in the here-and-now.

The philosophy behind the notion of flexibility is that the requirements of modern life are so complex and changeable that any attempt on the part of the designer to anticipate them results in a building which is unsuited to its function and represents, as it were, a “false consciousness” of the society in which he operates.
It is difficult to envisage any function which would require an unimpeded fifty-meter span with a height limitation of seven meters.

Again, this essay repeatedly makes points that are just as valid today. The first part of the quote presents an indictment of ‘shed-ness’, or the tendency towards blankness. This is not to say that flexibility is bad per se; the mat-building typology, or ‘roofitecture’ are both complex and interesting systems with a lot to give us, and the notion of upgrading and adaption are likely to be vital later in this century, but to abdicate responsibility for programme is not a particularly welcome thing. The second quote is a version of my ‘1889 argument’; since then, depending upon the impressiveness of engineering for the power of the architecture lends itself to a particular architectural melancholy; the hints of a larger finitude expressed by a space unfilled.

And I think I’ll just quote the last paragraph of the essay in full, seeing as it combines a number of previous points I’ve made:

But in considering whether the “symbolic gestures” are gratuitous or not we cannot just take them at their face value as an “honest” expression of the material or function of a building. The Galerie des Machines and the Eiffel Tower were structural gestures, but carried within them the idea of structural economy and minimal effort, whereas at Beaubourg the “real” structural members are in places sheathed in stainless steel and thus appear both luxurious and larger than they actually are. Nor can the Centre Pompidou be equated with the work of the Constructivists, however strident the analogy may at first seem. For the constructivists, the expression of structure and mechanical elements was connected with a social ideology and took its meaning from this. The Centre Pompidou seems to be more related to Archigram’s work of the sixties and its meaning to be in the area of science fiction. This great machine of culture seems to have no ideological message: it presents an image of total mechanisation but makes no connection between this image and the other possible images of our culture.

Food for thought, I reckon. Will have to come back to it, however...


Anonymous said...


Paul said...

As the man says, everyone fastens where there is gain.

When I first visited Beaubourg, as a teenager and not long after it first opened, I was struck by how purposeless it seemed. Here was this huge space on several levels but there seemed to be so little going on. There was a bookshop at the bottom, Boulez in the basement, a grim cafeteria at the top and little in-between. Most visitors visited to ride the escalators and take photos of Paris from the top.

It was Pompidou's folly. Perhaps it was difficult for Rogers and Piano to create functional architecture when the building's function was so ill-defined.