Monday, 21 January 2008

The Accidental Brutalist

This photo causes me problems. I feel that it is worth striving for an architectural communication that can accept incompleteness, decay, dirt, and, well, gloom, despite the fact that this would only occur if the world was run by Beckettians, but it does bother me when this spatial language is just the unintended byproduct of some shitty acrylic paintings.

Just as the work of Eisenman Architects is interesting despite his awful torturing of genuine thought, so Zaha Hadid Architects seem to completely miss the point of their own work. Their physical output is almost, but not entirely, completely unlike the drawings, renders, and those vastly overrated canvases. This is not that terrible - most architects produce images that bear no relation to reality - sunny days, crowded streets, smiles, &c. but it is especially disheartening because a language of flamboyant, transfigured brutalism would be incredible, and appropriate for today, and for Zaha's to veer towards it, not through any considerate action, but merely because nobody (yet) has paid for them to construct buildings out of the platinum they so obviously would wish to, so that they continue to use concrete for its 'plasticity', is useless.

Take the Phaeno Science Centre, for example. The building, especially from the exterior, looks as if it could be some ill-remembered car park or university building, more elaborate, more ornate, more special than it had ever been in its actual experience. The addition of strange shapes, the angles, the irregularity is almost like looking at the process of forgetting acting upon the tricorn centre or somewhere similar, the addition of decay (or a worsening, as Badiou's Beckett might put it...), the much talked about way out between iconoclasm and pastiche, right down to the sickly yellow of the lights dribbling down from what resembles a waffle slab, structural mainstay of the multi-storey. But then, of course, Zaha is a capitalist modernist, with a Rand-esque artistic vision of an architecture that flows, that is dynamic, &c. She didn't mean it. If you look at the developmental material, there is never even the slightest hint of this system of reference, just powerful shapes viewed from extreme perspectives (I'm aware of the explanation for this - the images, paintings &c. are diagrams, not to be seen as representational, but I don't think that this explains the aesthetic one little bit). Give the Science Centre just a little time and it will be a real mess, stained and rotting away, but that won't make any difference to the coffee table books...

So Zaha's buildings rot quickly. Anybody could predict that, their early work is especially poor in construction and detail, but there's enough Zaha-bashing anyway, for worse reasons, and they should be supported against reactionary attitudes (and there are some great interviews with Zaha from during the 'deconstructionism' period where she cuts through the prevailing bullshit and charmingly points out that bad-theory is useless to her as an architect.). But seeing in their work hints of an architecture that could be complete in its incompleteness, able to communicate within the city without merely being a degenerated version of some financialist ideal or the never-ending sigh that is contemporary urbanism, this is a tantalising proposition, but it is disheartening that it should be unintentional, and unwanted.

(cheers to NBS for pointing out the photo.)


owen hatherley said...

Great post. Is it that unintentional though? Viz: I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality. You don't need to make concrete perfectly smooth or paint it or polish it. If you consider changes in the play of light on a building before it's built, you can vary the colour and feel of concrete by daylight alone.

Kosmograd said...

Interesting post. I'd have to disagree with you about the 'shitty acrylic paintings' though. I think they're amazing.

But Zaha never translated the energy or the spatial dynamics of the paintings into built form. They should have been left as paintings. But after so many years failing to get anything of substance built, you can't really blame her for grasping at any chance that came along.

Nowadays, Zaha Hadid Architects have transformed themselves into a highly competent firm of architects (with something like 150 staff) working on building projects across the world.

But I can't help but prefer the visionary quality of the paintings, the attempts to capture space and find new ways of representing the urban condition, and that promised so much more than the building ever could.

I've posted my thoughts about this building over at Kosmogrgad

Murphy said...

Ok, after considering it, I should note a couple of things;
Owen, the quote you've given is a nullity that could have come straight from the Corbusian phrasebook, and as such says very little, almost nothing about intentions, and more about post-rationalising.

Speaking of which, we musn't forget that the early paintings were often made AFTER the competitions that they represented were complete. I think that speaks volumes.
The paintings in the flesh are atrocious though, flat, plain, and without the slightest hint of, you know, painterly gesture. I contend that what the paintings really did was allow Zaha to straddle the fields of art and architecture, depending upon who was criticising at the time. The paintings are not art because they contain diagrammatic information and they're not architecture because they're on a stretcher. This ambiguity allowed her career to develop in a way it wouldn't have done otherwise, especially in such a difficult financial climate.

Of course, it's correct that ZHA are now a very large firm employing many talented people, and I've even heard rumours that they actually pay everyone now... But it's depressing to look at the work of all these architects from the '80s and '90s who were so proud of their integrity and consider it in relation to today's morally bankrupt work-frenzy (Danny Libeskind is the absolute WORST for this).

Decon in Decay, I like it. It is basically a three word manifesto for Hauntology. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Isn’t it always the case that an architect or artist misses the point of their own work? Isn’t the point of a critic such as yourself to point this out?

It’s interesting that you categorise Zaha’s concrete works as Brutalist and I wouldn’t disagree. Mannerist brutalist perhaps? No, "accidental Brutalist" is better.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Brutalism is an entirely aestheticised movement, as I think Banham arrived at in his “The New Brutalism – ethic or aesthetic?” The photos look fabulous and seduce, but the buildings themselves are often difficult to get on with. Perhaps Zaha is building in order to produce beautiful photographs? Of course, she wouldn’t accept that this is the point of her work, but the photos will live long after the buildings are demolished.

And I also disagree with you about the canvases. As no fan of the Zaha brand, I really wanted to hate them before I visited the design museum last year, but thought they were fabulous.

Vaint Salentine said...

"The Peak" was a painting that served as a proposal when it was entered into a competition in 1983/84 ish. She won the competition but the project was never realised. The painting, as a proposal, demonstrates how the architect intends for the building to be viewed in a very particular if not singular way. By using the techniques of painting and distortion to re-stitch the landscape together, she is deliberately manipulating the relationship of the proposed building in relation to its surroundings. The painting is a way for her to really direct the way her project is to be read by an audience. I think that the paintings of this period are interesting for the way that they offer a specific reading of a site where a proposal is supposed to be implemented within because an awareness of how the proposal is supposed to relate to its site is made active. I think that the paintings are less interesting when they are supposed serve the role of having a direct and truthful representation of a built form.