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Issue 120


Fierce jeremiads, ‘pseudomodernism’, the positive effects of the financial crisis, nostalgia and the tallest structure in the world

BY Owen Hatherley AND Shumon Basar in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 09

Owen Hatherley

In architecture, over the last year, the computer-aided ‘parametric’ buildings, the installation of naked hippies at the Venice Architecture Biennale and the endless parade of prospective icons have failed to hide a basic fact: building is in a bleak impasse. It’s appropriate, then, that the most interesting productions of architects in 2008 were not so much buildings themselves as a couple of fierce jeremiads. The first was from that venerable old huckster of Deconstructivism, Peter Eisenman. In what was grandly dubbed a ‘Six-Point Plan’, in a lecture in Edinburgh at the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, the American architect managed to repudiate everything he had ever stood for. Eisenman gained a reputation in the late 1970s for an amoral formalism, where the intricacies of a merely spatial ‘critique’ replaced welfare state Modernism’s claims to social engagement. And here he was, claiming in Point Six that ‘to be an architect is a social act’, in Point Two that ‘students have become passive’, both politically and aesthetically, and in Point Three that ‘computers make design standards poorer’. The glib Internet responses to the ‘Six Points’ only reinforced his argument.

The other critique was by Sam Jacob of the British firmFAT (Fashion Architecture Taste). On the website www.strangeharvest.com he posted a comment piece, ‘Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture’, in which he argued that the High-Tech movement, whose international success has given Britain an architectural prominence that its impoverished building culture hardly deserves, has become a drab, pragmatic orthodoxy. We can see the effects everywhere, from the ‘stunning developments’ that clog up the banks of the Thames in London and the Irwell in Manchester to the various ‘centres’ for this and that which appear in ‘regeneration zones’ and the schools-as-business-parks that are the City Academies.

In this there has been a strange meld of a utilitarian High-Tech (the rehabilitated functionalism of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster), Scandinavian ‘warmth’ (all that stuck-on wood cladding and ostentatiously friendly colour) and the formal extremes of Deconstructivism (the shape-making canon of Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry) into a new entity we could call ‘pseudomodernism’: a Modernism where form conceals function, where social concern curdles into Blairite piety, where ‘transparency’ masks the skulduggery and fraud of capitalism and where nonconformism becomes conformism. Jacob singles out MAKE Architects, the practice formed by Ken Shuttleworth (director on Foster + Partner’s ‘Gherkin’ building) as the most guilty party, their work a vacant ‘Shape-ism’, an ‘expressionism with nothing to express’. This pseudomodernism can be seen at its most unctuous in MAKE’s new campus for the University of Nottingham, a series of arbitrary bright polygons, their pinkish hue allegedly inspired by the local brick vernacular, at the centre of which stands a staggeringly vacuous sculpture with the awe-inspiringly New Labour name of Aspire.

In response, Jacob calls for a ‘New Pop Moralism’. One pointer to what this might look like is FAT’s scheme for the postwar Modernist suburb of Hoogvliet in Rotterdam. Postmodernism’s formal games, references and ‘playfulness’ have long been replaced by pseudomodern blandness, so FAT respond by rehabilitating Postmodernism. However, their community centre for Hoogvliet seems more influenced by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto than, say, the more overbearing Postmodernism of Terry Farrell’s MI6 building in London. They use a deliberately artificial language of bright colours, cartoonish forms and trompe l’oeil effects, indebted to the pomo notion of the ‘decorated shed’. While it’s a moot point whether a new populist language is the way out of pseudomodernism’s dead-eyed corporate dead-end, at least FAT recognize it as such.

As it is, the property-led financial crash may have some benign effects. A whole series of towers of stacked trading floors are being cancelled, one after the other, most of which richly deserve it. Foster’s ‘U2 Tower’ in Dublin, for instance, with space for Bono & Co. to rehearse in the penthouse, has been consigned to the dustbin of history, as have some of the new skyscrapers planned for London. Architectural magazines are already publishing features on ‘emerging markets’, imploring the profession to decamp to Abu Dhabi, China or the other outposts of what one wit termed ‘oligarchitecture’. The helots of Abu Dhabi will soon be constructing a whole ‘cultural zone’ of ‘signature’ ‘iconic’ museums and galleries, while Foster has designed an eco-city for the oil-rich emirate, where more than ever his work evokes Ken Adam’s designs for the headquarters of Bond villains.

A less depressing escape route may be through using computer-aided design to solve what is already a huge housing crisis in the USA and elsewhere, rather than for the purposes of bespoke icons. Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis has apparently designed an automated system able to erect a house in 24 hours. Doubtless this will be the architectural equivalent of the stainless fabric in the film The Man in the White Suit (1951) – a technology too Utopian to be allowed to develop. Yet a robotic Levittown can’t be much worse than the pseudomodernist cul-de-sac in which we find ourselves.

Le Corbusier, Philips Pavilion, World's Fair, Brussels, Belgium (1958)

Shumon Basar

Pop troubadour Momus recently told me that he thinks Western culture is deeply ‘retro-necro’. Contemporary culture, he argues, resurrects the dead or the forgotten from oblivion (see music magazines Q and Mojo for proof). As we enter the next stage of globalization – where free-market capitalism takes its cues from the state capitalism of China and the Gulf – the future of the West (or, more laughably, ‘The First World’) is newly precarious: perhaps the evolutionary outcome of its once happy, colonizing past. Since time immemorial, architecture has been a physical and public barometer of present moments that stray into futures for which they could never have been prepared. In this way architecture populates several eras simultaneously. Often troublingly. Updating David Byrne’s bewildered ‘How did I get here?’ in Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (1980), we might more appropriately now ask, ‘What is here?’

A number of books and shows in 2008 evidenced the still-fresh fetish for the past (which may be a symptom of an intellectual frustration with the fuzzy present). We just can’t get enough of the 1960s and ’70s! Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties (Rizzoli) by Alastair Gordon is a lavishly illustrated and intelligent trawl through the USA’s countercultural heyday, drawing up a cast of itinerant hippies and drugged-out drop-outs desperate to design their own American dream. By 1973 the world had dropped out temporarily, owing to the crippling oil crisis. This became the subject of ‘1973: Sorry, Out of Gas!’, a chilly, timely exhibition at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture. If you were keen to know how architectural writers, editors and publishers were dealing with this massively transitional phase, the travelling research show ‘Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x–197x’ at the Architectural Association in London (having travelled from the Canadian Centre for Architecture and New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture) was the perfect archive to dive into. Bringing together over 100 gaudy, graphically audacious titles from the early 1960s to the end of the ’70s, it reminded us of a time when getting naked was political and unkempt beards were de rigueur.

All of this was eerily evoked in the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Aaron Betsky. The critics’ consensus was that the last true avant-gardes (Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au etc.) are now firmly pitched between blue-chip fashion brands and dinosaur rock bands such as the Rolling Stones. We didn’t get no satisfaction from their worn-out-looking manifesto-installations. ‘Kill Yr Idols’ is what a new generation has done – one for whom the activist aspects of the 1960s and ’70s now have an irresistible ideological appeal.

And if it’s ideology’s relation to form that concerns you, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970’ show in London is an exquisite reminder of the time when war was waged through CIA-funded art, and Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon argued over a 1959 washing machine. The book by Christopher Frayling, Ken Adam Designs the Movies (Thames and Hudson) includes, among many others, Adam’s startling set design for the Cold War-themed War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the summer in Berlin the Martin-Gropius-Bau’s substantial Bauhaus retrospective entitled ‘Workshops for Modernity: Bauhaus 1919–1933’, will revisit the pedagogical processes of this the most infamous of European art schools, whose diaspora took modernity to the USA. And there will be more altar-worshipping as the Barbican Art Gallery in London hosts ‘Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture’ between February and May 2009. Historians argue over whether Le Corbusier or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the most influential architectural giant of the 20th century. I’d say Mies. He was easier to copy.

Speaking of copying, some of the most delirious and mind-boggling déjà-vu building is taking place in the United Arab Emirates. In the middle of 2008, the Burj Dubai became the tallest structure in the world – while still under construction. It’s so huge it makes everything ‘big’ in America look vertically challenged. By 2010 Abu Dhabi say their Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim will be open, and it too will be larger than all the other Guggenheims out there. ‘Some True Stories: Researches in the Field of Flexible Truth’ was a pertinent show at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture this winter by Keller Easterling, one of the best writers on Dubai’s slippery, seemingly stupid genius. Easterling states: ‘We hope to spread rumours that the world has changed […] with all the guises and none of the disadvantages of truth.’

Mark Leonard’s book What Does China Think? (Fourth Estate) reported true stories about the inner workings of some of China’s foremost intellectuals charged with thinking about the country’s alternative political futures. I was reading this insightful account while Beijing’s Olympic opening ceremony dazzled the world with its pyrotechnics and revisionist historical theatrics. Herzog & de Meuron’s spindly, latticework ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium became one of the most viewed pieces of political architecture in history in just a matter of two weeks. And in 2009 Beijing’s other, even more controversial, new (anti-) icon will be ready to transmit: the Chinese state television company’s looming, looping CCTV tower, designed by Office for Metropolitan Architecture. In Guangzhou the 690-metre TV & Sightseeing Tower will also be completed, another feat of visionary European design by Information Based Architecture and engineering on hospitable Chinese soil. Steven Spielberg may have pulled out of his role as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics on ‘ethical’ grounds, but ‘starchitects’ occupy the new moral grey zone of emerging (often authoritarian) economies desperate to announce their arrival in the 21st century.

Is there any difference, today, in looking forward or back in time? Memories and nostalgia are no longer the sole province of the past – the future is just as susceptible to our longing, heart-breaking laments, with ‘none of the disadvantages of truth’. But you’ve probably heard that one before.

Main image: FAT, The Villa, Hoogvliet, the Netherlands (2008)

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).

London-based writer, editor and curator.