more on then and now

 

My little experiment got a bit of attention on Archinect, but I can’t say that the responses that contributed buildings (which is what I asked for, remember?) dredged up much work that I hadn’t thought about. There’s Siza and Zumthor, but that work is (how shall I say this in a nice way?) timeless. It doesn’t engage with our contemporary era except by disengagement. I still recall a Zumthor lecture at SCI_Arc in which he said "I don’t believe in images." That was the last audible line he had during his lecture. He proceeded to show very carefully taken photographs of his work and mumble the entire talk so that all we could do was sit and stare. He blamed the microphone (this too was audible, nothing else), but I was in the front row, directly in front of him! Prankster. 

Other good offices—such as FAT, Atelier Bow Wow, and Big—have appeared on the scene, but have not yet had their chance with the major commissions that might test their methods. Ana Maria Leon suggested that I should be searching for new forms of practice. That seems like a legitimate suggestion to me and I’ve often thought that’s where the fertile thought lies. Still, I suppose it’s possible to find alternative forms of practice throughout history. To name but three: there’s Behrens’s product design and branding at AEG, the Eames’s furniture and films, and Archizoom’s dystopian vision. Maybe we are in a longue durée of architects outside architecture? That would suggest that something strange has still happened.    

The significant architecture of the 1990s was often very much of its time, engaging with the world that it inhabited through architecture. I am thinking of Herzog and de Meuron’s Central Signal Box 4 or Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque or NL Architect’s Wos 8 or OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux or Herzog and De Meuron’s Ricola or  MVRDV’s WoZoCos or Sejima’s Gifu Kitagawa or FOA’s Yokohama Terminal or Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Many of these structures employed high technology or innovative design processes, but what really struck me is that they engaged with crucial issues of their day head-on: individual identity in a changing society, the role of technology and media, and the impact of globalization. 

I’m not saying that architecture breathed deeply of the Zeitgeist then and there is none now, but to me architecture in the 1990s was worth studying not just on its own terms but because it was capable of revealing so much about—and commenting on—our society. In that, it shared much with postmodernist.  Like it or not, postmodernist architecture was hugely significant culturally. Recall that Fredric Jameson, a literary critic, had to turn to architecture to understand postmodern culture. Architecture was at the forefront of cultural innovation then. So why is it that when I’m setting out to write my book on network culture, the architecture of our time doesn’t have anything remotely resembling that kind of importance. I find this fascinating. I’ve done what I could to prove that it’s my own fault, but failed to do that—in fact, my colleagues with whom I’ve discussed this offline over the last few years agree…and for the architecture fanboys out there, you’d be heartbroken to know that many of those include the very architects I suspect you’re so enthused about. Architecture fanboys misunderstand yesterday’s post as an attack on architecture. Rather, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but my suspicions were only confirmed. So now it’s time for a postmortem: why did this happen? Is it an internal trajectory? Or is it external forces? Maybe societal conditions? Or some kind of interrelationship between these? This is what I have to puzzle out in the months to come.   

 

 

My little experiment got a bit of attention on Archinect, but I can’t say that the responses that contributed buildings (which is what I asked for, remember?) dredged up much work that I hadn’t thought about. There’s Siza and Zumthor, but that work is (how shall I say this in a nice way?) timeless. It doesn’t engage with our contemporary era except by disengagement. I still recall a Zumthor lecture at SCI_Arc in which he said "I don’t believe in images." That was the last audible line he had during his lecture. He proceeded to show very carefully taken photographs of his work and mumble the entire talk so that all we could do was sit and stare. He blamed the microphone (this too was audible, nothing else), but I was in the front row, directly in front of him! Prankster. 

Other good offices—such as FAT, Atelier Bow Wow, and Big—have appeared on the scene, but have not yet had their chance with the major commissions that might test their methods. Ana Maria Leon suggested that I should be searching for new forms of practice. That seems like a legitimate suggestion to me and I’ve often thought that’s where the fertile thought lies. Still, I suppose it’s possible to find alternative forms of practice throughout history. To name but three: there’s Behrens’s product design and branding at AEG, the Eames’s furniture and films, and Archizoom’s dystopian vision. Maybe we are in a longue durée of architects outside architecture? That would suggest that something strange has still happened.    

The significant architecture of the 1990s was often very much of its time, engaging with the world that it inhabited through architecture. I am thinking of Herzog and de Meuron’s Central Signal Box 4 or Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque or NL Architect’s Wos 8 or OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux or Herzog and De Meuron’s Ricola or  MVRDV’s WoZoCos or Sejima’s Gifu Kitagawa or FOA’s Yokohama Terminal or Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Many of these structures employed high technology or innovative design processes, but what really struck me is that they engaged with crucial issues of their day head-on: individual identity in a changing society, the role of technology and media, and the impact of globalization. 

I’m not saying that architecture breathed deeply of the Zeitgeist then and there is none now, but to me architecture in the 1990s was worth studying not just on its own terms but because it was capable of revealing so much about—and commenting on—our society. In that, it shared much with postmodernist.  Like it or not, postmodernist architecture was hugely significant culturally. Recall that Fredric Jameson, a literary critic, had to turn to architecture to understand postmodern culture. Architecture was at the forefront of cultural innovation then. So why is it that when I’m setting out to write my book on network culture, the architecture of our time doesn’t have anything remotely resembling that kind of importance. I find this fascinating. I’ve done what I could to prove that it’s my own fault, but failed to do that—in fact, my colleagues with whom I’ve discussed this offline over the last few years agree…and for the architecture fanboys out there, you’d be heartbroken to know that many of those include the very architects I suspect you’re so enthused about. Architecture fanboys misunderstand yesterday’s post as an attack on architecture. Rather, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but my suspicions were only confirmed. So now it’s time for a postmortem: why did this happen? Is it an internal trajectory? Or is it external forces? Maybe societal conditions? Or some kind of interrelationship between these? This is what I have to puzzle out in the months to come.   

 

4 thoughts on “more on then and now

  1. Popularity as a downfall
    Perhaps the issue with this century and the architectural output has more to do with the public and less to do with the architects. What if the rise of architecture and design in the public’s mind has also allowed it to become diluted. This plays out in other genres such as music, art, and film. The larger and higher profile projects are motivated by ego and money. These are also the works that garner the most attention, due to publicity and the price tag. I (want to) feel like there is some great contemporary work out there getting realized, but on a smaller scale with less attention. All of the projects mentioned in the last entry were all conceived by architects who were largely established atleast a decade ago. I’m not saying the established architects shouldn’t be responsible for the true contemporary work, but it makes sense that the contemporary springs from it’s contemporaries. Just a thought.

  2. sounds good to me – a vacuum
    sounds good to me – a vacuum to fill! it may be the case that the cultural landscape has changed dramatically in the past 8 years, actually veering very sharply in a few different directions. The 90s, while equally dramatic, were perhaps more about confirmation of (Western) culture, and therefore may have been easier to deal with in a way. There will be a lot of material to work through from 2009 onward.

  3. yes but also
    i think you’re more interested in alternative forms of practice, and what i was suggesting was parallel to that but referred more to changing the role of the architect within the process of production. an answer to the problem of irrelevance, or lack of power, that the profession often feels, and is a result of a perception of the architect as an ‘exterior decorator.’ i think both are valid interpretations of the current zeitgeist, and ways of operating within it…and i agree that in the 90’s those buildings seemed engaged with society commentary in a way that is hard to find now.

  4. ps.
    also, i agree with the comments above, to the point that we should look for a change in the programs addressed- big scale architecture is over, and the interesting developments may be harder to find as they will probably be smaller scale, local, at least at the start- a transition from the icon building, the museum or the exclusive new york apartment building, to programs more in accord with the current economic global weather. also, because of that, this economic crisis is new to the first world, but the developing world is used to living in crisis, so i think there are some lessons to be learned by looking south. of course i’m biased on this.