on performance, green architecture, and architecture fiction

From the late 1970s into the early 1990s, architecture was obsessed with form. Whatever the surface appearance of the work—modern, postmodern, decon, or weird conceptual stuff from the early 1990s that everyone has forgotten (remember folding and mapping?)—form underpinned virtually all architectural research. Much of this formalism was underpinned by process, a painful obsession with making iterations of designs until the most complex object imaginable was produced. 

As work on form became more and more involved (read: dug a deeper hole for itself), it became more and more obscure until finally it imploded and the theorizing ceased. Instead, we wound up with shape, which is kind of like form’s stupid brother. I don’t really think much of shape, since there’s not much to say about it, except that its emptiness means that at least I don’t have to hear about it anymore, which is a relief.

To be clear, I do like the kind of indexical work by, say, Johnston Marklee or MVRDV (when they were still fresh, take WoZoCos as an example). In those cases form is revealed as the Hugh-Ferriss-like product of overdetermined urban conditions in which every move has to be negotiated. That’s a different story entirely to me, since it engages architecture with the subconscious, invisible terrain of the city. It means architecture looking outside of itself and talking to a world beyond architects. That’s far more interesting to me. On the other hand, it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Instead, as form began to lose its ability to galvanize architects, performance came to replace it.

Bilbao is the signal moment here: the monument to end all formal buildings, it was also too dumb to be discussed as the product of a process (there’s no method behind Gehry’s work) or form. So instead, Bilbao and its successor, the Experience Music Project, wound up being discussed in terms of the technological feats necessary to achieve their construction. This kind of discussion—and Bilbao wasn’t the only example by any means—led to a rhetoric of performance in which what was crucial was not how buildings performed (this would have been too obvious…), but how much effort was put into their construction. Since form is now either the produced of a purely instinctual process (shape) or produced by a computer (parametric design), the discussion turns to how that complex form is constructed.

This turn in architecture is, I’m afraid, little better than the work on form that preceded it. Arguably, it is even more masculinist in its emphasis on building and the technological innovation necessary to achieve the mighty form.

With the economic crisis, the curtain is setting for this sort of work. Instead, the last great hope for some architects is green architecture and sustainability. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a recessionista version of performance. It is also fatal for the discipline.

Emphasizing a world of metrics, big, hard tech, and performance is fatal for the discipline. To make a small shift from using the same technologies for "sustainability" (by whose measure) instead of for shape is not going to revive the discipline, it will only prolong the intellectual bubble that has dominated it for too long. 

I have little doubt that we need to act fast in order to prevent further damage to the environment but frankly, green building is the wrong way to go about it. It’s little more than "rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic."

If architects were serious about sustainability, they would call a halt to new building in the developed world right now. Enough buildings already! Let’s stop now. There is virtually nothing else that we can do that is more polluting than building more. Moreover, a moratorium on building might help architects get back to thinking before doing. I argued against solipsism during the 1990s when architects couldn’t make a move without second-guessing it to death. Now I’m arguing against architects who do before they think (CCTV). 

So let’s dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let’s find creative ways to live in what we already have. I’m fascinated by Bruce Sterling’s concept of "architecture fiction."

Could any 1960s building be more compelling than Archigram’s spectacular Instant City of the 1960s? We barely even remember Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House or Safdie’s Habitat, but Instant City we do remember. Or take the Living City Survival Kit, No Stop City, the City of the Captive Globe, or Delirious New York. these taught us about the cities we live in already, in the most radical way. 

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ecologies of deceit

Via Edwin Gardner, who makes the great Prss Release, comes a link to Panayiota Pyla’s "Counter-History of Sustainability," an essay for Volume, a cautionary account of sustainability in architecture, and none too soon.* Panayiota, like me, is a student of Mark Jarzombek’s, and she does a great job picking apart the almost theological faith that some architects have in sustainability. For another perspective, see this interview with James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia hypothesis. If Lovelock is right (and his points of view have often been controversial), the rhetoric of sustainability in architecture may be more a performative style**, about as useful as shopping at Whole Foods is. Lovelock would probably suggest that we should stop building all but nonessential projects now and learn to live with what we have. In sum, however, Pyla is right on the money with her sharp critique of sustainability. Let’s not let this turn into a new architectural religion. 

*One thing to point out for the reader: as the Network Culture project suggests, I disagree with her statement "Always Beware of Metanarratives," but I would agree that we should always beware of metanarratives with an ax to grind. If the network culture project is a metanarrative, it has no telos behind it. To me that’s the distinction. We’ve lost track of our ability to create historical meaning in part because historians, paralyzed by fear of metanarratives, have abandoned macroscale attempts to produce meaning. 

**How’s that for a neologism? A performative style would be a fashion for a way of doing things, replacing a fashion for form. Thus the dominnant forms of architectural design today: diagramming, parametric modeling, and sustainability would be performative styles. Or styles of performance perhaps? 

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