Monday, January 26, 2009

Quiz time

In the comments, please relate/respond:

Do you understand any of the following?  If so, what does it mean?

History suggests that the construction of the most ambitious architectural projects immediately precedes the deepest economic slumps. And that's exactly what we've seen in progression from the Guggenheim Bilbao to the cities from zero in the Gulf. This headline grabbing architecture has been driven by the logic of the boom. That's to say, the ideology of the global market has been the context for architecture. These projects attempted to turn the flush of cash and credit delivered by fluctuations of abstract systems into something real: a thing or a place. They sprung up in the ruins of industry or were fueled by the fleeting bounty of mineral extraction. And they were designed around the most distracted and least reliable kind of programme: tourism. Each project competing as a destination to max out vacationers credit lines. It's created an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes.

This unreality has infused architectural production, often finding resolution in hysterical, liquid, fluid form at audacious scale - the kind of thing recently dubbed 'Parametricism'. (Note: Just as the height of building might be a warning sign of impending turmoil, the articulation of a stylistic manifesto is a sure sign of hubristic overconfidence). Displays of beyond-human formal complexity drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference - a difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism. Appropriately, these projects seem to use the very same kind of tools that has maximized, magnified, and deepened our current financial crisis. If the Modern movement had the abstraction of industry as its reference, millennial architecture had the systemized abstraction of late capitalism.

This union of ideology and form has decoupled in dramatic fashion. The swift disjunction leaves a generation of architecture rendered instantly out of time - as un-possible as Gothic architecture in the Renaissance. These glistening new-ruins are adrift in the landscape of global recession, abandoned like ghost ships, doomed to unknown fates.


2H said...

One of the projects I worked on early in my career was a museum for the Native American - Pequot tribe (sorry I don’t know why all my anecdotes have to do with museums.) The modern day Pequot tribe had been one of the first to fully exploit gaming rights and was able to build a lavish casino and resort area. Part of the program was a fifty thousand square foot museum to their culture. There was so much museum that there wasn’t enough Pequot culture to fill it. They piled up every artifact they could find, but it couldn’t measure up to the strange environment that the unnatural flow of cash had created.

I’m not claiming to fully understand and be able to interpret the text about modernism’s link to hedge funds and venture capitalism, but there were some elements of the text that were strikingly similar to my experiences with the Pequot museum. That experience helped me to realize that architecture has to naturally develop along side the culture that it represents. Buildings need to reflect or interpret the regional qualities of their settings and the economies that create them. It is the limitations of resource, the modest aspects of a culture that create real, beautiful, places. I think the author of this text has come to that realization in his critique of these Gulf State pleasure cities, which are now being acknowledged universally as urban disasters.

I saw Rem Koolhaas lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute last year, and he spent an hour and a half ranting against Gulf State cities like Dubai. He was very transparent in his distaste for signature buildings – (the architectural animal that he actually helped to create) especially when they are all lined up next to each other. Koolhaas’ assertion like the author of the text was that this architecture was as hollow as the financial bubble that erected it.
Maybe we’re lucky to be small time architects, just working for folks who we want a spare room. The international scene is a mess right now.

ms. kitty said...

Wow, I'm not an architect, but it makes sense to me. I'd never noticed the connection. I like what 2H says above, that "architecture has to naturally develop along side the culture that it represents. Buildings need to reflect or interpret the regional qualities of their settings and the economies that create them. It is the limitations of resource, the modest aspects of a culture that create real, beautiful, places."

Organic growth, not artificially produced growth, seems to be the best way.

Spencer said...

Long time reader, first time responder (also, my blog's a mess right now), I first got hooked with the Scale Figures Gone Wild series awhile your writing, pixie.

I absolutely agree that a work of Architecture is implicitly tied to the various public systems that are in place during its creation. It seems there's no avoiding the institutions to get to the finished product. And really, who would want to? It would eradicate the joys of collaboration (and pains...which would be nice, it seems) and any claim to timely/timeless-ness of the work.

I do take issue to the author's apparent low opinion for parameter-based design. He seems to portray it simply as a search for complexity as a means to distinguish contemporary work which I think is a very base interpretation of the movement. The move to parametrics -and BIM as a means of achieving that kind of method- isn't (or shouldn't be) about simple formalism, it's about more collaboratively and successfully achieving holistic objectives for the project. The glorification of that formal agenda is a derivative of the climate (pun!) in the Gulf States and their tourism/business economy, not the system of parametric design. And frankly, parametric design is no excuse for a good architect to make a crap building.

Also, the author has intentionally layered his argument about the tenuous connection between Architecture and Culture in language that tries to make everything picturesque. His talk of ghost ships adrift derails a sensible opinion about the state of Architecture as it relies on Culture.

Miss Kitty said...

I'm clueless as to what it's saying. But then again, I'm not an architect.

emcneal said...

First of all I have to completely agree that only an architect could write something like that. We must be one of the few professions that, like a foreign tourist, believes that speaking louder instead of learning the local language will somehow translate our words better. This article was written to impress other scholarly architects, and like you Pixie I had to read this a few times.

What we're seeing in the world of architecture today is no different than the creation of most meaningful architecture of the past, and by meaningful I'm suggesting the architecture that we use to define past cultures and societies. I don't agree with the article where it states that today's headline-grabbing architecture is being built for the purpose of tourism - I think tourism is just the result. The Great Pyramids of Giza weren't built for the purpose of tourism, and neither was the Great Wall, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, or the Empire State Building.

These buildings were constructed with purpose (whether it was self-indulgent or for an all-encompassing societal gain), and because of this purpose they were built to last in what the builders (and clients) hoped would be an eternity. Whether if it's a pharaoh with his pyramids or the U.S. government with the Lincoln Memorial, societies use architecture as a means for conveying their ideals and their place in history for future generations. I think it's still debatable if today's starchitect driven designs have the purpose and the ideals to stand the test of time. If the building was designed with the primary intention of "hey - look at me" (similar to the Native-American museum 2H wrote about) then the building will surely fail (at least with its original program - it could always turn out to be a better building with another program fused into it).

And I believe that history is also filled with similar examples of what we're going through today with the growing of architectural form with the use of computer programs, although in the past this formal exploration was based more on new construction materials rather than the process of designing buildings. Since antiquity people constructed buildings with wood, rock, and anything else that would help keep people protected from the elements (grasses, animal pelts, mud). The Romans invented concrete (at least the type of concrete that resembles what we use today) and it took the homicidal arrogance of Nero to persuade the builders of his Domus Aurea to use concrete for something out of the norm and to construct the first dome. And when steel became a widely used construction material in the 19th century it was originally used in the same manner as other construction materials because that's how society constructed buildings. But later on the parameters of these new construction materials were redefined to better maximize their abilities and ultimately create new building types like high-rises.

I feel like today's exploration with these computer programs is part of the natural evolution of architecture. Just like architects and builders of the past we're simply testing the limits of a new technology. Based on what I've seen we obviously don't have a full grasp of this technology and the truly meaningful benefits it can bring to us.

I don't feel as though today's architecture is modeled after any type of economic belief system. It just so happened that wealth and technology were merged to create an experimental style of architecture that will evolve into something more meaningful than merely a celebrity status.

Mile High Pixie said...

2H and Spencer, well put. And Rev Kit, I'm glad to see you join the conversation on this. Kitteh, don't feel bad if you don't get it--I didn't either until about the fourth reading. and emcneal: I think you're onto something about a building working better with a different program inside it. This happened on "The Simpsons" when Springfield turned their Frank Gehry-designed concert hall into a Supermax prison (though not even Gehry's postmodern curvilinear forms could hold in Snake).