Monday, 31 August 2009
The Guggenheim effect – where specular/speculative architecture really began.
Today I am going to build upon the thoughts of Mark C. Taylor – who said that over the last century there has been a general correlation between forms of capitalism and architectural styles: Industrial capitalism had Modern architecture, Consumer capitalism had Postmodern architecture and Financial capitalism has (or had) Specular / Speculative architecture.
He was not the first to divide up capitalism into these three phases. At the end of the last millennium, the 'Great Man' of economics J.K Galbraith wrote extensively about the shift that was taking place. In one of his last works, entitled 'The Economics of Innocent Fraud', he pointed out how far we had come since the early days, when the economy was driven by actual capitalists – individuals with money who controlled the means of production.
Over time the cost of manufacturing goods fell, and subsequently so too did their value. Maintaining a dominant position in the market by simply controlling the production of something became increasingly difficult (and I am not really even referring to the activities that prompted legislation specifically targeted at breaking monopolies). So the impetus of the leading economies naturally shifted from the people who made the most to the people who sold the most. Above all were valued those individuals who could turn a superfluous luxury into a perceived necessity.
But with the global unification of markets, the digitisation of trading, and the new era of instant communications between financial institutions, it suddenly became possible to speculate in radically new ways. Money was capable of making lots more money, loans backed by securities that themselves were backed by other loans. And the market grew, and everyone won, and (almost) no one thought it would ever end.
And so when Fannie Mae went A-over-T, and kicked off all this business, it came as a bit of a shock.
So I think Taylor is drawing a fair, even predictable, comparison between architectural styles and the economic factors that produced them: the machine and industrial aesthetic of Modernism stemming from the factories and silos; the cultural critiques and pastiche styles of Postmodernism likewise finding their root in an increasingly global society absolutely saturated by the advertisement.
The real goal of this blog is to attempt to capture an epochal philosophy before the relentless wave of progress wipes it from our minds: a time that really began in the late 70's – before I was even born – and may still not have finished, but whose peak was undeniably between the collapse of the Towers and the collapse of the Sub-Prime.
The reasons for wanting to capture this essence are manifold: architecture is my profession, and it was treated as a bitch: the speculative scapegoat. That smarts. A profession that at the time was becoming increasingly image-based, and therefore itself increasingly speculative, began to be manipulated by the financial world – as an agent of financial speculation. How many luxury apartment blocks did architects really think the world needed? But need didn't come into it. Architecture had imploded into itself, there was no moral element, simply a quest to find a new look, and a look to sell more than the competition. And this quest essentially produced the same types of stylistic dead ends that were seen at the beginning of the 20th century (art nouveau, Gaudi, Hunterwasser, and so on).
Zaha is a prime example, though she still tends to divide opinions. But I think it is fairly safe to say that her time has come and gone. She is no longer (if she ever was) at the forefront of architectural discussion. It is nonetheless undeniable that she was an architect that rose to prominence not for actually constructing anything, but simply threatening to construct anything. Her powerfully iconic (but ultimately meaningless) forms epitomise this 'object' architecture – an architecture unrelated to humanity except by the coincidence that it was us that produced it. Always seen from a bird's eye view, it is an architecture of visual appeal (specular) and conjectural possibilities (speculative).
For the next month or so Millennium People is going to tackle the meaning of the architectural 'object', and its relevance to the future of architecture (the discussion will be mainly prospective rather than retrospective).
In particular the focus will be in the fields associated with the blog: psychogeography, landscape and the city.