Monday, 31 August 2009

specular architecture

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.


  1. I had the privilege of exclusively filming and photographing around the Guggenheim. Not only is the building impressive, but the exhibitions too! It is a privilege I will never forget!

  2. Is this my first spam comment? Because I couldn't find any Guggenheim pics on your site
    (which seems to be helping Orwell's 1984 dreams come true, by photoshopping out anyone or anything that no longer fits with the client's version of the past). Maybe there's a post in that.

  3. Dear Jack, how old are you?... i am deeply amazed about the way you take thoughts of mark c. taylor and analize contemporary world of architecture with the relationship with us, mankind, victim of our own decadence...

  4. Thanks Aarón for the kind words, this remains one of my favourite posts yet it is one of the least read.

    I was born in 1987.

  5. Hi Jack,
    Right on the money (if you'll pardon the expression). Last year I had a similar line of thinking after one particular event in my architecture school's lecture series. I'll post it in another entry below (it's a bit long). Below is the official blurb of the series. I won't be upset if you delete all of this if you consider it inappropriate. Nothing worse than random people taking over your own blog. Just thought you might be interested in the kindred thinking of other nascent architects.

    Change (official blurb): "Perhaps the problem with change is that its concept has not changed. Once new styles, technologies, or building patterns replace older systems, they become equally rigid and inflexible as their antecedents. Is it possible to think of change as a dynamic process -- a constantly evolving mechanism that includes accidents, periodic shifts, or even regressions to earlier paradigms? And how can architecture, a discipline traditionally associated with solidity and permanency delineate such spiraling transitions? Can change be accommodated by mere provisions in the program and the supplementation of innovative materials or is it simply the product of a “new attitude”? Surrounded by a world of major social and political upheavals, we are asking ten scholars and practitioners to reflect on how we can modify the way we perceive and create change in both a local and a global scale."

  6. Change We Need?
If you are tuning into this blog expecting a post-election rant from some conservative Princeton SOA student (a pretty unlikely prospect), sorry to disappoint; I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of the election. No, the change I am referring to is the change represented by Princeton’s lecture series this semester, entitled, ahem: “Change”. 
Around this election the word “change” has an instant political connotation; if evoking “change” isn’t a doff of the cap to Mr. Obama, or an allusion to the forces at work that brought him to office, than it is a cooption of the verbiage of the moment’s gestalt. As such I feel no guilt following the PSOA’s lead in titling this post.
Hani Rashid (Asymptote) was this week’s speaker; the title of the lecture was “Active Force”. It was delivered on the day before Election Day, coincidentally also the open house for prospective students. It was a particularly important lecture as the school was putting its best foot forward. Maybe it felt even more important because of it’s timing on the cusp of momentous, bona fide change. The house was packed. 
In introducing Hani Rashid, dean Stan Allen proposed that the work of Asymptote was emblematic of Princeton as a “school of ideas”. No change here, the school of ideas is Stan Allen’s steadfast trope. Rather the “change” is the pedagogic posture implied by choosing Asymptote.
The agenda –and presumably the title- of this lecture series was set by Spyros Papapetros of the history/theory faculty. And while “change” is evoked in the broadest way and to great effect (official blurb below) it seems that the accent in this particular lecture was “regression to earlier paradigms” with precious little reflection “on how we can modify the way we perceive and create change in both a local and a global scale”
By contrast last spring’s lecture series was spot on, in the context of impending economic bubble bursts and anticipation of the globally warmed, (hopefully) post-Washington Consensus world that seemed in the offing. The series was called “Agency” and the speakers were tasked to ask and answer questions about architecture’s larger role in the rapidly changing world and what “agency” architects do or do not have.
The images of Asymptote’s work Hani Rashid presented reminded me of a short piece in the New Yorker I had just read. It concerns a company called Icon Recognition that makes “deal toys”, expensive desktop follies that corporate executives give to each other as trophies of successful mergers, acquisitions and such. It is a bad time for “deal toys”. It is also an unfortunate time to present architectural “deal toys” -the end product eye-candy of a collapsing economy - to a student body that wants to believe that architecture can be more than branding, however sophisticated the “generative engines” are. 
That said, Hani Rashid represents this particular semester’s studio obsessions: blurring the line between architecture and art, searching for “generative engines” not in things like program and context (that’s sooo last semester), but in algorithms and motion studies Rashid would argue that context is an important part of his work but it is hard to get one’s head around this assertion when one watches fairly similar forms applied to wildly divergent scales. As for program, there is a certain inevitability of objects with floor plates inserted. Clearly these have to be issues Asymptote wrestles with but equally clearly they are not priorities. 
But my beef is not directed specifically at Hani, I appreciate the opportunity to learn from architects who run the gamut of the contemporary discourse. Rather I am not sure this is the contemporary discourse that best represents the “school of ideas” in the context of the larger socio-political moment. Asymptote’s ideas feel gratuitous in the new economy. This isn’t Asymptote’s fault, but it might be their legacy.

  7. thanks craig, but I couldn't find your blog.

  8. His blog is specular, duh.