Friday, 25 September 2009

back to basics

The retrospective epochal terminator, an MP orginal (more or less).

Millennium People. It is as it sounds: a blog for the People of the New Millennium.

But I thought I would just recap, for those latecomers at the back, and reiterate what MP is really all about: the uncertainty of the current architectural (and epochal) situation. Zaha's on the out, Dubai is quickly becoming a sandblasted stillborn, and I can faintly hear Ballard's Chelsea housewives murmuring into their martinis "someone really ought to do something".

Its a bad situation. Architects and theorists everywhere, lets take a moment to prop ourselves up on our unemployed elbows and take stock of the situation: the sub-prime crisis has come, and the boom has gone. Like so many Rip Van Winkels we naively now awake to the fact that China, the Gulf, and the endless stream of dubious commercial constructions we merrily knocked up, were morally moribund white elephants (or ivory towers).

Worse, the favourite pastime of so many students and young professionals – I am referring to digital formalism – has been murdered in its bed. No longer is there any hope that it will one day dominate the world of architectural construction, it has been relegated to nothing more than a stylistic dead end, like those typical of the beginning of last century (art nouveau, etc). On the upside, at least now when I speak out against meaningless form-finding I don't sound like a Luddite.

How are we rallying ourselves? MP is seeing two general trends in architectural thought emerge: the retrospective and the reactionary (I am simplifying by presenting the extremes, but I think the spectrum generally holds true).

The former have decided to seamlessly splice 1968 (and the years directly after it) to the present day. Through the re-examining of groups like archigram and the infamous lessons from Las Vegas they aim to by-pass all of that post-modernist, post-post-modernist, bullshit and reconnect with their roots. Soggy with nostalgia, they lovingly recount tales of simpler times – utopias were only a few years away and for a young architect anything seemed possible. Glorified is the architect-citizen, who told the Man where he could stick it (there is of course no mention of the architect's subsequent punishment, doomed to a half century of quibbling over occupational health and safety).

Then there is the reactionary camp, who seem to be led by the unlikely figure of Kengo Kuma (though there are certainly many others). This camp is following Toyo Ito's Digital Tarzan theories (of the city as the interface between the digital and physical realms) to their logical conclusion: by treating architecture as both a membrane for the individual/virtual and individual/real. In other words, a thinking founded in Heidegger's forest clearing (see The End of Philosophy and The Task of Thinking) and Levinas' Other.

I find this the more attractive of the two, and the discussion revolves mostly around the 'architectural object' (see Rosin-Melser's and my own exchange) and the notion of 'specular/speculative architecture'. The only problem with this movement is that it is a reaction to the current conditions. As such, it limits itself to merely describing the present. Where are the architectural revolutionaries? Where are the forward thinkers and dreamers for tomorrow?

In closing, I make mention to MP's wordy manifesto (as soon as the blog gets a regular editor it will probably be rephrased).


  1. This has nothing to do with your post, but I'm going to comment here anyway. Every link on your site opens a new tab, or worse, a new window depending upon the browser. Do you realize how annoying this is? It's kind of like building a house with doorways you can only walk through in one direction.

  2. I hear you Anon, and I've removed it from the site. Unfortunately, I wanted to make a little check box like Things used to have but although I have the .js and html to implement this solution, I can't get it to work as a sidebar widget. Perhaps someone can help me out? Otherwise, find a possible solution in the right hand column under 'Nouvelle Tabs'.

  3. There has always been a trend in architecture circles to do visual work based on dreams of form. When banks could justify financing of the dreams, the forms started to get built. Now that banks are not financing these dreams as much, those architects will need to come to terms with the value of dreaming of architectural form again. Maybe Zaha Hadid will be satisfied to go back to painting.

    To be brief: I foresee a viable future in performance-based localized building techniques and strategies that respond to a dwindling energy resource base. This type of architecture will have less to do with explaining and critiquing form as much a pursuing a disciplined approach of trial and error and correction toward a quantifiable definition of 'good'.

  4. a quantifiable definition of 'good'?

    What does that mean?

    I agree with you about architecture often having been founded in dreams of form - and while 'form follows function', function alone is not enough to determine form. So there is always an element of will involved in designing form. But what was different about Zaha was that her form was meaningless. By this I mean that it was devoid of either a social or a political position. The form-finding of, say, the art nouveau movement or the early Russian modernists, or even the strange buildings of FLW were nonetheless founded on normative notions of society - expressions of power, class struggle, whatever.
    But Zaha's form are an expression of technical ability alone. They are technological expressions (and of a very niche type of digital technology).

    'Performance-based localised building techniques' sounds like an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for formal gestures - by 'blaming' the sum of the environmental factors for form, which is really just an eco-minded prolongation of zaha's thinking...

  5. I would argue that there is another stream of architectural thinking which is occurring: the engineering-oriented problem solving. This is what I understand 'anonymous' above to be talking about. Examples include failures like the Red Centre, and relative successes like CH2 in Melbourne and Qatar University, to more theoretical explorations like Yeang's buildings.

    The beauty of it is that it introduces another local factor into the generation of form. So now buildings of the same function need not all look alike, since their macro and microclimate will begin to heavily influence their forms. You call Zaha's formalism meaningless and I agree. How do 'performance-based localised building techniques' equate to the same thing? I would argue that they are infused with meaning. Perhaps not a 'cultural' meaning as such, but tayloring a building to its immediate locale doesn't prevent you drawing on culture to contribute to form.

    But then again, I keep getting accused of being an engineer by my tutors, rather than an architect, and perhaps my preoccupation with problem-solving in preference to expression is a reflection of this.