Monday, August 27, 2007

On Architecture

This is a sloppy Guardian piece about the architect Rem Koolhaas. It sets up an important conflict - between Koolhaas's CCTV building in Beijing and the hutongs that are being destroyed to make way for such monuments - and does nothing with it. The conflict is all about context and the meaning of architecture. This video will give you some idea of what Koolhaas is up to. His context is a city of skyscrapers. Stretched out into a single column, his building would look like any other skyscraper, but it succeeds because of its distorted form. It will, I am sure, be brilliant; Koolhaas is a fine architect. But there's something troubling about these gesture buildings with which contemporary architects make their names. They - Hadid, Koolhaas, Gehry etc - are obviously slugging it out in some international weirdness contest. I don't hear much discussion of interiors, landscape or context, but I do hear a great deal about extravagant exterior shapes. There are occasional attempts to say these are the cathedrals of secularism, but this is undermined, first, by the fact that they cannot be built to last and, secondly, by the fragility and circularity of their contextual foundations. These buildings are overwhelmingly about other buildings, they lack the fabric of metaphysical and social narratives which, in effect, sculpted the medieval cathedrals. Furthermore, the architects' signatures are writ so large that they almost invalidate architecture's social role. A great eighteenth century architect may have been a star of his time, but, stylistically, he was also the servant of his time - as represented by his client, not of his ego. A spell of decent architectual anonymity might now be a good thing. Here in Norfolk I am surrounded by utterly anomymous buildings -  churches in Salle, South Creake, Salthouse and elsewhere - that are masterpieces beyond anything attainable by Koolhaas. (I took an American architecture student to Salle and he fell to his knees, saying he could tick off one more item on his lifetime list.) And they are masterpieces, in large part, precisely because of their anonymity.
The problem with these contemporary big names and their weird buildings is that they are widening the gap between art and and life. They are creating elite structures that have no aesthetic contact with people's imaginations, homes and streets. They are intensely scholastic figures. This, I suspect, may be the reason why we live in such a dismal age for domestic architecture and why so much domestic interior design now apes the manners of late modernism, persuading the occupants that they should feel at home in an office or restaurant. I love modern architecture. It has provided some of the great aesthetic thrills of my life. But we are in a bloodless phase of corporate mannerism sustained by brilliant but scholastically-inclined and over-competitive architects. It will pass. But sadly, by then, the hutongs will be long gone.
PS. And, just to add, this is the worst example of this current style I have ever experienced (I stayed in the hotel)  - a terrible, terrible building.


  1. Bryan, an excellent piece - good to read you on buildings again. When can you show me that church in Salle?

    You don't mention Daniel Libeskind - whose Jewish Museum is arguably a very special building. But more recently Libeskind has been trotting out all too imitative structures for anything from shopping centres to art galleries. What was once radical and surprising has become a style.

    Doesn't Piano get away from this tendency to some degree?

    As you say,a few anonymous materpieces would be revolutionary: so how about a competition?

  2. ghastly. building pornography never did much for me. a good building should be more like a good mother. architects are just motherf*****s.

  3. Chris, thanks and welcome back to Blighty. I was talking about you with Grabber yesterday.

  4. Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages?

    Maybe not.

    Can anyone name one building built anywhere in the world in the past fifty years that anyone but architects would pay more than five pounds to travel to see?

  5. Peter Burnet wrote: Can anyone name one building built anywhere in the world in the past fifty years that anyone but architects would pay more than five pounds to travel to see?

    It's often been argued that our modern cathedrals are national parks (like the glorious ones in America) and wildlife/nature reserves. And most of us would and do pay a lot to visit them. In the meantime, it's depressing that such a hugely talented man thinks it's cool to accept a commission from an arm of the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda. This is all about asserting brute power, a boot of a building coming down on a different way of life. Nothing here is on a human scale and humans hardly appear in that video.

  6. You may not like that huge 'scraper at Columbus Circle, but then you probably don't remember the very ugly, dumpy bldg. that was there before it. I do remember and even worked in it for a couple of weeks one summer in the 1980s. Columbus Circle has been rejuvenated by the new buildings, even if they lack charm. But what skyscraper IS charming? By their very nature -- thrusting up into the sky, blocking the views and light of others -- they are aggressive buildings.

  7. The larger building does not seem particularly original to me and appears to be derivative of things I've seen in Japan that were erected 20 years ago. True, those are not on this scale, but if one wanted to stop the Chinese in their tracks, it might help to accuse them of imitating Japan.

    Nice piece of commentary, BTW, Bryan.

  8. One building that I love, beyond reason I thnk, is the Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris. The mathematician in me sees the tesseract. Despite its occupation there seems little utility in it, but the vision is awe-inspiring. There is one exit from the metro that rises through a spiral staircase so your head comes out right at ground level, where the vista is simply overwhelming.

  9. Pitch-perfect, and thank you for the recommendation of the church in Salle.

    I heard today that the economic downturn means that the overbearing blocks planned for Hove sea front will not now be built. That's at least one silver lining, in my view.