Burden of Proof

First of all, Thank You All and Season’s Greetings. Have you noticed how the end of the year is always rich with lazy content? Here’s the AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Projects 2016 WinnersHere’s Dezeen’s Top 10 Architecture Books of 2016, along with a gratuitous picture. 

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The caricaturization of architecture: Seeing how the illustrator has managed to work some sky into the view of Fallingwater’s best side, we can expect similar liberties have been taken with the content. This is one of 2016’s top ten architecture books.

Well before December’s not-entirely-unexpected articles wanting to suddenly tell us about Zaha Hadid’s family life and early paintings, a March 2016 article had already given us Ten Best Zaha Hadid Buildings by way of an obit. December’s Guardian also blessed us with Oliver Wainwright’s top ten buildings of 2016. Designboom contributed TOP 10 architecture projects that integrated nature in 2016 plus Top Ten Reader Submissions of 2016. “News” such as AIA Names Top 10 Most Sustainable Projects of 2016AIA Names 10 Best US Houses of 2016 and DAM Selects the Top 10 Architectural Books of 2016 was thoughtfully re-broadcast by ArchDaily. Getting into the spirit then, here are Misfits’ Top Ten 2016 posts.

1. Architecture Misfits #22: H Arquitectes

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This post from May this year is the 18th most accessed post of all time. [Well done guys – keep it up!]

2. The Mat Building

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This post from March was a close second at #22.

3. The 1 1/2 Floor Apartment

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This post immediately followed the one above and came in at #39.

4. Living Together

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The all-time #41 was this February post the first of several dealing with the implications of co-living.

5. Co-living

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This post immediately following came in at #47.

6. Architecture Misfit #21: 村野藤吾

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I’m glad this post is doing well at #53. There weren’t many architects like Togo Murano then and there certainly aren’t now.

7. The Free Facade

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Musings on what the façade has done with its freedom.

8. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

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A long-overdue tribute tothe work of Rural Studio and their approach to making things better.

9. Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI

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It was about time I took a look around.

10. Architecture Misfit #20: Edward T. Potter

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There was a lot more to Edward T. Potter than the house he designed for Mark Twain. A fitting misfit.

The 2016 posts are still fresh so I don’t know which will be forgotten, which will be remembered, which will prove to be slow burners, and which will have any lasting relevance. However, some trends are starting to become apparent upon seeing the ten most accessed posts of all-time (since June 2010).

1. The Maximum Dwelling

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Who’d have thought the labyrintine plans of 19th century Victorian country houses would have proved such a hit on Pinterest?

2. The Things Architects Do #3: SANAA

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This post is surely found by foundation year architecture students searching for assignment resources.

3. Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

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The buildings of Kazuo Shinohara are interesting yet little known. This post has gone on to have further adventures on other blogs.

4. The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

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A post much accessed by students looking for LC or VS resources. [You’re welcome!]

5. Architectural Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

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Ditto.

6. It’s Not Rocket Science #3: Yakhchal

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This post has been much reblogged in the off-grid community. [A shout-out to Señor Coconut – hope you’re all doing fine.]

7. THE KISS PRINCIPLE

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The hidden complexities of the Farnsworth House.

8. It’s Not Rocket Science #5: Night Sky Radiant Cooling

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A post about the little understood natural principle Persians used to make ice in the desert a few centuries gone.

9. The Japanese Machiya

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From Japan, some sensible housing for a change.

10. The Buildings of YEMEN

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A country so un–neoliberal that, instead of Architecture, it has a stunning culture of vernacular building the likes of which we can’t imagine.

I like to think all misfits’ posts have some sort of relevance for our built environment but three of these ten all-time most accessed posts can also be seen as about nothing more than routinely famous architects and buildings – thus inadvertently sustaining the status-quo. Two other posts can be also seen as being about (Japanese) architects with a largeish presence in architectural media culture and this amounts to much the same thing. The post on Victorian country houses can be seen either as a curio or as nostalgia – which is also a worry. Only the Yemen and the yachchal/radiant cooling posts fit into the category of really useful things – but the worry here is that they were best thought forgotten.

• • •

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I confess I haven’t read much further than the first chapter of this book. [To be honest, I’m finding it a bit brainy.] I’ll stick with it though as so many of misfits’ themes resonate with its theme that I feel in my gut is true. So then, until I can back up my bloggy conjectures with references and citations, let’s just suppose that neoliberalism does have an architectural manifestation. What evidence would be sufficient to prove such a claim?

1) The End of History

By this I don’t mean the end of buildings, just the end of attaching any sort of importance to them. This project is well underway and in places already complete. ArchDaily. The history of architecture is still taught at universities but no-one knows why as history skills are on no employer’s wish list. [c.f. Learning CurveArchitecture students are pleased history has stopped accumulating. The continual shrinking and condensing of a body of knowledge into a few names and buildings of uncontested regard is not proof of their enduring greatness but a caricature of history and one of learning as well. I used to understand this as the postmodern sickness whereby a thing gets replaced by a representation of itself but postmodernism may have just been a symptom of the greater plague.

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If we’re all Futurists now – “Sir, what’s a Futurist?” – then the advantage to neoliberalism of us all wanting to forget the past is that we’re primed to embrace newness for newness’ sake. We’re ready and willing to enjoy constant change and for progress to be measured in terms of how newly something represents change. [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecture] An energetic dynamism looping back onto itself and going nowhere is an excellent way to represent such change and happens to be just what your average dictocrat wants. It’s a problem for Architecture when all it has to do is represent something going somewhere but architecture is by far the best means to do it because there’s never any danger something as static and immovable as buildings will actually move on.

3) The Objectification of Architecture

The supposed globalization of architecture was our excuse for rationalising why these buildings tended to get built in other countries and not the “liberal democracies” but it might just be that our societies aren’t fully prepared (yet). The flow of neo-liberal architecture is the reverse of the mid-20th century capitalist one.

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Hilton Hotel, Teheran, 1965

3) The Shrinking of History

Buildings and architects get dropped from the history of architecture all the time. Some buildings we saw in every book on modern architecture 50 years ago aren’t even memories now. [c.f. World Architecture 1963 and World Architecture 1963 PART 2]

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Central Library, National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed by Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco, and opened in April, 1956

If buildings and architects keep getting dropped from history, then sooner or later we’re going to run out of the stuff as we’re not laying down any more architectural history for the future. What will a history e-book look like in 50 years time? What brave person would even dare write one? What buildings will come to epitomise the age in which we lived? We will have to make do with “Top Ten Modern Classics”. History now has no interest for architects beyond being a resource for interesting imagery.

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Constructivism the art movement (and graphic inspiration-to-be) should not be confused with Constructivism the architectural movement that had a social(ist) agenda of housing people with an efficiency of resource usage.

History is never mined for interesting ideas that, taken out of context, could have important ramifcations for us now. [c.f. Modest Megastructures] We’re encouraged to convince ourselves that the only good ideas are the newest ones. 

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4) The Objectification of Architects 

In 1997 Body Shop‘s Ruby campaign stated “There are three billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels and eight who do.” [ref.Treading the same path came Dove’s campaignforrealbeauty.

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The parallels with architecture and architects are many but here I want to draw attention to the ongoing objectification of architects. Is it just me or are today’s stararchitects more “starry” than ever? [What is driving this? Is it a need of ours or, like the Sony Wallkman, something that once invented creates its own need?] It’s only been necessary to promote a few architects to star status to create and perpetuate the notion that architecture is all about glamorous and shapely buildings. The efforts of architects less stellar who get on with the real business of real building are supposed to be championed by professional organizations that instead reward the elevated few with accolades in the name of awareness-raising. The appearance of success breeds success and success means you don’t have to pretend to be nice anymore.

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5) Gentrification – in general**

6) Gated communities – a highly localized form of gentrification, no matter which side of the fence you are on.

7) Encouraging people to see Brutalism as nothing more than a style has proven a highly effective way of ensuring its social agenda remains forgotten [c.f. High-Rise]

Professional bodies organize petitions protesting the demolition of Brutalist buildings but in doing so effectively support the neoliberal agenda by arguing on the grounds of stylistic worth [… a fine example of the early work of …” etc.] when they should be making a point on the grounds of social worth. August Perret may have used béton brut (unfinished/raw concrete) without any connotations of aesthetic delight or social utility but that is what the argument has become. It doesn’t really matter whether you see raw concrete as beautiful or ugly for, whichever way, you’re not thinking about how the money and resources spent on unnecessary finishes was, for a short while, diverted into providing more and better quality housing for the population.

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8) The advent and rise of theories celebrating the consequences of unfettered economic activity, and the complete absence of critical comment thereof.

9) The scary earnestness of architectural evangelists, their scarier eagerness to give audience, and the even scarier ease with which they find one. 

10) The celebration of buildings encouraging people to see themselves as no more than the sum of their assets and investments

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11) The continual pressure on us all to do the same with whatever means we have to do it

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• • •

We all know how AirB’n’B enables people without their own buildings to contribute to economic activity by monetizing their surplus capacity living space, how Uber enables people to monetize their surplus capacity transport and how Instagram allows people to monetize* their personality or lack of it. Given all these intimate ways in which people are encouraged to value themselves according to their level of economic activity, it seems that neoliberalism has already done all it can with government, business and architecture and is now moving on to mop up the small fry. Whales feeding off plankton is a good analogy, except whales are nice.

• • •

thanks for the link Megan
19 Dec. 2016: I added Nos. 5) and 6) as further evidence.
*20 Dec. 1016:  8) and 9) added.

6 thoughts on “Burden of Proof

  1. David

    I wanted to write this to the previous post already, but it seems almost as fitting here as well. I recently read an interview with Mario Carpo (professor of architectural history at Bartlett). He claimed that nowadays, when we can collect and store incredible amounts of data, there should be no need for (architectural) history any more– everything can be represented exactly as it was and selecting only a few things to be remembered (and hence historians who do it) is no longer needed.

    Sadly, things seem to be going in the exact opposite direction. Being bombarded with so much information at all times seems to make it impossible to reach any substantial conclusions. Even more, this makes it easy to draw any conclusions one wants to make. It’s people after all that have to make decisions in this world, and they cannot operate with information the same way computers do. At the same time you can’t really blame him– this interview took place in 2015, pre post-truth, echo-chambers, fake news and all. It shouldn’t take too long before all this stuff makes it’s way to the architectural world as well.

    Thanks for keeping this site and helping make sense of contemporary (st)architecture!

    PS. Carpo actually has some quite interesting arguments for generative architecture (see the book “The Alphabet and the Algorithm”). Of course these things are mostly represented rather than made use of in architecture currently, but it’s worth looking into nonetheless.

    1. David

      PPS. Now that I think about it, most of this stuff already exists in the architecture world as well. But I’m wondering if its something that has been with architecture all along or something that’s coming in because of the current zeitgeist… The neoliberalism and architecture angle seems interesting indeed.

      1. Graham McKay

        I think you’re right David – that’s the only question. I’m inclined to think it’s something that’s been there all along and that it’s just something we’re suddenly able to see and put a name on it. I could add to my list “the refusal to acknowledge sustainability or energy performance as a valid generator of architecture”, “the encouragement of architecture for architecture’s sake as a way of ensuring it is eternally irrelevant to the production of useful, long-life, high-performing, reusable buildings”, “In the same was as we have Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Food, we can also think of Big Arch. as several major players sucking up all the oxygen”, etc. As I mentioned, the concept does seem to link many of the themes of these posts over the years. I’ll definitely be giving it more thought, and may revisit several earlier posts. There’s this article on dezeen that says “”Design strategies robust enough to resist this new political climate have yet to emerge” but I think it’s first necessary to identify what was already wrong. I’m wary of the term “design strategy” being used at this early stage when we’re only just beginning to articulate what the problem is. There’s a danger “design” will simply represent solutions rather than produce any.

      2. David

        Just found this. Interestingly, the godfather of of neoliberalism, Frederick Hayek, seems to hold views that are eerily similar to what Patrick Schumacher (and the parametricaly inclined architect in general) has expressed recently:

        “The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. /—/ Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs”. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.”

        Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/14/neoliberalsim-donald-trump-george-monbiot

      3. Graham McKay

        Thanks for that, David. It was scary but interesting reading. The concept of architecture is an easy fit into “aimless display”. Talk of it representing the best of human endeavour correlates with how much it represents the worst. I’m thinking not just Schumacher at Princeton, but also Moussavi at Harvard. I think we can rule out the influencing of “fields of thought and opinions, of tastes and beliefs” being done for the sake of society. What we call architecture is guilty of providing the semblance of progress without actually changing anything for the greater good.

        One place where I’ve noticed that influencing at work is with respect to Brutalism. We are definitely being influenced to regard Brutalism as nothing but a stylistic preference, and not as expedient resource usage for the purpose of benefitting society. I’d long wondered why the prevailing mood is that anything “utilitarian” is ugly.

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