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What’s the point of Architecture? – Part 1

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‪”The lost monopoly of critical theory has left architecture critics in despair. In the book ‘Architecture in the Netherlands 2007-08’ the editors complain about the loss of a singular frame of reference by which architecture can be judged. This confusion is inherited by the younger generation of critics. They continue to study critical theory, finish PhD’s on it, but can’t rhyme what they have learned with the world around them. With the loss of a singular frame of reference (assuming there once existed one), critics have lost their ability to judge.”‬ Eikonographia

Well, the fact there might not be a single frame of reference doesn’t mean we should  assume that a plurality of often conflicting frames of reference is a good thing and automatically conclude “Isn’t architecture amazing!”What we need is a single convincing frame of reference. Allowing for a plurality gets us nowhere. Currently, there’s an overwhelming sense that architecture is adrift, rudderless. There is no guiding principle, no theoretical, artistic or (dare I say it?) moral direction. This term “frame of reference” is a useful one. By what criteria are we – fuck critics! – to judge architectural worth? Before we say that there is not a single frame of reference anymore, we should at least think about what frames of reference we’ve had so far.

One constant frame of reference has been to provide what rich clients want. Architecture is no longer about pyramids for pharoahs. It is no longer about huge castles and palaces for kings or churches. It is no longer about huge houses for wealthy and powerful landowners. It is no longer about huge country houses for wealthy industrialists. The history of architecture has always moved in the direction of the largest possible market for its services so when one of these markets disappeared, architecture looked for the next one down to the next lot of people with money. They say that architecture reflects the “spirit of the time” – this is how. It’s really a neat way of saying that it follows where the money is at any given time

The shift in market focus from wealthy landowners with political power to huge country houses for wealthy industrialists was an important one. In England, it was the shift between old money and new money. Residual English snobbery still rates Georgian architecture as superior to Victorian. Le Corbusier correctly spotted the market shift from country houses for wealthy industrialists to suburban houses for wealthy commercialists. The Villa Savoye was designed for an insurance magnate, the Villa Stein for a banking magnate. Le Corbusier had a good eye for an emerging market.

But the big story was playing itself out in America. Much of architecture is still about the office buildings, hotels and airports and the means by which capitalism spreads, and about the opera houses and museums and art galleries that display the capitalist surplus. This is more or less where we are at now. Saying that Gehry and Hadid do “icons”, Rogers and Foster do “technology”, and that the trio of Nouvel, Herzog de Meuron and OMA sell “architectural invention” does not imply the existence of multiple frames of reference. All of these architects have succeeded in finding new ways for clients to spend more money than they need to spend on a building. We must be prepared to accept that this is all architecture ever was.

One thing we can be certain of, is that what counted as “architecture” over the past couple of decades, will be viewed with increasing suspicion in the future. The architectural press has been very quiet this year. Basically, it is the end of the line for the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebskind, Remment Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers as well as the B-list of Rafael Viñoly, Will Alsopp, Jean Nouvel, Herzog de Meuron, and such. Is there anyone there under 60? They have had their moments and rather heady moments they were but what have we got to show for it? What has been their contribution to humanity? Like dinosaurs, these people were just creatures of their time. Frank Gehry’s Las Vegas Cleveland Clinic looks like his first post-humous work.

Not too long ago, all architects wanted to work in Dubai, and then they all wanted to work in China. Now there’s nowhere. After having had a good run in both of those markets, Rem Koolhaas proclaimed that the next era will be the era of public architecture but, six months on, that hope is already gone as governments are not spending. The next big market downwards, doesn’t look like happening.

(continued in Part 2)