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Post-Jencksian Architecture

One consequence of this wondrous digital age (how is it for you?) is that opinions about nearly anything, not just buildings, become binarised to “like” or “dislike”. It can’t get much simpler. There’s no compulsion or even the expectation of explanation. I don’t like this.

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Fine. But we should at least try to understand how this came about and why. As anybody’s would be, my first thought was that the sheer proliferation and availability of information has made such oversimplification necessary. When there’s an endless stream of new stuff wanting two seconds of our attention, there’s no time to contemplate – or even think – about what it means or what its intrinsic worth is. But let’s not overrate ourselves! Our attention, it turns out, is worth little more than an increment to some page view counter for some User Engagement Algorithm to analyse traffic data and inflate site advertising and/or product/project placement charges.

downloadI know I know. One could always comment. A few years back, I posted a flurry of comments about Mumbai–something on ArchDaily and it generated a bit of knock-on debate. People loved the thread arc of initial outrage followed by generous compromise. On ArchDaily I began to notice how spam comments lingered and realised no-one’s actually running the shop. Same with Dezeen. “Our readers thought that ….” Since when has that been news? In both, comments are counted, liked and disliked and those totals become yet more traffic data to be monetised. Typically, comments and statements echoing popular stances are liked more – it’s always easier to like someone expressing views one holds oneself.

What we have in terms of those diehard binary quantities of architecture dickiness, is a situation where more and more means less and less to us.  But there’s more to it. In addition to the sheer quantity of stuff we feel obliged to process for whatever reason, there’s also a huge diversity of stuff. We should’ve seen this coming.

Jencks style chart

It could be part of the mystical wonder of architecture. Or it could just be everyone randomly shooting in the dark. Charts such as Chuckie’s look evolutionary but are pseudo-educational. I could make a case for Le Corbusier being a self-conscious logical activist on the basis that unselfconscious people don’t normally give themselves marketing monickers. Nevertheless, the chart worked and is still being talked about. If it’s still being reproduced in ten years I will despair.

Just because it was important once doesn’t mean it was ever true.

One thing the chart does show rather well is that there are a lot of names and this usually means there are a lot of different things. In a recent AR piece, Sam Jacobs writes that “the neatness of architectural movements has segued into today’s much messier plurality” but there is nothing, apart from our own arrogance, that makes this messy plurality any different from late 19th century eclecticism.

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What Jacobs is saying is that it’s all different but somehow all the same. I agree.

They’re all the same – they’re all trying to attract our attention!

All that difference and plurality of styles amounts to nothing. There’s simply no joy in this endless consumption of styles. OK PM was crap and DeCon a bit wanky but that’s still the cute end. What we have now is people targeting their markets and consolidating their USPs with neither the passion nor the conviction that what they’re doing is any better than anyone else.

And it’s not. It’s a directionless and random jostling for positions that are unlikely to ever exist again. The current old-skool architects who spent decades building their brands in glossy mags won’t be replaced. Some magazines are re-inventing themselves but others fail to realise that fewer people grant them the authority they might once have had (and deserved).

A few people are still trying to tell us what to think just like Philip Johnson, Alfred Barr and Charles Jencks once did. Going on past form, old Jencksy probably still has a couple of movements left in him. Patrik Schumacher will probably still continue to attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Once-proud magazines will still try to assert a lost authority. Here’s what Paul Finch (writing in AR) had to say about ZHA’s Sackler Gallery Extension.

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It’s difficult to care. Peter Cook may have noted that

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but everyone else worked it out long ago.

Fact is, nobody’s telling us what to think anymore but we’re not proving very good at thinking for ourselves either. Hopefully, it’s just early days and we’ll get the hang of it.

So here we are. We can expect architecture to become even more internet driven and desperate in its attempt to win our clicks and generate media noise. We can expect buildings to become increasingly graphic.

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For those clients who can afford it, we can expect form to become increasingly extreme and, if they can’t afford it, generate the one-liners we’re getting used to (and that may yet become the future of architectural history). We can expect to see the most important properties of materials to be the visual effects they produce.

In the following image what are we looking at here exactly – an orgasm of plasterboard? concrete? GRP?

HEALTH & SAFETY: Anyone who survived Heydar Aliyev's regime knows how to watch their step. I hope my plane is never forced to land in Baku.

HEALTH & SAFETY: Anyone who survived Heydar Aliyev’s regime knows how to tread carefully, watch their step, as it were…

Meanwhile (sssh!) on the same planet …

maria carey angloaI know I know. Why blame architects for simply mirroring British (or US) foreign policy? Why blame Mariah Carey for wanting to make a cheeky million? Let’s wait and see the 2014 Stirling Prize shortlist before we judge. <\digression.>

Back to my main theme, IT’S ALL A BIT CRAP! We have more and more stuff meaning less and less to us. It’s not richness. It’s not even diversity. We want to care but can’t. It’s a malaise. An ennui. It’s like having watched too much porn.

Until the internet it was all rather chaste. Blokes like Venturi could be praised by other blokes like Jencks for their clever double-coding (one meaning for the cognoscenti and another for the plebs). But then the internet came along and it all became rather visual. Thoughts had to be spelt out.

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Daniel Libeskind. Imperial War Museum North. Manchester, UK. 2001.
Here’s something I wrote back then.

Sadly, the way forward seems for buildings to come with press kits telling financiers, planners, judges, press and public what they represent. People are denied the opportunity to contemplate, say, Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North and conclude its three bits perhaps represent the air, sea and land theatres of war, or possibly a world shattered by war. If it doesn’t resonate quietly, it’s soundbite symbolism.

This may not be where the rot set in, but it’s how the rot set in. There’s no fun in thinking anymore. If architects are going to claim any kind of artistic credibility (which – for now, at least – seems to be the only thing someone else doesn’t seem eager to want to take on) then they’ve got to create a bit of room for viewers to engage with it on that level.

Space – to allow people to think for themselves – is one of the basic pleasures of art, 

dammit! There’s thousands of examples of press-kit architecture. Here’s one from the past. It’s the Entry for the CCP Architectural Design Competition for the Artist’s Center and Performing Arts Theatre / Buensalido Architects.

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For the record, I despise the depiction of winged creatures in architectural renderings, but the idea – concept, if you will, for this project – was “threads”.  You can read more here – I don’t have the stomach. The point is that one’s told what to think. Mystery dies. The user/looker is not engaged. You know what? I’ve started to positively re-evaluate The Mystery Of Art as a means of engaging with the environment. Buildings or even the idea of them is not doing it for me anymore. Art can be a bit crap too, but at least we can take it or leave it. Architects have a bit more responsibility, no?

Don’t get me wrong – we’re in a far better situation than when Jencksy thought he was running the show. Architecture that means stuff has turned out to be very superficial. It’s not that hard to make something mean something to someone somewhere. CJ would argue that his slippery Enigmatic Signifier concept (raising “double-coding” to the power x) was about precisely that “power”. In this hypothetical duel between me and him, I would say:

Sir: “With all due respect, in your ideal world an ideal building would signify anything to everyone but in mine, an ideal building would signify nothing to no-one. A building would just do its job keeping its occupants safe and comfortable in the place they wanted to be. They would find their happiness with the people they know, meeting them and, in the times they spent together, coming together to eat and all the other stuff that people do in buildings.”

It’s not necessary to have an architecturally “spectacular” building in order to cry, talk, eat have sex, etc. Wherever they are and whatever they live in, anyone can consume food and drink and music and movies and even Art. There’s no need for people to consume buildings as well. It’s not healthy, not good for the system.