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Sordid Mechanics

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if on a winter's night a traveller

There’s a chapter in Italo Calvino’s piss-take of Deconstructivist literature, If on a winter’s night a traveller, where a woman – Ludmilla’s sister Lotaria, I think – is a member of a book club and each person receives a single page of the novel for discussion the following week. Calvino is drawing attention to the absurdity of the fragment containing all the information necessary to re-construct the whole. Buildings don’t have DNA either, but the notion of the fragment embodying the whole was the only one that “successfully” translated into architecture that bore the monicker Deconstructivist. Remember all that Libeskind traumatecture with one corner looking much like all the other corners (as if that’s not the case for most buildings?) and where one building looked much like all the other Libeskind buildings? This was the time of shattering and exploding buildings ostensibly retaining an inkling of the shapes they were once supposed to have been. It was an idea. It’s not like architects thought of it. Or like the world was waiting for buildings to be crude analogies of that idea. But it was an opportunity for architecture to appropriate the gravitas of literature for a change, instead of art. Until the shattering and exploding of buildings got real, that is. Shattering and exploding or otherwise upsetting an imagined stability was never going to play well with today’s clients for starchitecture. If I had my own autocratic regime or was shopping around for an architect on behalf of one, the only thing I’d want architecture to represent is a sense of endless continuity, of seamless transitions from one highlight to the next. I’d pay good or, more likely, bad money for an architecture that gave the appearance of dynamic movement but went nowhere, and with neither beginning nor end. And this is what we now have.


Such an architecture appeals to conservative regimes whether they be Oxford colleges, the powerplayers of Azerbaijan, Russian oligarchs or the masters of Guangzhou. if I were an architect I’d develop an architecture and market it to these people having in blissful abundance those three preconditions for all buildings – money, land and a desire to build. The Deconstructionists might have have a point though for it was Calvino and Lotario I thought of when I ventured further into the darkness that is The Autopoiesis of Architecture 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values.  My scanner’s on my desk now as there’s such a lot to share. First para’s a beaut – on page 300/436 if you’re looking. I’m including the titles just in case you think I’m making it up. Para 2’s also a whopper. I love this academistic book – it’s so rich, such fun. As with overhearing casual racism or casual sexism, I just want to shout “Man, you can’t say that!”  Huh – something’s rational inasmuch as it’s intuitive?! I won’t go into that for, if we wanted, I suppose we could always just map some brain activity and find out which hemisphere fires up when asked to make an aesthetic judgment. If ever there was too much rationality in the world, then irrationality would have the useful function of stopping things getting excessively rational. I don’t think the author’s that stupid. His endgame is to make a case for his company’s architectural stylings and to not want us to look at it all too rationally.

“Just say whether you like it – trust us on the performativity!”

page 301

What those 104 words are doing is reducing aesthetic responses and aesthetic judgments to likes and dislikes. Are you okay with that? I’m not. It just might be that that’s all aesthetic judgments really are, but you can’t simply say they’re better than informed evaluation because they’re quicker. It’s all a question of Reliability vs. Speed, it seems. The author is saying it’s OK to judge a book by its cover. I wonder what his mother would think. But why would he say that? Here’s the future of aesthetic judgments. Don’t you think this theory of his dovetails a bit too well with the internet? I could choose many examples but here – let’s choose this one where ZHA re-invents the sphincter for our evolved Post-Fordist society. 921 likes and 142 tweets represent an evaluation of sorts although I confess to not knowing the threshold for amazing – or even good. But if it’s in our consciousness (as sending something to ArchDaily usually guarantees), it’s good enough so it seems that’s probably all it needs to do. Conclusion: If aesthetic worth is going to be measured in impulsive clicks then it’s not worth much. What I find more interesting is why the author thinks we need to have an aesthetic response to his company’s product and product placement in the first place. I mean, why take such trouble to attract our attention unless that is actually the endgame? If so (and it probably is so),  it probably is the architecture for our times – even though 1980s was all about the look as well. We just took it a bit more seriously then. The buildings presented to us as architecture these days are simply the shoulder pads for our times. Part of me dies. Here’s paras three and four, p301. Upward social mobility can be applied to countries as well. But I agree with the organism bit for I too am repulsed by what threatens life and am doing the best I can to articulate that repulsion. Without getting too distracted by the aesthetic appeal of athletic bodies … oh allright then, here you go … … I do understand the biological function of aesthetics – symmetrical facial features as an indicator of good genetic stock and such. Granted, we do happen to live in a time where fit = “fit” or at least = “tidy”, but the author glibly equates that to mean the aesthetic evaluation of a building is also an indicator of how well it performs. That’s quite a claim. To be fair, the author does have more to say about aesthetic values = performance later, and so will I in another post. For now though, that’s all the author has to say about the supposed rationality of aesthetic values. I’m unconvinced. Lots of other forms of animal and bird life – and probably fish and bacteria as well – no doubt operate by exactly the same genetic indicators as humans but all this says nothing about the evaluation of inorganic, non-sentient, artificial cultural artefacts such as paintings or buildings. Section 3.8 should have been a major section of this book and should have discussed the reasons why we like the things we do. Instead, it offers nothing except how it slots into ZHA’s business plan and the author’s fantasies. If I’m to be convinced aesthetic values are worth having at all, then I expect more than two pages and a spurious analogy with the natural world. I suspect the reason why architects rush to associate their buildings with Nature is because Nature has no agenda. Nature is apolitical. Nature is popular. It’s the great neutralizer, the stopper of further questioning. Appeals to Nature forestall serious inquiry into the sordid mechanics of what really appeals to clients and why. When architects say “Nature”, I feel like Mussoini said he felt upon hearing the word “Art”.