Architectural phenomena are like quantum interactions and solar eclipses. You see more when you don’t observe them directly. The relationship between architecture and the media has now left the Chicken-Egg Era and firmly entered the Cart-Horse Era. In the past, I’ve used the World Architecture Festival as a symbol of an increasingly dysfunctional architecture. This year’s is the 4th-6th of November at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. It must be one huge prize-fest as there are 31 categories with between 5 and 18 projects shortlisted. The website has a handy search field.
Commercial Mixed-Use – Future Projects (17 shortlisted) Competition Entries – Future Projects (9 shortlisted) Culture – Future Projects (10 shortlisted) Education – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) Experimental – Future Projects (7 shortlisted) Health Projects – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) House – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) Infrastructure – Future Projects (5 shortlisted) Leisure Led Development – Future Projects (8 shortlisted) Masterplanning – Future Projects (11 shortlisted) Office – Future Projects (9 shortlisted) Residential – Future Projects (17 shortlisted) Civic and Community – Completed Buildings (13 shortlisted) Culture – Completed Buildings (11 shortlisted) Display – Completed Buildings (7 shortlisted) Health – Completed Buildings (11 shortlisted) Higher Education And Research – Completed Buildings (17 shortlisted) Hotel And Leisure – Completed Buildings (12 shortlisted) House – Completed Buildings (18 shortlisted) Housing – Completed Buildings (14 shortlisted) Mixed Use – Completed Buildings (6 shortlisted) New And Old – Completed Buildings (18 shortlisted) Office – Completed Buildings (16 shortlisted) Production Energy And Recycling (8 shortlisted) Religion – Completed Buildings (9 shortlisted) Schools – Completed Buildings (13 shortlisted) Shopping – Completed Buildings (5 shortlisted) Sport – Completed Buildings (10 shortlisted) Transport – Completed Buildings (5 shortlisted) Urban Projects – Landscape (7 shortlisted)
First, some general observations.
- It’s going to be a long three days and nights if they race through the awards at the speed of the Oscars.
- Five is the smallest and eighteen the highest number of shortlistings so we can only guess what the longlist was like.
- 12 of the 31 categories are for future projects. I hope this means construction must have started but not yet completed – but my gut feeling is Not. One of the reasons I think so is the Experimental (Future) category where one of the entries is “Gravity-Less: Structural construction against gravity”.
- If Competition Entries (Future) and Experimental (Future) are awarded on the same level as completed and functioning buildings, then there’s little point in buildings being completed and/or functioning since everything gets reduced to a media “construct” prior to evaluation. Here’s an example from the Housing category where Atelier Arcau’s Urban Hamlet in Donges and twelve others are up against OMA’s The Interlace in Singapore.
I was liking this project until I saw the video. It’s a shame because it looks worthwhile, but it does show the games even architects of worthwhile projects have to play in order to have them and their projects taken seriously. And why does OMA even bother? Do they really need to say they’re an award-winning practice? Are they afraid of being forgotten? Or do they get paid or otherwise enticed to participate and so lend an air of legitimacy to the proceedings?
- New and Old is a strange category. I haven’t checked to see if entries could be nominated for multiple categories like at The Oscars.
- It’s perhaps because of the international nature of the World Architecture Festival that there’s no Retail category but “Shopping”. A sad day for language as well as architecture.
With so many awards being handed out annually, being an award-wining practice has come to mean as little as “As seen on ArchDaily!” ArchDaily has, at last count 206 categories of building ranging from Adaptive reuse to Zoo. Housing is the largest with 5,971 projects (as of 18/07/2015) and Bottling Plant, Charging Station and Emergency Services Facility smallest with one each. There’s a sophisticated search function.
With scary honesty, ArchDaily doesn’t claim to be doing anything other than “Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide”, or to be anything other than “the world’s most visited architecture website” (to its viewers), or to “captivate more architects than any other website in the world” (to its advertisers). This makes them more self-aware than Architectural Review that still claims to be “the world’s leading authority on contemporary architecture”. The magazine itself seems to be being repositioned as a loss-leader branding vehicle for an increased internet presence. Subscribers are treated to weekly “Viewsletters” containing a digest of past articles circling around a theme. This type of recycled content is not uncommon in the online media.
This one was particularly irksome with its message that “utilitarian” buildings need dressing up and that is what architects are meant to do. I don’t know which is in the sorrier state, architecture or the reporting of it.
This could all be a sign of a healthy diversity but I doubt it. New content is being created all the time but people forget. The stuff people never really read before is practically as good as new the second or third time around. There’s a lot of writing about architecture but, as you might guess from the above, very little that’s constructive. This is an excerpt from the final editorial by departing editor, Catherine Slessor in AR’s March 2015 issue. I’m not so confident. The April 2015 issue is packed with the usual writers with their usual intellectual products to shift, inadvertently mirroring the situation they claim to be reporting on. Let’s take a closer look. Between pages 26 and 27, WILLIAM CURTIS gets a special insert and around a thousand words in which to vent his OUTRAGE at Herzog de Meuron’s Tour Triangle en Paris. YET, over pp 79-89, all Rowan Moore has to say about Tour Triangle is that it is of “dubious public benefit – the only three negative words in his ten-page, 2,000-word love song celebrating “Twenty Years of Herzog de Meuron”. (It feels like more, somehow.)
These ten pages contain the following. This is what this post, and probably this blog, is about.
HdM are praised for their skill in producing media-friendly imagery as if it were some sort of absolute contextual determinant like budget or environment. Shouldn’t someone be asking if this is really such a good thing? Moore seems to be implying that, if they want to survive, to be successful, architects HAVE A DUTY to provide the spectacle desired by clients for media mileage. Didn’t Speer do that?
But back in his own personal outrage bubble, Curtis spends three paragraphs telling us what icons and shit shapes mean for society only to conclude, in a bad day for historians, that they’re devoid of meaning – or at least the type of meaning he gets paid to find.
YET, over pages 90-99, Charles Jencks, as ever, is still getting paid to find meaning in anything and everything as he reviews a new book by Farshid Moussavi who, for her part, back on page 25, is on record as saying things like …
Confession time: Once in my undergraduate years, I objected to listening to anything a man wearing a horrible necktie had to say about aesthetics. I feel exactly the same way about Ms. Moussavi. Anyone who can’t plan an apartment shouldn’t be allowed to teach or even comment on anything architectural. If you missed it, this might be a good time to revisit The Real Function of Form.
The only sense in the issue seemed to be written by Peter Buchanan who suggested the “oxygen of publicity” be denied to architects who abuse it. QUALIFICATION: It should also be denied to those who can pay for it for, accompanying the April issue is an 82-PAGE bumper supplement featuring the work of the practice spark*. The preface implies that having guiding principles is a hindrance when there are more than 80 mouths to feed. We suspected that.
YET, the oxygen of publicity isn’t only for the already famous or those who can pay for it. On p.14, Phil Pawlett Jackson and Phineas Harper warn against fetishising “Young Architects” with a new slew of architecture awards. YET, on pp 53-65, young architecture students from MIT are given a twelve-page spread. True, Tomà Berlanda does raise important “questions about the ethics of educational tourism in relation to the needs of the Global South” and we should thank him for that.
In what went to print though, this next statement is curious and makes me wonder what truth it’s not succeeding concealing.
First, why did it need to be redesigned? What kind of walls could they have been if they had to be simplified to vertical ones made of concrete bricks? There doesn’t seem to be much two “groups” of students couldn’t have done themselves. Second, why did this need to be said? It strikes me as odd that construction should have to rely on the help and skills of the local community to the extent a re-design was necessary. The students seem overkeen to engage the local people in construction. My guess is they were desperate to gain the added Ethical Standards and Social Equity points when this project invariably gets submitted to the Holcim Awards Next Generation category. This architourism is basically exploitation of local people for the media benefit of all but the local people. Vaccinations are but crumbs in this tradeoff. I’ve nothing against an architectural BEAUTY that restores the moral component of VIRTUE, but this isn’t it. Even what’s touted as virtue these days, is dysfunctional, taking it to the next level. Down.
STILL YET, this project manages to get photographed by none other than celebrity snapper Iwan Baan in one of his much-publicised CV-balancing exercises essentially no different from what MIT and its students are doing. I’m curious how such charity work works. Was Baan in the area? Or is it flights and hotels only? And who thought this might be a good idea? Why? Nevertheless, Baan’s professional eye has astutely noted and duly recorded for our benefit that the nice students have built the good people some pretend trees.
Can it be worse? Yes. This photograph then gets selected as the cover image representing the good that architecture creates for the architectural media to report. My all-too-predictable conclusion is that genuine needs, no matter how modest, are still opportunity for architects to contort building materials into shapes that sell magazines in the name of architectural enlightenment. You knew that.
• • •
Like a “dynamic” architecture that neither goes anywhere or posit even a metaphorical way forward, the media dissemination of architecture has become the endless generation and broadcasting of content as business model. At least ArchDaily – the media trailblazer here, is honest about it. They’re the ones who stripped the business model of unnecessary baggage such as consistency, editorial policy or, for that matter, a belief in anything. The rest are racing to catch up. Sadly, the same is true for the usual suspects providing its content. The media is but a mirror.
… as if the production of media-friendly imagery were some sort of absolute contextual determinant like budget or environment …
Maybe we should just admit this is the case, and that architecture is media-driven, end of story. Too late we realize this is the big truth Rem Koolhaas was secretly conveying all those years to all those architects so in our faces now. So why don’t we now just proceed EXPLICITLY on this basis and see what happens? It will be like an Olympic Games in which performance-enhancing drugs are mandatory and the winners merely those who happened to have access to the best ones. Instead of tiresome architecture vs. building debates and handwringing over the soul of architecture, we could just sit back and enjoy watching everyone burn out.
This seems to me to be the only sane attitude with which to observe the present, in anticipation of a post-media future.