The New Inhumanism
It’s almost twelve months to the day since I scared myself reading a 2013 book that, it was claimed, re-theorized Post Modernism. “FML,” I thought, “of all the things that need new life breathed into them, we get this one!” Anxiously watching for further signs, I began a draft.
About the book, The Graham Foundation wrote [underlines mine]:
“In this fascinating reassessment of postmodern architecture at the end of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Petit addresses the role of irony and finds a vitality and depth of dialectics largely ignored by historical critiques. A look at five proponents of postmodernism—Peter Eisenman (b. 1932), Arata Isozaki (b. 1931), Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944), Stanley Tigerman (b. 1930), and Robert Venturi (b. 1925)— reveals the beginning of a phenomenology of irony in architecture. As Petit explains, irony is manifested in the work of these architects in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.
BDOnline July 2013, wrote:
“It explores the condition beyond that of “neither/nor” to “both/and” … seeks to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility. They show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice.”
“Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, it investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth reevaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations.”
The source of my disquiet was my new knowledge that Post Modernism and Neoliberalism are creatures of the same era.
Seen in this light, the statement “Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, this book investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth re-evaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations” is light with the truth. Yes, Post Modern architects may have questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society but their answer was to redefine their field of endeavour to exclude responsibility for real action and, in its place
- show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice,
- seek to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility, and
- in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.
In short, Architects now thought of themselves as cultural commentators rather than cultural facilitators. And, as for “… unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction …”, we shouldn’t assume the correct weaknesses were ever unmasked – just the convenient ones. e.g. The cure for the alienation famously supposedly felt by the residents of Pruitt Igoe wasn’t a programme of preventive maintenance to fix things, but a new look for corporate architecture across the western world and beyond.
There’s also something intellectually and morally offensive about anyone giving anyone cause to write “defining the heyday of irony as the period between the demolition of Pruit Igoe and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers” but I’ll get over it. I no longer care about Post Modernism being re-theorized. I’m more worried about Post Modernism being de-theorized and remembered and presented to us as having been nothing more than a style. We see the decorative arts as the advance guard grooming us to see post modernism as only haptic pleasure, and what a frenzy there currently is to do it! We’re being love-bombed with high-profile exhibitions and glowing reviews.
After the groundwork is done, the production of contemporary artefacts in the style of Post Modernism finishes the job.
The surest way to kill off any architectural movement of social worth is to make people think of it as a style that can then be summarily dismissed as outdated. Recent renewed interest in Brutalism considered it only as a visual style, with no mention of it ever having been part of any wider social agenda. [c.f. HIGH-RISE]
At first, I found it difficult to imagine what inconvenient ideas Post Modernism may have ever had in order to warrant this sudden neutering by revival but there is one, and it has nothing to do with any specific meaning or meanings. It’s the notion that buildings could convey meaning at all that needed killing, and it’s no accident this process is now taking place now.
This LA Review of Books review of Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism will bring you up to speed on architecture and neoliberalism.
Mention is made of “the affective turn” architecture took around 1975.
IF WE CAN FORGET THAT THINGS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO CONVEY MEANING,
WE WILL BE MORE RECEPTIVE TO AN ARCHITECTURE OF AFFECT THAT AIMS TO KILL OUR CAPACITY FOR CRITICAL THINKING.
I actually doubt it’s possible to devise an architecture of pure affect (and rid the world of pesky criticism once and for all as per the gameplan) but, as with most things, a crude approximation will probably do the trick anyway despite it being no more possible to wish away semiotics than it is to unlearn rational construction. Even poster post-modernist buildings were constructed rationally, with columns and slabs like many a good modernist building before.
If you’re finding it hard to accept that contemporary architecture has become an instrument of control and compliance then consider this next example of Late Koolhaas. As a contribution to the architecture of affect, it doesn’t appear to be saying anything but this doesn’t make it impervious to criticism for – and this is the conceptual leap – who trusts what an architect’s stated intentions are anymore anyway? It’s easier to retrieve the real intentions of a Renaissance architect than it is for any of our current lot. Perhaps that transparency is what made the Renaissance a renaissance? We’re clearly not living in one.
Semiotics won’t just die because somebody wants it to, or says it has. Just as an anti-aesthetic is still an aesthetic because things doggedly persist in having physical properties, those same physical properties mean that any building purporting to be an architecture of affect still has a visual presence we can interpret and criticise as we wish.
The defining characteristic of Neoliberalist Style is to deny buildings their identity as things built for humans to even appreciate, let alone be used by. Buildings look as if they came from another planet and with subjugation in mind. [No surprise there.] Omrania & Associates / Ellerbe Becket’s Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh nailed the look back in 2002.
- COLOUR: Greyscale denies any association with the natural world.
- PATTERN: No indication of floor heights or windows for use by humans. This denial of human scale is more than the absence of alleged feelgood factors. It’s a demonstration of contempt for humanity per se. This includes denying the building has even been constructed by the labour of humans.
- SHAPE: Shape is determined by factors other than what goes on inside. It cannot be “read” in terms of function or who or what may perform those functions. The shape acknowledges no external factors. Environment and context mean nothing.
- POSITION: Positioning with respect to an axis or axes brings immediate surroundings into the composition, extending the building’s “reach” and making it the focal point of its new home.
- ALIGNMENT: Alignment reinforces positioning. The combination of axes and symmetries are the tried and tested indicators of power and authority. (“You are an extension of me. I give you meaning.”)
- SIZE: Size seems to not have been determined by any human program. Again, this is a denial of humans and their various needs. Buildings whose size has no obvious reason dismiss human scale (and humans) by either having either no indicators of it, or by having a monumental scale in contempt of it.
Meaning, whether intentional or not, can only evoked by these six physical attributes architects manipulate when they design buildings.
In the case of Kingdom Centre Tower, all six are accounted for and all are saying much the same thing. All or most of those characteristics are shared by the following buildings, most of which seem to be coming at us from the Koolhaas constellation of the Architectural Association nebula.
• • •
- Landscaping and masterplanning exist to dominate and assimilate, not to integrate, or even to conflate. (i.e. “You exist for me. I am your reason for being. You are part of my plan.”)
- The New Inhumanism’s fascination with complex curves begins to make sense. Adult humans stand upright to move – it’s what makes us human – and humans don’t require anything more than vertical walls and a constant minimum headroom to do that. Any building without that, or appearing to do without that is most likely New Inhumanist.
- Shapes tell nothing of what the building does or why it is there. (i.e. “You do not need to know.”)
- Colours and materials have no associations with the natural world. You are not likely to see a New Inhumanist building of rock, brick or timber.
- These airport examples are the weakest in this selection. Surface, Placement and Size characteristics are all New Inhumanist in appearance but authoritarian Placement is overridden by us knowing a functional relationship exists with surrounding infrastructure, preventing the necessary opacity of presence and intent. Airports may look New Inhumanist but we still know them to exist for the sake of people, though admittedly through their relationship to aircraft.
- Monolithic, static and geometrically determined shapes denote authority, strength, and solidity, and with none of the contrivance involved in using angles and curves to represent dynamism but without implying progress.
- Obfuscation of scale denies any intent to relate to humans, whether inside or outside. (i.e. “You are nothing.”)
• • •
Resistance may be futile but, as long as we continue to celebrate The New Inhumanism, it’s not even conceivable.