A New Formalism

This post relates to Architecture Myth #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else and more distantly to Architecture Myth #15: Intellectual vs. Romantic. It’s getting the separate treatment because it follows on from The New Inhumanism and our current Post Modern Revivalism. Its working title was Emotion vs. Reason.

The success of Olivetti’s 1968 Valentine typewriter is attributed to it being designed to encourage people to relate to it emotionally as something more than a mere instrument for typing. I’d agree with that – I bought one, albeit in 1974. The first thing I typed was my Philosophy 100 essay, “Epistemology: What Can We Know?” The Valentine’s emotional appeal didn’t prevent it receiving an F later upgraded to a D after my protest more articulate than the original essay. The Valentine typewriter would also have negative emotional appeal for its designer Ettore Sotsass, miffed at being known best for having designed it.

People forming emotional relationships with consumer products wasn’t new but, previously, it had always occurred organically and mostly with respect to automobiles. VW’s Beetle, Morris’s Mini, Fiat’s 500 – the Bambino” and Citröen’s 2CV all hinted at some bond stronger than reason. The Valentine typewriter was the first product strategically designed to lure people into purchasing it on the basis of emotion.

By 1988 the method was perfected and along came the contrivedly retro Olympus O Product camera of which only 20,000 were made, each numbered. Demand was whipped up by having to register a month or so in advance in order to have the right to purchase one. With a name like O Product, Olympus knew exactly what they were doing and yes, I bought one, and in full knowledge I was being exquisitely suckered.

olympus_o_product_801084290

Since then the process has been updated and dumbed down. Not too long ago, Karla Welch, recent designer of a “revolutionary” T-shirt for Justin Bieber sternly told us “You have to commit to this T-shirt!

It’s still sweet and naïve compared to what we’ve come to know as post-truthism and people relating emotionally to particular words and sentences rather than their meaning. Skilled salespersons, speakers, presenters or even politicians may occasionally make emotional appeals to our better instincts but the techniques are the same as those deployed for emotional appeals to our baser instincts.

Relating to things through emotions is one of the processes Post Modernism set in motion to pave the way for Neoliberalism.

This is being overlooked in the current media enthusiasm to reimagine Post Modernism. One of the following kettles was not designed by Michael Graves. It makes no difference which, as all three were designed to appeal to emotions. Character-branded products and designer-branded products are at opposite ends of the snobbometer but they are false opposites. They both exist to separate you from your disposable income. This is the deceit post-modernism has for the consumer. And when exactly did people become “consumers” anyway, defined by how much of what the bought? I’m guessing circa 1975.

Was it really important for me to relate emotionally to boiling some water? Or was it more important I unthinkingly yet emotively purchased an Alessi kettle? Somebody’s interests were being looked after but they weren’t mine. And yes, in 1991, I bought one. I threw it when it boiled dry one day and stupid birdie melted.

If the Neoliberal mantra is “All that exists is good” then it’s safe to assume all that exists is suspect as well as the thinking and mechanisms that put it there. Encouraging us to see the world through the false opposites of as Modern/Reason/Nasty and PostModern/Emotion/Good does not lead to a greater understanding of the world because it is not meant to.

Example: Architecturally, Modernism was outmodded by Post Modernism which unfolded into Folding architecture and then deconstructed first into shattered Deconstructivists and then into curvy Deconstructivists that recently revealed themselves as the Neoliberal Affectivists. If we see this sequence as the progression of visual styles we’re encouraged to, then each style is the opposite of the one before but, taken together, there’s a macro-trend unmistakably edging towards representation without meaning. Seeing recent history as a chronology of stylistic opposites has taught us nothing. How did that happen? On whose watch was that? 

William Curtis used Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church (1927–1940) in Copenhagen to make the point that Post Modernism can be thought of as a reversion to a kind of pre-Modernism that continued a long tradition of buildings meaning things to people. This would be true if 1927 hadn’t already been the beginning of the end of Modernism’s social ideals.

157784_Grundtvigs-Kirke_Martin-Heiberg

Meaning-laden churches and other buildings projecting power and authority did little to alleviate housing crises in Europe and Russia but rational construction and removing the unnecessary did [with Oud in the Netherlands, Hannes Meyer and  Ernst May in Germany, André Lurçat in France, Josef Polášek in Czechoslovakia, and Lacherta & Szanajcę in Poland]. I don’t accept that people who finally had a decent place to live didn’t have an emotional attachment to their dwellings. 

Josef Polasek

It took global crises to make the provision of mass housing a concern that the application of focussed architectural skills could and did solve but the topic was dumped once the immediate crisis was averted. We’re so accustomed to believing architecture works for the greater benefit of society that it’s difficult to conceive of it as a mechanism that repeatedly and consistently works against it. Mass housing is no threat to architecture as long as it’s emergency housing in a foreign country.

Japan had a serious housing problem after WWII and Soviet apartments were taken as the model for rebuilding. That was barely underway when, in 1962, Kazuo Shinohara was to declare that houses are art. (I bought that too, by the way.) If houses were art it was a very elitist art but, had the idea stopped there, it would’ve done no more than ensure we had a constant supply of intruiging Japanese art-houses to beguile us.

However, the powerful attractiveness of such an idea for architecture is that once something is declared art it is placed outside of critical reason. Normal rules no longer apply and one can only talk about whether or not something is good art, and that’s tricky given our degraded vocabulary for talking about such things. All the same, it’s still valid to like or dislike something without having to give a reason. Problems only arise when people try to convince others to like the same thing.

Robert Venturi’s 1968 opener “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” is a statement of emotion with 90 pages of reasoned observation attached. It must’ve been pleasant wandering around Rome and pondering its Baroque architecture but what we got out of it was the idea that architecture was an art that should stimulate our pleasure centres. This has left us with buildings claiming to be playful, inventive, witty and amusing. We’re also left with the odd belief buildings exist to entertain us. 

I have no problem with either art or with architecture as art for one good thing art does is make us question our reality and re-evaluate our place in the world. In that sense, Roger Scruton saw art as a substitute for religion in increasingly secular post-Renaissance societies. I’m inclined to think so too, despite two adverse side-effects.

  1. The 1970s were the formative years of that intellectual construct, the starchitect. If architecture is art substituting for religion, then the media is no longer its galleries but its places of worship, and architects are not just artists and idols but prophets and deities. (This creates awkward moments when they age, become ill, or die.) 
  2. The other bad side effect is for architecture to be placed on a pedestal as something that can only be appreciated from a distance, and even then not by all. Pop artists produced expensive art that appropriated imagery from popular culture. Their art was neither popular nor for the people. This transfers exactly to architecture. Affordable housing is regarded with the same disdain as affordable art. Affordable architecture becomes an oxymoron.

If our likes don’t need to be justified but worth still needs to be quantified and claimed then we have a means tailored to do just that, with numbers of likes quantifying the degree of (varying degrees of) emotional impact in an open-ended scale of purported worth that has no opposite, not even the false opposite of reason. Emotion wins in a race of one and architecture always likes a winner. Reason has fallen by the wayside, probably dead. I know how this dog feels.

valentine

I’m warming more and more to the idea of a New Formalist mode of architectural criticism that probes how the tangible attributes of buildings are contrived to produce the intangible effects of architecture.

• • •

Oct. 9, 7:32pm: The above image is of a 1968 Olivetti poster by Milton Glaser. From this blog, I just discovered it’s a detail of a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Further googling leads me to this site and the bigger picture. It is Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris, now ca 1500-1510

None of this lesses the power of Glaser’s graphic, or his skill in choosing this particular image, cropping it and tweaking its lines and colours. I’ve always thought images containing the four primary colours seem complete somehow, whole. I’m aware it’s just a visual trick that can be strategically employed to evoke the emotional response of something being complete and whole but it works for me. It remains a very seductive image. The typewriter is perfect product placement. Its red works too, and beautifully and contrivedly so with the pumped up red of the flowers at the top and that triangulated red flower bottom right.

The message seems to be that the typewriter is incidental but still an integral part in some greater drama, as it is in Glaser’s composition. I also learn that the painting is said to be the first depiction in Western art of an animal appearing to feel emotion. Knowing that, it become easier to think that embedding emotion into a product was some greater corporate brief of Olivetti’s rather and no one-off accident of Mr. Sotsass. Following that train of thought, the post-modern “referencing” of history (and any subsequent emotion evoked) was a strategy to engage a market more monied than those any prior more socially-oriented architecture had catered to.

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