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America rediscovered.

A new spirit in America is causing the rediscovery of some of the immemorial attributes of architecture, for instance placemaking and understanding appropriate use of materials. But this is not simply harking back: late twentieth-century industry and spatial understanding are equally engaged in creating the new generation of buildings.

It sometimes seems that fashionable American architects and critics (particularly those from the East Coast) will do almost anything to avoid engaging with the immemorial tasks of architecture: sheltering and place-making. Charles Jencks has crystallised much of this cultural climate in explaining a new affection for Peter Eisenman's work, which Jencks believes, 'in an era when opinion and anthropocentrism dominate culture, returns us to a nonhuman standard for architecture that used to be the preserve of religions'.(1) This is an extremely dangerous line to pursue, because if we abandon anthropocentrism and remove humanity from the centre of the cultural stage (as Eisenman and his friends have been trying to do for ages) what other values have we got?

Eisenman himself says that 'we need to displace [the] concept of architecture as a service, as an accommodating profession, as one that people inhabit. Just the notion of inhabit means "to grow used to". And the habitual is what people want from an architect. In other words, architecture is O.K. as long as it indulges the habits of people'.(2) He is of course suggesting that architecture is an autonomous art - one that should be independent of sordid things like practicality, and perhaps of the notions that we associate with inhabiting: love of place and people. If his work is attacked Eisenman is delighted, because it shows that he is setting a challenge. His architecture has become a vehicle for (and hence of) criticism, so it must be better than a building that is liked by its users. In general, he says, architects 'accommodate, we allow, we never critique society, or art, or life... You have never heard of one architect being threatened because his or her work was politically active'.(3) Peter Eisenman has a better knowledge of the history of the twentieth century than to believe this (what about Gropius, Melnikov, Tatlin, Mendelsohn?). But it suits him to present himself as a radical whose work stirs society, rather than an architect whose buildings are sometimes criticised by their users because, like everybody else's, they do not always function perfectly.

In fact, he is almost the opposite of the radical critiqueur.(4) Eisenman wants to establish his position partly because his kind of signature architecture becomes a commodity. If you go to him for a building, you get a work of art, which has the same kind of fashionable attraction as the productions of Gilbert and George, Julian Schnabel or Damien Hirst - such things, because they are obviously odd, establish the purchaser as culturally progressive. And they do so without in the least having to touch anyone's heart and inner nature which is perhaps the prime purpose of all art: even an art so compromised (and ennobled) by practicality as architecture.

Eisenman also believes that culture has been totally altered by the influence of what he calls the media (fundamentally television and advertising) which he thinks have engendered a whole new attitude to truth. 'You wonder what's reality... Architecture's reality needs to be reconsidered ... To do that means to displace the conditions of architecture as they used to be; in other words, the condition that saw architecture as reasonable, as understandable, as clearly [my itals] functioning.'(5)

This fascination with the virtual and virtual reality is extremely strong in many architectural circles at the moment. For instance, Christine Boyer in Cybercities suggests that 'the specifics of time, space, and architecture that Sigfried Giedion discussed in the early 1940s have been condensed or eradicated by our instantaneous modes of telecommunications, telemarketing, telepresence and telesurveillance. Here all our bodily senses get transferred to, plugged into, or downloaded into machines, as our body parts become simple emitters and receivers of informational stimuli in a sensorial feedback loop that links our senses of sight, touch, smell, and hearing to information flowing through computer data banks and simulation programs. Reality is increasingly immaterial, and our modes of travel become static terminal transmissions'.(6)

This is, of course, complete rubbish, and one feels extremely sorry for poor Boyer (and indeed her students at Princeton if they believe what she says). Virtual reality can be fun and its creation is undoubtedly intellectually challenging, but anyone who has tried a virtual reality machine knows that its relationship to our perceptions of the phenomenal world is about as close as those of confetti to caviar. And that is in the only two senses that are at the moment offered by these mechanisms: sight and hearing. Our understanding of the world relies on all five senses, and virtual reality is completely incapable of offering us the texture and taste of a lover's skin, or even of integrating the smell of a rose with its image. The technology will doubtless improve, but it is impossible to believe that the qualities of the virtual world can approach those of the real one without enormous and radical changes in our understanding of the relationship of mechanical to human systems.

Such attempts to shrug off the real responsibilities of architecture are perhaps the result of the awesome efficiency of the American development and building industries. As has often been pointed out on these pages, their proficiency must be one of the reasons for the strong strain of dematerialisation in American architectural thought (and the literal marginalisation of architecture, reduced to external wallpaper in Post Modern Classicism).

But there is a new spirit abroad in American architecture, a new concern for tectonic integrity and for the public realm. In this AR, the range is perhaps paradoxically defined between the two buildings by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The house they have made in Manhattan (p45) is of almost staggering luxury, yet it is created with modesty and restraint, speaking to us in terms of space, light, and beautifully honed and fondly understood materials rather than the language of advertising and window-dressing which we have come to expect from such houses on the East Coast. Their art museum in Phoenix (p38) is at the opposite end of the spectrum: a large building made on a small budget adds to the texture of the city, making a new network of places that add to Will Bruder's library (AR March 1996) to give downtown Phoenix a new sense of urbanity; yet here too, for all the need to produce an inexpensive building, is a profound sensibility for the use of appropriate materials and volumes in light.

The best American architecture can once again begin conversations with that of the rest of the world and with its own history. Of course, the triumphalist marketing-led pseudo avant garde is still very powerful, and more so is totally unimaginative glass-box commercial imperialism. Yet Richardson, Wright, Schindler and Kahn would recognise kinship with the architects who are shown in this issue, so would foreign contemporaries like Behnisch, Leiviska and Ando. These Americans are all very different from one another, as are their buildings but they are all brave and swim against the tide of commercialism and commodification to give hope for a future in which buildings and people can again relate in life-enhancing interaction.

1 Jencks, Charles, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe, London, Academy Editions, 1995.

2 Eisenman, Peter, 'Strong Form, Weak Form' in Architecture in Transition, ed Peter Noever, Prestel, Munich 1991, p40.

3 Ibid, p39.

4 A critiqueur critiques things.

5 Op cit, p35.

6 Boyer, Christine, Cybercities, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1996, p11.
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Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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