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Beyond the cult of the object: compelling though the object buildings may be, architecture must reconnect with history, place and humanity.

When did the architecture that commands most attention, in the media or unmissable on the street, hit rock bottom? Most might plump for the 1980s when Post Modernism, Prince Charles and planners, who equated pediments and pilasters with populism, inspired the most hideous buildings in history. But although much of this became opportunistic camouflage for the mean-spirited utilitarianism that modern architecture had degenerated into, the original impulse had been laudable: to ameliorate modern architecture's failures, by reconnecting with history and people, and reconnecting the city.

The environmental crisis, which is far broader than climate change, is the most obvious and urgent of the interlinked problems facing our globalising world. This could give new purpose to architecture that, along with other forms of environmental design, should be on the front line confronting this crisis with creativity. Yet many feted celebrity architects featured in media and museum shows still flirt with the frivolities of contemporary art and 'theory', or a version of the latter in pseudo rigorous 'process'. Common to these is the quest to create the compelling object, seductively exciting in its manipulations of form, materials, patterns and surfaces, yet also contextually indigestible and symbolically mute. Eschewing the many forms of relationship architecture can establish with users and neighbouring buildings, compelling objects prefer only to wow and be teasingly enigmatic. (Icons are especially conspicuous compelling objects, usually a one liner subset of them; and the current boring parade of frigidly minimalist boxes that defy relaxed habitation are timidly conformist.)

The lure of the compelling object

A compelling object can enhance a city, if symbolising or commemorating something worthwhile; but today's commemorate nothing nobler than the architect's creative genius striving for fame and fortune. Disruptive of contiguous urban fabric, they fail in the contemporary task of restitching the city and recreating a sense of place. Belonging only to the present, they fail in architecture's corresponding temporal task, to be a bridge across time, recognisably rooted in the past while optimistically facing the future. If green issues are addressed at all, it is only in the narrowest terms of energy efficiency and never the larger issues of sustainability. Could compelling objects, intrinsic to today's cult of celebrity, be architecture's nadir? Certainly their irrelevance to any pressing issue means they are no harbingers of the future. They are merely sunset effects, Marshall McLuhan's apt term for the final flare-ups that mark the passing of an age with caricatured exaggerations of its now irrelevant characteristics. The age ending is not only that of Modernism, the twentieth-century movement, but also Modernity.

Replacing the religious Middle Ages, Modernity, or the progressively more secular Modern Age, was born of the Renaissance's elevation of reason over faith, leading to Humanism and the beginnings of science. The successes of science led to its progressive dominance and its fundamental notion of an objective reality became the core 'reality' of Modernity. The emphasis on detached observation, quantitative measurement and reductive analysis led to a perception of the world as detached objects, thus to detached and desiccated experience which downplayed all forms of relationship, including the subjectively sensuous and psychological.

Renaissance, Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic architecture all attempted to reassert different notions of the rational. But Modernity's 'reality' was most explicitly exemplified by twentieth-century modern architecture. Habitation and dwelling, with all their psychological and cultural connotations, were reduced to objectively observable function. This robbed architecture of symbolism and depth and resulted in object buildings alienated from context and alienating to many people. Besides ravaging and dispersing cities and communities, this same mindset fuelled and tolerated the gradual devastation of the natural world.

Yet Modernity also provoked a series of anti- or post-modern reactions. First came the various forms of Romanticism and Idealism, which protested the social and environmental costs of industrialisation and science's narrow reality, and attempted to reassert the subjective and the spiritual. Then came the great masters of Modernism, who reasserted the subjective and irrational with such devices as stream of consciousness. Hence the greatest Modernist architects, like Wright and Le Corbusier, drew on strong Romantic roots and were clearly anti-modern as much as modern, concerned with the subjective and the spiritual, along with Wright's emphasis on place and Corbu's on the primitive: hence the communicative power of their works. But the full complexity and ambitiousness of true Modernism was, and still is, little understood. Eventually, only the merely modern prevailed.

Post-Modernism, the fourth such wave, is the repressed flip side of Modernity. With objective reality increasingly untenable as a notion, the pendulum has swung (too far) to the subjective, with reality now deemed personal or cultural and so arbitrary and relativistic. This is a shallow subjectivity, concerned merely with surface and representation. Grand narratives, universals and hierarchies are rejected, leading to a mix of tolerance and nihilism (every view point equally worthwhile/worthless) and narcissism ('I'm entitled to my view').

In architecture, as elsewhere, the inevitable outcome is pluralism, an array of narrow approaches founded on different, arbitrary realities. Hence the swing to theory (Deconstruction's 'questioning' leading to the silliest notions), history (as if a few quotes could reimmerse us in its flow), art (Minimalism, Conceptualism, Arte Povera, or whatever, as evasions of relevance), spurious scenarios or process (whether using rational methods to irrational ends, or methodologies and research findings played out passively to novel ends). Even hyper or super modern manifestations, such as High-Tech's flaunted technology and Minimalism's abstract forms, also fit this Post-Modern paradigm. All are obsessed with the compelling object, despite the dead end limitations already adumbrated.


To hint at the characteristics of a more relevant architecture needs some comment about the emerging epoch replacing Modernity. Among the synergistic factors bringing it into being are globalisation, electronic communications, the environmental crisis and the quest for sustainability, requiring a more equitable form of globalisation. Most important is the computer, which makes globalisation possible, alerted us to climate change and facilitates its amelioration. The computer changes all aspects of our lives, in tandem with science that can now study complex relationships and dynamic processes. Hence Modernity's dead mechanical universe is being replaced by a living, creative and ever evolving one, and in time this will change our visceral experience of the world and its processes so we want to participate in rather than detachedly exploit these. All of this is precipitating profound shifts in human values as further impetus to change.

Transcend and include

Besides differing from the preceding era, a new epoch encapsulates its essentials in a new reality, a process referred to in some studies of biological and cultural evolution as 'transcend and include'. (Post-Modernism does not transcend and include; it is merely the terminal meltdown of Modernity.) The reality underpinning the emerging epoch is dynamically evolving and multi-layered, ranging from cosmological unfolding through natural and historical evolution to our own personal development. We 'participate' in all these layers and can impact on the lower ones with increasing effectiveness. This is a higher order synthesis of what, for Modernity, was the dualism of objective and subjective.

Architecture of the emergent epoch must 'transcend and include', absorbing lessons from historical and vernacular architecture as well as from modern architecture, much of which was an experimental hotbed of creative invention worth reassessing and carrying forward. It must be sustainable, benign in its impact on the biosphere and bring improved quality (and equality) of life. Yet it must also impart the deep satisfaction of living in harmony with nature and the depths of human nature. Achieving all this requires rethinking everything, but in a manner very different from modern architecture's tabula rasa approach. There is no tabula rasa, neither in the external world nor in our psyches from which architecture springs. Probably even more than the need for shelter, the origins of architecture lie in ritual, the projecting outwards of parts of the psyche to be mapped in space and so experienced with greater intensity. This is how we explored our consciousness, elaborated our cultures and took possession of and ordered the world so as to be at home in it. Entering a new epoch, especially one to which sustainability is central, means finding new forms, and rediscovering older ones, to satisfy our many needs--physical, social and psychological--and seeing the utter irrelevance of the compelling objects of the early twenty-first century.
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Author:Buchanan, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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