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From doing to being: cultural buildings and the city in the Conceptual Age, or why icons are so yesterday.

Cultural buildings are the prestige architectural commissions of our times as cities compete for status and tourist appeal using the same small pool of superstar architects to enhance each city's unique identity. Perversely paradoxical as that may be, it is not the only problem with such architecture. Architects may be aware that constructing cultural buildings serves the transition of the industrial city to the post industrial, and so is spurred by globalisation. Yet few grasp how these fit a larger epochal transition, for which constructing cultural complexes is still more of a symptom than the catalyst it could be. This is because architects see the status and generous budgets of cultural buildings as calling for the design of art objects, typically stand alone (even when connected to or extensions of other buildings) and sculpturally expressive iconic buildings. No harbingers of the future, these are the last fling sunset effects of a passing era. (1)

That constructing cultural facilities is part of the transition to the post-industrial city is inescapably obvious because so many are converted industrial premises, factories, power stations and so on that are now museums and concert halls, or the headquarters of media corporations (producing intangible content rather than physical products) and shopping malls (selling globalisation's imported goodies). Factories, in particular, were vacated because globalisation moved manufacturing to lower cost workforces in the developing world. First World cities thus turned to services (including financial and professional), the 'creative industries' and culture (the fastest growing sector of major First World cities, much of it providing 'content' for burgeoning electronic media), consumption and tourism. With globalisation, First-World cities must compete for investment, skills and tourists by offering a high quality of life, including lavish cultural provision. An affluent, educated populace, for whom material wealth alone is not satisfying, and an aging post-retirement population also increases demand for culture.

Now globalisation is entering a new phase. Following manufacturing's move to the developing world, an exodus is beginning of computer-aided mental work--software development, accounts and administration, call centres, even legal matters and medical diagnosis--all of them linear sequential (left-brained) skills. So in the First World, the industrial and then the first post-industrial age--the information age--are already being followed by what has been called the Conceptual Age. (2) This prioritises quintessentially human skills that the machine or computer cannot replicate, those involving such things as creativity, pattern recognition, meaning making, aesthetic discrimination, emotional responses and empathy, all part of and honed by the what we commonly think of as culture.

The conceptual age is characterised by people engaged in and making their living from many forms of creativity, cultural pursuits and the caring professions, all of which emphasise the right brain and depend on empathy to sense and make connections: social and ecological, intellectual and emotional. So it also heralds the dawning of the emergent epoch that is replacing 400 years of modernity. (3) In a nutshell, the transition from the modern age to that emerging could be characterised as a shift between doing and being, or, more accurately, from an overemphasis on doing to the return of a counterbalancing emphasis on being. From doing to being may sound a simplistic soundbite, but it illuminates much of what is happening in the contemporary city.

The modern age, which began with the Renaissance, was progressively more predicated on the underlying assumption of science: that there is an objective reality, amenable to detached observation, measurement and reductive analysis. This led to a devaluing of the subjective, of personal interpretation, emotion and visceral experience, all realms of flux and continuity. With this came a loosening of the intellectual and experiential bonds of connection and the fragmentation of the world into isolated objects and lonely individuals, and the desensitisation that accepted the ravaging of the natural and manmade worlds. All this is exactly exemplified in modern architecture's reduction of the psychological pregnant notion of dwelling to mere function, and in extreme caricature in the Athens Charter, with its zones of monofunctional buildings free-standing in a void of fluid space and connected only by vehicular roads.

The science of alienation

Science also gave us technology as exploited in industry. Although the industrial city that developed in and waned with the modern age had all the functions associated with cities, it gave unprecedented emphasis to one alone: making, both products and profits. Even the extravagant flaunting and consumption of culture--in mansions, town halls and opera houses--was largely to show that the rich few had 'made it'. It was the economies of scale and pollution associated with industry that initiated the dissipation and fragmentation of the city that were to climax in the Athens Charter. This in turn influenced profoundly the modern planning and architecture that rent the fabric of the city and its communities, leading not only to a loss of the sense of place and belonging but also to alienation, loneliness and social exclusion, and so to violence and fear. In our current 'dual society'--of rich and poor, included and excluded, skilled and unskilled, native citizen and illegal immigrant, and so on--these reach an apotheosis in what has been called the 'capsularisation' of city and society. (4) In the city these 'capsules' include such developments as gated residential and business estates, and the privatised ersatz public realm of the mall, all under CCTV surveillance, pervaded by capsularised electronic entertainment and isolated and adrift from context to be linked by the safety of the mobile capsule of the car. Whatever their pretensions, most buildings considered icons are just jazzed-up capsules, parodies of pathologies of the waning modern epoch, not least the downplaying of the being dimension of meaning.

Countertrends to these developments had already emerged in the 1950s and '60s, particularly in such seminal books as Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities and Richard Sennett's Uses of Disorder. Both were about the experiential dimension of 'being' in the city and the role of street life in self knowledge and psychological and social development. Conservation and contextualism followed, concerned to reinstate the temporal, formal and experiential contiguities of the city, not only as mere nostalgia but as a loosening of the blinkers of modernity. Moves to upgrade the public realm, with pedestrianisation and renovated piazzas, again enhanced contiguities and a sense of place, but were particularly concerned with improving the experiential qualities of urban life, if not quite with its social and psychological roles as described by Jacobs and Sennett. In such developments and others, there is an emerging concern with the subjective, experiential and meaning-seeking dimensions of being that were downplayed by modern planning and its utilitarian architecture, in short, with making cities better places in which to be and become.


Healing dislocation

The modern city of doing is one of discrete and discontinuous functions dispersed in different locations (home, workplace, sports field) requiring different modes of behaviour (parent, employee, athlete or fan) dispersed in a spatial and experiential void. This is the City of the Athens Charter, a machine for avoiding chance encounters, complexities and contradictions that lead to self knowledge and psychological maturation. By contrast, the return to the city of being involves the continuities of the ever present, ever experiencing self, and so the desire to connect again the fabric and public realm of the city, and to give these the qualities that extend and enhance the sense of being.

Cultural institutions are increasingly important as places to enjoy and hone the human faculties prioritised in the conceptual age and the emergent epoch it opens, and so also our capacities for being. The architectural challenge when building for such institutions is to reconnect art and culture with the larger civic life from which they emerged and became somewhat dissociated in the modern age. To design a building as an iconic art object is to continue this dissociation. This is what Renzo Piano grasped when extending the High Museum in Atlanta (p78). Richard Meier's earlier art object building backs away from the Memorial Arts Building that was already on the site and is part of the same institution, with a gateway across the long climbing ramp accentuating its separateness in a dualistic standoff. Piano has integrated all this into a single urban block centred around Atlanta's only real urban space, a space where people already just hang out and be, as well as pass through to enter one of the cultural buildings around or reach the metro station behind it. In time this will probably provoke further upgrading of and additions to the public realm around, the beginning of urbanity in the autopia of Atlanta. Many critics have been disappointed by Piano's deferential extensions, referring to them as unadventurous and unambitious. But ambition takes many forms, social and programmatic, as well as formal or quasi-theoretical. These critics miss how many and large were Piano's ambitions here, and how true his sense of the real challenges facing architects today when a deepening concern for being needs to be added to that for doing.

1 Epochal transition, the nature of the emergent epoch and the source of the term sunset effect are all explained in an earlier essay in the AR, Peter Buchanan, 'Beyond the Cult of the Object', August 2005. Although the essay here stands alone, it is best understood as a companion piece and in reference to the earlier essay, with which there is some inevitable overlap.

2 Pink, Daniel H., A Whole New Mind: how to thrive in the new conceptual age, Cyan Books, London, 2005.

3 This is described in somewhat more detail in the essay referred to in footnote 1.

4 The terms 'dual society' and 'capsularisation' are both taken from De Cauter, Lieven The Capsular Civilisation: On the city in the age of fear, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2004.
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Title Annotation:comment
Author:Buchanan, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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