TAKING A POSITION

We do indeed live in a dry time for theories of architecture. It’s as though we’ve reached the ‘end of history,’ proclaimed, in 1992, by Francis Fukuyama: “What we may be witnessing, “ he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

An astonishing prospect!

Architects, often the hand-maidens of politics, today seem more eager than ever to play the main game of liberal democracy, which is the pursuit of clients and their commissions. And who are the clients? Developers, exponents of liberal democracy’s main activity: capitalist enterprise. In the age of McLuhan (and Debord) they understand the value of the PR spectacular architecture delivers. Occasionally, governments—who need the same kind of upbeat PR—are clients. The liberal democracies of Dubai (UAE) and Kazakhstan, for example. Or of Bejing, Shanghai, Singapore. That’s where the money is. That’s where the developers and their architects (including many of the best we have) are. Working feverishly at the end of history.

Theory? Actually, it’s excess baggage, even when the architects are flying first class.

Architects are not born theorists, that is true. Most of the world’s best architects never wrote a line about their work, let alone proposed a theory—they didn’t have to. There were busy critics and professors who followed their works with great attention. Innovative architects were lucky to have their Mumfords, Gideons, and Tafuris, and, more rarely, their Foucaults, Deleuzes and Derridas. The theories that the theoreticians spun around their works enabled a wide discourse to develop, elevating architecture to a form of knowledge, lifting it out of the venal chatter of the marketplace. Sadly, those critics and professors have died, leaving a conceptual—-and critical—-void.

Many of the critics and professors of the present day may be silent about the most recent works for a reason.

The “Bilbao Effect” has dampened critical architectural writing. With its advent, interest shifted from the heady quarrels about Deconstructism and Post-Modernism to a concern with the much less intellectually taxing search for novel forms. Novel forms work so well, from the viewpoint of promoting tourism and other spun-off enterprises. As for the Bilbao Guggenheim, there’s not much that can be said about it beyond its great success. It encloses the same old museum programs. If we look behind the curving titanium skin, we find swarms of metal studs holding it up—no innovative construction technology there. It hasn’t inspired a new architecture, or a new discourse, other than that of media success. Herbert Muschamp was right—-the building is the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe. Certainly the architect, like Marilyn, hasn’t said anything of consequence. Sexiness just speaks for itself, no? Exeunt critics and professors.

I think architects themselves need to take up the task of theory writing, and not wait for rescue from the quarters of academe. That may seem at first an absurd expectation, but I can think of two architects very engaged in building, who have done just that: Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl. They don’t write theory, exactly, but they place their work in the context of ideas, not just opportunities. They take the risk of putting off potential clients. Think what you will of them, their buildings and their books, but they have taken positions vis-à-vis other fields of knowledge, and the contemporary world. That’s not only admirable, but imitable. All I can say is, let’s have more from others, the architects who, by building, or intending to build, are shaping the world.

LW


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