Sunday, March 23, 2014

22/3/2014: WLASze: Architecture v Art

It has been now some time that I have posted last my once regular WLASze: Weekend Links on Arts, Sciences and zero economics.

The break was partially self-imposed and partially a necessary response to constraints of time. The latter is easily understood, The former might not be. I found myself too bound by a formulaic search for 'new' items to cover. Something that game me pleasure of looking through pages and pages of arts and sciences related posts, yet drive me into less contemplation of works I covered and more into covering… not a good place to be.

So as I am re-thinking this post format, and yet want to return with its substance of bringing forward interesting notes on arts and sciences, here is a shorter version of the post. Enjoy.

Dezeen has a delightfully challenging post on director of Zaha Hadid Architects Patrik Schumacher's challenge to the political correctness in architecture and to the definition of architecture as art:

Schumacher is curating this years Biennale and his argument is that "Architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content, " and that as such it is not "a l’art pour l’art" discipline.

Provocative? Yes. On both points. But is it true? Is form a near-utilitarian and objective aspect of aesthetic or is it also an artistic expression? Or more strongly put - is it more of an artistic expression than a utilitarian aspect?

Schumacher opines: "We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics."

Sorry, but is that not the essence of constructivism as well as, stripping out subjectivity as an expression (not the driver), also Kandinsky's theory of abstraction?

And a good expression of this interaction between spatial order, resonance and communication (on so many levels that some might imply a pun) would be constructivist Moscow's Shukhov Radio Tower.

The tower is, incidentally, in the news nowadays because of international efforts, petitioning President Putin to save it from demolition:

Here is the actual letter:

There is way more to this tower than just 'form' or connection with a spatial order alone. Instead, there is subjectivity that transcends logic. Point and line in a multinational plane.

In contrast pure heightening of the sense of being linked to form - in a very rich and beautiful way that is non-artistic is in these two examples, both from Switzerland:




So is architecture 'art'? To my amateureeing mind - yes. Is it l’art pour l’art? No. But framed in the context of space it transforms... may be it is. Afterall, intrinsic value does not have to conflict with extrinsic valuation...


Brian O' Hanlon said...


The big thing to realize, is that since world war two, what we have witnessed in many of the first world economies, is a lot of re-building and roll out of a 'social program'. It took on different guises in different societies. But essentially what we all witnessed was the implementation of a welfare society, of one kind or another, in many different countries.

Who knows what gave the impetus for this great effort following world war two, in so many countries. Maybe it was the fact, that after the 19th century and its rapid expansion of industrialism and capitalism from 1860's to 1945 (in north America), where capitalism there ended up engaging for control over politics as well as economics, it all culminated in two world wars.

What we do know, is that in the later half of the 20th century we witnessed the massive roll out of national scale social programs, to deliver healthcare, power, transportation, air travel, housing, education, finance and public amenities of all kinds, that no previous generation had ever benefited from to the same degree.

Much of the expansion of cities throughout eastern, western Europe and beyond from the 1940's onward, saw the roll out of these crucial services at community levels, hand in hand as populations increased and infrastructure had to be provided to serve that increase.

What we are seeing though in the 21st century, is a radically different kind of roll out of the same social program, using materials and infrastructure of a different kind. During the 20th century, we required all of the architects, engineers and planners to interpret the vast concept inherit in the 'welfare society', in terms of buildings and structures and things that were physical.

That doesn't appear to be the case any longer. Sure, architecture in the 21st century still aims to serve the community, serve its users. But bureaucracies don't rely in the same way, on physical infrastructure as they did in the past. Bureaucracies don't rely on the necessity of having large groups of people, housed in facilities, where they 'process' the data generated by the massive social programs of the 20th century.

All of elements of the social program in the 21st century do not have to be interpreted wholly in terms of physical things, that have to be built any longer. A lot of the Russian Constructivist architecture of the early 20th century was visionary, in that a lot of examples of that sort of vision, came into reality by the middle part of the century. Every society and nation throughout western Europe adopted some version of the socialist program, the socialist architecture and the social bureaucracy.

You can even see it, in one of the first modern buildings ever seen in Europe, which is Busarus station and office block near the old customs houses in Dublin. And in typical fashion, like in those great Russian Constructivits architectural competitions and visualisations, we see this location of the modern and the radical, beside the ancient and the elegant. What was part of the early 20th century architecture and planning, was that strong contrast of elements. The 'new' stood out so strongly, because we still had some much that was traditional around it.

Brian O' Hanlon said...

We can only guess nowadays, as to the appeal of that image and that symbolism, as it must have looked to society in Europe and Russian of the early and mid 20th century. To the society of those times, is must have appeared like 'information technology' had arrived. It must have been as shocking and as exhilarating as seeing a search engine for the first time, as seeing this new glass building blocks, full of researchers and data analysts housed inside of those modern looking, sharp edged prisms inserted into the old urban fabric.

We must realize that. For a stage during the mid to late twentieth century, the role of the architect and urban planners, was very much one of the 'nation state', and espousing the virility and dynamism of the state-run bureaucracy, and its ability to roll out the vast new social programs in post war Europe.

The other thing that I will add to the above, is that this spirit of optimism and social re-engineering, that was present in Britain, at the 'architectural association', which had very strong ties to the labour government of the mid 20th century, . . . was sort of international. The journals of the architecture profession in Britain, would regularly feature the latest and greatest new hospital or bureaucracy headquarters built in France, or in Italy, or Scandanavia. And visa versa, the architects from those European countries would keep a close eye on what was happening in Britain, that represented the re-building of society and its programs in the later half of the 20th century.

It was a time of great optimism and re-building of society, as much as the re-building of physical things. One can debate about whether this represented art, or it didn't represent art. But what we can be sure about, was that the 'message' that the architecture of the latter half of the twentieth century in Europe did represent, was a very coherent and optimistic statement about society, and the benefits of a new welfare state.

Since that time, and those generations of architects in Europe, what we witness today in the early 21st century, is far less coherence in message and in the optimism of one profession, that as architecture. The profession of urban planning and architecture, is not bound together across countries, and across borders any longer, in the way that it was back then.

Back in the mid 20th century, the architect in Italy, looking at one of the latest new innovation works of architecture in Great Britain, would have been just as interested in the idea of a national healthcare infrastructure, as they would have been, interested in the architecture itself.

In the early 21st century, when we look at architecture, we attribute a way too much to the architecture itself, and the 'form', and not nearly enough to the society or community, which the architecture is in some way elected to serve. And as I mentioned also, so much of the new 'architecture' of the 21st century that serves the community, can be found in the virtual world, the networks and the inter-network. The roll out of the social program, isn't 'bound' to physical things in the same way as it was fifty and sixty years ago.

But the biggest problem of interpretation, is that we cannot look at architecture now, with the same eyes as the generations fifty or sixty years ago, used to look at it, and what it meant to them.

Brian O' Hanlon said...

Re-reading the original blog entry above, and studying the comments that I tried to author above, one can notice in the short quote by Patrik Schumacher, is the same trap that most of the architectural profession is struggling with nowadays - that of 'displacement'.

There is no way that in the early 21st century, the architect, engineer or spatial planner can even hope to occupy the same 'role' as they did, during those decades of post world war two, and post great depression, re-building and urbanisation.

What typically happens then, is that architects have to fall into some kind of nostalgic sense. They can expend a lot of energy talking about what used to be, and what their role used to be.

The other thing worth noticing, is the creation of so much architecture nowadays set into the 'natural' landscape. It seems to express the idea that human beings in Europe are still connected in some way to a kind of bronze age past, a civilisation and order that may have existed before the 1950s social experiment in Europe.

Notice in the images of the two homes in the landscape, it sort of air-brushes out, the fact that the soccer mom living in those homes, lives commuting distance away from world class affordable healthcare, and gets broadband access over fibre optic cables, and her children all benefit from 'fourth level education' etc. And spend their summers traveling on Euro rail passes, instead of harvesting timber for the fire and roasting game over their camp fire.

It is funny, that having worked so diligently to achieve somehow the benefits of a socially aware democracy, that the trendy architecture of the 21st century, tries to imply that men and women still exist as noble, rugged, individualists in a remote landscape.

If there is any 'art' existent in architecture, it is probably this, in how it tries to play tricks with perception - similar to how good television advertising does.

The architectural profession is always playing this trick. They can build 1,000 affordable homes in well designed blocks in the urban centre. But the thing that gets the photograph and the image in the magazine, is the single housing unit stuck up on a mountain side.

Brian O' Hanlon said...

I was looking again at this comment of Patrik Schumacher's, "Architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content."

Like I said, architecture as a profession has got very wrapped up in this idea of it being 'in charge' of something since world war two. Because cities rapidly expanded after that time, and the medieval cores of cities got lost in an endless ocean of late 20th century urbanism, designed and built by engineers and architects. So architecture as a profession itself got very warped by that, because it got tasked with this very physical interpretation in built form of the late 20th century welfare state bureaucracy and infrastructure roll out.

This led to the notion that architects were more than professionals, and were actually 'in charge' of something.

It is a little like in the accountancy profession, where an individual gets into handling very large funds all of a sudden, the temptation might be to cease thinking of oneself as a mere professional, and start to think of oneself as being in charge of something quite large.

The point that I want to make about architecture, is it is important the way that we construct verbal statements. For example, witness the current expansion of suburban malls and consumer oriented culture. The idea that people living in the 21st century suburb visit the mall, and this mall culture sort of becomes part of their lives.

But how do we make a 'verbal statement' about this, as seen through a lens of architecture? We tend to talk a lot about the spread of shopping centre and mall building developments. We talk about the death of main streets. We talk about the building of big boxes on the periphery and the 'spread' of that building type. But what isn't spreading at all is construction. What is spreading is a culture, and its not just within national boundaries. It goes across national borders, and spreads first from airports, the consumer mall experience in airports spreads around the globe. It then spreads out of the airports and down the motor highways.

All that the architect and the construction developer is trying to do, is 'keep up' with the spread of this culture. It is culture that builds shopping malls, and not architects.

Architects used to be very important, as they were involved in the spread of the welfare state idea after the second world war. And this notion of being 'in charge' got embedded into the profession of architecture. It is like saying that architects were 'in charge' of pyramid building in ancient Egypt, when we know it wasn't the pyramid as a building type that was spreading. It was something else. It was the spread of early civilisation that built the pyramids, and not architects or engineers.

Architects and engineers have always been 'left behind' by culture, not the other way around, . . as if architects or engineers were in charge of it.

It operates in reverse too, where urban decay happens.

Witness in the old 'rust belt' of the American mid west, where heavy industry leaves those regions and moves to Asia. What we see is the spread of the rust belt and hollowing out of many north American urban settlements. So again, as this problem or 'culture' of urban decay spreads (the opposite to a construction 'roll out', an urban deterioration), architects and engineers have to play 'catch up' and figure out ways to utilize or re-invigorate this urban environments, or at least try to mitigate the damage somehow (falling taxes, unsafe neighbourhoods, falling down structures).

Brian O' Hanlon said...

What is changing first is the culture, and the 'physical' infrastructure is strained by this, because it can't be as flexible as culture. Whether it is shopping malls or urban decay, there is always a losing race played by architecture to catch up with the spread of something. The notion of being 'in charge', in northern Europe of that welfare state physical infrastructure roll out, is still embedded in the architecture profession. But buildings and cities have a longer life span than just those fifty years, following world war two. And the phenomenon of the architect of being 'in charge' of design of social policy and roll out, is just as recent as the late 20th century, and was a unique confluence of events.

Russian constructivist architects built their first buildings in times where manual labour, and logs of timber arriving on site to be sawn manually into planks, was still the norm. The Russian architects would have understood themselves still in the early 20th century I think, as being merely professionals, rather than being 'in charge' of anything. They would have understood that their role as professionals was going to be compromised by this sudden demand for a welfare state building program.

I think it is still important and useful, to separate out these two things, even in 2014.

There is the architect who is merely a professional. A professional as they always were going back through centuries and millennia (when construction techniques were based upon a lot of human labour and not much consideration for conditions of workers etc). And this more recent phenomenon of the architect's role, where it became convoluted, where architects mingled and got their wires all crossed, with late 20th century socialist policy and decision makers, who were really 'in charge'. The classic example of all, as I stated, being the 'Architectural Association' in London were mid 20th century Labour party politics and architects in Britain, practically became 'one in the same'.

So the architects who re-built Britain after the war, literally were like politicians themselves, and cared as passionately about the social services that they helped roll out, as the physical things that were designed in some fashion, to house those services. Bear in mind that Fascism in Europe had this close tie between architecture, engineering and politics too. And that in Great Britain and many other European countries after the war, the other political side, had to prove that their philosophy worked, and roll it out into these massive scale national infrastructure building programs.

And this is where this idea, still lodged in the architectural profession of being 'in charge' (even though, times have changed), comes from and persists on today. Britain, France, Spain, Italy all had Fascist parties during the 1930s. No doubt, Britain would have had its Fascist architects, if things had gone differently.

Brian O' Hanlon said...

Sometimes the 'comment trail' in this articles such as Dezeen, are a lot more entertaining than the articles themselves. It is a while now, since I rubbed shoulders a lot with young, angry architectural professionals. But I see that they still haven't lost their special abilities for putting one another down.

Vitruvius, offers a comment at Dezeen, "Architects spend 75% of their time on computers. You picked the wrong profession".

TFO replies, "If you're spending 75% of your time on a computer, you're not an architect - you're an intern".