Archive for the 'Archis' Category

Public relations

Archis editorial
2002 #1

Six months ago, I hazarded an opinion in these pages that architecture was going to turn political again.
This view was illustrated by a picture of the new development around Canary Wharf, Cesar Pelli’s controversial office skyscraper in the London Docklands. The conclusion was that architecture would be inseparably linked in future discussions with the struggle for power. At the time it was speculation, but it turned out to be true - and how. Several months later, architecture found itself on the front line of global conflicts.
Osama Bin Laden chose the World Trade Center as the target for his attack on the West. The leader of the operation was Mohammed Atta, a fanatical student of the history of urban planning from Hamburg, with a specialization in the historic transformations of Aleppo and Cairo. The counter-attack was launched by George W. Bush, who justified his war targets with arguments to do with shelter. Although the victims of his precision bombing were not necessarily themselves terrorists, they had ‘harboured’ the terrorists to some extent.

The operation finally homed in on the fairytale landscape of Tora Bora, a complex of caves which was smoked out using intelligent explosives and, in the deeper recesses, with the aid of suborned local warriors. The architect of the WTC, Minoru Yamasaki, meanwhile proved to be the same as that of the ill-famed Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, whose demolition was designated as the official death-knell of modernism by the world-famous architecture critic Charles Jencks - the same Charles Jencks who, in the last issue of Archis, laid the collapse of the twin towers at the door of the guild of architects, whose professional responsibility was above all to build safe buildings.

But then it transpires that Mr. Yamasaki is a good acquaintance of the Bin Laden family, a fabulously wealthy dynasty of developers and builders. They have worked with Yamasaki repeatedly since the 1950s on accursed modern projects on the Arabian peninsula, thus surrendering the holy land of the Prophet to the worldly ambitions of the Saudi royal family, who have been content with vague suggestions of the Islamic visual tradition. Examples are the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal in Dhahran, which is even depicted on a Saudi banknote, and the King Fahd Royal Reception Pavilion at Jeddah Airport.

And, as though the ironic nerve had not yet been sufficiently gratified, Yamasaki went to town with his use of Islamic design elements in the World Trade Center itself: the dense filigree of the facade, the elegant pointed arches in the base and even the plaza surrounded by the maze of streets of the New York financial district which - according to Ymasaki - recalls the courtyard surrounding the Kaaba at Mecca.

In other words, Osama, the renegade son of the Bin Laden building dynasty, not only attacked the symbol of capitalism but also the symbol of the cultural inflation of Islamic architecture, an inflation to which his own family has been party. It’s a devilish imbroglio beyond the stretch of any literature, fantasy or divine conspiracy theory. Who says architecture has lost its significance? One could almost wish it had less significance.

If this cultural intrigue makes one thing clear, it is how closely the significance of architecture is allied to relations: relations between events, relations between places and relations between emotions. There are buildings, structures, monuments, ensembles. But it is the assimilation of the built into our inner landscape and the kind of links that this gives rise to that is crucial. Architecture is in other words the interplay of physical space, network space and mental space. It is the outcome of cultural affinities. Or the lack of them.

Archis has launched many initiatives during the last year aimed at bringing to life not only the representation of the built environment, but also these relations. Sometimes very literally, by inviting you to disclose your own mental space to us by SMS or fax. Sometimes more suggestively, by offering pages through which you can enter into relations with others. It is our intention to carry on promoting this dynamic between the spatial dimensions within which cultural life unfolds, not least by means of the Archis web site www.archis.org . In a time of destruction, it is not enough simply to report; we must create.

Inside and outside architecture

Archis editorial
1998 #6

Who still talks about the autonomy of architecture? Who still confesses love for that lovely, quiet notion that implies the existence of an inviolable core of architecture, of architecture’s own immanence and tradition, its own momentum? It would seem that concentration on the craft, the discipline and the profession has all but been blown away in the typhoon of spatial upscaling, economic globalization and the countless technical, organizational and bureaucratic complications of the building process.

This you might at least conclude from the words of those who are involved with architecture.
Just consider. When presenting new architecture, designers increasingly refer to all kinds of social process. In criticism, the recontextualization of architecture within a broader cultural framework is the flavour of the month. When formulating the brief, clients and consultants issue a list of determining factors which go far beyond the competence of the old discipline of architecture. The individual building plays only a marginal role nowadays in the social debate on the use of urban and rural space, having made way for a variety of political and economic considerations. Policymakers write architectural memoranda in which architecture is equated with space in general and the world in particular. Many an architect makes a name for himself with sweeping theories on the metropolis, suburbanization, ecology, digitalization and similar technological quantum leaps. Statistics, and hence vast numbers, have become hugely popular. Architecture is capable of absorbing anything, and hence tends to dissolve into everything. There are all the same signs of development taking place in architecture, both as an art form and as a profession. Firstly, the familiar pattern of alternation of styles remains in undiminished force. Every few years a new form of expression comes into vogue. A lively discourse about new design and building techniques is going on, moreover, ranging from research into interesting design and presentation software to a revolution in the use of new materials. Typological research is also undergoing a renaissance. What about all the work in the area of high density living, the intelligent office, the reconstruction of airports as roofed-over urban developments and so on? Even in this supermodern era, there exists a version of the Vitruvian venustas, firmitas and utilitas. And of course there is interest enough in the rare, sublime exception, the top architect who takes care of concinnitas.
Does it make sense to stress the boundary between these approaches, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ architecture, to accentuate the difference between them? Not infrequently the dichotomy boils down to a question of mentality. The animosity that it engenders is then played out by each camp behaving as though the other did not exist, or by each declaring the other heretic. This is a downright shame, for it neutralizes the unprecedented energy available on both sides. Instead of thinking exclusively in terms of inside and outside, a complementary approach could be considered; an approach characterized by designing in teams, by transdisciplinary education and by integral criticism.
Naturally, there will still always be special courses of training for architects and there will always be professional jargon; the specialized magazines are still with us. Sufficient reason exists, in short, for preserving the status of a world apart. From a distance, the outsider still sees a specialist caste of architects, who are moreover often treated with a customary suspicion in the mass media. This is not wholly without justification. Quite a few of the existing institutions are here simply because they were here yesterday and they do not feel obliged to spend all that much energy on formulating more positive reason for existence. But, at the same time, tremendous efforts are being made in the new fields of activity and on the new forms of architecture. Perhaps that whole autonomy business was a needlessly contrived problem of definition. Conversely, further new definitions of architecture should make it possible to continue calling the discipline autonomous till kingdom come. Any takers?