The past five years or so have witnessed plenty of critiques of the excesses of ‘iconic’ or ‘signature’ architecture. But, almost without exception, these have focused on attacking specific designers and buildings. In the process, they have ironically helped perpetuate the ethos of spectacular individualism that lies at the root of architecture’s troubles. My new book, Architecture’s Evil Empire?,is the first to take a critical overview of the vast but deeply flawed discipline of ‘contemporary global modernism’.
Architecture’s Evil Empire? takes account of this debate, but tries to look beyond it, conveying both the vast cultural landscape and the historical roots of contemporary modernism. A global ‘empire’ of alienated architecture that has taken shape cumulatively and impersonally, rather than through the efforts of even the most flamboyant individual starchitects. This, I believe, is a tragic rather than evil empire, one of collective rather than individual hubris and nemesis - but one whose globallyinterlocking practices and networks are all the more difficult to unravel. The empire sprang from the core values of the original, 20th-century ‘old’ modernism, whose mechanistic, collectivist excesses in the 1950s and 60s laid the ground for a revolution in values in the 90s that would sideline its own idealism, and substitute a ‘new modernism’ attuned to the values of post-1989 neo-capitalism, venerating individual personalities and spectacular gestures over social integrity.
The ‘new theory’
One crucial foundation stone in this process was the emergence of a new generation of ever more complex architectural theory. This ‘new theory’, shaped by post-modern culture in the 1970s and 80s and climaxing in the mid 90s in Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL, set out to banish the aspects of ‘old’ modernism that now seemed alienating in a society of choice and freedom. The authoritarian grand-narratives and certainties of old modernism were under attack. It did this by insisting that everything was relative, subjective or ‘hybrid’. In this aim it succeeded, but in the process it legitimised a world outlook of such comprehensive individualism and relativism that architecture was left fragmented and disorientated.
A modernism stripped of the ideal of social progress, a modernism emptied of the decorum of planned community life, was almost a contradiction in terms - but that was precisely what emerged. The new theory helped subvert architecture into empty spectacle, first in its ideas and then - from the 90s - in its forms.
In particular, the movements of post-structuralism and deconstruction – influential in architecture from the 1990s - reflected the typically post-modern cultural concept that everything was a relative matter of discourses and readings rather than facts or truths. In architecture, the first consequence of this line of thought was to irrevocably banish the social idealism of the original modern movement. Each theorist mounted their own line of attack, pouncing on the carcass of old modernism from all directions. With the abolition of the old certainties, architecture and real life could not communicate directly with each other any longer. All that was left to link them was the poetic metaphor. Here, a significant role was played by an upsurge in architectural interest in the now venerable philosophical theory of phenomenology.
But all these theoretical variants – post-structuralism, deconstruction, phenomenology - were essentially window-dressing. It merely intended to give a respectable and intellectual veneer to a pre-decided architectural ethos of individual choice and competition.
Individualism, metaphor and unmeaning
Two decades later, within today’s architectural production, the effects of this world view are expressed in content-free imagery, as each building and designer shrieks its individuality. In previous phases of architecture the constraints of hierarchy and convention imposed stabilising limits on architects’ originality. Now each building has to be conceived from new, complete with metaphors and formal devices. The result is that the architecture scene starts to look like a jumble of advertisements, with each building shouting for attention but, overall, looking similar. Likewise, the word ‘icon’ has been debased within a decade, from the original meaning of religious preciousness to its new connotation of repetitive coarseness.
Each metaphor can usually be traced back, in a general way, to some earlier philosophical position of post-modernity or avant-garde modernist motif. Patterns and ideas that once sharply differentiated from each other are now opportunistically jumbled together in a homogeneous soup of individual gestures. From the ‘folds’ of Deleuze, for example, we get the metaphor of architecture as drapery, symbolising excess. Designed either billowing or ‘torn’ - as with the wriggling metallic clones of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao - it celebrates the ‘hybridity’ of clothing
and architecture. From the rhetoric of phenomenology comes the riot of metaphors - leaves, boats, crags, geological incisions - evoked by Enric Miralles to justify the anarchic jumble of forms inhis Scottish Parliament building of 1998-2004.
At the opposite extreme are the airy metaphors of buildings as clouds, bubbles or mists - rarely translated into built form - or buildings in the deconstructivist tradition that try to suggest movement and dynamism, often with bizarre results. For example, the Architectural Record in 2009 described Gehry’s extension to the Art Gallery of Ontario, as ‘playing hockey with architecture, turning it into a game of speed and balance’.
Playful designs might seem fun initially, but every individualist ‘gesture’ only adds to the spectacularisation and emptying-out of architecture. Each building is extravagantly ‘special’, yet they all seem the same. Where architecture was like a text, with foreground and background passages in mutual support through the ‘hierarchy of decorum’, today’s culture has fragmented itself into a maze of quotations, and has thrown the rest of the book away.