Starchitects Vs Star-Anthropologists
On 18 October 2009 “Le Monde” published L’Architecture Globale (2), a short essay by Marc Augé. The French anthropologist, whose theory of “surmodernité” was often borrowed and used (abused?) by architects and planners over the last decade, presented an extreme way of thinking about “starchitects”, iconic architecture and their commercial-aesthetic drift.
The article made several claims, some of which I agree with while I disagree with others, as I elaborate in the following:
Augé rightly said that «[…] de fait, au moment même où le monde devient une immense ville» (the world is becoming an immense city), which is the truth. However , I cannot agree with his next point: «le pouvoir démiurgique de l’architecte est un signe des temps» (the actual demiurgic rule of architects is a sign of the times). In my observations, I have serious doubts whether the demiurgic rule has actually taken existence. Admittedly, this is my opinion, which I will support below.
This ‘immense city’ – beyond the communications/transport and public space connective tissue – is mostly made of more or less organized and dense sets of basic units: buildings, the privileged objects of our professional care.
Buildings, if we use writing as an analogy, can be distinguished in three large groups: poetry, prose, and ungrammatical stammering.
Poetry is the prerogative of poets. And poets, unfortunately, are gold dust: they speak to all our senses when we admire their work; as we admire their work, they are immediately recognizable, they have a very personal language and expressivity, and they are good at cruising light years ahead, opening new and unexpected points of view. To poets, we are even able to forgive some license, or nonchalance; it really doesn’t matter if it’s raining in the Sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag, or in the Gehry’s MIT building. Poetry doesn’t care about meteorological extremes; poets, the dreamers and visionaries often forget their umbrellas…
Prose may be represented with all medium-to-high quality production, unnecessarily aulic, which oftentimes clearly makes sense, owns a historical and technical plausibility and has specific correspondence between form, function and technologic performance.
Then, there’s the resting huge mass of ‘current buildings’, delineating and insinuating big cities, capillary-pervading suburbs and towns that once were open land. There is also ground noise, to which we are used to by now; consisting of featureless stuff, or worse, partially unbearable, babbling, squeaky junk, which in bulk embodies more than 95% of the world’s building production.
My oversimplification of ‘poetry-prose-ill formed stammerings’, which may be perceived as a bit Manichean (indeed, a building – or, even one of its parts – can have different degrees of membership to more than one of those sets, but this is not the time to deepen fuzzy logic) leads to further also quite personal considerations on Augé’s text. I will intentionally omit Auge’s remarks on “Starchitects” (3), commonplaces and other amenities about social housing and energy-saving, mentioned on the second part of the text, which deserves a separate discussion.
1) Augé seems to not understand that the global-scale pervasive city in question, is seldom ever designed and constructed by architects of the so-called ‘star system’, by the poets of architectural language, or by internationally recognized urban planners. The majority of buildings that outline Western cities and developing countries’ skylines is virtually anonymous.
2) Observation 1, when taken as a premise, leads to a further reflection: Augé, perhaps for the broad consensus which has been among the same architects, is poisoning himself with our own evil. That is, to believe that today architects are able to dramatically affect reality. In the real world, however, architects – alas, or perhaps good for us – occupy a marginal role, theoretically impressive but in fact almost negligible, given the “brute force” in the amount of “white noise” that surrounds us.3) In my opinion, there’s an impressive confusion between the “media coverage” enjoyed by many architects (poets, or prose writers as well) and actual popularity with the “general public” of the uninitiated people. «Les architectes les plus en vue sont célébrés dans le monde entier […]» (the best-known architects are celebrated throughout the world): ‘celebrated’, yes, but by whom? Truly by the “people”? Certainly, we are not making special efforts to be a ‘pop’ category….
4) So: I see absolutely no problem with the “excess of architecture”, I actually wish there was an excess. I see instead a problem with excessive self-referential rhetoric in architecture; a problem coming not only from the same architects, which is understandable, but often by architectural writers, both men and women of culture, some opinion-makers, some official and unofficial critics. One does not desire to generalize, but it is often the case. And now, anthropologists as well.
Maybe we talk too much about architecture among ourselves, but actual effects of architecture on the real world may be called, as well as poorly analyzed, negligible. I would say, rightly so.
5) Another detail, in my opinion, is inaccurate: a building is a building, and in general – except for some fortunate exception – will fail to rise to factual synecdoche (positive or negative) of the city, even if made by a ‘celebrated starchitect’. The city is another thing. The icon can represent text, but it can’t replace it: Gehry has never dreamed of meeting all the criticality of Bilbao. Still, today this city is not exempt from dark sides (yes, no doubt improved, but not only because of the Guggenheim). Gehry in Bilbao has represented himself, many of us are traveling through this beautiful city primarily to see the Gehry performance. Let’s face it, once and for all.
6) Where I want to get is: I think we are seeing more and more often a deformation of reality. Architects, in my opinion, are architects. They can do good or evil, can be trivial or exceptional, but certainly should not take charge of everything in the world that doesn’t work.
In fact, the responsibility of a profound rethinking of the ungrammatical / inefficient /uncoordinated 95% of our cities – true, more and more interconnected and linked together – and our environment, should more appropriately be left to the politicians and financial stakeholders, who move (or move not) resources and await (or ignore) feedback, rather than the architects, who – at least for now and for all I know – don’t have real voice in the matter unless they are delegated responsibility from the former.
Architects – when called upon to do so – give form to political decisions and economic processes. Surely, politics, economics and architecture must communicate, correspond and inspire one other to achieve successfully shared sustainable projects. But real responsibility for practical decisions should be placed on the shoulders of those who are delegated by the people, and of the resource investors, who at the end of the day are our counterparts. And they often make and will continue to make decisions in our absence.
Otherwise we reduce ourselves to accomplices of this situation, which leads to the poor portrayal of the architect in terms of the expression of power relations, which in this case is not exactly autonomous, and thus very far from being a demiurge: a sort of conscious puppet in the hands of the entrepreneur and politician on duty. More than ‘embodying the course of history’, it seems to me that such a professional, although ‘acclaimed’ and celebrated, is merely representing a story, his ownstory, which sometimes is interesting, but other times banal or quite squalid. That’s all. And, without significant impact to the course of things.
As long as we continue, – and everyone continues – to represent ourselves as the “coachman-fly” of the Universe, and as long as it is okay for us, I don’t think we face a long road ahead, unless we want to strive to congratulate and celebrate ourselves in our biennial, exhibitions and conferences.
While we as architects remain – especially in Italy – at the margin of the building market, the world is out there and continues to move in its own way. A way that has always little to do with poetry, which is certainly not the fault of Rem Koolhaas, or Frank Gehry, or Winy Maas, who do what they can.
Luca Silenzi, nov 2009
My special gratitude to Ersela Kripa (Agency, NY), for the revision of my rough English.——————————-
(1) This brief essay was published originally in Italian on the Spacelab firm blog (nov, 19 2009), and later reported on “Abitare.it” (29, nov 2009): <http://spacelab.myblog.it/archive/2009/11/17/marc-auge-l-architecture-globale-e-il-nonsense-dello-star-sy.html>
(2) “Le Monde” Oct, 18 2009 <http://www.lemonde.fr/cgi-bin/ACHATS/ARCHIVES/archives.cgi?ID=4a35e46cbbecf77070ab35391a2bad3784fb37a68c67fb4b>
(3) As counterpart, this wonderful interview to F. O. Gehry about being a so called ‘Starchitect’, appeared on “The Independent” in dec 17, 2009 (one month after publication of this article in Italy): <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/architecture/frank-gehry-dont-call-me-a-starchitect-1842870.html>