A decade that was not: in architecture too

Within a context of mass mediation, I think it is fair to say that many of the most enduring architectural images from the past ten years were violent, destructive, and profoundly somber. “Our” architectural, critical media concentrated as much on these sites as the so-called “star architecture” that many believe marked a vapid decade of architectural production. What follows is not a cheery post, by any means, and I refrain from using images, but it’s short, and ends with a thought that I hope… is hopeful.

The history of architecture in the “aughties” begins with the destruction of the World Trade Center. It does not begin with a building by a star architect, his/her museum, or pavilion. The anger of architecture critics at star architecture is like a late-19th century liberal who is angry at a factory building, without understanding the deeper tragedy that the factory illustrates. The tragedy of the aughties was that “tragedy” (the Benjaminian rubble heap of history) kept rising and architects simply did not have anything substantial to say [about a disciplinary relationship to tragedy].

If our architectural reflection on 9/11 was to be found in a tower, designed by a “deconstructivist” architect that was 1776 feet tall (did that deconstruct anything? did it make anyone cry, emote, or think about anything that happened on that site?), the destruction of New Orleans also displayed the current representational and techno-cratic limits of our discipline: A city’s core neighborhoods were essentially lost, and many architects responded with either a renewed and folksy “architecture for the poor” (a la Mockbee) or a new technification of architecture as an ecological and infrastructural system.

A 2005, “studio 360” online podcast debate over the future of New Orleans (avant-garde (Reed Kroloff) versus New Urbanist (Andres Duany)) appeared to miss the point. Architects and urbanists desperate to do something let the crisis of destruction come to the edge of architecture as it stood pre-crisis. Crisis – a state that might rework our disciplinary agenda did not enter the discipline in any enduring way. In the end, an artist, Paul Chan, staged one of the most poweful spatial events: He realized that by adding something disturbing on top of a place disturbed, he could offer some type of solace: Chan restaged Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in the city’s most battered ward; in the end Duany was on to something with “re-creation,” but for Duany “recreation” was measured in siding and walking distances. In many ways that earlier debate about the future were two sides of the same coin.

And we could go on about Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq (the lost mosques); and many did, sometimes in powerful ways, but mainly with a neo-Harveyesque or Davis-esque orthodox Marxist distance. It was as if all the smart and “radical” architects [writers, in particular] of the last decade were divided into the ecstatic and the angry! some subtlety of emotions was lost between those states of mind.

But firmly within our discipline, another destruction (the burning of the CCTV hotel) was to mark a new moment in architecture – “the end of starchitecture.” But as a brilliant review of twitter (in, of all places, the most recent issue of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians) makes clear, the endless twittering about the burning CCTV only affirmed the media techniques of starchitecture, the circulating of famous names and images. The constant twittering about Koolhaas’ end only increased his fame. It was the end of nothing.

Finally, we have the tragedy in Haiti. Already, architects “for humanity” (People: if you’re an architect, I really and truly hope you are (de facto) for humanity!) have explained the proper architectural response. Once again technocracy and simple representational ideas dominate the brief and recent discussion.

In the face of the literal and analogical rubble heap of the aughties, It is finally time to call out the “monument builders” of crisis. Lurking somewhere in our discipline are those that can make us think about these spaces and events without resorting to simple technological and representational schemes. A truly crisis-oriented architecture cannot be measured in feet: whether it’s “1776” feet tall; the walking distance to the local grocery store; the number “housed”; or even the length of barriers or territories settled.

A truly crisis-oriented architecture produces a complex array of thoughts and, if it can be measure at all, it’s in the number of tears for the lost ([and that which was lost] in all its meanings).

It’s about a historical, not a mathematical, effort.


  1. Roy Wroth

    London and Lisbon rebuilt.

    Detroit did not. Or hasn’t yet.

    The monument builders of crisis will be strangely humble people.
    They will work within the constraints of whomever is willing to finance the recovery. That patron of the arts may be sophisticated or ham-fisted, but he or she will be sober and calculated, and those traits will find expression in some form of classicism. The city will be closed again — a constrained symbolic space with limited and choreographed roles for expressions of dissonance. If London and Lisbon are too old of examples, look at Berlin.

    Liberal architects are caught in a contradiction about cities that we avoid thinking about. We valorize the anarchic vitality of the late-capitalist urban environment, the open city, while decrying the social and ecological abuses that essentially fund the enterprise. And we have, as you point out, no coherent response to the periodic return to the closed city that any crisis brings.

    Before we ask architecture to address the disquiet and the uncanny, it must make a more existential response to the crisis, and that response will inevitably be measured. Reconstructions are utopias, and commitments to the righting of past wrongs will inevitably be represented in feet and inches — the distances to the park and corner store, the thickness of insulation, and the height of foundations.

    The closed city, with its measures of equality guaranteed by a central authority, is actually the natural habitat of the weird. It is the main text that lets marginalia stay marginal, the official map that puts the frisson back into transgressive detours. In the closed city, there will be time and room for architects to participate in the cultural processing of loss and grief.

    It is risky to make historical assessments of the recent past, and riskier to make projections. I believe that we are entering an era of protectionist bourgeois caution, of ecological pieties fueled by ‘clean’ coal and defended with 20th-century armaments. And it will be Obama, not Bush, who is remembered for inaugurating it.

    The monument builders of crisis won’t build many monuments. There is a place for thoughtful and progressive architects in building the closed city, and it may be a mostly humble one. You may prefer to protest and nurse a nostalgia for the open city, but there is a great risk of simply being left out of the process. The risk is that the monument building will be left to the Alexander Popes of our generation, while most of our communities continue to be abandoned to the rust-belt-strip-mall syndrome.

    • Roy Wroth

      >> Actually the Pope I had in mind is John Russell Pope, the early 20th cent. architect of much of the National Mall.<<

  2. dlgissen

    Roy (!):

    Hi! And thanks for visiting.

    I realize that my sing-songy post may have obscured a few of my main points; a quick rehash:

    Urban destruction was a marked aspect of the last decade, and the inability of architects to respond to that destruction with sophisticated representational tools (both buildings and writings) was also a marked aspect of the decade.

    This extends from the most extreme sites to the most simple reflections on “minor” destructions such as the burning of the CCTV.

    In calling for monument builders of crisis, I’m not looking for a new McMillan plan (a la DC). I hate the McMillan plan.

    I’m looking for an architect to articulate the double form of loss: the losses wrought by actual physical destruction, and the self-acknowledgment of the loss within architecture of any way to represent that loss within our current hyper-technified discipline.

    Where are the new young Rossi’s (1964-71 period) in the midst of these urban rebuilds? Someone who houses, but admits that further instantiating the conditions of housing is an ultimately ridiculous position for the humanitarian architect.

    I don’t know if this results in a more closed or open city; I’m not entirely sure what you mean by those terms – but am curious, of course.

    And, of course, I’m definitely not looking for a Lisbon or London rebuild in which the “great cities” are quickly rebuilt on the wealth from new colonial exploits (17th and 18th century English and Portuguese interests in West Africa, Brazil, Caribbean, etc.)!

    • Roy Wroth

      The obscurity is all mine. I think we are calling for the same response – I suppose I just framed it as more of a challenge, a near-future scenario where the humorless have once again recaptured the city-building apparatus. Your restatement is succinct, and early Rossi is a beautiful precedent.

      Reflecting on the post, it seems that there are some submerged issues that drew me in. You write quite directly about literal losses, of buildings, but also of losses in the culture of architecture, in our ability to respond. I’m interested in our ability to respond, and I’m actually more interested in our response to the smaller crises, the indignities that time and global capitalism inflict on the everyday urbanism of American cities.

      My use of open and closed doesn’t rise to the level of terminology. I’m just getting at the reality of the city-building process — that it is guided by a collective culture that isn’t governed by architects. Cities through history have mostly been ‘closed’ — structured by a finite, usually well-intended, but inevitably patriarchal paradigm — but then the ‘open’ condition has always been present in that its just very hard to manage a regime of meaning in something as complex as a city. Hypercapitalism allowed designers to indulge in a fantasy that the open city could be sustained as the dominant paradigm. The tragedy of the past few decades is just how superficial the impact of star architecture has been on the real dynamics of city building, and on the still cloyingly narrow representational schemas within popular culture regarding cities and buildings.

      A call for better architects should be accompanied by a call to support city-building cultures. As designers we must acknowledge up front that we aren’t in the driver’s seat, that clients, bureaucrats and journalists are shaping the agenda and aspirations of the process. We all work inside this culture, star architects and Walmart’s in-house designers alike. I say this as a realist, not a pessimist. It’s as much to steer young architects away from the stardom track as it is to steer them toward the very real opportunities for meaningful work hidden in the increasingly bland orthodoxies of ‘new urbanism’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘cultural diversity’ that make up our current city-building paradigm.

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