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.