Jun 7, 2010
Notes on N.O.: On representational architecture, political design, the importance of ideas, social and economic processes, and aesthetic judgment
Several years ago I wrote a slightly unfair article making fun of a vacation house for a Serbian expatriate who emigrated to Ohio that was designed to be built in suburban Belgrade. (Unfair in the sense that he is a young and unrecognized architect, but he submitted it for publication, it landed on my desk, and I thought it was funny.) Now I'm compounding the error by using it as a primary example of the difference between architecture that could conceivably have a real effect in the world and architecture that is emptily representational but has no practical consequences. The house was designed by a one-time student of Peter Eisenman and was intended as a symbolic critique of the NATO bombing campaign of Serbia that helped stop Albanians from being forced out of Kosovo. I bring it up because it reminded me recently of the claim that Jean Nouvel's condo in Chelsea has some representational relationship with an adjacent women's prison that gives it a political significance. This is obviously the kind of nonsense architects spoon feed to critics all the time, and it's part of the responsibility of critics to ridicule them for it, not valorize them. We'll come back to this though.
I've been harping on this a lot lately, but another favorite example of inconsequential political design is the work of Teddy Cruz. Since he continues to appear as a lecturer with a disturbing regularity at any meeting having any vague claim to be about serious issues in architecture and urbanism--one would think that he was the only Latin American architect in the country or the only one talking about immigration issues, and he's so busy lecturing that he usually has to apologetically leave panels early before taking questions to go to his next lecture--I'll take the liberty of criticizing him again in this context. Above is a rendering of a shantytown or series of dwellings designed by Cruz to be built of recycled materials from San Diego exported over the border to Tijuana to build what looks like a flimsy town at the bottom of a future mud-slide. It's a celebration of the ad hoc manner in which people of little means construct their own dwellings and then get crushed by them whenever there's an earthquake, flood, or other natural disaster. (Then Architecture for Humanity can hold a huge competition and architecture schools can go down there and do design studios and build a chicken coop or a soccer field.)
Cruz has been showing this image for probably a decade as part of his broad gloss of the north-south dimension of immigration and the "neo-liberal" economic system that he continually confuses with an imperial system that was destroyed about a half-century ago by two world wars and successive national liberation movements. (What about South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, India, China, South Korea, etc. etc.?) The imperialist critique that he is using is at least a half-century out of date, and there are very real reasons why political scientists don't use these terms any more. They don't work. They don't apply in any useful way to the present organization of the economic and political system. They are not useful for providing more power to disempowered populations. They are not useful for building houses. They are not useful for planning. They don't help explain why the United States has the most open immigration policies of any country in the world and conceives of itself as a nation of immigrants. They have no application except for the purposes of his career lecturing to very politically naive architects with good intentions who have never studied social or political science. This is probably why Cruz has not produced any architecture or changed any zoning regulations or had any useful effect on the lives of the people for whom he claims to work and to speak. He was also written about very uncritically by Ouroussoff--glorified really--relatively early in his Times reign, but that's worthy of its own separate investigation.
Incidentally, Cruz also sees his work as a reaction against the symbolic and representational formal architecture of the previous generation. The problem is that his explicitly political and economic critique of architectural practice, apart from being based on an outdated understanding of contemporary political and economic structures, does not hold itself to a pragmatic standard of trying to achieve real political and economic effects in the world. His critique is so ideological, in fact, that it could not even conceivably have any real consequences. He even admitted in an interview a few years ago, in which he was shocked and angry to be asked implicitly critical questions, that he was against micro-credit regardless of its positive effects and concerned that shantytowns could be "gentrified" if the residents are given title over property! If poor people are granted the ability to buy and sell property and improve their conditions through their own initiative, this is "neo-liberalism."
A few years ago, architect and Columbia professor Michael Bell completed this lovely house in upstate New York, intended as a vacation home for a gay couple, one of them a screenwriter and the other a photo editor and writer. Bell is the kind of architect who cares deeply about ideas and devotes an extraordinary amount of time to coaching and encouraging his students. He committed a huge amount of time and energy to thinking about this house. As a result, it is invested with a lot of ideas, some of which were possible to be realized in it--experiences of visual perception and space that orient the self in relation to other people in the house and produce a very special sense of the natural world--and others that are not really possible--a transformation of consciousness that would extend a political critique of the contemporary social order beyond its practical use as a weekend and summer home for bourgeois intellectuals. That's just to say that I do believe that ideas have consequences and that the unique experiences produced by architectural spaces have the capacity to make us think differently and exist in the world differently, but one has to be very careful about attributing a larger significance to these effects beyond the context in which they are situated.
This addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City by Steven Holl Architects is an extraordinarily beautiful (and expensive, at $550 million) project that takes a similar set of ideas, especially in regard to spatial experience and perception, and applies them to public space (admission is free), so that these effects could have some broader social consequence. As a project partly intended to boost the civic pride, tourism, and international profile of a city still recovering from the decline brought on by suburbanization, I also think it's a kind of work that, when successful, deserves a certain amount of credit for operating in a useful way in relation to its social and economic context.
And finally, I just want to put in a word about Dubai, that much-ridiculed poster-child for the supposed excesses of the Oughts. Here, again, is an architecture that aspires to a larger social and political significance, the building of a modern city-state in a region that has remained crucially at odds with the West and dependent on a single natural resource for its economic relationship with the world. The notion is to build a city that engaged the world and produced a non-petroleum-dependent economy through design, architecture, urban planning, infrastructure, ports, international trade, tourism, new technology, financial markets, and liberal social policies. I don't hesitate to continue to support that project and hope for its recovery from the financial crisis. One could easily ignore the context in which this city is being built and fulminate against "excesses" and conspicuous consumption and "evil paradises," but that would be simply a refusal to try to come to terms with the contemporary world, and not hugely informative or a great service to criticism.
This is an image of a middle-class housing development in Dubai that I found out about by doing the normal research you do as a reporter investigating other aspects of a story that are not being covered. Many many of the master-planned developments are of this non-spectacular nature, built for people working in the technology and financial sectors, which to a large extent has been locating regional headquarters there. This, along with major shipping ports and airports that serve as hubs for the region, is the foundation of the Dubai economy and the basis for the emergence of its tourism sector. This has a slightly tangential relationship to the work we'll be talking about in New York, but it has to do with thinking about the social and economic processes and the extent to which aesthetic judgments bear a relationship with the framework through which their objects are understood to be produced.
Now to the Pentecostalist Criticism of Ouroussoff, a wild celebration of his direct relationship with a few architects possessing a mysterious and extraordinary talent, combined with an equally wild fire-and-brimstone condemnation of the social and economic processes by which their work has been produced in the contemporary world. The bewildering, mesmerizing, delirious, glittering revelations produced by these works and processes may yet have our dear critic speaking in tongues. - STEPHEN ZACKS