21st century architecture: for the future or of the present?

Alastair Donald

key 193 01 14676 300x206 21st century architecture: for the future or of the present?How should architects and urbanists respond to times dominated by economic crisis and social uncertainties?  Two current exhibitions in London provide much food for thought.  At the Royal Academy of Arts, Building the Revolution revisits the brief but intense period of avant garde art and architecture around the time of the Bolshevik revolution.  Meanwhile the Barbican host OMA/Progress featuring the work of Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the influential practice founded in 1975 by Dutch provocateur Rem Koolhaas.

Entering the courtyard of the Royal Academy, visitors encounter a 1:40 scale model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. This seminal project will be familiar to many.  Nevertheless, the scaled human figures at the base successfully convey the astonishing ambition of this spiralling assemblage and the movement of which it was part.

For Tatlin the monument exuded the most dynamic lines yet known to the world, and as Chris Milan’s photomontage demonstrates, had the tower been built, it would have soared 400 meters into the skies above Petrograd, far exceeding the likes of the Eiffel Tower.  Under-developed construction techniques and the scarcity of materials in an economy battered by war and subsequent blockades militated against Tatlin’s plans. Yet a paucity of materials counted less than confidence in the future and a determination to secure progress, factors which ensured the imagination stretched to envisage new possibilities. The result according to one insightful critic was an unsurpassed moment of architectural invention, an explosion of visual language that still looks revolutionary today.

Throughout the exhibition, Richard Pare’s photos reveal the current decaying state of some of those innovative structures. Yet alongside the archival photos, they also make clear the sheer energy and imagination with which designs were conceived. Interestingly, while the artists here such as El Lissitzky were firmly engaged in an affirmation of the new, the creative inspiration for the likes of the Shabolovka Radio Tower was as much in the technological prowess generated by American capitalism which was fuelling significant innovations in bridge building, industrial plant and oil pipelines.

By contrast with today’s deference to assumed limits, these projects were informed by a radical outlook centred on the belief that all limits could – and should – be overcome.  As Jean-Louis Cohen, Pare’s sometimes colleague at the CCA notes, ‘the whole history of mankind is the gradual rise of the spirit to mastery over nature. What has led the building up is human will’. Consequently, although the Shabolovka mast was reduced to half its planned height because of steel shortages, rather than herald an outlook dedicated to saving scare resources, such disappointments merely acted as creative spur for Tatlin’s even grander structure.

Over at the OMA Barbican exhibition, visitors are immediately left in no doubt as to why Koolhaas has been cast as the iconoclast of his generation through books such as S,M,L,XL.  As a public intellectual engaging with the social and cultural issues of the age, he stands out within a largely moribund architectural world.  With a background in journalism and scriptwriting, and utilising a finely honed antennae for provocation, his projects assail through a blend of aesthetics, futurology and agitprop sloganeering.

In an age when small is considered beautiful, OMA engage at scales that others believe should not even be attempted, whether the Eurolille masterplan or speculative proposals for a North Sea island to create a new European airport.  Koolhaas is combative too, demonstrating contempt for the critics of Asian megacities and emerging Gulf cities such as Dubai who he views, rightly, as reflecting the stagnation of the western critical imagination.

And yet it’s clear that Koolhaas also struggles with understanding the role of the architect in shaping the future of cities. Having long rejected the ‘alchemistic promise’ of modernism, this major exhibition provided an opportunity to outline a vision of what might replace it.  However, the sprawling collection based on the curator’s behind the scenes access to OMA often appears an exercise in avoiding critical engagement.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with looking at architectural processes. Indeed, at the RA the constructivist drawings and paintings reflected the determination of the age to grapple with problems and develop new ideas and solutions to the theory and practice of architecture and engineering. At the Barbican however, rather than providing answers to candid questions, the disparate collection of archival fragments, materials, emails, strobing images, and even the contents of waste bins seems indicative of a stance that is disinterested in projecting coherent judgments as to how a new architecture might be realised.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Koolhaas has often argued that architecture can no longer keep up with the world as ‘areas of consensus shift unbelievably fast’ and ‘bubbles of certainty constantly explode’. From mutating forms of organisation, to fluctuating share values, in his view, any attempt to impose order is futile. In this alleged battle between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of architecture, his answer is merely to stage uncertainty.  In other words, his radicalism derives not from, as we saw above, imposing human will, but from amplifying a sense that the world is beyond human control.  His projects purport to show him as the last defender of modernity, but in truth his relationship with modernity is one-sided, an infatuation with disorientation and disintegration but disdain for what Marshall Berman called the will to change – to transform both ourselves and the world.

Sadly, the consequences of this are all too apparent from the material on show.  We learn that setting up the AMO research arm offered the seductive prospect of return to architecture as a purely conceptual medium, a chance of applying architectural thinking in its pure form – liberated from the need for realisation.  Of course, many visionaries have failed to realise their plans. Yet that is different from what here is essentially a retreat from engagement, for example, from those most inconvenient demands, time and money.  Little wonder that elsewhere Koolhaas has urged redefining our relationship with the city, ‘not as its makers but as its mere subjects’.

In one important respect Koolhaas is right: modernism is finished. Robbed of its critical dynamic, it is now regurgitated as either style or nostalgia. Today, whether projects are S, M, L or XL, the challenge remains the scaling up of human ambitions, a task which requires confronting the pernicious spread of sustainability, risk aversion and precaution.

Reminiscing over modernism is a barrier to such a task. But the material on show at the RA inspires confidence that should a more ambitious approach to architecture be adopted today, then this generation too could re-imagine the city.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Alastair Donald is an urban designer, researcher and co-editor  of The Lure of the city: from slums to suburbs . He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas Satellite event 21st century architecture: for the future or of the present? taking place at the Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology ,  in association with British Council , City of Warsaw, Ogólnopolskie Stowarzyszenie Studentów Architektury and Bęc Zmiana .

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  • Theresa Marshall

    Architects should concentrate on designing buildings that people are comfortable in and that suit the landscape, not concern themselves with the state of the world!

  • Niall Crowley

    We’d live in a pretty dreary world if all architects followed your dictum. 

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