In 1755, Francesco Algarotti, disgusted with what opera had become, wrote An Essay On The Opera in which he called for its simplification. For Algarotti, opera had degenerated into a vehicle for soloists to grandstand with endless improvisations overshadowing the music and ignoring the drama. Even the drama had lost the plot with mythological characters in extraordinary and complex situations. Algarotti saw drama as being the essence of opera and wanted the emphasis restored to it, with everything else secondary. Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, were the first to make it work with their 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It had characters and drama people could relate to, music that could be remembered and lyrics and a plot that could be understood. It’s regarded as the first truly modern opera.
Early 21st century architecture resembles 18th century opera with starry soloists impressing audiences with their stylings and ornamentations, but there’s no architectural Algarotti proposing any obvious and achievable vision of what architecture should be. In my previous piece for Common Edge I wrote that we need a new definition of architectural beauty and someone rightly pointed out that we also need to work out how to go about getting one. Deciding what we want architecture to be is the first step towards getting a new definition of architectural beauty. Working towards it follows naturally from that.
It was only possible to get opera back on track because of Algartotti’s firm and clear idea of what opera should be so, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that architecture exists for the good of humanity. What’s stopping it?
Anything a Starchitect Does
Architecture has history of following the money. In the distant past it pandered to the agendas and egos of rich rulers and property developers, and in its recent past panders to rich property developer rulers whether in Shanghai, Doha, Baku, Mexico City or New York. This has had the effect of skewing the definition of architecture in the direction of projects of dubious economic, environmental and ethical foundation.
An architecture that services the neoliberal agenda isn’t really compatible with one that exists for the good of humanity. We’re gradually waking up to the fact that starchitects are rewarded for their services with fame and yet more projects. You could call it a symbiotic relationship or you could call it collusion and collaboration. Many people still believe architecture has a political dimension and that it is inseparable from humanitarian concerns, such as who constructs it, or ethical concerns, such as whose money builds it. Starchitects attempt to convince us otherwise. They’re all keeping their heads down right now, apart from—or perhaps because of—Patrik Schumacher.
Starchitects exist to legitimize projects of questionable foundation. They’re the perception management SWAT team whose real art and skills lie not with design but with distracting us from the ugly forces driving the design. They want to convince us to evaluate their projects only by criteria they set themselves, and mostly they succeed. “I wanted to make a giant X-shaped building.” “Well, you certainly succeeded brilliantly in doing that—bravo! We look forward to Y and Z.” Starchitects get called on to deflate opposition, defuse criticism and legitimize the un-legitimizable. This is why they exist and in such demand. What’s amazing is that it was only necessary to elevate a few to such high levels of starriness to create and perpetuate the notion that architecture is all about glamorous and shapely buildings. The fact the word starchitect continues to get up the noses of starchitects is good reason to continue using it.
Anything a Starchitect Says
The 2016 AIA convention in May last year brought Rem Koolhaas, Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the AIA together to tell us that architecture has a serious problem. If this isn’t shamelessly blatant smoke screening then it’s the psychiatric disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy for, if architecture does have a serious problem, this trio of institutions representing architecture are probably part of the problem and should admit so before lecturing us on solutions.
Architecture already seems simpler. A new definition of beauty isn’t visible yet but we can at least list things we shouldn’t be finding beauty in. Simply attempting to achieve the opposite of starchitecture should direct us towards an architecture that exists for the good of humanity. There’s no order to this list of things we shouldn’t be finding beauty in. It’s a web.
There are some things we intuitively feel uneasy about. Splitting an atom doesn’t sound like a good idea as it goes against what an atom is. Making a black hole probably isn’t a good idea. We should have known nothing good would happen when mass and space were made to renounce their physicality and go plastic. When was the last time a new formal language for architecture did anything for anybody? One of the most exquisite characteristics of Danish Modernism was to Design buildings to be the result of the process of building them. This forgotten notion is the opposite of abstraction, and most likely has a place in a new definition of beauty.
If a problem can be falsely reduced to a representation, then it can be falsely solved by a representation. This is what Charles Jencks did when he falsely represented a problem of building facilities management as the false problem of a lack of folksy signifiers in Modernist architecture, thus paving the way for the false solution of Postmodernism. The only real problem the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe solved was how to justify reduced government budgets for social housing programs, an early win for proto-neoliberalists. The site remains empty to this day. If we are to take anything away from this it must be: Look for beauty only in real solutions to real problems.
The Futurists were the first to embrace novelty for its own sake and their demand for a complete break with the past is said to have provided the missing ingredient, the catalyst that sparked Modernism. Even outside of architecture we’ve come to distrust novelty. Smartphones have taught us that whatever we crave today will be obsolete tomorrow but we’ll eagerly await the next round of innovation that continues the cycle. Nothing actually gets better or, even if it does, we’ll still not be satisfied. Neoliberalism thrives on endless and pointless economic activity for the sake of it. Architectures of curves and angles represent pointless economic churn with a dynamism and motion that leads nowhere. There’s nothing inherent to buildings that requires them to be continually reinvented and discarded. Novelty works against an architecture of durability, reuse, repurposing, and of making do with what one has. Work against novelty. Be suspicious of innovation. Use cutting-edge only with reference to technology.
If we continue to believe the only good ideas are the newest ones, then history is redundant, along with any attempt to learn anything from it. The only use architects seem to have for history is to mine it for interesting imagery on which to found a career. If we look outside our accepted history of architecture then we’ll see many attempts to do the same thing – some misguided, some before their time, and some successful. History is a huge databank and the concise history of aesthetic innovation is insufficient for a new definition of architectural beauty. There is no history of building sustainability or energy performance, for example. There is no history of vernacular architecture showing incremental improvements over time. Even a history of bad decisions would be a useful resource. If we’re going to be sincere about an architecture that exists for the sake of humanity, then we shouldn’t waste time and resources developing solutions we might have seen if we’d looked at history not as a chronology of aesthetic changes but as a resource to suggest ways of solving problems that in all likelihood are not new ones.
Even if we don’t know what architectural beauty is, the value of keeping it as a concept is that everyone’s allowed to have an opinion on it. This goes against the neoliberal project that only demands acquiescence. For neoliberals, Beauty is an inconvenient concept because it is never absolute or unchallengeable. Even if no one has yet come out against Beauty, there’s little discussion of it nowadays. It’s as if the concept is being removed from our vocabulary to make us forget we once had this thing everyone was allowed to have an opinion on. We may be challenged and told Beauty is obsolete because there’s no such thing as a single opinion for everyone or that there’s no one reference for universal judgment. We know this. The concept of Beauty is a person’s individual reference for making their own judgements. Let’s be clear on this.
The other way to neuter beauty is to redefine it. In the past, we thought it fine for Art to obey its own rules and, for those of us without any other system of belief, art was a way of confronting and questioning our realities and making sense of the world. When Architecture makes us question the realities of gravity, construction, finance, comfort and function so that all we’re left with is a sense of our own irrelevance, we have to ask ourselves whose side it is on. Beauty has slipped off the architectural agenda because it is an independent reference for evaluation and an independent reference for evaluation cannot be controlled. If it can’t be discredited or ignored then its definition must be narrowed. Beware of any architect or media release that includes the phrase “redefines architectural beauty.”
A current preoccupation of starchitects is to produce an architecture of affect that people simply relate to without it evoking memories or associations or meaning of any kind. Such an endeavour is highly suspect because it would mean an architecture beyond interpretation, reason and criticism. It also assumes that the primary means of architectural experience will continue to be shape along with its poorer cousin surface and, therefore, that its primary means of communication will be images and, therefore, that the primary system for their delivery and any subsequent appreciation will be the internet. Control of the media is a problem I won’t expand upon here. The quickest way to kill this quest for affect is to say that architectures that deny subjective associations are nothing new. Vernacular and industrial architecture and various architectures designed for extreme environments have more important things to do than evoke associations, deny reason, prevent criticism or subvert the concept of beauty. If there is such as an architecture of pure affect, then these buildings are already it. So why the fuss? What we don’t have yet is a neoliberalist architecture cloaked in the appearance of non-representation. Find beauty in things that don’t try to be beautiful. Don’t find beauty in things trying to look as if they are not trying to be beautiful.
If senses other than our sense of vision are to ever benefit from architecture, then we need to show we value how they perceive light, temperature, sound and materials. Zumthor’s baths at Vals are often presented as an example of sensory delight in architecture, but aestheticizing our other senses only paves the way for their commodification and this is not the same as valuing them. Another unseen quality of buildings is ethics and our current history of architecture is short on the ethics or morality of what it chronicles. This needs rectifying. We can’t say we value ethics if we exclude architecture and its history from examination. In the same way former slave traders are no longer seen as business heroes or model entrepreneurs, we should stop seeing beauty in dehumanized buildings of the past and present. The opposite of this is obvious. Look for beauty in building comfort, energy performance and ethics.
In general, theory is also a dehumanizing force if it represents architecture as a purely intellectual endeavor. Buildings that are representations of ideas do not sound like they are going work for the good of humanity. Be suspicious of the research-driven practice.
I’m encouraged by talk of how architecture can be a medium of protest and resistance but it can only be that because in the past it’s so often been one of collusion and collaboration. Of the qualities I’ve listed and that should have no place in an architecture that exists for the good of humanity, Representation is perhaps the closest to the center of all that is wrong. If anything needs resisting then it is attempts to substitute something with a representation of itself. Remember sustainability? Buildings derived from principles of sustainability or energy efficiency were branded alternative with all the taint of eccentricity and non-mainstream that implied. Those important principles were ignored unless they presented an opportunity for visual representation. Architects rushed to produce buildings with green roofs and we no longer cared if they didn’t do what they appeared to do. We no longer cared if they did. A thing of genuine use was reduced to a representation that could be discarded for some other, newer representation.
Architecture is good at representing things but, this time, if architecture only represents protest or resistance then it will be complicit in quashing it. There should never be anything that calls itself “an architecture of protest and resistance.” If the question, “In what style shall we protest?” is ever asked, it’s game over.
Featured image: Zaha Hadid Architects, Generali Tower, Milan (2017). Photo by the author.