The Politics of Architecture Are Not a Matter of Taste
Late last month Current Affairs published an essay by Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson titled “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture: And if you don’t, why you should.” The piece, written in a pseudo-funny internet lexicon wherein all objects of criticism are “garbage,” is so laden with irony—the poorest of substitutes for analysis—that it is difficult to discern a core argument. Still, I’d like to question the central premise of the piece: that what the authors term “contemporary architecture” is ugly and oppressive, and that liking it is nothing shy of immoral.
From the outset, the authors use the term “contemporary architecture” as a blanket that covers both Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia, a Brutalist building completed in 1982, and Morphosis’s 2004 Caltrans Headquarters—two wildly different buildings operating in different intellectual traditions and political/historic contexts. This loose definition betrays the entirely ahistorical nature of their argument. In one instance, they draw a diagonal comparison between Boston’s Beacon Hill (a neighborhood built in the 19th century, mostly by affluent Bostonians), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim (completed in 1959 in New York City), and the Tour de Montparnasse (Paris, 1969). The treatment of these buildings as somehow equivalent and comparable reveals that for all their efforts at making an argument rooted in left theory, the authors have entirely disregarded the wildly varying historical and material conditions surrounding the creation of any of the buildings to which they refer.
While the authors take their readers on a Big Bus Tour of Architectural Wonders Through Time, it can hardly be said that their trip is historical. At its core, the argument they make is an aesthetic one. But, even by those standards, it falls short. The authors forego any visual or formal analysis, making the sophomoric mistake of telling rather than showing (“This building is ugly because it has bad elements” vs. “These elements make this building ugly for these reasons”), in attempts to lay out an indictment against the appearance of what they term “contemporary architecture.” Rennix and Robinson also subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, mythologizing well-known architects to the point that they treat their ideas like gospel. To the authors, this gospel might be foolish, silly, misguided, pedantic, but it is gospel nonetheless. The diametric opposite of the words of Architects From On High is what the authors condescendingly describe as the common-sense opinion of “most people,” who know a good thing when they see it and like old buildings best.
According to the authors, these “old buildings,” regardless of where they were built, are all beautiful. Every single one of them is a work of art, and we should be creating more buildings that look like them. Never mind that Venice’s Gothic construction, which the authors insist we should “build more of,” was largely sponsored by the Venetian elite and ruling classes; or that every building they cite as being undeniably “good” and “beautiful” fits comfortably into the canon of architectural history, a construct shaped over the last three centuries by people with power and money.
These terrifyingly simplistic ideas of what makes for “good” architecture fill Rennix and Robinson’s piece. In one particularly troubling instance, the authors offer a rule of thumb for architects: “the greener and more lush a place, the lovelier it becomes” and use the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as evidence to support this rule. (It is unclear whether the authors know that there is no evidence that this last example was actually ever built.) The authors present architects with many models to emulate, yet they still struggle to articulate a clear definition for beauty—in spite of their insistence that beauty is categorical and objective, and that the reason we don’t make beautiful places is that we have not developed a language to talk about beauty. I wonder how J.J. Winckelmann, or Immanuel Kant, or Umberto Eco, or Edmund Burke, all of whom devoted large portions of their lives to questions of aesthetics, would react to the claim that we simply have not spent enough time thinking of ways to talk about beauty. Unfortunately, the authors don’t share this particular curiosity and instead make the ridiculous proposition that, in order to determine whether a building is beautiful, we should ask what sound it would make if it could speak.
Questionable methodologies aside, even by the authors’ own standards, beauty is definable but still subjective and variable, dependent entirely on cultural norms tied to the wavering and fleeting feelings it evokes—happiness, joy, curiosity, wonder. I’ll set this particular issue aside, though, and focus on the fact that the authors claim that architecture built today is not beautiful by any standard.
This is an implication that architecture is in crisis. On that we can agree. But it’s in crisis not because the buildings made today are not symmetrical, or because their designers are afraid of beauty or of ornament. It’s in crisis because architecture—and here I use this term to mean buildings that have been designed for construction in the physical world—does not fit as a commodity into capitalist economic structures.
This is an implication that architecture is in crisis. On that we can agree. But it’s in crisis not because the buildings made today are not symmetrical, or because their designers are afraid of beauty or of ornament. It’s in crisis because architecture—and here I use this term to mean buildings that have been designed for construction in the physical world—does not fit as a commodity into capitalist economic structures. There is no value, in the Marxist sense of the word, to be extracted from additional ornament, from a balanced and artfully composed plan, from awe-inspiring beauty, except for in the cases of buildings conceived to be monumental. There is no “feeling” that makes a developer money. The reason that highly designed contemporary architecture almost exclusively manifests in iconic structures is that it’s the only way that investing in design and aesthetic quality can turn a profit for someone. The architects whose work he cites—Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman—just happen to be among the few whose work has been irreverent enough to attract investment, or at least a vaunted position in the rarefied halls of Ivy League architecture schools.
It’s difficult to say what the work of these architects would look like were the pressures of capitalism not a factor in their design. Frank Gehry, whom the authors confusingly (and incorrectly) call the “architects’ favorite architect,” has long designed buildings that raise the ire and criticism of the architecture community for reasons similar to the ones the authors cite. But why does he keep making them? Because they make money. The Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Gehry and completed in 1997, is often credited with the popularization of the city and spikes in tourism there. The “Bilbao effect” is a simplistic way of thinking about and understanding the complex forces that influence any city’s development, but the desire to recreate it elsewhere has led developers to seek out spectacular designs from architects all too willing to provide them.
Sitting counter to this “starchitecture” are more pedestrian manifestations—housing complexes, hospitals, government buildings—of “contemporary architecture” that the authors denounce with similar vigor. These buildings are often characterized by rectilinear facades and plans, cheap materials, and poor detailing, but they proliferate in cities in large part thanks to the pressures exerted by capital. They provide the semblance of modernization, the up-chargeable veneer of high design, with none of the work (or related expense) required to design or construct it. The lack of quality and banality typical of contemporary everyday architecture stems from the same capitalist logic that resulted in the myth of the “Bilbao effect.” While these issues manifest visually, the problem is actually not aesthetic. It is, fundamentally, a problem of economics. In what seems to be a happy accident, Rennix and Robinson almost get it right: they suggest that “we must break out of the prison [of our ideas] and destroy the economic system.” But it isn’t our ideas that are the prison; it’s the economic system itself.
This idea isn’t entirely unknown to the architectural profession, which has over the last two decades slowly reclaimed the political nature of its work. At the front of this movement is the U.S.-based group The Architecture Lobby, a formation of left-leaning architects that organize on the basis of their status as workers in order to advocate for the value of their labor. Rather than taking up the fight against capitalism by shadowboxing with its aesthetic precipitate, the group seeks to confront it at the means of architectural production. Their critique is rooted in political economy and in an understanding that there is no “outside” to capitalism. If we’re going to change the economic system, we have to break it from within. This idea seems to completely elude the authors, and it’s here that they entirely miss the mark. They’ve taken aim at every thing—architects and their egos, their bad taste, their bad ideas, their contempt and disdain for “the masses”—but the real culprit: the absolute necessity for everything produced under capitalism to turn a profit.
My deep gratitude to Keefer Dunn, alongside whom I have developed these ideas and whose notes on this piece were immensely helpful.
Featured image: Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, designed by Gehry Partners.