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The Empire's New Clothes

End-Stage Modernism's Reductio ad Absurdum?

 

“What we call the beginning is often the end”

                                   - T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

 

Just now we are full on in an exuberant phase of architecture, the Deconstructivist strain of Post-Modernism meant to be the next revolution after Modernism. 

 

Modernism is over, proclaims architect-of-the-moment Rem Koolhaas: "Modernism's alchemistic promise – to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition – has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn't work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished."1

 

We'll buy that.

 

Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning. A collective shame in the wake of this fiasco has left a massive crater in our understanding of modernity and modernization... 2

 

But if modernism is finished, how to explain the curious spectacle of its deconstructed pieces still being recycled, like the tortured assemblies of a mischievous child in a backyard full of old disintegrating toys?  This is undoubtedly interesting, playful, conceptually witty.  But is it profound art, the worthy basis for the next revolution? 

 

Or is it rather more like a flavor of the moment in an increasingly effervescent consumer society -- architecture for the techno MTV Generation, in a fashionable package of alienated post-structuralist philosophy?

 

And here is the tougher question: beyond its momentary conscious experiences, what kind of life does this architecture offer for the people who will live in these structures?   What effect on the urban fabric, on the complex relationships of space, time, process?  On the connective system of human and natural life?

 

Is this truly a more sophisticated and adapted architecture -- or only the image of it?

 

Imagined  Complexity

 

The architectural commentator Charles Jencks3 presents perhaps the most articulate argument that Deconstructivism is indeed complex and sophisticated stuff, representing nothing less than “the new paradigm in architecture.”  The new Decons, he says,  express the timely ideas of the post-structuralist philosophers, and echo the new scientific insights into complexity and chaos.  They are reflecting, in their art, the great truths of our age, in the language of industrial forms rooted in a technological society.

 

But it turns out that this "language of industrial forms" is more closely related to the science of 1920 than the science of 2000.  It relies, in its conception of "machine" society, on a science of rational hierarchies, segregations, mechanist assemblies.  By contrast, the science of 2000 is more concerned with network structures, vast interactions of “cellular automata”, processes of differentiation and adaptation.   It is a science of process, more like that of a complex biological class, as distinct from an elementary mechanical class.

 

But one may protest that the new architecture does employ the wavy biological-looking forms of “organic” architecture, and the complex jumble of facets seen in natural landscapes, in place of the simple grids and planes of the older modernism.  Is this not an embracing of the new science?

 

But it is important to distinguish the forms that emerge from something like a biological or other natural process, from the appearance of such a form.  While the former is exquisitely adapted to its environment, and derives its shape from that adaptation, the latter is not necessarily adapted to anything at all, other than human abstractions.  Such a metaphor of biological form is merely an expressive idea, rather than an exhibition of biological complexity as an inherent property. 

 

By contrast, the biological forms now being examined by the new sciences arise through a process -- and the process does not arise in abstraction, but is deeply embedded in a context of evolutionary structure.  And we can see the same marvelous complex adaptation in the ancient cities and venerable structures that have evolved in the human world, through the complex workings of time and process. 

 

And even where the individual designers of history have created a masterwork, they have been informed by a similarly complex and well-adapted body of traditional knowledge, with no counterpart among the contemporary architects.  Indeed, the latter seem to be on a program to personally reinvent the wheel; and at its best their work is undeniably exuberant, fascinating, and brilliant – but poorly adapted to the real complexities of human life.  

 

This is the difference between engaging the actual processes of complexity, and its mere appearance.  It is image over substance.

 

Not really grasping this, the architectural theorists of the day focus on more superficial  aspects of complexity theory -- the description of forms of order that involve symmetry-breaking, the phase changes, the superimposition of various structures.  This is all well and good, as long as one is clear what one is doing:  one is using these elements to assemble vastly large sculptural metaphors, to express and process various emotional experiences.  One may say it is a kind of art therapy, processing the anxiety, the uncertainty of change, and the complicatedness of modern life into an art form.

 

But the new science of complexity reveals much more than complicatedness, and much more than change for change's sake.  The question is not only when and how changes occur, but what those changes are -- what is the stable and adaptive structure that emerges from phase change, and what are the characteristics of its emergent order.  It is here that complexity theory is having such marvelous success illustrating biological processes, weather phenomena, behavior of markets -- and other complex and evolutionary structures of human society, including its urban and architectural forms. 

 

Deconstructing Follies

 

Again, the new architects are much more interested in expressive abstractions than in designs that grow in living urban fabrics.  Perhaps because they feel the profession to have failed at civic urbanism – or, more accurately, that the failures of a once-optimistic century show that humanity is incapable of handling this challenge --  they have embraced a kind of nihilistic despair.  And their only glee seems to be in their new discoveries of metallic confections, fragmentary pieces of modernism, strips and blobs and other forms, twisted, piled up, jumbled.

 

There is little harm in a sculptural practice that explores this kind of therapeutic art, and I have no doubt that this is very pleasurable and meaningful sculptural stuff, in the right cerebral atmosphere.  But perhaps the right atmosphere would be an art gallery, or a sculpture garden – or an occasional singular museum, like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  But is it responsible of us to unleash wholesale a kind of enormous metallic folly on our cities?  On what authority shall we turn our cities into giant sculpture gardens for abstract art? 

 

On the authority of the post-structuralist philosophers, that's who -- Derrida, Foucault, et al. That philosophy claims the relativistic status of scientific truth (not the same thing as its imperfect and progressively evolving status, mind you) and, not incidentally, invites derision by scores of scientists and philosophers of science.4 For the post-structuralists, all truth is simply socially constructed narrative, and one narrative is as good as another. The only thing that really matters is that one party doesn't impose its elite power, its own socially constructed narrative, over another.5

The post-structuralists begin with a truth – the universe, with all its properties, is a structure – and end with an absurdity: that there is no meaning, only form. 

 

This is a breathtakingly radical form of architectural relativism.  And at its core, it is utterly self-contradictory.  For who is imposing values – nihilistic ones at that -- if not the Decons?  Who is it that is proposing to impose enormous abstract expressionist sculptures on the modern cityscape at a breathtakingly vast and hegemonic scale?


Expressed as an architectural philosophy, this "post-structural" deconstructivism largely turns its back on the sciences -- on environmental psychology, anthropology, applied sociology (for there is nothing to apply), even functionalism.  It claims that there can no longer be rational control, and so it celebrates uncontrollability, and makes that the basis of the new art form. It uses the wrecked forms of industrial modernism as its art supply. The result is an architecture of totemic objects -- crackling energetic experiences of the moment, and almost nothing more. This art aspires to nothing more, because it believes in nothing more.

Here again is movement guru Rem Koolhaas' urban philosophy:

    "The" city no longer exists. As the concept of city is distorted and stretched beyond precedent, each

    insistence on its primordial condition - in terms of images, rules, fabrication - irrevocably leads via

    nostalgia to irrelevance....

    For urbanists, the belated rediscovery of the virtues of the classical city at the moment of their definitive

    impossibility may have been the point of no return, fatal moment of disconnection, disqualification....

   Now we are left with a world without urbanism, only architecture, ever more architecture. ...Since it is

    out of control, the urban is about to become a major vector of the imagination....The seeming failure of

    the urban offers an exceptional opportunity, a pretext for Nietzschean frivolity. We have to imagine

    1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we

    have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right. The certainty of failure has to be our

    laughing gas/oxygen; modernization our most potent drug. Since we are not responsible, we have to     

    become irresponsible. 6

A prime value of our architecture is the celebration of irresponsibility?

    In a landscape of increasing expediency and impermanence, urbanism no longer is or has to be most

     solemn of our decisions; urbanism can lighten up, become a Gay Science - Lite Urbanism. What if we

     simply declare that there is no crisis?...7


Koolhaas, Eisenman and the other fashionable avantgardistas of the moment would have us believe that this is the inevitable and appropriate architecture of our time. And they are happy to cloak themselves in the veneer of complexity science on the one hand, even as they undermine the very basis of its scientific truth on the other.

But here is the emerging lesson: there is not a simple choice between this brand of environmental nihilism and a reactionary race to the past. There is, rather, a remarkable emerging body of science that points the way to a restoration of real complexity -- not imagined, not metaphorical. It is a complexity of real human lives, activities and experiences, far richer than the cerebral experience of a giant sculpture gallery (however exciting or fascinating). That work stretches back to Jane Jacobs and others in the long and illustrious line of urban theorists, and continues to this day.  And the new sciences inform that work, and hold out enormous and exciting possibilities for its revival.  This is the project that awaits.

 

Not the real enemy?

 

Some defenders of the decons argue that whatever their weaknesses, they are not the real enemy.  After all, the Decons' architecture is a tiny minority of what is built, and it is engaging and witty, whereas the vast majority of what is built is the same old hackneyed junk.  Few would disagree that this is an enormous problem.

And yet, where is the architectural leadership for the broader culture of building? Can we really say that Eisenman and Hadid inform and inspire ordinary architects and builders, in the way that previous architects did -- in the way that, to take a historically recent example, the Greene Brothers, Maybeck, or even Wright did just a few generations ago?

These "nero-modernists" have turned their backs on the real problems of the built environment, and focused instead on a gallery form of architecture writ large.  Perhaps their biggest champion, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, recently said about the American suburbs "you know, who cares?"8 The audience of Deconstructivist architects and critics erupted in laughter and applause.

And so the Decons, like their modernists forebears, have abandoned the stage to a slew of horrid imitators on the one hand, and a slew of reactionary hacks on the other. It is easy to see the results in scores of cities around the world, full of horrible concrete boxes, and their suburbs, full of treacly, shoddily detailed boxes. This is a profession whose leadership has become irresponsible -- and has the moxie to celebrate that fact.

 

In this, I suggest, they are simply failing humanity.

Nowhere can this be seen more starkly than in the Decons’ proposals for redeveloping the World Trade Center site.  Perhaps the most defining construction of the twenty-first century -- presenting a singular opportunity to repair the well-acknowledged mistakes of its predecessor – this project offers a chance to heal wounds, return to the human scale of the street, restore the greatness of the oldest and perhaps the finest urban fabric of the city.  Here is a chance to apply the crisp lessons of Jane Jacobs and other celebrated theorists, about the real complexities of the city, and the ways in which design must accommodate it.  Will the architects seize this opportunity to learn their history lessons?

 

Sorry, wrong number.  After all, these are the folks who celebrate irresponsibility --  the ones who believe that all truth is socially constructed, and the only thing that matters is that one party not enforce its relativistic values on another.  "What if we declare that there is no crisis?"

 

Here again is New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp.   He sounds very reasonable as he decries the lack of cultural connection in one of the earlier proposals for redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York:

   The blueprint does not provide such a context, or encourage its creation. No cultural connections are  

    forged.... There is no acknowledgment that other areas of expertise might be drawn upon before the

    design process begins: history, economics, philosophy, global politics -- the entire range of disciplines on

    which any plausible interpretation of the World Trade Center tragedy must depend. But without a

    credible reading of 9/11, constructed from a global perspective, we will have no means of discriminating

    the value of whatever designs are put forth. 9

He wants, he says, designers who are "connectors -- humanistic thinkers who piece together areas of information that lie beyond the architect's actual expertise." 10

This sounds very reasonable.  But one must keep reading...

Here he is, condemning the relativism of so much current architectural fashion:

    One thing is just as valuable as another thing: that is the consensus. Everything is a matter of taste,

    opinion, stylistic preference or the roll of the dice: that is the world view. 11

No argument here that this is nonsense!  So who does he want? Who are these humanistic thinkers, these cultural connectors?

Piano, Nouvel, Koolhas, et al. -- a roll call of Decon starchitects.  They are makers of objects, he says, who "bring with them -- or invent -- the context of meaning in which their work should be judged." 12


Bait and switch!

Muschamp seeks to connect, all right. But his connectivity is a cerebral symmetry, a ghostly play for the cognoscenti. That's fine, as far as it goes -- and as we noted, it can be lovely and powerful stuff on that gallery level. Unfortunately we are not in a gallery, but a real live city, with vastly complex networks of connections between real human beings, who may not find it altogether a humanistic experience to live in someone else's abstractions writ large.

The greatest urban fabric of history -- the greatest architecture -- has been woven from daily interactions, ordinary connections, bits of the concrete and the actual. The greatest architecture has been rooted in time, in process, in the concrete.  And then the grand abstract symmetries could take their proper place.  To invert this relationship is to confuse the abstract and the concrete, and thereby to commit a kind of idolatry.

This, it seems to me, is the emptiness -- the final absurdity -- of what the Deconstructivists celebrate.

 

____________________________________________________________________

1 Rem Koolhaas, "Whatever Happened to Urbanism?"  In S,M,L,XL, Penguin USA; ISBN: 1885254865; (May 1998)

2 Ibid.

3 Charles Jencks, “The Architecture of the Jumping Universe: A Polemic: How Complexity Science Is Changing Architecture and Culture”, Academy Editions (UK); ASIN: 185490406X; (May 1995) (out of  print)

4 Allan Sokal and Jean Bricmont,  Intellectual Impostures,  Profile: 1998. Pp. 274.

5 As Brian Hanson has pointed out, this is hogwash.  In fact the one thing that matters is that the avant

   garde finds ways of imposing its elite power within the structures provided by Post-Modernism: ie. to

   impose it while, at the same time, appearing to be inclusive, tolerant, democratic etc.

6 Rem Koolhaas, "Whatever Happened to Urbanism?"  In S,M,L,XL Penguin USA; ISBN: 1885254865; (May 1998)

7 Ibid.

8 Herbert Muschamp, AIA Chicago Architecture Critics Forum, “Where in the World Is Chicago,  November 11, 2000.  See http://www.aiachicago.org/special_features/Architecture_Critics_Forum/index.html

9 Herbert Muschamp, “Rich Firms, Poor Ideas on Tower Site,” The New York Times, April 18, 2002.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.