April 6, 2009

Volume 19: City of Ducks

Ha... well not quite. This issue of Volume looks very promising. "Can we build a happy city?...what instruments have we got to engineer society and change people in their beliefs and behavior?" Sounds a bit Fascist I guess, but it gets at the most important contemporary issue of building, especially on an urban scale... "architecture as a medium of culture."

(Disclaimer, I have not yet read this issue)

As capitalism out of context and modernist planning deplete our cities and our lives, how do we react? Was it really that important for our cities to be forced into resembling the factories and advances in production? In hindsight, it looks like a forced (albeit beautiful) aesthetic decision that was not informed or fueled by industrialization, but by the choices and visions of a few. Aristotle would call it tragic, "an artificial thing, an imitation (mimesis) of the nature of man coming to mature self-realization." Mistakingly, it took the worst principles of capitalism (think of walking out of Wal-Mart and forgetting what city you are in) and applied them to architecture. It brought global standardization to the streetscape. It brought cheapness and very little else to our buildings. It was failed socialism and pro-capitalism. Feel free to take me to task on this, especially if you have written books and/or numerous articles on the subject.

Maybe this is an issue of scale. The duck represents what is great about America. The sense of freedom to start a small business (hot dog stand) and build what ever you want (hot dog shaped hot dog stand.) These small businesses are different from state to state and town to town, and become beacons for the culture and identity of the area. This works on a small scale, where a certain amount of cultural conservatism is allowed. What happens when a building is home to a multinational corporation?

So as the era of the icon is apparently over, which I find hard to believe in absoluteness, then what is next? Post-Racial architecture? Post-Neo-Modernism? Neo-Post-Modernism? I explored these concepts in an article a while back...

Throughout the ages, an architectural “pendulum of meaning” has been swinging back and forth from meaning to non-meaning. The basis is this: classicism/neoclassicism (A – meaning) and its communicative properties, to modernism (B - non-meaning) and its high tech aesthetic. We went [Back] to PostModernism (A – meaning), then [back] to the blob/ NeoExpressionism/ NeoModernism (B – non-meaning). It is only a matter of time before we go [back] to our historicist roots. However, this time around meaning will manifest itself in a new, contemporary language. Both Robert Venturi and Rem Koolhaas speak of the contemporary condition of “meaninglessness.”
In 1972, Venturi stated, “The substitution of expression for representation through disdain for symbolism and ornament has resulted in an architecture where expression has become expressionism.” This condition exists today, as well. Koolhaas’ 2007 description of the contemporary landscape:
“…a desperate effort to differentiate one building from the next – has been characterized by a manic production of extravagant shapes. Paradoxically, the result is a surprisingly monotonous urban substance, where any attempt at ‘difference’ is instantly neutralized in a sea of meaningless architectural gestures.”
Due to the recent global financial crash (and impending fallout), architecture may see the end of the high modernist paradigm of global genericization. This would result from a cultural shift to quality over quantity. Rather than aiming at creating an expressionist icon, a new Cultural and Political system would be realized in architecture, in order to differentiate with in cultural context. This has been the ideal for sometime, but very seldom is it realized.

A recent trend that has hurt our cities is the ignorance of the object. The object is inevitable. There will be a building there. That is what architecture is. So beyond the reorganization of space, architecture has an opportunity to be the signifier of culture. Think Chartres Cathedral or western fronts. When the object is ignored, our cities grow banal and inhumane. Charles Jencks would refer to the architects’ “responsibility for the public and esoteric meanings of a civic building.” Unfortunately, Jencks simultaneously advocates and writes off what he calls enigmatic signifiers as “an especially difficult task in a global culture without a shared value system” (a somewhat nihilist perspective on the role of architecture.) The rethinking/reversion of this role is where the recent financial calamities could positively affect culture and architecture in the future. This can happen if we can break away from viewing architecture as a purely resultant force, and make it proactive. Architecture can serve the client, and still hold great meaning. The public can enjoy architecture.

Alejandro Zaero-Polo addressed these issues in a recent article entitled “The Politics of the Envelope,” He states in the article that “the building envelope is now a technology at the vortex of the political storm.”
The envelope exceeds the surface by incorporating a much wider set of attachments. It includes the crust of space affected by the physical construction of the surface, by the scale and dimension of the space contained, by its permeability to daylight and ventilation and by its insulation values and solar-shading capacities. It also involves the space that surrounds the object, its orientation in respect to sun, wind, views, etc. The envelope has the capacity to re-present, not in the sense to which the architectural critique has accustomed us, but in the ancient political role that articulates the relationships between humans and non-humans in a common world. The envelope is the surface and its attachments.
This is where architecture happens. These technologies and constructions hold meaning, and the architect has the ability to make very widely accepted (or denied) statements with this amount of public visibility. This is where we can break away from the oft-accepted idea that architecture is the merely the representation of power, or manifestation of culture: a resultant phenomenon. Zaera-Polo would agree that we could
“…re-empower the discipline as a truly transformative force in the reorganisation of contemporary power ecologies. As an alternative to historical directionality, this experiment wants to propose an analysis of the political dimensionality of space.”
When discussing representation and communication in architecture, literature is a very strong analogy. Willem-Jan Neutelings states that, “There is no writer that would say, that because books are now typed on computers, he makes a different literature. But that is what architects say.” This is the criticism of the contemporary architectural condition. How do the principles of literature and semantics translate into architectural form? One such way, as described by Charles Holland, is the issue of “taste.” When reading a piece of literature, the words are carefully chosen to describe the characters. In this same way, Holland explains, “The signs and symbols of domestic architecture serve as a form of shorthand for the people who live in it.” Issues of class and social standing conveyed in a home are the same kinds of symbols and messages that on a larger scale, a civic building would address.
Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s work, represents one of the most important positions on the world and architecture. Zaera-Polo’s ideas about facades link the technological and representational, in a sort of ultimate architectural expression. I believe that this return to meaning and the repoliticization of the public sphere of architecture is called for if we are to reclaim our streets and cities.


Markasaurus said...

What happens when you actually do get a city of Ducks? Is it Los Vegas? What happens when the duck becomes corporate and is no longer the quaint duck that Venturi and DSB wrote about? I suppose the corporate duck ends up being something like the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.

Isozaki420 said...


Thanks for the comment...

I guess the city of ducks would not really ever exist, because unlike vegas and dubai, which are duck cities, they would not spring up all at once. each successive movement will add a few buildings here and there, creating another layer of history and depth.

Perhaps the city of ducks is las vegas because it is really only a fantasy landscape. Maybe we should start a city of Ducks. A duck arcosanti, urban laboratory. How good a salesman are you?

A corporate duck is still a duck, just bigger, right? how funny would it be if the duck became a sign of power?...