Fantastic Responses to the Unreasonable
[Delivered as a Public Lecture on the work of Wellington artist, Joanna Langford, at the City Gallery Wellington, on August 21, 2008]
I enjoy the relationship with the Gallery and have great respect for occasional prod the Gallery gives to the arch' community. I have to say too, that it is a privilege to be in the company of people so well organised they can attend lectures at 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.
The idea of this talk: context for Joanna Langford's work. There are of course many contexts for any piece of work, so I am simply going to offer one possible architectural context. Not as a historian - though much of it will be historical - but rather as an academic and practitioner interested in the contemporary debate.
I am going to talk mostly about the utopian visions of the 1950s and 60's, primarily: New Babylon by the Dutch Situationist artist, Constant, and Plug-In City by the English group of Architects called Archigram. My hope is that these two projects will shed some light on the relevance of Joanna's work to the architectural community now.
I sub-titled this talk, (at least in the second version of the flyer) 'Fantastic Responses to the Unreasonable'. By that I mean that both New Babylon and Plug-In City were part of a broad response to the increasingly bleak productions of Modern Architecture after WWII. In the introduction to his survey history of modern architecture, Kenneth Frampton explains that he is,
"acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production as from the Natural World" p9
Modern Architecture did have good intentions and much has written about that but certain manifestations, or interpretations, of Modern Architecture did become problematic, and much has been written about that too.
So I thought it would be useful to briefly outline one of the primary institutions of the modern movement, CIAM (the International Congress for Modern Architecture) through its various vicissitudes towards its closure, and conversion into Team X. This will help us understand the early intentions of the movement, and something about how it lost its way and subsequently become the target of criticism from people like Archigram and the Situationists, and indeed people like Louis Kahn (the subject of the film My Architect, which some of you may have seen) and others.
The first phase of CIAM was dominated by German architects, mostly socialists, and mostly concerned with issues surrounding minimum living standards and mass housing.
With Hitler, the German camp was dissipated and CIAM became centred around a single figure: the French man, Corbusier. According to Frampton, Corbusier shifted the emphasis from housing to town planning. The most well known meeting is probably CIAM IV with the theme 'The Functional City', the result of which was the Athens Charter. This is the kind of thing they were talking about, and you might argue things started to go wrong at this point.
After the war, CIAM VI was held in England, and there were the first discussions about strategies to break the sterility of the so-called Functional City, and respond more directly to the emotional and material needs of its citizens. By 1953, at CIAM IX, the new-school had very much taken over the direction of CIAM who drove the subject matter at CIAM X. This group was an amorphous group, but it included Aldo van Eyck, Peter and Alison Smithson, Jacob Bakema and others who became subsequently known as Team X.
Team X were critical in changing the direction of Modern Architecture, and while they considered themselves Modern Architects, they were at times very critical of the generation before them. Modern Architecture by this time was beginning to come under attack.
One of the most frank disapprovals actually came from the United States, from Venturi Scott-Brown and Izenour in their book "Learning from Las Vegas". Speaking of Crawford House, a building by celebrated Modern architect Paul Rudolph, thay say,
"Crawford Manor is ugly and ordinary while looking heroic and original. We criticise Crawford Manor, not for 'dishonesty', but for irrelevance today."
...and he may have had a point.
Charles Jencks used this image to describe the beginning of post-modernism which he says began at 3.32pm on July 15, 1972 (the year I was born). It is certainly a suggestive image.
The theorist, Colin Rowe, argued more specifically that,
"Lever House in the United States (this building) and the Festival of Britain in London, were turning points which signalled to progressive architects that the previously revolutionary idiom of modernism was no longer an agent of social critique."
In the book, "The Fall of Public Man" by Richard Sennett there is a section simply called "Dead Public Space" and he uses the same building, Lever House, as one of his key examples of how not to build a city.
Finally, Constant himself did not have much appreciation for the direction Modern Architecture was going, this is how Mark Wigley describes the beginning of a lecture by Constant in Amsterdam;
"Modern Architects are negligent. They have systematically ignored the massive transformation of everyday life caused by the twin forces of mechanisation and population explosion. Their endless garden-city schemes desperately provide token fragments of 'pseudo nature' to pacify ruthlessly exploited citizens. The modern city is a thinly disguised mechanism for extracting productivity out its inhabitants, a huge machine that destroys the very life it is meant to foster..."p9
Modern Architecture had apparently got into the wrong hands.
There were a huge range of alternatives put forward, which is why post-modernism is so famously difficult to define. A North American historian, Sarah Ksiasek, who specialises in this pivot between the Modern and Post-Modern architecture argues that of all these tendencies,
"...such trends did share one theme, an anxiety about the perceived erosion of community life since the end of WWII" and,
"...of all the dominant themes of the era, that with the longest history was new monumentality"
These two threads of community and monumentality are quite visible, not only as Ksiasek argues in the work of Louis Kahn, but also in the utopias presented by Constant and Archigram around the same time. (There are obvious differences too, but I am more interested in the threads).
Important to the connection I want to make to Joanna Langford's work is the nature of monumentality. Louis Kahn's work is quite obviously monumental: they can be read as large objects with a certain symbolic value.
Many of Constant's individual models lend themselves very well to being monuments, and he did in fact build this monument: called "Monument for Reconstruction" in collaboration with two other artists. His drawings and models extend the same monumental quality to a larger, and this time habitable version in New Babylon.
If we look at some of the work in Japan at the time, like this work by Arato Isosaki we can see formal connections to both Babylon and Plug-In City. Plug-In City is perhaps less monumental than Babylon, however, both schemes make an overt shift from the simple geometries of the early Modernists, or Lever House, towards more sculptural and playful forms. They also have a tendency embrace symbolism (which even if the Functional City did, it could not easily admit it).
Both schemes are symbolic of their excitement in technology. Plug-In City develops the ducting and machine aesthetic of the booming oil refineries that underpinned the new world of automation that Archigram imagined, and Constant borrows heavily from the new structural techniques being developed by Frei Otto, Konrad Waschmann, and Buckminster Fuller.
Both projects are bold, they are huge, they would be amazingly expensive and they are spectacular.
A large part of the problem that they endeavoured to address was the booming population. We have, at least in the last decade, observed another boom and the need to construct still more whole new urban environments. Ove Arup has designed 8400 hectares of new City at Dongtan, 3 hours from Shanghai, ShoP (a New York architecture firm) has been commissioned to design a small city in India for 35,000 people, Herzog and De Meuron have master planned a whole suburb for billionaires. I believe it is still possible to purchase a piece of land on this masterpiece (palm).
I have not given this a great deal of thought, but it has occurred to me that Colin Rowe's observation, which I will repeat, that
"Lever House in the United States (this building) and the Festival of Britain in London, (this building) were turning points which signalled to progressive architects that the previously revolutionary idiom of modernism was no longer an agent of social critique."
...resonates with this situation at some level. Symbolic monumentality is apparently de rigueur for international corporations and booming states. When it is done well, this model can be brilliant (birds nest), but when it is done poorly, it can be disastrous. New Zealand is not immune to this scenario either: Infratil wants it (at Wellington Airport); even the National Library wants it (with the proposed design for Molesworth Street). This work, it seems to me has also lost the potency of a previous monumentality. Images of rocks, and literal skeletal frames of glass to make an institution 'more transparent' are in grave danger of trivialising architecture. Corporate architects today, have as much to answer for as they did when they made Lever House. It feels to me that some alternatives are required both from the artistic and architectural communities. Like Berthold Brecht once said, "Capitalism takes the venom spat at it and turns it into nectar" (or something like that).
What can we do with Joanna Langford's playful city of 1's and 0's. What will the architectural world offer up in response? Or will Architects even be able to set aside some precious time in their busy corporate lives to focus on the core work of an architect: imagining the future. Regardless of her intentions, Joanna Langford's work is valuable, it seems to me, as a counterpoint and a catalyst for some very important discussions about the future.
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