Spectacle

In light of the recent stacking up of complaints (here, here, and here) about high-profile architects, it is probably time, once again, to revisit and reevaluate the notion of architectural works as mere objects. The idea that buildings are to do more than just provide shelter is far from new. However, in recent years, there has been a continuing shift in both the academic and professional corners toward abstraction bordering on the avant-garde. Arguments abound, but my personal take is that there are several reasons the contemporary scene is so dismal. One is that there is perceived value in uniqueness—the designer needs, now practically out of economic necessity, to produce something that no one has ever seen before. Another is that the designer often mistakes novelty for innovation. Still another valid concern is that the architect actually does not know how to design buildings, so she needs to come up with something only she understands, and therefore can explain.

One might ask: so what? It’s only sticks and bricks. Not really. If we’re going to push a green agenda, we need to start coming up with a built environment that future generations will value. That’s really green. Instead, we have to deal with spectacle. Who, really, do these buildings serve, besides the architect? We are momentarily fascinated by the bizarre and the grotesque, generally, yet we always run to the comfort of the commonplace when the sensation wears off. In trying to be unique and to stand out, our buildings reveal an inferiority complex and ultimately our cities suffer from a lack of self-esteem when it feels the need to have a Gehry or Libeskind design. If a city is so hard up that it needs the work of a celebrity architect to put it on the map, is that city really going to become what it wants to be—a place full of contented and creative people that attracts companies, intellectual capital and tourism, to name a few of many. I doubt it.

Architecture that serves the ego is just as bad as non-architecture for the masses. Buildings that serve the designer are saying “look at me, not at them…I deserve attention.” And we generally give it to them. But our admiration, if there ever was one, fades quickly. They do not make an effort to fit in, to harmonize with their surroundings. They wish to create commotion. But even as we naturally look at the 8-car pile-up during the commute  we feel relieved to not be a part of it. So it’s an enormous mistake to confuse spectacle for spectacular. We are continually lectured to about diversity, and reminded of our ignorance regarding such topics, so we learn to tolerate but never truly embrace anything that just naturally seems out of place.

In truth, there’s nothing that original about these works; they are mostly derivative anyway. What is truly unique? Gehry copies Gehry. Hadid copies Hadid. And so forth. Lesser mortals emulate them. Can any of these architects produce something that is truly compatible with its surroundings, instead of trying to be a thing apart?    Instead of pursuing the latest thing, I’d like a city, for once, to have the courage to augment its status by doing something truly original—approve works of architecture that genuinely improve the existing fabric.