The edifice complex
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Architecture can be many things to many people. It can be a world class museum, a revitalized destination point in an otherwise dead seaport city, or the possibility of temporary shelter for a displaced victim of hurricane Katrina.
Perhaps it's true our typical encounter with the culture of the built world is shaped by the architecture of edifice - grand monuments to government, corporations, the public worship of gods, money and art - works designed to violate an individual's relationship with time and place by projecting a sense of power, an implication of order and control beyond the individual, subjugating one's will, imagination and achievement to any prevailing political and economic status quo.
The rich and powerful rule this world, take comfort in that fact?
Think Albert Speer with his immensely dull Uber-classic artifices, his evil banality and trite design propagating the worship of megalomania and Nazism. Or Stalin's long cloaked statue, the fake Balzac, crumbling to pieces in Red Square; or more to the point, Saddam Huessin's ugly vulgar ode to his ugly vulgar being brought down like so much crap rotted metal in a bloodied war torn street in Baghdad, where he, like Mussolini before him, is surely destined.
This is the architecture of power totemism, society's false security fetish. Another madman's illusion, given form by an architect's guile, morphing into a pin on a strategic bombing map, a blue dot on a fighter pilot's computer screen, a target, ripe, as the culture that produced it, for instantaneous deconstruction.
Deyan Sudjic, a leading architecture editor and critic, narrates in The Edifice Complex a fascinating if somewhat loosely constructed exploration of how the powerful and the rich shape our world, whether we, or even our best architects, like it or not.
Sudjic asserts architecture is best understood as "an expression of power over a landscape", rather than as an art form. He says architecture is a "unique instrument of statecraft" - in fact, he says, to build is "to construct reality as we wish it to be." Or rather as the client, the global rich and powerful client, would wish us to believe it to be.
Although celebrated architects like Gehry, van der Rohe, Calatrava, Piano and Koolhaas, (each of whom Sudjic skewers) may think their buildings expressions of personal design strategy, philosophy and aesthetic, Sudjic says in fact: "their work depends on their engagement with the political context of the world," and in that world, "the totalitarians and the egoists and the monomaniacs offer architects, whatever their personal political views, more opportunities for 'important' work" than do the world's liberal democracies.
A most interesting and relevant argument. Do our best architects merely waltz Speer's folly into another century?
Then Sudjic slyly extends his logic from Hitler and totalitarian China today to the powerful who build tastelessly in those very democracies: men like Nelson Rockefeller and his failed Albany Mall, or George H Bush's huckster presidential library and museum in Texas. Here's Sudjic on the psychology of the power client:
"Architecture exerts an abiding fascination on the most egotistical of individuals, desperate to use it to glorify themselves: the billionaire museum trustees, the skyscraper builders, and the mansion owners. Equally, it can be put to work by reforming mayors looking to transform their cities for the better. Whatever the architects' intentions, in the end they find themselves being defined not by their own rhetoric, but by the impulses that have driven the rich and the powerful to employ architects and seek to shape the world." (page 383).
The Edifice Complex is an intriguing read because Sudjic's command of history and his critical approach to architecture is creative and insighful, and even more so because he slides from fascist megalomaniacs like Hitler and Mussolini into "power clients" like giant corporations, destination playground designers and California mass worship ministers, as if all distorted egoists share the same weird love of gross monumentality and its illusory assurance of immortality.
Sudjic narrates a riveting history of a variety of recent global building projects, exploring, for example, the politics behind the World Trade Center competition following the 9/11 attack on Minoru Yamasaki's glistening black Twin Towers, a slow rebuilding process that seems ever mired in political dysfunction. One wonders what tasteless edifices the rennaisance of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will conjure for the future of that devastated region?
But Sudjic's critical take on architecture and the motives of the modern architect is obviously only one take among many.
Auburn University's Rural Studio project provides at least one immediate and refreshingly pragmatic theoretical contrast to Sudjic's global intellectual cynicism. The Rural Studio flourishes today, more than a decade after it was founded as a practicum for 'citizen architects' by successful Mississippi architect and professor Samuel Mockbee, recipient of the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant".
Here's the late Mockbee on the subject:
"The professional challenge, whether one is an architect in the rural American South or elsewhere in the world, is how to avoid being so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that one does not lose sight of the fact that people and place matter."
The Rural Studio survives today primary because Mockbee's vision of the architect as catalyst for social renovation and ultimately social justice has kindled an expanding global recognition that architecture and its brave practitioners can indeed aspire to a completely higher level of social awareness and process than imagined in the last century's age of totalitarian horrors. Architects remain free to use their talents to whatever ends they choose.
So while architects of the powerful may be designing and building illusions of immortality in structures that end up potential military targets, the kinder, gentler architect is still busy building a humane environment for the disadvantaged, creating an architecture of community, even in rural Hale County, Alabama.
The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World" is a fascinating exploration of the psychology and politics of the rising new global pyramid builders of the 21st century.