Artistic sprawl

A slew of recent soul-searching articles and research papers showing the architecture profession struggling to be relevant to current challenges. The Guardian newspaper documented a recent angry exchange between architect Frank Gehry and a critic, photographed here by J L Cereijido.

“It is not always clear whether we are using our position to engage in an intellectual discourse or an incredible ego free-for-all. Unfortunately, we have not been able to provide any dignity to the profession due to our complete technical inability to conquer market pressures and our willingness to be totally manipulated… The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value.”
Rem Koolhaas, leading architect, quoted in ArchitectureWeek, 8/1/2007

Among the sprawling landscapes of the United States, Silicon Valley may be one of the clearest antitheses of the New Urban Agenda on display today. Here can be seen vast stretches of car-dependent urbanism with tree-like organization of parts, functionally segregated, created only by technocrats, with little historic fabric or pattern, lacking diversity (of income, or other varieties), and featuring gigantic supercampuses with inward-turning buildings, set back far from any walkable streets.

But this is hardly the low end of the development market, professionally speaking. Indeed, the great architects of the day have been designing these buildings, to the glee of their credulous clients. The late Steve Jobs, speaking about Apple’s new Norman Foster-designed supercampus, told the Cupertino City Council, “I really do think that architecture students will come here to see this, I think it could be that good.” The building takes the form of a giant donut.

Other supercampuses designed by famous architects or “starchitects” include the Facebook campus by Frank Gehry, with a new addition by Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA, and the Google campus by Bjarke Ingels’s practice, BIG.

These and other designs are certainly arresting, exotic, dramatic. They may or may not be great art. (I rather think not, but I will leave that judgment to others, as that is not the issue in any case.) What they clearly are not is urbanism, of the kind identified by Jacobs, Alexander, or the New Urban Agenda. Indeed they are textbook species of physical sprawl, masked by “artistic sprawl” — the alluring avant-garde dissonance — of today’s professional leadership in architecture. The actual structure is very far from Jacobs’ “organized complexity” or Alexander’s “city that is not a tree,” and much closer to the kind of urbanism that both Alexander and Jacobs excoriated. The only real change is in the distractingly exotic artistic decoration.

Koolhaas may be the most articulate of today’s more introspective architects, and he often endeavors to lay out a clear (and often incisively self-critical) rationale for contemporary practice. Like Alexander (whom he has stated he admires), Koolhaas is frank about the failures of the profession and its discordant results, as for example in his comment “the work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing.” He seems to agree with Alexander that our systems as currently configured are failing to produce wholeness.

Koolhas’ criticism of CIAM-era modernism has been equally trenchant. Here again is the passage, shown previously, from his well-known 1996 essay “Whatever happened to urbanism?” (in S,M,L,XL):

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. 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.

The reference to the failed attempt to transform quantity into quality echoes Alexander’s call for a return to a qualitative approach, replacing abstract replication with wholeness-extending transformations. In effect, Koolhaas is agreeing with Alexander that the “alchemistic promise” of abstraction and repetition has been a kind of architectural “dry hole.”

Unlike Alexander, however, Koolhaas does not acknowledge a clear responsibility for architects to reform this state of affairs — for the simple reason that, as he sees it, the situation is now beyond any possible control or, therefore, responsibility. Indeed, later in the same essay, Koolhaas seemed to relish the architect/artist’s resulting liberation from responsibility:

The seeming failure of the urban offers an exceptional opportunity, a pretext for Nietzchean 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.

This narrative would seem to offer a blank check to architects as artists, and as such, a serious conundrum for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. If we are not responsible, then we can ignore the call to responsible professionalism, and the other reforms identified in the New Urban Agenda.

As the previous discussion should have made clear, Jacobs would also have very little patience for this abdication of professional responsibility. Her first book was a self-described “attack” on the ill-considered outcomes of professional actions, and all of her books were in a sense descriptions of the responsive, and responsible, pathways to effective actions to deal with “the kind of problem a city is.”

Nor is Koolhaas alone in arguing for the primacy of artistic novelty over evidence-based problem-solving. Indeed, for those who (like myself) have taught architecture, and visited architecture schools in a number of different countries, it is not too much to say that the primary aim of architectural design today is, very simply, not to find the best possible solution for human environments, but rather, to create adventurous new sculptural works of art on a gigantic scale.

Along the way, various functional and technical goals must be dealt with, of course, and these are supposed to address human need, hopefully in an elegant way. But we are still bound to the realm of abstraction and repetition, now only liberated to express any artistic gesture we please. In effect, we are still stranded at the bottom of Koolhaas’ “crater of modernity and modernization.” Only now we are free to play with the bits of rubble, recombining them into endlessly varied and novel assemblies.

From the perspective of Jacobs and Alexander, however, this over-dependence on novelty is a problem, and a serious one. For if we were truly concerned with the human quality of life, beyond the momentary pleasures of artists and connoisseurs, then the first consideration would focus on whatever evidence indicated the best solution, from whatever source. We would not confine ourselves to a particular historically bounded industrial form language, re-assembled into dramatic and novel shapes. Indeed, we would not take that approach at all, but something much more radical.

Jacobs echoed this idea when she declared that the city is not and must not be thought of as primarily a work of art. It is a place of life, and the art must support the life — not vice versa. Art is indeed a vital dimension of human experience, but it is not all of human experience, and must not hijack the other aspects of life. Indeed, it has a duty to support the other aspects of life, and to illuminate their meanings. As she said in Death and Life:

We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity. However, although art and life are interwoven, they are not the same things. Confusion between them is, in part, why efforts at city design are so disappointing…. [This] is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.

Jacobs was harsh in her criticism of artist-architects who fail to grasp this distinction, and the consequences for cities and their inhabitants:

The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither life nor art. They are taxidermy…. Like all attempts at art which get far away from the truth and which lose respect for what they deal with, this craft of city taxidermy becomes, in the hands of its master practitioners, continually more picky and precious. This is the only form of advance possible to it.

Alexander was even more harsh about the irresponsibility of artist-architects. For him the problem was rooted in the failures of 20th Century industrial technology, as I have already explored. The problem for artist-architects was that they allowed themselves — and still do, he argued — to be co-opted uncritically by agents of environmental industrialization, and to allow their architecture to become distorted in a very serious way. Here he is in a 2002 interview that he gave me for the web journal

Christopher Alexander: I’d say that the biggest problem with 20th century architecture was that architects became involved in a huge lie. Essentially what happened at the beginning of the 20th century was really a legacy of the 19th. New forms of production began to be visible. And in some fashion, artists and architects were invited to become front men for this very serious economic and industrial transformation.
I don’t think they knew what was happening. That is, I don’t think in most cases there was anything cynical about this. But they were actually in effect bought out. So that the heroes of, let’s say, the first half of the 20th century — Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Gropius even (very nice man, by the way) — were brought on board in effect to say, OK, here’s all this stuff happening, what can you do with it? Let’s prove that it’s really a wonderful world we’re going towards. And instead of reflecting on questions about, well, what was it that was going to be wonderful about this world — from the very beginning, the architects became visual spokesmen, in a way to try to prove that everything was really OK. Not only that it was really OK, but somehow magic.
You know, there was this phrase, elan vital, which was bandied about a lot in the middle years of the century, and in the early years of the century as well — of, there’s something incredible happening here, we’re part of it, we’re reaching forward. But all of this was really image-factory stuff. And what they didn’t know about the late 20th century was only known to a few visionaries like Orwell and others who could actually see really what was going on.
I don’t think this is a very flattering view, and I suppose architects would reject it, angrily. But I do think it’s true.
Michael Mehaffy: It’s essentially a program of apology for industrialism?
Christopher Alexander: Glorification, of something that is inherently not glorifiable. And it’s really very very similar to the ads we see on TV every day now, except this was being done with architectural imagery, and with buildings. And the architects are busy, right to this day, still trying to perpetuate that process that they successfully did in the 20th Century.

As both Alexander and Jacobs repeatedly stressed, art has a vital place in human affairs. Yet the place of art in contemporary architecture has become, in a sense, pathological — a creature of marketing, a cog in the malfunctioning machinery of industry and capital.

This is not an insight unique to Jacobs or Alexander — indeed, one can find whole journal issues on “commodification and spectacle in architecture” (the name of a 2005 edition of Harvard Design Magazine, with a foreword by the eminent critic Kenneth Frampton), or scathing essays by other critics like Architectural Review’s Peter Buchanan. What is perhaps unique to both Jacobs and Alexander is that they proposed substantial remedies — what amount to proposed pathways out of Koolhaas’ “crater of modernity and modernization.”

For example, Jacobs also pointed to the dangerous and sometimes hidden influence of money in generating urban ills. Here is a passage in Death and Life, talking about slum investments — but she could just as easily be talking about other distorting influences of what she termed “money floods”:

Cynics — or at least the cynics I talk to — think that pickings are made so easy nowadays for exploitative money in cities because the investment shadow world represents powerful interests, with a big say somewhere behind the legislative and administrative scenes. I have no way of knowing whether this is true. However, I should think that apathy on the part of the rest of us has something to do with the situation.

But unlike Koolhaas, Jacobs was no urban nihilist. For her the problems of money were not “in some dark and foreboding way, irrational” (as she said in the last chapter, quoting Warren Weaver). We had the means and the ability to respond — and hence the responsibility — for example, through changes in tax policy (part of a larger topic that I will explore in the last section). Like the problems of organized complexity, these problems could be understood, and managed:

The forms in which money is used for city building — or withheld from use — are powerful instruments of city decline today. The forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration — from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex and gentler change.

As Jacobs argued later — notably in her book The Nature of Economies — there is a close analogue in the way that biological systems operate to evolve complex forms of order. This was an analogue that Alexander also repeatedly explored, as we have seen. As we have also seen, Alexander went much farther than Jacobs into detailed questions of the natural and especially biological processes of form-generation, and the lessons for human designers.

In this biological comparison, art, we may say, is not unlike the expressive signaling of creatures, when they wish to express signs that convey meaning: I am a strong and healthy mate, or I am aggressive and powerful, or I carry a deadly toxin. Of course the expressive characteristics of human art are vastly richer and more complex. Their powers of abstraction and inter-connection are vastly greater. But as the linguist Noam Chomsky has long argued (with a notable influence on Alexander), the “deep grammar” of human language, and ultimately of human art, draws from the same source of deep structural meaning.

This implies, however, that there is a natural balance between the expressive functions and the deeper structural functions by which human needs are satisfied. The expressive functions may soar into the realm of abstraction and complex cultural ideas; but they are not wholly invented from a blank slate. They have their roots in the natural and biological world.

This balance has profound implications for aesthetics, a topic that Alexander later explored. In a sense, the patterns that we find beautiful are natural outgrowths of the patterns of biological and natural order that we also find quite beautiful. This insight is one of the fundamental ideas behind the topic of biophilia, and there is intriguing evidence of its importance to human well-being.

Another, more controversial idea — but one that is overdue for a proper examination on the evidence, free of stylistic ideologies — is that many of the patterns of traditional art and architecture are universal expressions that are rooted in biological and physical realities. We cannot wholly ignore them, and we should certainly recognize that they imply a balance with deeper patterns of human experience and need, quite apart from specific (often highly abstracted) artistic expressions.

One could say, then, that the historical shift to an over-emphasis on the expressive functions of architecture has hobbled its capacity to meet human needs — rather like the heavy plumage of certain species of bird of paradise hobbles their ability to fly. Worse, in our case we have in effect condemned ourselves to creating a new plumage with every flight, ever heavier and more cumbersome.

Indeed, it is even worse than that: now the wings must be redesigned too, in some clever inventive way. Perhaps they need some dramatic new swoop at the back, some curlicue at the ends? Whatever we do, we must not do the same old boring Bernoulli shape. Perhaps we will use the same old feathers and bones, but they must take on some radical new form.

Another instructive analogy is with the dorsal fin of a porpoise. Suppose the porpoise said to itself, whatever I do, I must not repeat that old tired shark dorsal fin from 300 million years ago. That is not of my time, and I need something exciting and original. I know that the complex ocean environment has not really changed — the complexities of turbidity and laminar flow. I know that the shark’s dorsal fin is an exquisite solution. But I am forbidden to use it!

As this little comparison suggests, the consequences for our evolutionary capacity to generate successful environmental structures are profound. We can no longer rely on the most robust forms of adaptive problem-solving embodied in our own genetic repository, regardless of how successful they have been in the past. We have trapped ourselves in an ever more escalating, ever more desperate pursuit of novelty — and it is motivated by a corrupting idea of consumption, brought about by the distortions of a faulty industrial age.

Here is the critic Kenneth Frampton, speaking (in the aforementioned issue of Harvard Design Magazine) of the early modernist architect Peter Behrens, also considered the “father of corporate branding”:

… When [Behrens] became the architect to the AEG corporation in 1908, he would have hardly understood the demagogic ephemeral nature of branding in today’s terms. At the turn of the century, Behrens could still entertain the illusion that he was determining the overall quality of a new industrial civilization, whereas today’s brand designers are not only dedicated to the gratification of consumer taste but also to the stimulation of desire, knowing full well that everything depends on the sublimating eroticism of consumption as opposed to the intrinsic quality of the thing consumed.

Peter Buchanan, critic for Architectural Review, has been even more scathing about the outcome of contemporary consumer-oriented design culture (in “Empty Gestures: Starchitecture’s Swan Song,” 2015):

Future architects will look back at our times astounded by our confusions, gullibility and inability to exercise critical judgement... The flaws in all this stuff, and its utter irrelevance to the urgent problems of our times, are so obvious future generations will be aghast it was ever taken seriously, let alone mistaken for heralds of the future.

In this unreformed view of architecture, no longer can we build on context. No longer are we free to use whatever is the best possible solution from a human point of view, from whatever source in time and space. No longer can we carefully evolve adaptive solutions that grow in complexity and coherence. On the contrary, as Koolhaas has pointed out, “the work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing.” It is chaotic, noisy, disordered.

It is of course unfair to blame the architecture profession solely for all the complex malfunctions of cities, and of our other complex forms of unsustainable disorder. As Jacobs, Alexander and others described, it is necessary to understand other areas of malfunction, including the development process, the distorted processes of economic feedback, broader misconceptions of the city, and other failures.

At the same time, neither is it reasonable for architects to suppose that they can go on with business as usual, cloaking ever more conceptually exotic guises on the same disastrous industrialization of the built environment. Neither is it reasonable for architects to hide behind their artistic rationales, and evade professional responsibility for the quality of the human environment. The times demand a more radical, thoroughgoing set of reforms, for architecture no less than for urbanism.

As Buchanan argues, the status quo is, at best, irrelevant to the urgent problems of our times. At worst it is a major impediment to the successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda, and its ability to respond to those problems. As I will explore in the next chapter, perhaps no problem is more urgent than the urban response to climate change.