Monday, August 27, 2007
This is a sloppy Guardian piece about the architect Rem Koolhaas. It sets up an important conflict - between Koolhaas's CCTV building in Beijing and the hutongs that are being destroyed to make way for such monuments - and does nothing with it. The conflict is all about context and the meaning of architecture. This video will give you some idea of what Koolhaas is up to. His context is a city of skyscrapers. Stretched out into a single column, his building would look like any other skyscraper, but it succeeds because of its distorted form. It will, I am sure, be brilliant; Koolhaas is a fine architect. But there's something troubling about these gesture buildings with which contemporary architects make their names. They - Hadid, Koolhaas, Gehry etc - are obviously slugging it out in some international weirdness contest. I don't hear much discussion of interiors, landscape or context, but I do hear a great deal about extravagant exterior shapes. There are occasional attempts to say these are the cathedrals of secularism, but this is undermined, first, by the fact that they cannot be built to last and, secondly, by the fragility and circularity of their contextual foundations. These buildings are overwhelmingly about other buildings, they lack the fabric of metaphysical and social narratives which, in effect, sculpted the medieval cathedrals. Furthermore, the architects' signatures are writ so large that they almost invalidate architecture's social role. A great eighteenth century architect may have been a star of his time, but, stylistically, he was also the servant of his time - as represented by his client, not of his ego. A spell of decent architectual anonymity might now be a good thing. Here in Norfolk I am surrounded by utterly anomymous buildings - churches in Salle, South Creake, Salthouse and elsewhere - that are masterpieces beyond anything attainable by Koolhaas. (I took an American architecture student to Salle and he fell to his knees, saying he could tick off one more item on his lifetime list.) And they are masterpieces, in large part, precisely because of their anonymity.
The problem with these contemporary big names and their weird buildings is that they are widening the gap between art and and life. They are creating elite structures that have no aesthetic contact with people's imaginations, homes and streets. They are intensely scholastic figures. This, I suspect, may be the reason why we live in such a dismal age for domestic architecture and why so much domestic interior design now apes the manners of late modernism, persuading the occupants that they should feel at home in an office or restaurant. I love modern architecture. It has provided some of the great aesthetic thrills of my life. But we are in a bloodless phase of corporate mannerism sustained by brilliant but scholastically-inclined and over-competitive architects. It will pass. But sadly, by then, the hutongs will be long gone.
PS. And, just to add, this is the worst example of this current style I have ever experienced (I stayed in the hotel) - a terrible, terrible building.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:58 am