Monday 24th of April 2017
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OK, so here’s a question, as perennially intriguing as it is unanswerable. Why is contemporary architecture so, well, bad, actually?

 

Some architects find even the question offensive – as though it were a finger pointed directly at them (to which I say, if the cap fits…) But of course the issue goes far beyond mere design prowess, mere ego. Why is it that, with more wealth, leisure and control – both individually and collectively - than ever before do we find it so hard to make buildings, streets and cities that please us?

 

For example. The defining moment of the last Venice architecture biennale wasn’t Zaha or Gehry, who are by now entirely predictable. It wasn’t the Japan pavilion’s enchanted foliage (though this was a personal favourite) or even Australia’s zesty lemon mélange. No, for my money the biennale peaked at Poland, whose show took a series of contemporary Warsaw buildings and imagined them, as ruined or reused, fifty years into the future. 

 

The subjects – or perhaps victims – included a glassy SOM tower transmogrified as a vertical cemetery and a Foster office-building, rather along Wills Faber lines, recast as Warsaw’s metropolitan prison, grandly derelict in a curious triangular encounter of Bladerunner, Lebbeus Woods and Miss Haversham. 

 

The suggestion, of course, was that contemporary architecture has failed in its duty to provide good bones for future incarnations. And that may be so, but the problem goes deeper, for it’s not just the future that is betrayed. Architecture, it is easily argued, has also abandoned its duty to the present. 

 

Or is the betrayal the other way round? Has contemporary culture somehow abandoned architecture?

 

This may sound like an odd way to describe an era that has delivered what architects so long wished for; a world where corporates and cities compete for attention via their architecture. (Call this Bilbao Syndrome, and witness, most recently, UTS’ Gehry-acquisition media stunt). 

 

And yet - or perhaps and so - the dismal conundrum that is contemporary architecture persist. It struck me forcibly when, as an elected Sydney City Councillor, I spent two interminable years (93-95) attending the weekly, and sometimes daily, design meetings that shaped the new East Circular Quay buildings behind the Opera House. Yes, yes, sigh; the Toaster.

 

Fifteen months or so had already been devoted to thrashing out the vexed issues of bulk and location. Within that given outline, I reasoned, design itself should properly be the architects’ business, and perhaps the client’s. The City, which was at the table by reason of its land ownership (rather than its consent role), should, I figured, focus on the public aspects. 

 

These included the permeability of the thing – and to this day I believe it should have had one more view-gap through to the gardens - and the nice-to-be-nearness of its street and harbour frontages, especially the colonnade; its spatial rhythms and proportions, its light and materiality and the nuances of its transition to water. 

 

In all of it, the columns themselves were critical. So drawing after drawing was made; model after model, full-size mock-up after full-size wretched mock-up. Time and again I was compelled to reject – and luckily in this I had Paul Keating’s backing – the developers’ proposals of a squat single-storey space fronted by skinny, square-section columns. 

 

(This default-position colonnade I tagged, for shorthand purposes, the ‘Stephenson and Turner hospital colonnade’ but in fact S&T were alright. It could just as easily have been named for Bohigas and McKays Barcelona Olympic Village colonnade or any one of countless other godless colonnades of the American century.) 

 

It is already apparent to me, and no doubt to you, that the English language provides inadequately for architectural discussion of this or any serious kind. Descriptors are wanting. One of them, if it existed, would capture the quality we sought in the columns – an amalgam of immensity, dignity, authority, authenticity and a Samson-esque civic strength. In the end we called it gravitas, which, again, is close but not really the meaning of the word but, well, you make do. 

 

This gravitas demanded a column of lofty height, significant mass and genuine muscularity – the sort of physical evidence of inner virtue implied by the Greek concept of arête. It also required honesty: there was no way marble-clad precast would do it. To feel right the columns had to be vertical stacks of load-bearing marble drums, just like the real thing. (Sadly I wasn’t included in the site-visits to Carrara.) 

 

Of the resultant colonnade – well, you can judge. But I reckon, although another storey would have been good and the ceiling should have been vaulted, it works okay. Certainly if popular usage is anything to go by, its teeming pleasure-driven occupation suggests we got something right.

 

And yet, in any comparison with the really confident 19th century neo-classical colonnades around town, the Toaster’s immediately looks as pale and emaciated as those S&T jobs we’d repudiated. These 19th neo-classical columns, further, themselves pale in comparison with their ancient Roman and Greek forbears. So the question returns. Why, with all that wealth and power at our disposal, with all the time and care and expertise lavished on this particular design (and yes, there is entasis in the columns, carefully modeled from the Doric), why could we not do better?   

 

In part, this problem is semiotic. Contemporary culture, sophisticated as it is, has no built argot, no common language that is minimalist enough for our esthetic and resonant enough for our mythic selves. We lack, that is, a symbolic code that might express our common values – had we common values to express without recourse to a pastiche we can only deride. So we end up abstracting the forms of tradition – such as Athenian Doric – in a vain attempt to retain the meaning but lose the tackiness of the transplant.

 

But this just begs the further question. How in our super-articulate age does a viable form-language continue to elude us?

 

A clue is offered by one of Sydney’s finest Victorian arcades. Stroll down Martin Place and the chances are, rain or shine, you’ll find yourself ducking for cover, or just for pleasure, into the deep chiaroscuro of James Barnet’s lovely, stripey-light loggia. 

 

It’s not a world-shaker. Sydney’s GPO will never grace the soft-porn of architectural publishing (much as it is beloved of advertising shoots) because, beautiful as it is, it’s not original. And we, helpless moderns that we are, still treasure originality above all else, including kindness, grace and function – to wit, the Opera House. 

 

Even the most cursory comparison of Barnet’s lovely sandstone Post Office, however, with the petfood-pink Strawberry Hills pretender that in some weird travesty took its place, highlights the problem. 

 

At every scale the contrast is stark. Whereas Barnet’s building is sited for maximum civic generosity - the extra difficulty and expense of spanning the Tank Stream notwithstanding - the Strawberry Hills building actually contrives to render an already unlovely street corner nastier still. 

 

Where the Barnet building is intricately composed and articulated, a careful shaping of local light and stone to age-old classical lore, the Strawberry Hills building is as careless of its civic duty as a hit-and-run lorry. 

 

Where the Barnet is rusticated, detailed, decorated by those wonderful, hand-carved and locally-inspired grotesques that made such trouble for their architect, the pink behemoth expends no effort beyond basic – no deepening of the façade, no enlivening of the street, no transitional steps or gestures, so that is sad excuse for a colonnade is nothing more than a smoker’s haven, and despite the large garden, no generosity of spirit or place. Sod off, it seems to say. Don’t look to me for sympathy.

 

This is the kind of argument post-modernism leveled at modernism, thirty-odd years ago. But here the tables are turned, for the soulless antagonist is post-modern to its pink-and-mirror bootstraps.

 

Sadder still is the symbology. While the Barnet GPO proudly goes in to bat for the dignity of postal service, public service and passer-by, the Strawberry Hills building, built almost exactly a century later, retreats behind its mirrored sunnies in near-total disregard for the human energies that inhabit it, surround it or, indeed, built it.

 

And this is the nub of the matter; time and energy. 

 

Time, like space, is meaningless to us until human life gives it scale. Just as Corbusier’s Modulor makes space intelligible through human measure, so we comprehend time in terms of three-score-and-tens. 

 

And this, time – specifically human time - is the most obvious difference between the two post offices. Barnet was able to lavish human time on his building in what would be, by our standards, vast quantities; careful stone-by-stone construction, hand-carving and decoration, hand-tesselated floors, hand-construction of the clock and its tower. 

 

Of course, human time, being limited, was always valuable currency. In feudal Saxony land was measured in tagwerken, literally day’s-work(s); a tagwerk being the area that could be tilled by one team in a day. 

 

But when it came to buildings, especially significant, civic buildings, time was calibrated on a different scale. The gothic cathedral is the obvious and perhaps most extreme example, where the unit of time should probably have been a life’s-work.

 

Now, though, time is of the essence. Time is money; counted, contracted, ticked off and paid-for. 

 

And how ironic is that? Now that we have more people on the planet than ever, each with longer life-expencancies and more leisure-hours than ever, you might expect time, as a currency, to have become devalued. On the contrary.

 

Only now, and only in our time-rich Western cultures, has human time (call it labour) become so prohibitively expensive that we can no longer afford to make places enjoyable for ourselves.

 

That’s bizarre enough. But it links to another shift, as well, in architecture’s temporal nature. Our meanness with time may be caused by, or causative of, a change in our idea of endurance, or if you will, longitudinal time. The ancients – crikey, our great grandfathers - built for posterity. For whom do we build? For the shareholders? The resale? The mags?

 

There was a time when banks made a point of representing themselves physically as the eyeteeth of our culture; massive stonework, ornate banking halls, carved timber paneling, the works. Now they lease space in purpose-built tilt-up sheds (like BVN’s NAB in Melbourne’s Docklands) from which they can downsize or disappear without notice or trace, like people with something to hide. 

 

Some will argue this as a simple change of role. The traditional city-fabric role of banks and cathedrals is now played by the glitter-mall, the gathering place of our time. But the argument is hollow. Not only does it put mammon – the relentless acquisition of handbags and ringtones – in place of the old god-and-rectitude message. It also asks us to overlook the extreme impoverishment of the architecture. 

 

For these buildings are architecture’s antithesis, buildings without confidence, materiality or presence, constructed in five minutes and aging – badly – as soon as (or sometimes before) hero-shots are published, as though all that stuff about eaves and sills, about watersheds and drip-lines, was a fairy story, invented to scare us. 

 

You could interpret this either way. If Rykwert and others are right, and architecture began with the tomb as a tool for transcending death, our rejection of permanence could, perhaps, evince victory. Finally, it might say, we have conquered these fears, put away these childish toys. 

 

On the other hand, our failure to build as if we meant to stay could be seen as a capitulation; proof that we no longer dare to look death in the face, no longer conceive either future or past, no longer see beyond the synchronous all-consuming present. No longer care, as a culture, for anything but the impoverishing dollar and the all-desiring, all-fearing ego. Who dies with the most toys wins. 

 

If ever there were an incentive for us to find shared values and build on them, this – with the planet itself teetering on the brink – would have to be it. But look at us. Cut emissions? You first, no you first. No, you.

 

Perhaps, in other words, this is the logical end-point of multicultural secular humanism; a world without the shared values on which to base a form-language, with which to transcend death. Perhaps it truly does matter more to us, as a culture or a species, to sog in front of telly or the pokies than it does to build beautiful, sustainable or meanginful cities. Perhaps that’s all there is. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

emf / monument essay / why is contemporary architecture so crap? 

 

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copyright - elizabeth m farrelly

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