Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Architecture runs amuck but the plot is pedestrian
Reviewed by ELIZABETH FARRELLY Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture for the Herald.
WHEN Ray Richardson, architect/ genius, gets trapped like a germ inside his own smart building, his first thought is for his professional future. Nine of his fellow trappees die spectacularly at the hands of the building’s artificial intelligence, Abraham – by freezing, frying, gassing, drowning, falling, flattening and electrocution, inter alia – before it dawns on Ray that maybe there’s something more significant at stake than bad press. At that point, Abraham is renamed, and reprofiled, Ishmael.
This is a Frankenstein story, at one level. “All men fear the machines they create,” reflects Ishmael calmly, before coaxing his creator-programmer, still wreathed in god-fantasy, to a quiet but emphatic death. It is also about the Promethean delusions of the modern architect, and about the dread consequences when puny human reason takes on the deeper, a-rational forces of nature.
The story is set in downtown Los Angeles, where even the cops, apparently, muse idly over cultural modernism. “What do you know about modern architecture?” asks LAPD detective Curtis of his partner Nat, as they hurry to the first homicide. The two prattle animatedly about The Fountainhead and the Los Angeles strategic plan, describing demiurge Frank Gehry as “the leading exponent of LA’s f— you school of architecture”, and wondering “why can’t they build a downtown that looks like a place for people?” Well it is Los Angeles.
As a neo-enlightenment parable, however, Gridiron is manifestly out of post-Prince-of-Wales Britain, where modern architecture – epitomised here by the office tower – is not seen as a toy of the social and cultural elites but as a moral player in its
own right. Seidler – Charlie Seidler – gets a bit part as the lank assistant undertaker. Richardson, by contrast, is an architect in the heroic mould, the standard Arrogant Bastard type, whose creature, Gridiron – he sacks users of the nickname – is a fabulous citadel rendering its denizen Yu Corp fully impervious not only to acts of god
but to politics, economics and espionage, both cyber- and regular.
It is tempting to take Ray Richardson as Richard Rogers, unalloyed. In fact, though he features features from all the Greats, from Howard Roarke to Walter Gropius to Norman (Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank) Foster, Richardson is the truest of believers in the power of reason, manifest here as the perfect intelligent building, to save mankind from the swamp. It is for this, rather than any mere political reason, that he has had the building’s fountains stocked with “choke water” and its forecourt designed so that every second paving stone is automatically raised and lowered throughout the night, lest the
homeless find comfort.
THE swamp, however, will have its revenge. Nature is represented by beautiful halfChinese feng shui consultant Jenny Bao, who provides not only love interest but the perfect foil to Richardson’s modern hubris, warning both that Friday was a bad day for the Gridiron, and that it was unlucky to
have a fourth floor at all. The building was all but complete: Abraham/Ishmael occupied the fourth floor. So the $50,000 ornamental carp must flap helplessly in their Ishmael-drained pool. The architect’s Amerindian wife must drop from the Gridiron’s 25-storey Brazilian rainforest atrium tree after countless cryogenically stored, genetically engineered scarabs – released by Ishmael for the purpose – burrow into unmentionable orifices. When finally the tower falls, the project manager, true hero of the story, is surprised to hear still-intelligible speech. Jenny Bao, out-lucking Cassandra, is one of the few to survive.
This is a newish combination of familiar themes and allusions – 2001, Bladerunner, Mad Max, Towering Inferno. Curiously though, for so deliberate a critique of the modern cultural project, there is nothing very distinguished about the plot. No multi-layering, interweaving or tricky sequencing. Nor could you say the book is well written, although it has all the elements – death, love, suspense – of the soon-to-be-released-majormotion-picture promised by the blurb. Gridiron claims to be “the brainy chiller of the year”. It is not clear whether this is based on a peppering of words like dicotyledon and epistemology, or on the very modern presumption that architecture is for the intelligentsia.