Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Architecture of Pleasure

Lina Bo Bardi, Museum on the Seashore, Brazil, 1951

[longer version of a review for Architecture Today #232)

Rowan Moore Why We Build
Agata Pyzik

Rowan Moore’s ambitious book starts with an image that is hard to beat: as a prominent critic of The Observer and a former Architecture Foundation director, he is taken by the Dubai’s satraps for a helicopter flight over the now so familiar landscape of thrilling, yet deeply unsettling city. The list of financial excesses and cost of the inaugural parties can be probably matched only by the declining Roman Empire. And just like with the Romans, the Emirates' millionaires seemed decadently aware of the fall that was just round the corner. Moore sees a greater meaning in this, and as if responding to people, who’d like to see architecture as something purely functional, makes a quasi-antimodernist argument: architecture was, is and will be built partly as a result of our madness, as a folly responding to our desires to change the world according to our visions.

VDNKh Moscow
The motor may be love for beauty, for money or for vice, or for power – all of those wishes are reflected in the madness of Dubai, as they are in seemingly much less controversial projects. His book then continues as a catalogue, or an atlas of human follies as architecture. His greatest interest and fascination lies with the fantastical. The most inspiring chapters consider the fake in architecture (or the fake that becomes real), the spaces for love and lovemaking (or simply sex trade) and spaces, that are expressions of power. He discusses alongside each other, Richard Rogers flag projects of Centre Pompidou in Paris and Lloyd’s in London, Stalinist Moscow’s metro and the unbelievable VDNKh, the All-Russia Exhibition Centre for all the Soviet Republics; John Soane’s uncanny house-museum, the billionaire Larry Dean’s Xanadu or rather Dynasty-like Dean Gardens, and the driven in its literalness phallic brothel by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, famous inventor of “architecture parlante”. He’s interested in how an even single building may change the city, always ready to give dozens of examples and in our fascination with power, stating very truthfully, that “we often like a presence of force in a  building, as long as we feel it’s not directed at us”.

Dean Gardens

My definite favorite is the erotic chapter, where Moore assumes a role of an infinitely interested observer, yet not a pornographer, with a wit confirming London’s reputation as a city of vice much surpassing anything ever done by the French. He gently mocks Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, both erotomaniacs, who were in love with Josephine Baker, and their male fantasies about women’s sensuality and sexuality. Let's not pretend in the case of many of the cherished great inventors in architecture, starchitects as well as their less monied, less talented, but still powerful colleagues (all no doubt The Fountainhead lovers), their sexual (sometimes not only) fantasies laid way to many ridiculously self-indulgent projects. Money and power meaning abuse of women shocker; to which probably the chapters on fascinating brutalist Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, as well as Zaha Hadid can be a counterbalance. Architecture remains a hopelessly men-dominated area and as I would oppose simplistic oppositions, it is rare on Moore's part to point out what often is hidden behind the spiky ambitions.

If the erudite delicious passages about the French neoclassicist architecture, bathed in erotomania have any predecessor, it will be the Anthony Vidler’s Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely or Robert Harbison’s unique Eccentric Spaces or Reflections of Baroque. Both are stylists, who want to take the architectural writing to somewhere more interesting, than just sheer journalism. The postmodern era in building spawned not only the atrocities of Philip Johnson (who gets kicking), but also some the most sophisticated writing devoted to make it an expression of the personality of both author’s and the strangeness of the built space.

The consequences of the financial aspect of those follies are present, but not those, that drove the Pomo architecture into the atrocities of the zero degree of architecture, which is speculative housing. The quality and at the same time problem of this book is that Moore doesn’t want to focus on mediocrity, and if so, only on the splendid, larger-than-life mediocrity, like China Central TV Headquarter, project in Beijing by OMA/Rem Koolhas or their Olympic Stadium from 2008. Despite pointing out the cynicism of the authorities, who publicly aim at the ‘openness’ and internationalism, it’s hard to resist an impression Moore is sparing us the final word. The time now is hectic and the readers become more and more aware of the political complications of the last 30 years in building – Moore resists yet an overarching argument, which would turn his book inevitably into a diatribe. Although it announces at the beginning it’s purpose is to “explain this universal drive to build”, we’d still expect more of an erudite of his sort.

LIna Bo Bardi, SESC PompĂ©ia Sao Paulo, 1977

 This book is not a manual, the charm lies rather in those little snippets of information, some great lines ready to be quoted, especially on Soane, Ruskin or sex. it is a formidable puzzle trying to hold together as an answer to how we build and how we used to build, written with grace, a bit in the way of ancient, renaissance or baroque authors of architectural treatises. But what is sometimes lacking is the future tense here. for those willing to know more on architectire t is a great journey though, which in the end, makes us read his author’s and our own judgment between the lines.

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