Monday, July 14, 2008

The work of architecture in the age of reproduction.

The degree to which reconstructions of buildings is seen as either sentimental kitsch or authentic rebuilding depends largely on the perceived value of the original structure.

Last week I heard Jamie Foubert make an interesting presentation (at this event) regarding resurrected buildings. I was reminded of it in connection with the current, rather odd, campaign to reconstruct the Festival of Britain Skylon.

Resurrections of buildings can take a number of different forms. Sometimes they are the realisation of something that was never actually completed to start with, like Charles Rennie Macintosh’s House for an Art Lover, built some 90 years after he designed it.

Sometimes they are actually the original article but displaced from its original context, such as the reconstruction of London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Sometimes they are precise reconstructions of a building that was demolished such as Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona.

All these re-buildings raise interesting questions about authenticity. Are they all, to some extent, fakes? In art authenticity historically lies within the mark made by the author. Can a building, which is never the product of a single author and can take years, even decades, to construct ever be simply a fake?

For Modernism reconstruction is always a problematic act. Architecture, it assumes, should be an immutable product of its time. It derives its authenticity through its very newness. In his talk Foubert attempted to re-categorise his examples into authentic and in-authentic examples of reconstruction based on familiar modernist tropes: honesty of construction, appropriateness to function, proximity to original site etc.

So, the architects of the Barcelona Pavilion reconstruction would no doubt claim authenticity of detail and location to justify their recreation although, technically, Arizona’s London Bridge could make an equally legitimate claim. In this instance, dislocation in space is assumed to be more inauthentic than dislocation in time.

This dislocation in time has another effect, which is to enshrine the buildings perceived meaning within that of a particular era. The Skylon, for instance, is still synonymous with the Festival of Britain and the post war Labour government that sponsored it. Reconstructing the Skylon, it is suggested here, is inappropriate because its absence is a more eloquent testament to the reasons it was removed. It's political meaning would be effaced through reconstruction.

Reconstructions are also interesting then because it is in their absence, rather than their presence, that buildings seem to gain a purity of meaning. Jonathon Hill has argued that the Barcelona Pavilion achieved its iconic status precisely because it was dismantled. This is not simply because it became more poignant but because it could only be experienced through the rarified medium of photographs and architectural history. It was never sullied through (mis)use. To connect back to the bastardised Walter Benjamin title of this post, it retained its aura. Buildings that disappear are like rock stars that die young: they leave a beautiful corpse. They never grow fat or old or lose their edge.

Free from contamination by the present, the Skylon still represents the possibilities of British Modernism and post war socialism. Whether you want to recreate it - re-released and digitally re-mastered – or celebrate its absence, Skylon’s meaning seems clearer than if it were still here today.


owen hatherley said...

What annoyed me as much as the political dubiousness was the sheer vacuity of the arguments 'for' that you can see on the video on the Rebuild the Skylon website - that it's a 'lost icon', that it inspired the high-tech movement (which historically happens to be total bollocks), and that, well, architects need more support in competitions and whatnot for sites like the Kings Cross gentrification and the Olympics, which is so amazingly beside the point I'm surprised they mentioned it.

Of course, I'm an old school left-wing Modernist ideologue I so oppose reconstruction and preservation in principle, ho ho. But with, say, Robin Hood or the Pimlico school the boomer sentimentality (which was a bit irksome) was tempered by a real sense that these were idealistic structures for people, that theyought to work, and should be given all the encouragement and support possible so that they might do so - it was about unfinished business, but in a way that had some fidelity to Modernism. The Skylon campaign just retains the sentimentality.

Charles Holland said...

Oh my god, there you are in BD too!

It seems a bit of a silly campaign to me and I can't really understand its motivation.