Friday, May 22, 2009

Blogs v cigarettes

When I started this blog it was with the intention of writing enthusiastically about things that interested me. I was getting to the point where I felt I could slip easily into a kind of cynical practitioner's world view. Call it a mid-life crisis but I wanted to recapture some of the thrill that comes with studying and discussing architecture rather than doing it. Reading the weeklies and getting enraged by them each week didn't seem a very productive way of spending one's energies.

The idea was to write my perfect architecture magazine; one third Melody Maker circa 1988, one third crappily stapled fanzine and one third Roland Barthes' Mythologies. Or rather - and being generous- roughly one third as good as Mythologies. It was never meant to be a diary of my working or (heaven forbid) personal life.

So what's my point? Well, to some extent this navel gazing has come about as a result of the recent Blueprint brouhaha. Not that I'm put off exactly but I have been wondering why I write at all?

I have, for instance, never really written about contemporary architecture. Certainly not in a direct what-I-think-about-this-new-building kind of way. This is partly because, and without wishing to sound snotty about it, I'm not all that interested in doing so. Besides, there are plenty of people doing that already. One of the reasons I like Owen's writing so much is that he's not a conventional architecture critic. His writing exists on the edges of mainstream architectural criticism, relating it to a specific political framework and a broader cultural remit that takes in music, books and art.

Which brings me to Kieran Long's point made in the comments section of my response to Blueprint's article. Kieran takes an interesting line defending traditional architectural journalism on the grounds that its mainstream position allows it to shock and surprise and therefore move the mainstream position on. Implicit in this argument is that blogs - which exist on the margins of proper, professional criticism and journalism - lack that element of surprise. They are expected to be extreme, partial, perverse, maverick etc.

The interesting about this is that it assumes a centre to architectural discourse. Even more so than Tim Abraham's article, which conceded (albeit somewhat angrily) that the critical centre has shifted. Kieran's point could be re-framed though. What if architectural criticism were not over there but over here? What if architecture were not the AJ technical and legal section, or tedious debates about 'style wars'*, and was actually something very different?

The late Robin Evans once asked a similar question when reviewing Daniel Liebeskind's early drawings. Instead of viewing them as marginal, esoteric commentaries on the centre ground of architecture he suggested tipping up the whole epistemology and viewing them the other way. What if that kind of intellectual speculation were really the centre of architecture after all and everything was marginal to that activity?

So this is what I wanted to write about, to treat the marginal as somehow central to architecture. Not to build a new ivory tower, but as a way of keeping things interesting. To attempt to reposition those things at the margins of architecture - ice cream vans, rocket ship design, motorways and Christmas lights - as not just worthy of consideration, but an important part of the discipline.

I'm aware that this is part of a tradition and has its own history, one that I happily subscribe to. This tradition might include the Independant Group and The Smithsons of But Today We Collect Ads, Dan Graham's Homes of America, The Venturis (inevitably), Robin Evans' subtle deconstructions of architectural history and Bernard Tschumi's seminal reinvestigation of early, alternative strands of modernism.

Esteemed company I realise, and of course the reality falls short of the ambition, but I have as a side effect discovered more good writing and inspiring work on the internet than I ever imagined. In his essay Books v cigarettes, George Orwell argued that reading was a cheaper pleasure than smoking. Blogs cost nothing, allowing you to circumvent the entire publishing business, should you so wish. In this lies the freedom to re-write the script. Not to subvert the mainstream, but to shift it over there somewhere.

Blogging is interesting because it allows you to temporarily re-cast the familiar categories and hierarchies of architecture. Suddenly the lines of demarcation are up for grabs. Free of the dreadful need to appear reasonable and sane, it allows you to speculate for a moment that architecture isn't that at all, it's this!

* And Vicky Richardson has a point about the dreadful apolitical response of architects to the Prince of Wales.

1 comment:

Adam Rothstein said...

Cheers to positivity!

After a stretch of negative rants on my own blog (funny thing is, with the 24/7 blog schedule, a run might be all of a week and a half) I felt similarly. So, I declared the rest of May to be positivity month, and will only write about things I can totally support, rather than the many I can pick to pieces.

Anyway, I feel you. It's always good to remember what they blog is there for: you, not everyone else!

feeling the love,