Monday, October 4, 2010

maxxied out

The Stirling Prize has elicited more than its usual amount of brouhaha, or perhaps I've just been paying more attention this time. Twitter doesn’t help, of course, turning even watching the prize giving at home into some kind of media event. The programme’s every detail, (Tom Dyckhoff’s costume changes, the awkward interviews with the judges and Zaha Hadid’s truly remarkable outfit) were all subject to an instant barrage of enthusiastic opinion.

Su Butcher at Just Practicing was particularly quick on the draw, posting a humble practicioner’s critique of all the self-congratulatory hoopla and asking the leading question: “What do you think of the Stirling Prize?” To which most people replied, predictably enough, that it was a load of pretentious nonsense. Most wondered too why the prize is awarded exclusively to the architect, when so many other people contribute to the construction process.

Leaving aside the fact that the Stirling Prize is a prize specifically for architects, it’s not a bad point. The prize is, after all, for the best building of the year. Architecture is a profession with a very odd relationship to its end product, which it views simultaneously as both the exclusive outcome of the architect’s will and somebody else’s problem if anything goes wrong.

Partly this has something to do with the way architecture is produced. While fine art is still nominally made by the artist (although this is, of course, not always the case), architecture is the product of many hands, none of which, physically speaking, belong to the architect. Architects make drawings, after all, not buildings. Even allowing for the incorporation of ready-mades and industrialised processes into contemporary art, it’s difficult to think of another artform where the author is so removed from the result.

There is an enormous gap between the process of designing and the physical reality of building. Architects get so used to equating drawings and models with buildings – despite the vast scale, material and factual differences – that they assume an equivalence between them. Perhaps it is this sense of equivalence that allows them to gloss over the work done by other consultants and contractors and claim sole authorship. This equivalence affects architectural education in particular, where buildings and images are discussed as if they are literally interchangeable. 

Architecture involves projection, both literally and metaphorically. When architects design they are involved in an active process of imagining buildings and objects that don’t, as yet, exist. But the mediation of architecture continues to conflate image and physical reality. The accusation that architects are somehow aloof or arrogant stems, I think, from this sense of removal, the fact that they simply don’t get their hands dirty and conceive of architecture from the rarified realm of their ivory tower.

All of which is ironic to say the least given the decreasing influence architects have in the construction industry. The last fifteen years may have witnessed a construction boom but it also saw a steady slide in influence of the general practicing architect. I have ranted before about this in connection with the Carbuncle Cup – the anti-Stirling Prize if you like – and suggested that the glamour and fuss surrounding the event seems to grow in inverse proportion to the number of decent buildings completed in general.

Perhaps this explains the choice of winner too. Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi is unmistakably a big work of architecture, at least in the sense that architects conceive it. It is large, culturally important, bold, structurally audacious and undeniably the singular result of its author’s vision*; a Gesamtkunstwerk that looks better minus the addition of any kunst. Maxxi represents the good ship architecture sailing serenely through a sea of PFI detritus. Perhaps, in the end, the judges considered a reaffirmation of the eternal values of architecture more important than the localised political point of celebrating new school buildings.

This is debatable, not because Zaha’s building isn’t amazing, but because the coalition government couldn’t have done more since it came to power to kick the construction industry well and truly in the nuts. For an industry largely surviving on publicly funded projects, cuts in grants for affordable housing plus the binning of BSF have had devastating results.

In Saturday’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee criticised professional bodies in general for staying silent on the issue of cuts. While the unions take the rap from the right wing press for opposing them, professional bodies like the RIBA seemingly have nothing to say, despite the impact on its members. Instead, the RIBA organises conferences like the recent Does Beauty Matter at which key note speaker John Gummer made predictably philistine remarks about Brutalism and revelled in the privilege of his experiences with classical architecture.  It’s hard, in the current climate, to take this kind of thing with good grace.

Ultimately, the Stirling Prize is not entirely reducible to economic/political arguments, although it is inevitably tied up with them. There are clearly other criteria for judging works of architecture than how well, or badly, they reflect the times. But shying away from any kind of political context is something that architects and the RIBA do far too much of. Perhaps as a result of this, Maxxi seems thoroughly out of time, a grand piece of prog rock in the post punk landscape of public spending cuts.


* This leaves aside the interesting question of Patrick Shumacher’s contribution, an issue highlighted awkwardly by his slightly unexplained presence on the stage during Hadid’s acceptance speech. Clearly, it would be too complex to admit that even architectural geniuses have help.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gesamkunstwerk - not Gesamtkunstwerk

Charles Holland said...

Is it? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gesamtkunstwerk

Anonymous said...

sorry - damn google translate! - you are right

AM said...

"a grand piece of prog rock in the post punk landscape of public spending cuts" like a (late) "space age" architecture for the early seventies film industry...
MAXI isn’t amazing (what’s amazing architecture anyway...) it’s just dead boring
and I don’t mean that in a (good) "Learning From Las Vegas" kind a way...

owen hatherley said...

Like the points about impossibility of crediting architecture to individuals. When I started writing for BD I would always refer to architects as 'he', 'she' or 'they' - which was invariably and rightly subedited to 'it'.

But re: Zaha's apparent progness (and if so, the brutalism of pre-parametric Zaha is surely King Crimson to Greg Lynn's Yes), could there actually be a postpunk architecture? I know you lot are a bit New Pop, but an architecture of harsh, politicised austerity would not be uninteresting...

Also, cf K-Punk's brief coinage of 'gleamprog' to define things like the renders of the 2012 olympics, as opposed to a more interesting 'steamprog'...

owen hatherley said...

And if I may continue in this vein, Ken Shuttleworth is clearly Rick Wakeman

Charles Holland said...

Continue away....Liebeskind is clearly Genesis only with him being both the Gabriel AND Collins incarnations.

I noted that in the Stirling programme, the film of Maxxi was accompanied by Groove Armada, which I thought did Zaha a disservice.

There will certainly be an architecture of austerity but I doubt it will be politicised unfortunately.

AM said...

Lately I’ve been listening to (the great) Van der Graff (Generator)’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Zone (the difficult survival of prog. rock by 77...)
With what "modern" architect would you relate them to?
Also, I once read of Lloyd Cole talk about Massive Attack (circa Mezzanine) as the new Pink Floyd...

Charles Holland said...

Archigram?

Where's Lloyd Cole got to? Always had a soft spot for him despite, or maybe because of, the appalling pseudo-literary show-boating. Not sure about the Massive/Floyd equation though......

Steve Parnell said...

On architects' end products...
I reckon the end product here for Zaha is the Stirling Prize, isn't it? It's usually all the photos and media attention and books (rather than the beleaguered building) but I think if the architect wins an award for it, then surely that trumps the lot! And think of the media attention from that - maybe that then becomes the end product. But I'm getting boring.

Looking forward to a postpunk architecture. It's about time.

As for the RIBA getting political - never. It just can't, despite the fact that architecture can only be political. The RIBA's interest is architecture, not architects. End of story. See your own way out.
It's a mystery why architects aren't more political. Possibly cos they rely so much on others to get buildings built. I looked through the CIA funded Encounter magazine a while back - the one edited by Stephen Spender from the late 1940s (or early 1950s) to the 1970s to deliver US cultural propaganda to the UK intellectuals. There was never ANY mention of architecture. Not a jot. I don't understand this.
The whole question of a unionisation of architects would be interesting, but again can't see this happening as so many are from privileged backgrounds - and it's getting worse looking at this year's intake.

Sorry haven't written on architectural education yet. My head's down trying to write up the PhD. Need to review Hath's book, too, sometime soon.

Charles Holland said...

you are absolutely right. the end product for the architect is not the building but the photograph of the building. this is only trumped by a photograph of the architect receiving an award for the building. worthy of an entirely new post, i think, this circularity of concept drawing and finished image with the building as the messy bit in the middle that you can't control....this leads to my point re the carbuncle cup too. that it gives the illusion of control in a world where architects have very little actual influence. it's oddly comforting.

yes, the riba is a pretty ineffectual organisation and i say that as a relatively recent member who is taking a keen interest in what it actually does for the profession. have you seen its 'recession pack' that it offers on the website? black humour of an inadvertent kind....