Saturday, November 27, 2010

spaces and events

The spirit of 1968 has been evoked again and again this week to describe the occupations and protests over higher education cuts. In the Guardian, Jonathon Jones likened the schoolgirls pictured 'protecting' a police van to the hippies of Woodstock. Similarly, Polly Toynbee was at it too, warming her hands on the fire of radical memories and getting ready for an unlikely rumble.

Talk of students protests, sit-ins and occupations inevitably leads to comparisons with '68, not simply because it represented a period of genuine insurrection but, crucially, because those involved now occupy the most influential positions within the media. Like the endless, soul-crushing Bob Dylan industry and the now universal media veneration of Keith Richards, that generation simply cannot stop celebrating and revisiting their own youth.

In architecture, such baby boomer nostalgia revolves around the ever-expanding Archigram industry, still supposedly the touchstone for sixties radical chic. Archigram were a complex beast, capable of dark,  conceptual work alongside the machines and gee-whizz grooviness. But their status as standard bearers for sixties radicalism is belied by their a-politicism. A more nuanced and politically engaged connection with the soixante-huitard generation was developed by Bernard Tschumi during the late '70's in his book Questions of Space. Tchumi's subsequent career as a building architect has slightly obscured the radical polemic of his earlier writings, which are worth revisiting.

As tiresome as it is to hear the baby boomer generation attempt to relive their youth through today's protests, it's marked that Tschumi represents practically the only architect of his generation to explore the politics of space. Tschumi aside, it's difficult to think of any of the various avant-garde architecture  stars of the last thirty years articulate a single political statement between them. As Owen Hatherley noted in his recent article in Mute magazine about Patrick Schumacher's parametric manifesto, the radical spatial gymnastics of (de)constructivism have happily accommodated themselves to the demands of high capitalism, partly because they had no issues with them to start with.

The deconstructivist architects of the late '80's and early '90's form a particularly salutary fable for the baby-boomer generation. Architects like Co-op Himmelblau still play on the tired imagery of the sixties, espousing an infantile notion of radicalism that is flaccid enough to allow them to design the vast and obnoxious BMW-Welt without irony. Happy to indulge each other in the illusion that they have stayed outside the system and true to some indefinable spirit of rebellion, the éminence grise players of that era far outshine the likes of Polly Toynbee in smug self-mythologising.

In his essay Space and Events, Tschumi wrote: "There is no space without event, no architecture without programme." "Architecture", he went on to say, "could not be dissociated from the events that 'happened' in it". In part, this statement was intended as a critique of the narrow functionalism inherited from Modernism. The relationship of form to function for Tschumi was far from straightforward. Event, particularly political event, had the capacity to disrupt simple causal relationships between the two, allowing the possibility that anywhere could be used for anything, at any time.

The occupation this week of a Lloyds TSB by the University of Strategic Optimism, would seem to fit into just such a dissonant notion of space disrupted by event. How many architects though would recognise the University of Strategic Optimism as a piece of design? The overlaying of one programme - lecture hall - over another - bank - is clearly only half the story.

Both 'Bank' and 'University' are typological classifications of use and not descriptions of architecture after all.  Their forms may have grown up to reflect and embody the activities that occur within them - spatial representations of the social relationships involved - but they remain capable of being re-used and reoccupied for anything. The lack of fit of form to function is, in Tschumi's terms at least, what makes the USO radical. It doesn't belong there.

The relationship between form and function is not instrumental or straightforwardly causal. As Tschumi says, "Murder in the street, is different from murder in the cathedral". Neither the building nor the programme are left unaffected by such radical occupations. It's almost instantaneous dissemination via YouTube etc. though gives it a weird kind of permanent impermanence.

Amazingly, there is very little discussion within architecture schools of the politics of architectural space. The generation that came immediately after Tschumi - FOA, Schumacher and others - took some of his interests in ambiguous, indeterminate space and flows and territories but moved them into a more gestural, experiential direction. For architects, programmatic indeterminacy has become aestheticised into an architecture that represents fluidity rather than genuinely produces it.

Such a dislocation is vital in order for architects to continue to mine the aesthetics of radicalism whilst delivering, in most cases, its total opposite. It's also fairly essential to a profession that is, ultimately, paid to house social order rather than ferment chaos. Hence too, the veneration of spatial qualities - light, texture, shadow etc. - whose only social mode is one of quiet contemplation. That Tschumi's own architecture seems far less rich and provocative than his writing leaves the challenge of a politically engaged architecture wide open. It may not look like radical architecture either.


Flash said...

Hello Charles,

I really enjoyed reading your article! Especially the historico-political connections you draw between the different levels (media, architecture, space and politics) and times (68, now) were enlightening and helpful. The naive comparison between 68 and the current protest - which is not only being made by the media but also by many activists themself - are wrong and dont help the protest. They create an paradigm we can not (by necessity) and we should not want to live up to.

There is a new edit of the lecture-video which dedicates more attention to the spatial-conditions of the event. Maybe it might be interesting for you to watch it, you ll find it here:

Can we put your article up on our homepage as well? It could help us to contextualize future inventions more.

Best regards,
Aston Kruse

Michael Crilly said...

So I think there are others who think about the politics of space and think about architect, alongside art and design, as a profession suitable for passing comments on society and society changes. A little similar if not quite as radical is work by Glasgow based Sans Facon - challenging the understanding of 'public' in both space and art. These emerging themes are being previewed in a film this week in Newcastle - check out Northern Architecture event page. Would be interested in your views on the Northern politics of space and the open public debates we are having. I'll put your name on the guest list just in case?

aidnography said...

You guys don't happen to have the reference for the Tschumi quote? I have found a lot of food for thought thanks to your post, but I haven't been able to track down this specific essay! Thanks!

Charles Holland said...

Hi Michael. Thanks for comment and Would love to but a trip to Newcastle isn't possible this week. Looks good though so have a good evening...and I'll check out more about Sans Facon.

Aid... the quote is from Spaces and Events which is Questions of Space, a collection of Tschumi's essays published by the Architectural Association. No idea if its still in press. Here's a link:

Murphy said...

I agree with you here, although I'm not entirely convinced about Tschumi - perhaps I need to engage with his writings more.

My book, if it ever comes out, has quite a lot about the repeated aestheticisation of political cultures by architects. Archigram, Eisenman etc, and of course Schumacher.

(ps - recently the rumour mill has been spinning like crazy regarding Schumacher's career plans, if you know what I mean...)

Charles Holland said...

Questions of Space is definitely worth re-reading. His architecture has always left me pretty cold with the possible exception of La Villete. But the essays are terrific...he's up there just for the infamous:"Architecture is useless. Radically so."

Bartlett? (nod, nod, wink, wink)?

Anonymous said...

Tschumi's Architecture and Disjunction has a lot of this, and is massively entertaining, but can't help but appreciate the irony that his little '68 re-enactments were done at the AA, whose students presumably aren't rioting right now over increased fees?

Charles Holland said...

Yes, well, the AA is in many ways a perfect embodiment of the Browne Report! Not just in that its students pay full fees but also because the unit system, which it invented, is a ruthless internal market where unpopular tutors are dispensed with the next year.