Thursday, July 17, 2008


I’m a bit baffled by this lot. They’ve got some big names endorsing their manifesto* (Will Alsop, Denise Scott Brown) which at first glance appears to be The Fountainhead re-written by Jeremy Clarkson.

The Manifesto Towards a New Humanism (or NewTowNHuman) is an odd piece of writing and worth unpicking a little. To summarise, it accuses contemporary architecture of meek compliance with our over beaurocratised society. It states that there are too many design targets and constraints and that originality, creativity and the old promethean fire cannot thrive in such circumstances. It criticises our contemporary inability to celebrate man’s (sic – see Denise Scott Brown’s backhanded compliment) achievements and have faith in progress. It also has a bit of a bee in its bonnet about both the language of sustainability (fair enough) and the fact of climate change (not so fair enough). Generally, it stresses that architects have lost their creativity in a welter of rules and regulations and a mealy-mouthed concern to consult with all and sundry (it’s quite easy to write this sort of stuff – I just kinda slipped into it by accident back then).

So, it seems to combine standard neo-liberal criticism of the 'nanny-state' with some good old fashioned faith in unfettered creativity. A few things bother me about this which are:

The assertions of the individual’s right to overcome mediocrity and the pernicious over-influence of the state seems obligatory anti-New Lab rhetoric these days. This is the default position of most neo-liberals, a belief that the ‘nanny state’ (and is there not something mysoginistic in the endless repetition of that phrase, a fear of smothering women or something?) is stopping our fun.

This kind of thinking occurs in a vacuum without any sense that there may be competing ideas as to what constitutes legitimate freedoms. The Boris Johnsons of this world will always feel that they occupy some common sense middle ground under threat from idealogues. It is a classic sleight of hand of conservatives to pretend that they have no ideology, or that they are not merely protecting their own vested interests. The fact that the rhetoric of freedom usually comes accompanied by attacks on the freedoms of others (kids on buses playing MP3's, drinking on the tube) never seems to occur them as being inconsistent.

The disregard of environmental issues seems bizarre, given that one quarter of the UK's carbon emissions come from housing.** Are the authors denying the reality of climate change or are they merely saying it has nothing to do with architecture? “Whatever happened to maximising one’s impact on the planet?” they ask at one point. Well, I don’t think that minimisation of our impact on the planet is exactly the problem right now is it?

Are they suggesting removal of all statutory controls on building or just some? Is there a period in time where they feel there was the right balance between legislation and freedom of creativity? When exactly did architects design without any restriction or control? The myth of a halcyon past is the hallmark of all conservative ideology.

They state; “We believe that a more critical, arrogant and future orientated cadre of architects and designers can challenge the….localising consensus”. Jesus, that sounds terrifying. And there’s more than a hint of one of Alan Sugar’s Apprentice candidates in that triumphant use of arrogance as a positive quality.

“It is humans – not disembodied abstractions – that have the capacity to create a meaningful world”. Their manifesto is full of endless abstractions. And some pretty craggy old shibboleths too, not least the declamatory manifesto itself with its hyperbolic exaggerations and it’s a-historical this-is-the-time-the-time-for-action rhetoric.

There is probably a lot of things wrong with architecture right now but lack of self-confidence doesn't seem to be one of them. It’s ironic they have written this at a time when there is such an outpouring of bombast from the profession. The last thing anyone needs in my view are more outpourings of the architect’s unfettered creative fire! That way this kind of vacuity lies!

*I have to say it seems a grand word for what is, in effect, a protracted moan.

** Figures from the Code for Sustainable Homes document.


owen hatherley said...

Yeah, exactly - see also their bizarre belief that 'morality' is some architectural orthodoxy today, as if architecture isn't a consummate instrument of class cleansing; the curious absence of corporate interests from their list of the vested interests that threaten mile-high towers or whatever; and, y'know, haven't they noticed the towers and monuments shooting priapically up everywhere from Moscow to Dubai to Beijing in the last few years? There's lots of money for shouty architecture, if you don't mind helots banned from joining unions constructing your buildings.

The sad thing is that I, for one, and clearly a few other people, would be entirely up for futurism and humanism (incompatible ideas though they might be) and an attack on the timid Wallpaper Modernism that seems to be all over London, at least - but not if it's going to be on these terms.

It's classic libertarian guff, lots of this - the main role of the 'state' in British politics at the moment is in setting up PPP's, funding botched privatisations and running up huge bureaucratic bills , but something really needed - oh, like a mass council housing programme - is only ever going to come from the state.

Anonymous said...

Silly me, I thought it was a satire, the funniest thing since the Vorticist manifesto. All that we assert, we fundamentally oppose, we call on, etc. all in the name of architects right iunfettered self indulgence. You have to wonder if they have ever had a job - real clients tend to look askance at architects indulging themselves with client's money.
And "Good architecture need not have an ethical dimension"? All just an infantile disorder of the right, perhaps, but there is something quite weird about a crypto-fascist denunciation of an orthodoxy that is already further down the road of totalitarian self indulgence than even their wildest dreams. Don't they read magazines, haven't they heard of Dubai?

Charles Holland said...

The whole thing strikes me as weird and confused and, typically, blames the wrong things on the wrong people. And its all such infantile posturing. Slightly away from the point but I've been amazed at how the language of civil liberties and 'freedom' has been co-opted by people who have no interest in any such thing. Everyone from climate change deniers, countryside alliance members to people like Peter Hitchens now routinely accuse everyone else of some political correct form of mind control. It's such a gross perversion.

Charles Holland said...

As is, indeed, the horrible pejorative expression 'political correctness' itself. It's another reactionary sleight of hand, taking the principles of equality (feminism, anti racism etc) and somehow turning them into their opposite. As if the world were somehow more free, less controlled before legislation promoting equality. There is a strangely prevalent idea that only the left legislates. All the laws of the right are somehow natural.