Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Picking up after Frank

Frank Gehry says today’s architecture is “pure shit”*

You have to agree with him, of course, but with a very important caveat.  Based on the quotes, Frank actually did suggest that what he means is different from what his tired off-the-cuff comment sounds like.

The fundamental problem is that ARCHITECTURE is, if you like, the figure that needs to exist against a background.  If so, then as Frank infers it should be architectural art brought to bear on the important monuments and landmarks of a city – a city that is otherwise made up of buildings more subservient to their role as the necessarily self-effacing setting.  Such 'background buildings' might be made by architects, but more in the tradition of a vernacular.  In other words, architecture is not defined simply by the fact that it was designed by a journeyman architect.

If that proposition holds, then Frank is describing a situation particular to architects and their values in the contemporary era.  The profession and the schools today make every architect aspire to differentiate every building as if it is ARCHITECTURE, and demean the relative anonymity of the journeyman building.  That makes every outwardly self-promoting building (other than appropriate monuments and landmarks) bad architecture.  Because such buildings are the major proportion of contemporary architectural production, Frank may well be right in his estimate of 98%.

So what is a journeyman architect to do?  I would say concentrate on making the experience of ordinary buildings continuously delightful, pleasantly surprising at the level of intimacy that affirms everyday life.  Every such building, done well, can contribute to wellbeing, and more.  A good school room can enhance learning, a good hospital can accelerate healing, a good workplace can promote cooperation while achieving greater productivity, a good apartment can make you feel special every time you walk into it. That sort of architecture requires very significant knowledge and skill, but also requires a certain humility.

That Frank is not humble in response to an innocent but poorly thought out question, should not detract from his essentially incisive reflection on a profession that should be.

*  The headline is from Architecture and Design, but the press conference in Spain is widely reported.  Read The Independent version, here.


Anonymous said...

A thoughtful parsing of the differing roles an architect may have, Steve, and spot-on for accuracy of aim at "starchitects".

Mind you, we've always had them, from Michelangelo on, and their ambitions were always curbed by the technology available at the time.

The problem now is that the recent crop have too much computing power and it is now possible to build almost anything one way or another (viz Gehry's crumpled brick facade) so any self-editing process informed by precedent is diminished.

also, the unwritten ethic of being "a good neighbour" has all but gone in the mad scramble for awards, recognition and promotion.

Emile Jansen.

Steve King said...

Interesting that you identify the issue of 'being able to build anything'. I stopped running studios partly because of that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve, for picking up this one! In today's Treehugger I received there is more response to this (, which is closer to what I feel. In addition to Emile's important point of 'neighbourhood ethic', I believe, the monstrosities of these starchitects also fail on 'environmental ethic'. So I struggle with the "no respect for humanity or for anything else" type comment coming from Gehry. While I agree with the message (of 98% architecture), the medium for me pollutes it to an unacceptable level. And frankly (no pun intended), if such narcissistic 'look at me' quality is the definition of real/true/good architecture, then I would be happy to prefer the rest 98% as that at least keeps me in touch with the reality of state of the world today and then inspires me to do something about it; the former does not.
Malay Dave