Against Architectureby Franco La Cecla
With insight into the human side of architecture, this critical assessment displays the shortcomings of modern urban planning as an acclaimed architect issues a passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” He argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold
With insight into the human side of architecture, this critical assessment displays the shortcomings of modern urban planning as an acclaimed architect issues a passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” He argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good. More than a diatribe against the trade, La Cecla makes a call to rethink urban space and take the cities back from “casino capitalism” that has left a string of failed urban projects, such as the Sagrera of Barcelona and the expansion of Columbia University in New York City. Recounting his travels across the globe, La Cecla provides insights to aid in resisting the planners and to find the spirit of a place. These commentaries on the works of past and present masters of urban and landscape will take an important place in continued public discourse for years to come.
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By Franco La Cecla, Mairin O'Mahony
PM PressCopyright © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved.
Why I Did Not Become an Architect
Le Corbusier, for example, may design the most health-giving, labour-saving, altogether desirable residences; but he is no more an architect than a planner of up-to-date and equally (from the hens' point of view) desirable hen-houses.
— Robert Byron, The Appreciation of Architecture (1932)
WHY DIDN'T I BECOME AN ARCHITECT?
Really, why, in spite of my interest in cities and the built environment and the way they enfold the generations who occupy them, did I not continue my architectural studies? Actually, I really did become an architect, but then I began to be troubled, I had qualms that prevented my going forward, my being an architect, my doing it as a career. For years I asked myself why on earth this avoidance was such a sure, precise thing, even if I never felt it was something personal. It was not my choice; it was an inevitable choice. So why instead did I become someone who writes, someone who writes about cities, about spaces, about life in those spaces? This year, for the first time, I no longer felt myself alone. In a Paris bookshop I discovered a recent book by Orhan Pamuk, Other Colours, and in it I found an essay entitled "Why I Did Not Become an Architect." I hadn't known that Pamuk, a cultivated and disturbing writer from the ephemeral and complex world of Istanbul, who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, with his temperament suspended between Constantinople and Istanbul, had also started out studying architecture. Then something happened to him. Having to search for a space to rent or buy in the old Galata quarter, he was drawn in, willy-nilly, as he visited dozens of occupied apartments: in big houses, constructed by Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Genoese merchants and craftsmen, their silent entryways infused with worlds of intimacy, scenes of everyday life. At the top of the double staircases that led up from the lobby, apartments opened up that had been carved out from many little divisions of these mercantile houses, salons of another Istanbul, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant than now. The writer found himself looking into rooms occupied by children stretched out on old divans watching TV, by seniors reading the newspaper in the kitchen, by strapping women with the questioning air of those subjected to an intrusion but at the same time puzzled by the presence of a stranger. The everyday life that consumed and filled these rooms conceived for other stories and other lives, the replenishment of the space in these old mansions with the more modest but insistent and trivial minutiae of today, the customs, the fumes, the sounds of the kitchen, and the odors of washing and ironing. After having traversed so many lives and followed so many corridors and having spied on and been spied on by the occupants of so many rooms, the reasons for architecture began to fade and then disappeared altogether. Had he actually entered the architectural field, he would have designed, projected, planned, but he would never have had anything to do with this kind of reality but rather something faraway, abstract, and quite contrary to the dimension of daily Istanbul life. He would have planned apartment blocks, flats in multistory blocks like those that proliferate in the suburbs of the city, but it would have been impossible for him to have anything to do with real houses. Because houses are the outcome of the confused, fragmentary, rough-and-ready arrangements that constitute living, Pamuk never really puts it like that — "living" — the whole essay says something indecipherable and precise at the same time. What clouds the vision and makes it frustrating, indeed, useless to be an architect, is the way that the reality of occupied spaces, branded and scarred with use, compares with the perception of them. If I have understood correctly, the question is that architecture knows nothing of that precisely narrative essence from which spaces are made. Pamuk became a writer, because that makes more sense; it is more honest in facing the way his city is made up. He wants to bear witness to this city, he wants to be present in it, gathering with a sharp eye and witty shrewdness the past of places, of events, of its stones. Better to write, to narrate, because places don't stand still, they change with the swelter of the lives that leave their imprints there, with the elusive approximation of intrinsicality. Before encountering Pamuk as a soul mate, I had not understood the relationship between not becoming an architect and instead becoming a writer. It seemed to me that the two things were not connected, that writing was an original, archetypical passion that had replaced my attention to the built environment. Instead, during the course of my writing life, space again injected itself forcefully and, along with it, living spaces and spaces designed by architects. I became close again to architects, or rather, to tell the truth, they became close to me, irritated and upset as they were by my criticisms of them. And with some of them, on various, ever more frequent occasions, I started a frank, open discussion, with the proviso that there be a willingness on their part to join in wholeheartedly and not close themselves off behind the security of their profession. But only through Pamuk did I understand how for me, as for him, writing is the most honest way to deal with the city and with space, because writing does not kill magmaticity, nor presume to invent it, nor expect to exhaust it. Writing keeps in step, it cherishes the stones and the people who live with them, it speaks of the process through which the stones and the people mingle with one another. That which elsewhere I have called the "local frame of mind," a personal and collective history where spaces and territories are indistinguishable from the experience one has with them over the course of time. That is, it is something that can be defined only by storytelling.
Writing is very likely writing about this: there is no distinction between descriptions of landscapes, of urban and nonurban geographies, and of real life experiences. The geography of the novel is not a juxtaposition of disciplines but is an indispensable key to understanding the novel and the geography. We unravel time in rooms and the rooms help us to recover and rewind the thread of time. It is for this reason, if I have understood Pamuk properly, that one cannot do less than renounce architecture, because architecture has nothing to do with the substance of the true geography of the present. This book, the umpteenth on lived-in and constructed space, wishes only to make one little point. Until such time as the city and the practices put into motion for understanding it and transforming it abandon the burden of the stroke-of-genius reformers of which architecture today seems to be the most fashionable representative; until such time as they take back being first and foremost the narration, the clarification of the profound and dense galaxy, of the existential horizontal and vertical configuration in which cities are made, there will be only useless exercises, caprices of so-called creative types kissed on a sterile backstage by the Fates of fashion.
* * *
Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity.
— Rem Koolhaas
Strolling around New York, another city of layers like Istanbul, a city of continuous demolition and contemporary aging, perhaps older than Istanbul, if age be measured in things consumed by obsolescence; strolling and looking at the new architecture of Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Koolhaas, SANAA, I read with an architect friend an article by Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times (December 23, 2007): "Manhattan's Year of Building Furiously."
New York's embrace of architecture has a dark side. ... The majority of today's projects serve the interests of a small elite. And this trend is not likely to change any time soon. The slow death of the urban middle class, the rise of architecture as a marketing tool, the overweening influence of developers — all have helped to narrow architecture's social reach just as it begins to recapture the public imagination. From this perspective the wave of gorgeous new buildings can be read as a mere cultural diversion.
Additionally, New York is about to embark on a handful of vast developments that could alter its character more than any other projects since the 1960s. Twenty-five million square feet of commercial space is planned for Midtown [and] Madison Square Garden. ... An enormous expansion of the Columbia University campus into Harlem has enraged the local residents [who are threatened with mass expulsion]. And let's not forget Ground Zero, a black hole of political posturing, cynical real estate deals, and outright stupidity.
Never so much as this year is there such talk of architecture in New York. Constructions just completed or in the planning stage are multiplying: Renzo Piano presented the city with the expansion of the Morgan Library and the skyscraper for the New York Times; SANAA have finished their strange minimalist museum in the Bowery, which looks like something out of a Muji shop-window; Frank Gehry has a new building near the meatpacking district, the IAC Headquarters building — without the usual metal swirls, it plays with wrapped glass in two colors (the same idea that characterizes the new prison in San Francisco, a work, however, designed by an obscure architect); Diller Scofidio in the same area are working on a linear park on a disused railway line; Ground Zero is still in the midst of an argument even after the supersimplification of Daniel Libeskind's plan was scotched by the realtors. All this, however, has little to do with the city; it is a window-dressing debate that will result in the transformation of Manhattan into a brand, into a platform star-studded with architectural monuments to consumerism like the entire shopping system to which the city is perilously close to reducing itself.
Because of this, Pamuk returns to mind: beyond the architectural debate, beyond the same awareness of the absolutely antisocial character of this new architecture and of this idea of the city, what has all this to do with the real way in which cities live, with cities as complex and living organisms? Nothing. All this is irrelevant. Certainly, masses of people will be pushed out elsewhere, Manhattan will lose the varied and popular character that it had maintained for decades after the war, and life will spring up somewhere else, where the inhabitants will have more space to experiment and reconstruct themselves. And debating architecture will remain sterile and useless because cities are made from a different mixture. Of course it can be interesting for the fans of the various "archistars," to use the term coined by Gabriella Lo Ricco and Silvia Micheli in their brilliant book, to see who will best represent the transformation of Manhattan into a capital of shopping and brands, with the illusion of a bright and aware postmodernity. Charles Jencks predicts in his latest book, Critical Modernism, that a "critical modernism" could move ahead, but the impression is that all this is of interest only for a world of workaholics, a world of collectors. On the other hand — and beyond a certain facile cynicism — is it not really in this sense that one can read Rem Koolhaas's declaration that the only space reserved for the citizenry today, the only way to express democratic participation, is shopping?
* * *
The central question is whether architects who in their work try to resist and criticize the norms of the general contemporary culture/society, are engaged in a futile and self-deluding activity.
— William S. Saunders
One night, sleeping in an old loft on Fifth Street, I was awakened by the noise of the pipes — yelling, screaming pipes. I had no idea what it was, but it seemed as if the entire building itself was complaining in its bones, blaming its rheumatism. Piercing noises of levers, of wrenches banging on lead and tin. They explained to me the next day that it was actually a matter of the old heating pipes that contract, expand, dilate, weaken, and separate into creaking segments. New York is extremely old, as only modernity can be, another theme of which the architects are enamored — Koolhaas scolds his colleagues for not being modern enough, as, for example, the Chinese, who have no scruples about building millions of cubic feet, because modernity is mass, bigness, enormous hugeness, speed. Nevertheless, modernity is finished, and it long ago retired into its old age and departed in its own fashion, and the architects are merely prolonging the agony for their shady professional motives. New York is layered with old stratification, with constant conflict between the wide city sidewalks, three or four yards wide, and that ultimate unsuitability, the skyscraper, completely unsuited for living in, but which nonetheless has to be inhabited. New York is made of other dimensions, those of the Bowery, the Lower East Side, and even the decorous West Side Midtown. A city of nineteenth-century Egyptian, deco, and Liberty styles, with streetlights that nail the evening sky to the sidewalk; with an average height of two stories, the "stoops," the stone steps leading up to the house, built to avoid flooding. This is New York living, in a city surrounded by water. Without the street and its force of attraction toward lower heights, skyscrapers would not exist. It is street life that allows the skyscraper to be what it is. Houses and streets that maintain, even in the presence of the skyscrapers, that vertigo is possible only by returning everything to a horizontal dimension; the daily round of the New Yorker, who never looks up, but feels the exhilaration in gravity. Skyscrapers are a paradox. It's the street life that allows them to set themselves off, a life that now for the first time is really destined to disappear in order to give place to an external image, brand named, for the tourists. Tourists come to New York so they can feel modern, to buy into the illusion of modernity, that delirium extolled by Koolhaas that has been over for quite some time.
New York says what the architects don't want to hear, and that is that their work is practically useless — as far as making a city goes — that what they do is sell a two-dimensional monumentality or, in the best of cases, wrench from their clients a stamped consent for limited containers of public space. To be sure, it is not an easy game. I talk with Kenneth Frampton who sings me the praises of the new extension to the Morgan Library by Renzo Piano. Out of the blue, a very private institution allows an architect the liberty of opening up a covered corridor inside a city block. Here one feels as if in a greenhouse between the houses, a little peephole on the backyards. Sitting in the sterile café that they have installed in it, one might suspect that maybe all of Manhattan could be like this, that it would be possible to make hundreds of spaces like this. But one also has the impression that the game is rapidly being sucked into the new mentality of control that nowadays dominates the city. These are spaces to be enjoyed under the watchful eyes of a whole team of vigilantes. Forget freedom of movement in the area! Raise your eyes to the heights that Piano has created, to the huge jutting terrace suspended over the elevator and your heads, and you will quickly spot a guard who is watching to make sure you don't do something untoward.
It is a sign of life, a sign of community, in part, to justify in a politically correct manner the public function of a gigantic private collection. In reality, it would be beautiful if from here one could leave on another more ambitious journey; if the architects had wanted to be a class of enthusiasts for the beauty of the city and for living there; if they were intellectuals who despised the mediocrity, the showcasing, the plasticification of everyday life. They would perhaps have more influence like that, as groups of lovers of urban beauty, rather than as designers of monumental objects or of porcelain for collectors. Right now, however, we are at the opposite end. Far from representing the troubled conscience of neocapitalist real estate, architects today are, generally speaking, adolescent hobbyists who are selling themselves as public artists.
Excerpted from Against Architecture by Franco La Cecla, Mairin O'Mahony. Copyright © 2012 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Meet the Author
Franco La Cecla is a renowned anthropologist and architect. In 2005 he founded Architecture Social Impact Assessment (ASIA), an agency that evaluates the social impact of architectural and city planning projects. He is currently in production with Radiotelevisione Italiana on a series based on Against Architecture.
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