Cement Works, Rugby
Since the early days of modernism, progressive architects and critics have lamented the backwardness of their discipline, particularly in relation to the design of industrially produced objects. Within the rhetoric of positivism a certain obsession with the new would be understandable. However, even at the height of revolutionary modernist zeal in the 1920s and 1930s, architects were confronted by the cultural foundation of their endeavour. Whether it was Le Corbusier formulating his five points as a critique of the classical canon, or the architects of the Weimar Republic addressing the conditions of settlement and inhabitation, architects have always found it difficult to remain on the narrow path of determinism.
At the end of the twentieth century, with late capitalism accepted as the predominant economic system, the ideology of newness has become transparently associated with the workings of the market. Now, more than ever, it is architecture’s cultural history that lends it continued relevance. It is architecture’s capacity to be reflexive and critical that sets it apart from advertising on the one hand and pure science on the other.
The Oast Barn, Kent, Facade detail
At a recent lecture at the Architectural Association the relative stasis of architectural form was uncharitably compared to that of telephones and cars. Despite common perceptions, formal progress is largely independent of technical developments. For example, the operation of the telephone has hardly changed since its invention. What is significant in the development of communications technology is not whether a phone looks like Mickey Mouse or an American football, but rather the capacity, complexity, and speed of the networks that can be accessed by the device. Similarly, the Porsche 356 that was produced immediately after the Second World War bears a close resemblance to the new Boxster and looks more ‘contemporary’ than the angular sports car bodies of the 1970s.
In the global free market economy, stasis is never good enough. As genuine demand within existing markets become satiated, increasingly contrived desires need to be created and then satisfied by multinational companies desperate to increase their market share. Within this schema design plays an ever more important role. As substantial progress becomes increasingly difficult to achieve, formal novelty becomes a new focus. Was the invention of alcopops really progress? What advantages does one gain from Word 98 that were not available in earlier versions used in conjunction with QuarkXPress, other than those resulting from the more powerful platform that is required to run it?
Studio House, Swan Yard, London
A part of the architectural profession has always been in the service of the economic hegemony. In the same way that post-David Carson grunge typography has replaced the neo-conservative Baskerville of 1980s corporate advertising, neo-modernism is the new postmodern classicism of the 1990s, being built for the same developer clients and in many cases by the same architects. What has changed is the theoretical legitimisation that this form of practice has received from a number of leading practitioners and academics who state that architecture is increasingly marginalised and can no longer hold onto dreams of an ethical imperative. Contemporary architects, they say, are not in a position to judge the situation of their practice, and if the discipline is to continue to have any relevance it must harness the immense forces of today’s economic and infrastructural systems. Connected to this new quasi-functionalist basis for architecture is a faith in the power of new descriptive tools to order and transform the raw data of society’s underlying systems into completely new forms of architecture. The relative ease of manipulating complex surfaces on computers means that non-Cartesian space and bifurcated-plate plan organisations become redolent of the new architecture.
Recent interest in airports, shopping malls, and infrastructures emerges from an idea that it is these places where the processes of the contemporary economy are most brutally apparent. Paradoxically, it is precisely these typologies that have the least use for architecture. As the development of the North American shopping mall over the last forty years convincingly shows, it is the requirements of the market that are always primary. Traditionally this meant substantial department stores or supermarkets at each extremity of the mall, double-loaded circulation routes of precisely the correct width and ample parking. As the market for shops has become saturated, in addition to food courts, multiplexes, and amusement rides, the look of the mall has been seized upon as a potential attraction. For architects to engage in these programmes is for architecture to become a commodified product and to be subject to the tyranny of the new. However, the processes of the market are by no means rational or immutable. The hysteria that characterises the creation of new markets and the behaviour of existing ones cannot be financially sustainable and, more seriously, are not environmentally sustainable.
Excerpt of ‘The Tyranny of the New’ by Adam Caruso, from Collected Works: Volume 1 1990-2005 by Caruso St John (2022). Originally published in Blueprint, May 1998.
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