End-of-the-world student projects should be welcomed by the profession
However alienated and doom-laded the explorations, we need students’ speculative creative energy, writes Rory Olcayto
There has been the usual over-the-top anguish this year from teachers and critics upset by the trend for apocalyptic visions among students of British architecture. ‘A curious picture of introverted obsession and loneliness,’ said Peter Carl, on seeing a cross- section of nationwide work for a recent competition.
He’s right of course. But then, seen in the context of the Taiwanese computer gamer who died after 40 solid hours of playing Diablo III without eating or stretching his legs earlier this month, Carl’s words could also be a comment on wider trends emerging out of contemporary urban life. Much of how we perceive the world today, the news we report and the entertainment we make, suggests the world is on the brink. Is it any surprise that students produce work that feels like it has bubbled up from the abyss?
I began my architectural studies in 1989 at Strathclyde University and the big thing to bounce off then was Deconstruction, or Decon. Among the influences whirling around the school were Coop Himmelb(l)au’s robotic preying mantis on a roof in Vienna, Neil Spiller’s techno-gothic black and white drawings, Aaron Betsky’s Violated Perfection (the pictures, not the tricksy text) and AD editions about cyberspace (again for the pictures and not for the tricksy text).
But then, we also had the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of both Communism and Apartheid and the Balkans’ descent into bloody war. You could argue that this political backdrop found expression in the spindly shattered forms we all loved to draw, even if most of the class wasn’t paying that much attention to the news.
There were three first-class students in my cohort, and two of them drew upon the tough, fractured aesthetics I’ve described above. There must be some truth in the idea that the forms they, and the rest of us, used back then in some way channelled the spirit of the times.
Even Lebbeus Woods, a Decon hero for the students of 20 years ago, proposed ‘a defensive wall (pictured) that could be constructed to protect Bosnia from the invaders. The idea of the wall was not to build an armed fortification in order to repel invaders, but rather to make it function as a sponge, and absorb them’. It would, of course, never be built and to many critics the premise and the crumpled plane-crash aesthetic, appears naïve and inappropriate. Woods himself freely admits the project is fantasy. ‘However,’ he adds, ‘as a metaphor and even an architectural strategy, it has some value.’
Woods is right, too. And the same is true of the projects that critics like Carl struggle to apprehend. Their value is a fundamental one that emerges from engaging with complexity. Which is why the better projects in Alex Haw and Roberto Bottazzi’s unit for the RCA for example, such as Data Harvest by Christopher Green, a tower block that cultivates insects for food and data storage and, intriguingly, as a kind of swarming brise soleil, are so worthwhile, even if they could never be built.
The sheer amount of research Green has carried out, from the data storage capacity of a cricket in terms of bytes to the qualities of three-dimensional Voronoi structures, suggest the young designer will relish the challenge of real-life, large-scale architectural challenges, whatever they are. Good luck to him, I say. And to all the other Neo-gothic doomsters out there whose favourite Pantone colour is Steampunk Black. More than ever the architectural profession needs their energy and verve.