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Debunking Theoryspeak

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‘Why…do architects feel duty-bound to talk aesthetic and philosophic rubbish? And why, more importantly. are clients impressed and even intimidated by it?’. John Silber is one of the few adversaries of contemporary architectural icon-making informed and weighty enough to be taken seriously by designers and public alike.

The son of an architect, and a philosopher by trade, he was president of Boston University for 25 years, then its Chancellor from 1996 to 2003. In those capacities, he watched how the grander educational establishments on the Charles River, Harvard and MIT, repeatedly got themselves disastrous buildings by worshiping their super-star designers. Now, he has published Architecture of the Absurd, an overdue attack on contemporary architectural fashions.

His fundamental thrust is based on practicality. He is (naturally enough) against buildings that leak, or don’t work, or are unnecessarily expensive. For instance, he mounts a savage attack on Sert’s Union building for his own university, which had a large open patio that in summer was scarcely usable because of the heat, in winter was a pool to trap rain and snow, and in spring became the source of multitudinous leaks as the snow melted. He turned the space into a covered ballroom, so saving $100,000 in annual repair costs. Silber believes that the courtyard was an example of architectural wilfulness, based on the architect’s experiences of his native Spain rather than on the more extreme climate of Massachusetts.

Sert’s court may just have been a mistake, but Daniel Libeskind’s buildings are supposedly considered in every detail. Yet Silber rightly points out that it is impossible to work out that that the Jewish Museum in Berlin is in the form of a broken Star of David without having being told so first. And as for the slashing lines of windows, only Libeskind knows exactly how they demonstrate links between places in the city occupied by eminent Jews at different times in history (a complex puzzle made impossible to solve by the fact that the architect designed the linear patterns in plan, then elevated them). The slashes cause grave difficulties internally by creating intense glare, so several window slits have had to be blocked off to allow you to see the permanent collection.

After Berlin, Libeskind did the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where somewhat similar slashes scar the exterior but, in Canada, he described them as forming the edges of ‘a crystal, a structure of organically interlocking prismatic forms…that asserts the primacy of participatory space and public choreography’ – a fine example of what Silber (following Tom Wolfe) describes as Theoryspeak – a lingo that Silber believes the icon grinders use to bully their clients into accepting absurd and aggressive designs.

In London, Libeskind’s design for the V&A extension (the ‘Spiral’) was justified in similar terms. The museum’s board was apparently cowed by the language (and the proposed writhing scaleless hulk), so the desecration of Albertopolis was only averted by the Heritage Lottery Fund putting its prosaic foot down about doubling of costs. According to Silber, Libeskind then darkly announced that London would ‘forfeit its international stature if his spiral were not built’. Surprisingly, the city seems to have survived.

Frank Gehry is the author’s other main target (though there are salutary side-swipes at a couple of stupefyingly banal productions of Stephen Holl and Machado & Silvetti). Apparently, Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, which has some splendid spaces and a magnificent roof garden promenade, is too glittery: neighbours complain that the titanium cladding reflects too much heat and sunlight into surrounding buildings. It has been toned down by covering parts with matt cloth.

Sadder is Gehry’s Richard B. Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, where a lumpen orthogonal concrete and masonry structure is scantily clad in bits of billowing shiny metal, which Silber suggests could be offcuts from Bilbao.

Gehry has changed radically since he was the wacky king of chainlink and corrugated steel in a Santa Monica tin shack. Now he has an enormous warehouse office in mid LA where models are repeatedly created so that the maestro can manipulate form directly with his hands. A lot can be forgiven for Bilbao, but much as I like the man, it is hard not to believe that much of Gehry’s latest work has become trivialised.

One of the reasons for the boom in icon building is of course the closeness of relationships between architects and their critics. We hacks build reputations. We are bound to the designers we write about not by ties of affection only - for instance, the architects own the drawings, and extracting them, and the rationale for the design, often establishes a bond (however temporary) between designer and writer. Further, as a trade, hacks have a tendency to love, or at least be taken in by Theoryspeak (not one of Gehry’s problems). Compared to high flights of pseudo-critical rhetoric, Silber’s arguments and prose may seem rather prosaic (though he can be witty). He may not be a Ruskin, but he is greatly needed. When can he start on the Blobmaesteren, the Super Dutch, Hadid and Koolhaas?

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