BOOKS: Stimulating and eclectic survey
At the End of the Century is a weighty book on a big subject, produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art (moca), Los Angeles, to accompany an international exhibition. It contains seven fully-illustrated essays by such perceptive critics as Anthony Vidler, Beatriz Colomina and Jean-Louis Cohen. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, its acknowledgements take up six pages. That a book should not be judged by its cover holds true, for Kenzo Tange's dark Shizuoka tower above a tangle of traffic flyovers (on the front) and one of Hiroshi Sugimoto's intentionally out-of-focus photographs of the Chrysler Building (on the back) give no indication of the range of stimulating writing within.
In the opening essay, moca curator Elizabeth Smith contradicts the publisher's claim that this is 'the most comprehensive and up-to-date survey of twentieth- century architecture ever published', pointing out that - while the range is global - the project is not exhaustive but rather a sequence of episodes, movements and developments that the authors find significant. Smith herself focuses on familiar and canonical images. Singling out such projects as Archigram's megastructures as examples of 'the buoyant sense of possibility and experimentation that characterised the 1960s' - a time when people were taking to the streets just about everywhere - certainly misses the big picture, and helps to explain the gap that opened up between architects and the public. Her lightweight, Panglossian summary concludes with a celebration of the skyscraper and 'the push towards creating ever-greater height records' in cities such as Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. Isn't a giant skyscraper a poor substitute for human rights?
The remaining essays are of sterner stuff. 'Space, Time, and Movement' by Anthony Vidler reminds us of those preoccupations fundamental to the Modernists, where the spirit of Henry Ford and Taylorism suggested the demise of the humanist city. As Vidler says: 'In its unsettling ability to join the infinite to the tangible, the sublime to the real, modern space has retained the double dimensions of utopia and melancholy present in its initial theorisation.' He points out also that many of the recent projects that draw on ostensibly Constructivist legacies, in reality deny all the original utopian and humanist programmes. Furthermore, in the examples by Frank Gehry, even the radical compositional implications are discarded with the re-introduction of frontality and institutional typicality.
Beatriz Colomina's 'The Exhibitionist House' examines the central role of the house in twentieth-century architecture, and the concepts that were introduced to the public via the now-famous exhibitions - with an emphasis on the effects of consumerism in the more recent past. The Eames House crops up as the setting for a fashion shoot; a photograph by Richard Koshalek shows Charles and Ray surrounded by collectables. 'Manufacturers have played a crucial role in promoting modern architecture throughout the century,' says Colomina. 'The discourse around the modern house is fundamentally linked to a commercialisation of domestic life.'
Colomina goes on to consider the recent Slow House by Diller + Scofidio (transforming the promenade architecturale). The housing question, central plank of reforming Modernists, is not only unanswered by this project, and the two others with which Colomina closes - it is simply ignored.
'There is an old and new consciousness of the age. The old one is directed towards the individual. The new one is directed towards the universal . . . ' began the De Stijl first manifesto in 1918. In 'Internationalism versus Regionalism', Hajime Yatsuka pursuses this opposition, concluding with an answer to how one can become a functionalist and regionalist at the same time: 'by pretending to believe it is possible, even if one knows it is not true'. Taking the now all-too-familiar example of Aalto might raise the other question of whether Baker House at mit is regionalist or an early example of signature architecture.
Zeynep Celik extends this theme to examine both early and current forms of Modernist colonialism. Predicated on the duality of native and settler, the French examples of Rabat, Tunis and Hanoi were seen as 'laboratories for Modernism'; Le Corbusier's Obus plan for Algiers took this concept even further, with the new city literally overlooking the casbah-settlers below. Yet the North African vernacular would be incorporated in Le Corbusier's European projects such as the Maisons Jaoul and, especially, Ronchamp.
Celik points out that, whatever the notions of national space and identity, it is the large American architectural firms that dominate the international market and, empowered with new technology, can employ 'third world' architects at low salaries. He concludes with a quotation from Miyoshi, that this is 'an age of intensified colonialism . . . under an unfamiliar guise'.
Jean-Louis Cohen's 'Urban Architecture and the Crisis of the Modern Metropolis' is as concise and revealing as one would expect from the author of the excellent Scenes of the World to Come (aj 23.11.95). The collection then concludes with an incisive look at 'Latin America: The Place of the Other' by Jorge Francisco Liernur.
At half the size, this book would have been twice as useful, as well as demonstrating a minimal commitment to conservation. It is certainly a little 'uncanny' to find Vidler, Colomina et al at home in this cumbersome and eclectic collection - but didn't Brecht once work for Hollywood, and Stravinsky score a ballet for Barnum & Bailey's circus elephants?
David Wild is an architect in London