Libeskind's fall to the level of theme park
The sudden fall from grace of Libeskind (AJ 6.3.03) tells us more about London than about Desperate Dan.
Schoolchildren educated abroad are taught how to think.
They are taught that thinking is a variety of athleticism independent of any purpose. Its essence is the ability to transpose an idea between one medium and another. It is a somewhat exhilarating activity that, like all sports, takes a lot of preliminary setting up and endless practice.
One of the problems with thinking, and what makes it more enjoyable to those that reach 'pro' standards, is that no one, except the best players, can recognise whether the ball is in the air, still in the player's pocket or out of the window. This sort of thing has always been thought unsporting in Britain, and an invitation to charlatanism, both of which it is. So we discourage it and leave our schoolchildren incompetent in philosophy.
Clever types of this sort were seldom to be found in architecture. Playing with bricks and drains on a drawing board was too dull for them.Of late, however, not only has constructive technique allowed one to build almost anything, but digital geometry now allows anything to be described in 'machine code'.
It is this that has attracted minds of Libeskind's calibre down into the sub-cerebral levels of the building industry. The intellectually enjoyable activity of thinking can now transpose 'ideas', of any sort, into the gross dimension of the human lifespace and go on to get them built.
I remember Jeffrey Kipnis (from Eisenman's office), another American genius raised on music, recounting that he had read all the books on architectural theory, found them intellectually wanting (which they are) and decided that the field was wide open for a general theory of space-development.
Architecture, Kipnis allowed, was clearly a rarity, so he deferred it to the status of 'addon chrome fenders'.
Kipnis went on to describe how a city design that he claimed to be currently supplying to some authority in the People's Republic of China was inspired by a dirty patch on the wall of his office in the Architectural Association, that reminded him of the satellite picture of an anticyclonic spiral. All of his proposed buildings were warped cubes. Presumably the wind was very strong.
The question is: how are the 'Path of the Fireman Heroes', and the 'Elevation of the sun at 9/11' different from Disney? Who, in architecture today, can articulate this 'difference'? What is 'kitsch' but that one-on-one closure of word and thing that brings athletic, intensive, thinking to a stop. What is kitsch but that communicative activity satirised by Swift in the Philosophical Academy of Brobdignag?
Here the savants, pursuing absolute and literal truth, and scorning the unreality of words, 'spoke' by exchanging the objects to which a word would refer. They staggered around under knapsacks stuffed with sticks and stones and oddments that they might find conversationally critical.
In architecture the Brobdignagian equivalent is Arts and Crafts, Truth to Materials, Naked Structure, Honest Construction and, more recently, High Tech, all tendencies well familiar to the Purists and Rigorists (yes, that is what they called themselves) of the 1740s (not a misprint - minds move slowly in architecture).
An effective medium of the calibre of language deliberately separates word from thing. It interposes a grammar that relates all the words together.
The really well-made media achieve the ability to transpose their conceptual structures into other, quite separate, media.
It is this 'space' and this 'order' that allows thinking itself to emerge, mysteriously, out of a seemingly deliberate disjunction between an arbitrary sign and the 'real' thing.
Reyner Banham advised, in his text on the 'First Machine Age', that architects should 'shed their cultural load', so as to be able to 'run with the engineers'.
He was wrong. Today, having repudiated the accumulated 'learnedness' of their medium, architects still find themselves eating the dust of sub-literate construction managers on the road to professional extinction.
In addition they now find themselves unable to juggle and joust with thinkers who proudly wear their total ignorance of architecture as a guarantee of economic and political worldliness.
The contemporary generation of architects is finding that without a properly autonomous and 'textualised' medium in which high-level 'thinking' is possible, a 'design utterance' is reduced either to Loos-ian silence, or the literal corniness of kitsch. Exit the architect.
Libeskind himself will be conscious of none of the sense, so apparent in the AJ, of having 'sold out' to the almighty dollar or 'changed his intellectual spots', or should that be 'shards'?
The US understands, much better than we do in Britain, the autonomous nature of thinking, and respects its power. All that Americans look to Britain for is some sort of civilising 'brake' on their 'freethinking'.
I think it might, however, be cool if the British learned to exercise the techniques of 'thinking' and hiked-up their game in 'architectural culture'.
Then we could tell if Libeskind drops the ball and what the difference is between his ideas and those governing the designs of theme parks.
John Outram, by email