Buildings, Meanings and People At the Victoria & Albert Museum on 25 October
The unexpected absence of Daniel Libeskind from this RIBA/V&A debate left an interesting, and perhaps appropriate, vacuum at its heart. Architects do strive to represent and convey 'meaning', whatever that may be, in their work, but they operate as only one element in the complex matrices of circumstances and players that result in the production of buildings, and it is often misleading to present architectural ideas as if autonomous and self-sustaining.
In this case, Libeskind's absence meant the spotlight was directed on Richard Sennett, sociologist and former New York City planner, who spoke of cities rather than buildings, and social, rather than artistic, imagination. Sennett declared that 'something has gone wrong in our conception of what a city should be', and that the cities we live in have little resemblance to ideals of urban cleanliness and safety, efficient public services, cultural stimulation and social equality. This is due, he suggested, to a failure of imagination and an inability to conjure up the images needed to confront those in authority.
But Sennett's subsequent dismissal of mid-20th-century Modernist initiatives in addressing urban problems - illustrating a vivid social and urban imagination at work - seemed trite and casual.He suggests that 'the art of designing cities declined drastically', becoming 'crude and barbarian', as a result of an overweaning 'control freakery' foreshadowing that of New Labour.
On the contrary, Le Corbusier's plans for Paris are fascinating, sophisticated and creative, though perhaps hard to comprehend if not studied within the political, economic and social context of the time. Le Corbusier demonstrated an acute perception of the problems that cars and housing need were to cause in modern cities, and set out to develop radical alternatives based on the premise that historical urban traditions would become redundant as a result - a truth that nobody wants to face today. It is then narrow-sighted both to rubbish this passionate, innovative and daring idealism, and to assume that everyone in their right minds will share that view.
Sennett repeatedly demonstrates a great nostalgia for the historic city (indeed, it has led him to abandon the US and make his home in the 'old world' of Europe), but, as Linda Grant demonstrated, plenty of people have suffered from historic nostalgia, which is so 'stifling to the spirit', as she puts it, obstructing change and new growth, and indeed bolstering tyrannical hegemonies of power.
She described London as an 'archaeological city', where undistinguished buildings are used as ideological tools to control the population and suppress freethinking, individual initiative. In contrast, she evokes the idealism and forward-thinking embodied in a city such as Tel Aviv, the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings in the world, constructed to house a new and extremely diverse community of people who had willingly abandoned persecution in the ghettoes of medieval, disease-ridden, and grossly divisive cities in other parts of the world.
Sennett is right to criticise the homogeneity and mediocre quality of 'traditional' cities in their modern forms, but he over-simplifies and misrepresents the case by laying the blame at the door of the intellectuals and artists of the last century - as the latter part of his presentation made evident. The fault, rather, lies with a social and economic system that everyone, through a thorough-going ideological commitment to self-interest and material gain at the expense of ethical and spiritual values, helps to sustain.
Sennett sets out clearly the problems of a society viewed as a closed system, governed by principles of 'equilibrium and immigration'. In other words, a belief in 'balancing payments' on the one hand - ie a profound reluctance to commit resources and do one thing really well, so compromising excellence in every field - and, on the other, a deep suspicion of 'things that don't fit', to the extent that 'foreign experiences are vomited out', creating 'an obvious bar to experiment'.
But Sennett attempts to absolve ordinary people from blame, identifying 'state socialism' as a convenient political scapegoat.
To enter into a debate about 'buildings, meanings and people', it is necessary to address the concept that people get the buildings they deserve - and, on the whole, if they get better ones rather than worse, they are lucky, because most architects who commit themselves to producing good rather than mediocre buildings are likely to sacrifice themselves financially.
Nobody wants to stand up against a system where architecture is basically in the control of speculative developers and construction companies, because to do so is to challenge the whole economic basis of society - the principle that every individual should have the right to maximise their own material gain at the expense of the common good. That doesn't stop the pundits turning round and lamenting the moral and ethical 'malaise' of modern society, of course - from anti-social behaviour, including vandalism, gun crime and drug addiction on the one hand, to bad buildings and a degraded urban environment on the other.