Soul-searching about architecture’s future and three blockbuster exhibitions have dominated this year’s cultural offering, writes James Pallister
Internationally and at home, it’s been a year of huge upheaval. The impact of budget cuts is starting to be felt, foreign markets have contracted and in Europe the banks have trumped democracy. An interesting generational shift is also beginning to emerge: the students leaving university now have only ever experienced recession in their adult lives. Theirs is a crippling double-whammy: entering the job market in the worst recession for many years, with tuition fees – non-existent 14 years ago – tripled.
In May, Zap Architecture summed up a generation’s parlous situation: ‘Five years of university, two years in practice, followed by no guaranteed job’.
For architecture students, 2011 was the year the penny dropped. A smattering of publications, events and exhibitions resulted: notably the Pavilion of Protest at the RIBA, The Architect: What Now? in London and Get Over It! at Manchester School of Architecture.
The students’ interests were mirrored by wider soul-searching about architecture’s role. The AJ’s ‘The profession is dead/Long live the profession’ issue (AJ 13.01.11) kicked things off, followed by the RIBA Building Futures report in February, which speculated that medium-sized practices were, if not doomed, at least in trouble.
Online, US blogger Guy Horton reflected upon architecture’s unhealthy culture of sacrifice, acceptance of exploitation, and the gross inequality between the highest paid and the lowest (the latter is rapidly accelerating in the UK, according to the recent OECD report, Divided We Stand
Why Inequality Keeps Rising). FAT’s Charles Holland dealt with some of these topics, specifically on the competition as an act of ‘commercial suicide’ on fantasticjournal.blogspot.com.
The big books
The Cedric Price exhibition at the Lighthouse in Glasgow was timely. Many practitioners have this year resurrected his notion that ‘the answer to your problem may not be a building’, as in the book Spatial Agency from Nichat Awan, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till.
Subtitled ‘Other Ways of Doing Architecture’, the book presents more than 130 case studies illustrating practical ways the profession can adopt new methods of practice. Together with 00: Architecture’s Compendium for the Civic Economy, it makes a handy little textbook to some of the new thinking.
The prize for this year’s mega-tome has to go to Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume One. AJ regular Steve Parnell applauded its ambition and the potentially fruitful introduction of the term ‘autopoiesis’ into the study of architectural culture, but concluded that unfortunately his arguments are ‘as confused as any reader will be’.
For her biography of Nikolaus Pevsner, Susie Harries had full access to the exhaustive diaries that he meticulously kept throughout his life. Parnell gave this one the thumbs-up: ‘At 800pages, and more than 20 years in the making, it is a work of which the great historian himself would surely approve’. Harries catalogues Pevsner’s humorous mishaps – sneaking out the house to call his latest crush, only to ring his own number – as much as his workaholism: ‘I must just carry on working, with no pleasures’.
Andrew Mead recommended The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism by Nicholas Fox Weber for its juicy anecdotes and remarked on its sometimes breathless prose.
The best of the exhibitions
The first major set-piece exhibition was James Stirling: Notes from the Archive, curated by Anthony Vidler and on show in Stirling’s own Clore Gallery at Tate Britain.
Avanti Architects’ John Allan’s advised the many students he encountered when visiting it to ‘interrogate the drawings, enjoy the models… but don’t be tempted to emulate the outcome’.
Next, ex-architect Pablo Bronstein had a one-man show taking up the whole of the ICA. With clever drawings, cabinetry and sound pieces, it was an impressive debut for new ICA curator Matt Williams. Like Downton Abbey: enjoyable and well executed, but with a reactionary aftertaste.
In March, I wrote that in the time-honoured tradition of deeply unfashionable subjects coming round again, Po-Mo fever would be sweeping London later that year. It did.
The V&A’s Post-modernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 exhibition opened in the autumn; Joseph Rykwert came away entertained, but not much clearer on what Po-Mo was, and sure that unlike Modernism, it didn’t define an era. FAT and Charles Jencks provided a Po-Mo roadshow, popping up at lectures to promote the publication of their edition of Architectural Design, ‘Radical Post-modernism’.
One year before 2012, No Room to Move from Mute Publishing was a good, critical and brief reader on the use of art in regeneration and the bumping up of property values.
Reading it prior to the several placemaking projects sited around the Olympic Park’s grubby fringes was instructive. Among these small canal-side projects by Studio Weave and Atmos Studio, Assemble CIC’s excellent month-long cinema Folly for a Flyover stood out.
The arrival in November of a press release heralding Pernilla & Asif’s pop-up pavilion for Coca-Cola in the Olympic Park seemed to mark a symbolic moment in the recent history of this type. We’d already seen the opening of Shoreditch’s Boxpark, described in an intriguing linguistic pairing as a ‘pop-up mall’.
The one-off parties in vacant spaces of last year have been taken, mimicked and instrumentalised with eye-popping speed, first replayed as component parts of placemaking strategies and now fully blown commercial opportunities. That said, they still remain spaces of opportunity for young architects to exhibit the kind of ingenuity that sets the profession in such good stead.
They also illustrate the relentless churn of capital which the Barbican’s blockbuster show, OMA/Progress, alluded to brilliantly.
There’s a lively discussion of this in the book The Political Unconscious of Architecture, which explores Rem Koolhaas and the degree to which architecture became ‘post-critical’ in the 1990s, accepting and uncritical of its place within the late-capitalist order. Koolhaas emerges from the exhibition an optimist, painfully aware of his twin roles as critic and beneficiary of what OMA call ‘the runaway economic rollercoaster’. The sheer quantity of exhibits made it a beguiling, headache of a show; a telling mirror of the simultaneously depressing and exhilarating times we live in.