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The Globalisation of Modern Architecture by Robert Adam

Robert Adam’s The Globalisation of Modern Architecure takes a compelling and broad-ranging look at the output of the architectural world, writes James Pallister

It may seem an unlikely choice of subject for an architect known for being a practitioner of – say it sotto voce – ‘traditional architecture’, but Robert Adam has completed an impressively comprehensive and compelling survey of contemporary social and political theory. This has been deployed, in this dense yet lively book, to illuminate the output of the architectural world. The Globalisation of Architecture is an incredibly rich work, ambitious and broad-ranging. It is the product of an academic pursuit separate from his life as a practitioner and has won plaudits from Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, sociologist Scott Lash and Charles Jencks.

Adam’s initial interest in globalisation was prompted by a desire to study how architecture worked on the basis not of abstract aesthetic, technological or philosophical precepts, but on how people interact on a daily basis. This led him to explore political economy and social theory. Very soon, the stuff of his everyday – architecture – seemed to be insignificant, secondary or tertiary, mere symptoms of broader, structural shifts.

Architecture and urban design, Adam points out, are service industries

Architecture and urban design, Adam points out, are service industries: ‘minor players in the broad sweep of social and political developments … no major social changes can be traced back to architecture’. Architecture follows politics and economics, not vice versa. This leaves an important puzzle, as he writes in his introduction. Why aren’t the seismic financial and political events we read about in the papers reflected in the architecture world?

Adam’s answer comes from sociologist William Ogburn and Annales School historiographer Fernand Braudel. Ogburn coined the term ‘cultural lag’ in 1922, useful in explaining the different paces at which economic and cultural events unfurl. Braudel emphasised the impact of long-term structural shifts: events come and go, but are ‘played out against a slower-moving […] cyclical history’. Together Ogburn and Braudel help us understand how ‘slow-moving cultural change can coexist quite naturally with more rapidly moving events’.

The first hundred pages or so are taken with a quick history of the world, sketching out colonisation; the post-war consensus; the end of the Cold War and the supremacy of the North Atlantic economies. Throughout, the rise, crisis and reformulation of modernism is discussed. The last two parts/chapters ‘How globalisation makes things the same’ and ‘How globalisation makes things different’, move from broad political-economy strokes to a more micro-sociological level and a discussion of the contradictions which characterise globalisation. British sociologist Leslie Sklair places architects (‘globalising professionals’) within what he calls a Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC).This group self-consciously ‘seek to project images of themselves as citizens of the world’, a description which any self-respecting architect would fit (Italian hillside towns, anyone?).

A certain homogenous lifestyle is shared among this informational elite

As Manuel Castells puts it, a certain homogenous lifestyle is shared among this informational elite that ‘transcends the cultural borders of all societies’. This includes ‘jogging, the mandatory diet of grilled salmon and green salad; the ubiquitous laptop computer […] internet access; the combination of business suits and sportswear; the unisex dressing style, and so on’.

Like the growth of the marketing of international cities  – discussed in Part III along with a dissection of the Bilbao Effect, the ‘Iconic’ building and the Star Architect phenomena – architects have been both driven by, and contributed to, this spreading shared global culture. This is where Adam’s deployment of the second major sociological schema – structuration theory and reflexive modernity – comes in.

Structuration is the theory developed by Anthony Giddens to reconcile two classic, competing, explanations of human behavior: societal structures and individual agency. Simplified, the theory goes that individuals simultaneously are informed by, and reproduce – and therefore through their agency can change – societal structures. So in architecture, practitioners react against, reproduce and redefine work from preceding years. Adam quotes Hans Ibelings’ description of the ‘contemptuous aversion to Modernism displayed by Postmodernist and deconstructivist architects [which gave] way to a more nuanced view’ to a point where, as Patrik Schumacher wrote in the AJ (AJ 10.04.10): ‘The mainstream has returned to a sort of pragmatic Modernism with a slightly enriched palette; a form of eclecticism mixing and matching elements from all Modernism’s subsidiary styles.’ Adam calls this ‘Reflexive Modernism’, a style which in the 1990s spread throughout the globe, along with the business suit, the English language, and western brands.

It is in the discussion of critical regionalism and sustainability in Part IV that the book picks up pace, moving from largely historical description to more analytical commentary. He makes the perceptive observation that the spread of the sustainability movement – incubated in grass roots and supra-governmental organisations in the 1970s – into architecture ‘filled the moral vacuum’ in the profession left by the (1970s and 1980s) crisis of confidence in Modernism. Meanwhile, the notion of what sustainability encompasses has shifted from solely technological concerns about fuel usage to a point where ‘the community itself becomes the object of the concept of sustainability’.

This requires architecture which articulates and bolsters existing notions of community. Adam argues that Reflexive Modernism was poorly suited to this. There was a strand of Modernism which was typified by Ernesto Rogers and Richard Neutra. In their essay ‘The Grid and the Pathway’ (1981) Tzonis and Lefaivre called this Critical Regionalism. This term was later popularised by Kenneth Frampton’s writings, himself inspired by Paul Ricoeur’s 1965 exploration of the paradox of ‘how to become modern and return to sources’ while avoiding – as Frampton wrote – the ‘sentimentality identified with the vernacular’.

‘It has become routine for architects to describe their work as locally responsive’

This has gone mainstream. As Adam puts it: ‘It has become routine for architects to describe their work as locally responsive, whether or not they make any reference to Frampton.’ Once built, a globe-trotting architect’s vision of local ‘identity’ as inspiration for formal geometries or metaphor riffing can yield absurd results, making sense to no one who isn’t party to the internal meta-narrative. Despite this, the buildings can in turn bolster local identity. Adam takes Miralles’ Scottish Parliament Building as an exemplar, its irregular facade apparently informed by an abstracted version of Henry Raeburn’s painting The Skating Minister (1790s).

The micro-sociology of architecture isn’t really Adam’s concern in this volume but, if it were, now would be a good point to jump into it. His analysis draws attention to points where passionately held opinions rest on ideologically shakey foundations, apparently informed more by group cultural norms than by conscious study. Further parsing of this would be rewarding: looking at why these shibboleths exist and how they are passed down and adapted. This type of work is done well, in a conversational style, by Adam in his humorous ‘Seven Sins of Architects’ (AJ 04.11.10) and by Jeremy Till in the first few chapters of Architecture Depends, where he describes the transformation of students who study architecture into gleefully caffeine-dependent, self-aware Architecture Students.

Elaboration of this type of study (see Dr Garry Stevens’ The Favoured Circle [2002]) could be instrumental in helping the profession – in particular its education system – change for the better.

Any such analysis would illuminate the machinations behind why many architects may never pick up this book: Adam’s status as a ‘traditional’ architect, and his work, which puts him – for many – beyond the pale of mainstream practice. More fool them. They’d find it an entertaining, informative and stimulating read.

The book does not end with any great reveal about how the future of architecture will or should develop, but rather points to the increasing influence on architecture of widely documented trends: increased hybridisation and cross-cultural borrowing (exemplified in the recent furor about the Chinese ‘Hallstat copycat’ village, see page 28) and the gradual transition of power from west to east. Its synthesis of a broad selection of literature on social theory, political economy and architecture provides an informative history of the last century. It’s also humbling, reminding us of architecture’s limitations, and its tendency to hubris when it regards itself an isolated discipline. Well worth a read.

Robert Adam, The Globalisation of Modern Architecure, CSP, 2011

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