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American epic

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The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space By Reinhold Martin. MIT Press, 2003. £26.50

While any architect must hope that clients and users can immediately apprehend their building, the distance between understanding and hope grows. Without previous knowledge, public and private buildings merely present themselves as objects, of art or commerce, encouraging lay viewers to apply the same ordering they would bring to shopping. Thus cities and suburbs become static theatres - always the same play, always the same scenery, and the scenery is what used to be architecture.

Making buildings was never easy; making them in a climate of disdain might be close to impossible. Tafuri argued decades ago that our very economic structures forbid architecture, locking out the optimists who cry 'no problem'. Bleak, perhaps, but no bar to research, and in this marvellous book Reinhold Martin constructs a plausible, but not causal, history of housing large organisations in post-war America.

In awe of Tafuri, the question appears to be something like this: using which ideas did architects like Eero Saarinen and Gordon Bunshaft design for large organisations?

Was their work simply a technophile orgasm as it has been presented, or were there other form-making forces involved?

Martin uses a refinement of discourse analysis to suggest that there were vectors of thinking which intersect in the design issues that Saarinen in particular addressed. He begins with the extraordinary historical confluence of Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message), Sigfried Giedion (architectural promotion), Norbert Weiner (cybernetics), and Gyorgy Kepes (visual language). All were in contact with one another, Kepes articulating the endless patterns produced through ever-closer photography as material for formal architectural thought.

Moreover the feedback loop, upon which cybernetics critically depends, promoted the idea that the architecture of a particular brief should derive precisely from a deep, structured reading of that brief.

Banham interpreted this vis-à-vis Saarinen as the architect obeying the lore of the operation. Martin radically argues that Saarinen's big organisation projects were cybernetic, seeking within the brief and the site for reasons of form, which appeared to be totally internal, immanent to the problem. Thus the eventual construction collapses architecture into a meditation on itself and its place, ultimately mirroring that place while putting all employees in windowless rooms, so the place could only be seen through the corridor by the curtain wall on visits to comfort stations.

The logical steps leading to this curious, but inexorable, conclusion depend in turn upon the the growth of research operations within largest companies - IBM, Bell Telephones, Saarinen's General Motors (see picture) - and their abandonment of the collegiate or university model within the context of the Cold War.

Saarinen sought to make his work organic, understanding the term as party to organisation as well as organ. But while Saarinen plays a role, he is not the star in this epic narrative of history. Eliot Noyes, Moholy-Nagy and Kepes are names happily reduced here to thoughts and placed within the largest frame, which includes industry leaders like Thomas Watson of GM and leading intellectuals like McLuhan. Other players include the colour Deep Blue; the development of the ever-thinner curtain wall, with the corollary of the ever-thicker perimeter corridor (NB Norman Foster);

and the uses of the companies' materials for headquarters buildings - aluminium for Alcoa. The development of the office module relates directly back to Kepes' visual language.

Taking the structuring principle that each of these are vectors, the book interleaves rather than weaves the physical and intellectual forces and arrives at no finite conclusion. Architecture tried to be both subject and object, contained and container, signifier and signified, and failed.

David Dunster is professor at the University of Liverpool

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