Kevin Rhowbotham's put-down of Modernism, the present-day architectural profession and global capitalism didn't seem to leave much scope for hope, notwithstanding his claim to optimism.
Indeed, his RIBA lecture culminated in a condemnation of the current era as 'the blackest of times', in which 'moral culpability has been all but disposed of ', and 'one must remain silent in the face of a perverting culture'. He urged us to consider 'am I independent?' or just 'part of the crowd?' in a 'post-Christian world without direction'.
His emphasis on the moral dimension gives an interesting parallel to that of the Modern Movement, which he dismissed as a 'one-dimensional urban vision' based around the paradigms of 'machinism' and 'bourgeois mores', or 'authoritarianism conflated with liberal sectarianism'. In the deification of the machine, the 'heroic avant-garde saw an opportunity for self-advancement through a disconcerting aesthetic'. But in terms of real invention the movement had little to offer other than the 'free plan . . . which avoids social specificity'. Even Le Corbusier's tabula rasa vision for the city is described as mere 'picturesque formalism'.
Rhowbotham says it was 'not the inventive genius of a section of bourgeois society' that led to the fragmentation of the Neo-Classical city, but the economic forces of Fordist mass-production.
It seems hardly necessary to point out that solutions to the 'ills of the city'must be 'first economic and cultural - ie political', but, says Rhowbotham, this is 'the point where the profession has always disconnected itself '. Indeed, 'any urbanism facing structural alterations to the economy will always be excluded from the inner circle'.
He follows the standard line of thought on globalization being 'the precursor of global monoculturalism' (a view that is now contested by some anthropologists, such as Daniel Miller). But, like Virilio, he focuses on communications and the concept of 'speed' as the key factors in this process of commodification, and examines their impact on the production of space itself and, more specifically, the nature of architectural practice. In the post-Fordist economy, the use of technological communications is essential for profitability and to let architects cater for many taste markets simultaneously. But the result of this practice is hyper-spatiality, or brand-space, which in turn produces a 'soap-opera everydayness'.
While cities 'traditionally resisted penetration at the perimeter', they now try to 'encourage fluid communications.' The hyper-city, then, is characterised by the concept of a 'continuous and extendable floorplate', where 'topography and landscape [is] the primary spatial paradigm', and 'different programmatic types' can be accommodated simultaneously, without separation. Such a city is divorced from geographic context by the global network, rendering the problem for urbanism 'no longer physical but virtual.'
Kevin Rhowbotham's lecture, 'Forget the Masterplan: the Emergence of the Branded Tele-visual City', was part of the RIBA's 'City Constructs' series.
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