Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

In search of authenticity part four: Politics of post-modern despair

  • Comment

ARCHIVE: Here is the fourth and final essay in Peter Blundell Jones’s seminal four-part series In search of authenticity

In the previous three articles of this series, Peter Blundell Jones investigated authenticity in architecture, looking in turn at tectonic authenticity (concerned with materials and construction), and social authenticity (concerned with use). He demonstrated that neither is easy to pin down, for both depend on human interpretation and understanding, and are thus matters as much of mind as of world. In this concluding article he returns to the question of Post-Modernist despair and the alienation of people from buildings.

Twenty years after abandoning the straight and narrow Modernist road, we are still floundering around looking for direction, and though the idea of a zeitgeist has been fairly heavily attacked,1 that is precisely what the theorists of Post-Modernism or Deconstruction seem to be pursuing. Like the old Modernists whom they attack, they want to get a finger on the pulse of culture, to find its inevitable path. This is really a power game, a bid for communal acknowledgment: for once the zeitgeist is defined, we are imprisoned by it. Everything which fails to follow the predetermined direction can be condemned as irrelevant or heretical. No matter how brilliant it is: whoever denies the zeitgeist must be cast aside, as Lutyens was by Pevsner.

The power of the zeitgeist can operate through a negative as well as a positive interpretation, for if architecture is dead, as Manfredo Tafuri seems to believe, playing ironic games becomes our proper and inevitable fate.2 Likewise, if shared meanings are impossible, the fragmented world of Deconstruction with its accidental encounters and plurality of experiences has to be accepted as appropriate.3 But above all this, the banner of Post-Modernism still flutters high, 20 years on and still ‘post’. 

Temporal distance certainly increases the tendency to nostalgia, but few who experienced the architectural orthodoxy of the 1960s would wish to return to it. We are surely well rid of the ideological dominance of scientism, social engineering and so-called systematic design, the approach which developed out of Hannes Meyer’s work at the Bauhaus. Lest the reader forget, it was Meyer who claimed seriously that design could be objective and that there were only 12 functions in designing a dwelling.4

Meyer’s view represented but one extreme within the Modern Movement. Just how it grew into the predominant ideology of the 1960s is a story yet fully to be told. What is clear is that it does not represent Modernism as a whole, which in its early years at least was rich, diverse, and pregnant wi.th other possibilities. The reduction seems to have occurred in the transmission of the movement from its German context to the English-speaking world, where it meshed conveniently with the scientific euphoria of the post-war era, in which science represented Truth as the basis for every kind of judgement.5 But in 1920s Germany, where the Modern Movement began, there was no such certainty. The relativity crisis had already begun to bite, as the old certainties gave way to a plethora of competing versions.6

The vertigo of relativity

Relativity is most immediately identified with Einstein, the Uncertainty Principle, and other such matters in mathematics and the physical sciences. But it came to the fore equally vitally in the social sciences, with the realisation that the world seems able to sustain alternative versions or competing realities. Whatever form the outside world takes, we know it only through the patterns of knowledge and perception that we impose, and mutually conflicting patterns seem to fit. This has led to an acceptance that, say, an Aboriginal tribesman has as much right to his view of the world as we do, even if his version is not as technologically powerful.7 We both live within the confines of our relative truths: Truth in an absolute sense lies beyond our grasp. There appears to be a tantalizing degree of translatability between worlds, perhaps suggesting some common substrate, but so far it has remained as elusive as it is desirable.8 Battles rage and will no doubt continue to rage between Aristotelians and Platonists, or Phenomenologists and Positivists about the relationship between the order we construct in our heads and that of the world outside, but no version has yet found universal acceptance.

This is not to deny the significance of relative or local truths. We all take for granted a number of relative truths each morning in going about our business, and can distinguish most of the time fairly clearly between what we call fantasy and reality. Even if we accept theoretically that reality has all the artifice of a social construction,9 we commit ourselves daily to our local version, just to survive. As Otto Neurath put it, we are obliged to reconstruct our philosophical ship even as we sail in her.

Fundamentalism

It seems a paradox of the human condition to thirst for the certainty of an absolute that we can never reach. Horror vacui encourages all kinds of fundamentalists, who in every age claim to have found that Holy Grail- a fixed point of reference or true objectivity. Architecture too has its fundamentalists. Some would have us believe that architecture can exist quite autonomously; an attractive notion since it releases one from the responsibility of engaging the world. Others promote the idea that the true path lies in a timeless tradition of Classicism, or rests in a set of magic rules of geometry and proportion.10 Like their religious counterparts, architectural fundamentalists cannot bear to float in a complex and constantly changing world, so drive in a stake of certainty and chain themselves to it.

Failing such certainty, we can accept the instability of our condition, committing ourselves to the current world view until a better version is found. This has at least the advantage of making us more tolerant of alternative versions, of the beliefs and values of other cultures, even if it also leads inevitably to moral quandaries.11 

Relative authenticity

Elusive truth makes for elusive. authenticity taken in the absolute sense but, as argued in the earlier articles, a relative architectural authenticity remains sustainable, and of crucial importance. I suggest that this is formed by a kind of resonance between a building and the beliefs or expectations, more often implicit than explicit, of those who use it. This resonance can be experienced in various ways: a quiet, unnoticed support for ritual which works simply, a warm feeling of familiarity, appropriateness or self-evidence,12 or a conscious acceptance, through intellectual reading, of the story a building is telling about its place, its use, or its making. All these things may contribute to, if not constitute, that which we call aesthetic experience.13

To achieve this resonance, architecture must respond to and reflect the particular conditions that it is born to serve: it has to be responsive. The opposite of a responsive architecture is an autistic one.14 Like an autistic child, it turns in upon itself and fails to communicate with the world beyond, producing a sense of alienation in those who try to relate to it. Our age has produced a great deal of autistic architecture, leading to talk of crisis, and the subsequent Post-Modernist revolution. This has naturally given rise to a great deal of speculation about failure of communication and a loss of shared (public) values resulting in the death of architecture.15 But communication has not failed, it has changed its nature and increased, if also becoming in the process more superficial, while the relativity crisis has just made us more aware of the plurality of world views that already existed. Further, although the nature of the public realm undoubtedly has changed, the notion that public exists only as the opposite pole to private, is a distinction which is clearly still alive and well. Failing these explanations, there are other, less cataclysmic and perhaps more obvious reasons for architectural autism. 

Autism and scientism

The worship of science of the 1950s and ’60s is to blame for much of the autistic architecture of that era, in which design concerns were reduced to the measurable, and the unmeasurable was discounted. Perhaps the worst effect was a kind of conspiracy of silence about aesthetic and qualitative issues: being unmeasurable, they were, for a while, considered to be not proper subjects for debate. The predominant belief in science as the answer to all problems pushed art into a subordinate position, and made it a luxury in relation to science’s necessity. Such ‘materialism’ also meant that there was an over-emphasis on construction techniques and repetitive processes, which dominated the ordering of buildings to the exclusion of all else. Artificial light, mechanical ventilation and lifts made high buildings and deep plans possible and therefore, for economic reasons, compulsory. Thus. traditional responses to issues such as day lighting and route, which had much to do with the ordering of spaces and their legibility for users, could simply be dropped.

Response to genius loci was similarly affected. Factory-produced materials distributed widely with cheap transport replaced local and regional ones, while large developers found it convenient to repeat the same designs from Penzance to Perth. The car encouraged sprawling suburbs and the development of greenfield sites, while cities were eroded. In the suburban sites, contextual pressures on individual buildings were minimised, allowing architects to conceive their objects In glorious (and autistic) isolation. Lower densities spread people out, reducing the possibility of their concentration for public life except for formal events like concerts and football matches. Bureaucratic pressures gave further support to the measurable over the unmeasurable, and placed the architect under increasing constraints, while crucial briefing decisions were transferred away from the user, toward the developer. Given all these conditions, the emergence of autistic architecture is hardly surprising, and since most of them still obtain, nor is its continuance.16 

Post-Modernism and obsession with the sign

Post-Modernism focused on the rediscovery of the sign and a new emphasis on image but failed completely to attack the underlying social, technical and bureaucratic processes described above. The effect was largely to sugar the pill, making buildings superficially more entertaining without making them genuinely more responsive. In fact, the way that they were constructed continued Modernist methods more or less the same underneath the new cladding. Post-Modernism also amounted to a betrayal of what was healthiest about the Modern Movement- its attempt to wrest architecture away from academic style-wars and to refound it in use and construction. It has meant a return to the problem of the late nineteenth century, when reckless application of borrowed ornament resulted in stylistic inflation. Styles adopted for novelty value had some immediate shock effect but allowed no deeper nor longer-term relationship. Alienation is felt when the first infatuation wears off and the real relationship hoped for is denied: nothing but mirages and broken promises.

Trade in imagery has increased in recent decades as the techniques of hidden (and overt) persuasion have become more widespread and effective. There is a clear parallel between the unrequited love given to the Post-Modern building and that projected on the girl in the Coca-Cola ad, who might be less alluring seen for even 10 seconds rather than two, let alone after five minutes’ conversation. Paradoxically, we all claim immunity to the ads, while knowing that they work, and are important ingredients in the popular consciousness. Politicians, who should perhaps be morally concerned to curb their effects, instead make increasing use of the same techniques. Political arguments have shifted away from policies towards presentation of those policies, their success and failure increasingly seen in terms of how well they are sold.

Much commercial architecture has become tied to the fashion industry, and buildings for commerce are expected to be eyecatching and exciting, surprising and new. The turnover is fast, and visual obsolescence taken as inevitable, if not desirable. Shopping centres can be dressed up in the image of Pompei or Star Wars - anything goes as long as sales remain high. That these places might be contributing to a general culture, or that their creators might have cultural responsibilities, seems largely ignored. 

Public institutions

Even if commerce is allowed to go its amoral self-serving way, public institutions should serve the people, give an impression of permanence, and sustain credibility, so a law court fitted out as a Star Wars set would be extremely subversive. As explained previously (AJ 04.12.91 p22), our notion of what such institutions are was consolidated at the end of the nineteenth century with the development of building types we now take for granted. At the height of imperial power, in a period of wealth and pride, there was acute consciousness of how institutions should attain architectural expression. In our period of declining world influence, public works have been drastically reduced and existing buildings allowed to decay. 

There is a handful of exceptions. Perhaps the most prominent national monument to emerge in the last decade is the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery fittingly designed by the inventor of Post-Modernism from across the Atlantic, where we look for political, and it now seems, cultural leadership. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s building is a skilful manipulation of imagery, being old (with a wink) and yet new, making appropriate references, and dealing with the complexities and contradictions of site and task. One has to admire the intellectual effort in this accomplished work, yet the result seems inauthentic. All those quotations -literary, stylistic, architectural- remain quotations, undigested. They have to be read at a literary level, and do not strike a deeper note. The Sainsbury Wing probably feels authentic to Venturi, but we do not feel our millennia of history in quite the same way, and his borrowing seems presumptuous. It has too many signs and not enough substance: it lacks self-evidence.17

In retrospect, there was some virtue in the fact that a long public debate was carried through on the National Gallery, even if certain interventions were crude and unfair. The government was forced to back down on its ridiculous programme of funding the extension by giving away a large proportion of the site to offices, while the two competitions remain a telling record of architectural attitudes at the time. The instant historicising produced by all participants in the second competition was an alarming demonstration of how willing even the most serious architects are to submit themselves to the public mood, rather less able to call the tune than the profession is wont to believe.

The role of the client

Once a project wins a major competition and is built, it earns a place in history and has to be taken seriously, simply because it is there. One tends to expect that such works must be profoundly based, and if they seem superficial or misguided, one thinks the fault one’s own: one must have missed something. Yet it is quite possible for a competition to be poorly or superficially judged, or for the judges to be momentarily carried away by some new and Utopian theoretical notion. More often, unexpected projects get premiated as a compromise when the jury is divided.

Direct commissions can be even more ill-founded. The rich and powerful can build almost anything if persuaded of its worth, and like the fabled emperor with invisible clothes, retain a strong subsequent interest in protecting the legitimacy of their investment: Thus stupid, unlikely, irrelevant, autistic things can be built, and apologists can be found to provide support. They are rewarded by being given public prominence, and thereafter have the same investment to protect. It is a circular process of mutual legitimisation, and though it can look like the operation of a zeitgeist, it can equally be seen as the product of individual actions by those in power. Some of us, at least, have a hand on the tiller.

Conclusion

The future course of architecture is not inevitably set. It does not help us to moan Cassandra-like, that we are in the grip of fate, that architecture is dead or dying, and that we can but witness her decline. If we want a more authentic, more profoundly based, less image-obsessed architecture, we can fight for it. What is needed is a greater awareness of the issues at stake, both within the profession and among the public. Expropriated to different degrees, both have become passive, seeming to accept the inevitable. To recover from the ideological impoverishment of the immediate post-war years, we need a new awareness of history and tradition, but we have to understand equally how and why things have changed. There is no going back, indeed great readjustment would be needed just to stand still.

Through this series I have argued that architecture is founded in use and construction that its authenticity rests mainly on response to these two issues of its being. Modernist theory in its crudest and popularly understood form took these themes on too narrow a definition, based them on an unsustainable objectivity, and concentrated only on the measurable. This resulted in the most literal and pragmatic Functionalism and Constructivism. I argued further that without such objectivity, use and construction become more like fictional themes. In their formal and spatial organisation, buildings make hints about how they might be used, and encourage certain kinds of use. Buildings also have to be made, and tell us (or lie to us) about their making. They tell stories about themselves, their relationships with their ancestors and their myths of origin. These stories are the means through which use, construction and image unite to produce an impression of self-evidence. Such self-evidence we call authenticity.

Notes

  • 1 E.H. Gombrich, In Search of Cultural History, Karl Popper The Poverty of Historicism.
  • 2 Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, particularly ‘L’architecture dans le Boudoir’ p267.
  • 3 As suggested by Bernard Tschumi, see my article on La Villette AR June 1989.
  • 4 In his manifesto ‘Bauen’ of 1928, included in Ulrich Conrad’s Programmes and Manifestoes of Twentieth Century Architecture (sic).
  • 5 See Liam Hudson, The Cult of the Fact.
  • 6 See the introduction to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality.
  • 7 Ibid, and the introduction to Mary Douglas Implicit Meanings.
  • 8 For a view which runs through the arguments and comes down guardedly on the side of science see Ernest Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences; for a more idealist view see Nelson Goodman’s Ways of worldmaking.
  • 9 See The Social Construction of Reality, note 6.
  • 10 Classicism, as a global category, seems to cover too much, so that it is hard to identify the common factor. My scepticism about proportions is not a denial of all such effects, but rather a doubt that they can be reduced to the same universal law.
  • 11 For example, whether to accept mutilating punishments as an integral part of a culture or invoke one’s own moral standards.
  • 12 For a Durkheimian view see Mary Douglas’ ‘Self-evidence’ in Implicit meanings, 1975. An architectural usage is suggested by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, and defined as follows: We cannot say what self-evidence is, precisely. It can mean that the door is in the right place, that the requirements of use are fulfilled, that superfluous anecdotes are omitted, that a harmonious solution, an interrelatedness to site and use are obtained in the construction. Before the concept of self-evidence is used in an architectural context, however, it should be more carefully scrutinised. The more an object is questioned, the more unclear its identity appears today. This identity encompasses so many aspects, images and contradictions which are no longer able to be synthesised into one whole. This is the expression of an insecurity which represents on the one hand a threat, on the other freedom. ‘I’he Post-Modern Movement uses historical images to suggest an idea of intimacy, but it remains an idea, something not self-evident. Self-evidence is a quality of life which extends much further, and which seems to us completely lacking today. There is no more self-evidence in the sense that the cycle of the various parts which make up the entirety has been interrupted.’ Quoted from my article of AR September 1990.
  • 13 In my opinion the autonomous aesthetic sought for so long in visual proportions and like matters has become part of the attempt to impose a reductive scientific view: since abandoning its religious basis in the magic of number, it has tended to ignore the question of meaning, and so is at best a small part of the story.
  • 14 I owe this use of the term to Lucien Kroll.
  • 15 Tafuri, see note 2; see also Richard Sennett The Fall of Public Man, and Michael Dennis Court and Garden.
  • 16 The best visual catalogue of all this is still Rolf Keller’s Bauen als umweltzerstrung of 1973.
  • 17 For my thoughts on the National Gallery competition see AJ 13.5.87 ‘Two views on Venturi’.

This article was originally published in AJ vol. 195, no. 1/2, 1992 8/15 Jan, p. 29. If you would like us to republish other essays from the AJ archive online, please email your suggestions to mary.douglas@emap.com

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.