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Object failure

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Douglas Murphy’s The Architecture of Failure raises spectres of abject ruins in recent practice and theory, writes Richard Weston

The triumph of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace as a pre-eminent demonstration of a new means of iron and glass construction, and of a resulting new kind of space, is central to the narrative of Modernism. Less well known, save for the fire that consumed it in 1936, is the structure’s bizarre and ultimately degrading after-life at Sydenham. Re-appropriated into the eclectic culture of its time, the reconstructed – and significantly reconfigured – building was transformed into what Douglas Murphy describes as an ‘immersive educational environment’.

This was replete with ‘improving’ sculptures, two dozen courts modelled on historic architecture across the world, a chamber music space where many works by leading continental composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were performed in the UK for the first time, and finally, at the end of one transept, a performance space with a capacity for more than 20,000 that became famous for the Triennial Handel Festival, in which choirs of up to 3,000 would perform Messiah.

Recent parallels for this ‘multimedia environment’ are not hard to find: the retrofitting of rooms to tame the vast spaces of the Beaubourg and adaptation of the Millennium Dome to form the O2 Arena being the most obvious.

Yet Murphy’s argument is more far-reaching and provocative. He sees the ‘heroic’ iron and glass structures of early Modern architecture as paradigms of a condition that pervades recent practice, from the reductive ‘Solutionism’ of Cedric Price and High-Tech – with their roots in the 19th-century idolisation of the engineer – to the ‘iconic’ structures of Frank Gehry; from the trivialisation of ‘theory’ by Peter Eisenman to the digital adventures of Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher.

The skewer through the kebab of Murphy’s argument rests on the idea of ‘spectrality’, a term invoked by Jacques Derrida to describe ‘the inconsistent presence of objects and their mediated being’. Although conventionally thought of as solid, stable and long-lasting, all architecture is, in some sense, Murphy argues, ‘spectral’, endlessly fragmented by its partial transmission through different media.

The ‘abstract ruins’ of early iron and glass buildings epitomise this condition, physically as well as metaphorically, not least because we know many of the most splendid – such as the Crystal Palace and Dutert’s Galérie des Machines – only through photographs and other descriptions. Similarly spectral was the related ‘lost’ aesthetic of girders and cables of the Festival of Britain – exemplified by Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery and the Skylon – that was to haunt a new generation of architects, including Archigram, Foster and Rogers.

A consequence of eulogising this imagery and the reductive ‘Solutionist’ view of architecture it encourages is, Murphy argues, everywhere apparent: ‘The high-tech spaces we walk through now are fit only for the smiling ghosts of computer visualisations, a purgatory of “aspirational but accessible” restaurants and bars, “media walls” and “public art” of unremitting dreariness.’

Murphy’s next targets are the apparent inverses of the ‘abstract ruins’ of iron and glass, the all-too-tangible bespoke sculptural icons of the credit-fuelled boom years that Jonathan Meades has aptly dubbed ‘sight-bites’. He addresses them under the heading ‘Iconism’ and begins with the ‘puerile nihilism’ of Eisenman, with his early efforts to ‘de-centre’ architecture from its humanist traditions and later, risible determination to found a new architecture upon the improbable foundations of the deconstructive theories of Derrida.

What opaque intellectualism had done in promoting Eisenman’s reputation within academic and cultural circles, ‘frightfully banal paintings’ did for Hadid, and both were celebrated in the Deconstructivist Architecture show at MOMA alongside the leading master of sight-bite architecture, Frank Gehry.

Concluding with thoughts about the ‘Virtualism’ of recent digital architecture Murphy neatly combines the two strands of his argument. Intellectually, we enter the world of flows, fluxes and animistic desire in which the writings of Deleuze and Guattari loom large, while operationally the same parametric software is rendering the unique generic as similar fluid, folding forms pour on to the screens of architects of otherwise very different lineages, generally supported by much the same spurious arguments about ‘emergent complexity’ as a reflection of the age, and ‘fluidity’ as an analogue for natural forms and processes.

The fact that biomimicry is yielding extraordinary inventions at the micro-scale, or offering useful models for energy-efficiency, is no reason to suppose it has large-scale formal lessons for architecture. Similarly, it is far from self-evident, as Schumacher of Zaha Hadid’s office claims, that what he terms ‘Parametricism’ is the necessary expression of a ‘post-Fordist network economy, globalisation and… lifestyle diversification’ celebrated, ironically, in more or less the same spatial types as the original iron and glass structures with which Murphy’s book began.

This is a neat convergence, but the attempt to shoehorn together two arguments, one born from detailed research into the cultural legacy of the architecture of iron and glass, the other a more sweeping and enjoyably trenchant critique of architecture’s recent past, feels uneasy. Both are provocative, and in places brilliant, and though I don’t find the thread Murphy weaves between them is as continuous as perhaps he would like, The Architecture of Failure can be recommended as a lively piece of critical history and a stimulus to constructing something more durable from the ruins of the present.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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