Let’s stop ‘learning from’ and start ‘working with’, says Owen Hatherley
There is a prefix I’d like to never hear again, but I’d settle for not hearing it in 2015: ‘learning from’. Architects have demanded we learn from many things since Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour explained to a receptive 1970s audience how to learn from Las Vegas. We’ve been implored almost incessantly to learn from Lagos, from Warsaw, from nature, from what ‘people’ ‘really want’, and from self-built settlements.
Underpinning it is a deep well of architects’ guilt, connected with a wider inability or unwillingness to make positive proposals; to believe that anything could ever be improved. The thing that is ‘learned from’ is always presented as authentic, raw and real; and the architect – always implicitly the opposite of these virtues – is supposed to descend, de haut en bas, to these earthy territories to learn proper real authentic knowledge.
The two have a strict separation – the thing ‘learned from’ is usually as automatic and illiterate as nature itself. It’s simplistic, cowardly and quasi-colonial, and it needs to die.
It is also explicitly against the very notion or possibility of social critique, a way of making ‘going with the flow’ sound radical. When they started the meme, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour were by no means the first modern architects or thinkers to engage with popular forms – far from it, as Erich Mendelsohn, Ian Nairn and the rest of the Architectural Review of the 1950s, Reyner Banham, the Independent Group and others could all attest.
Architects daren’t challenge whatever authentic networks they find
The difference was that they approached Vegas while making clear that they would not critique, take a position on or aim to affect Vegas, like a 19th-century anthropologist in Tahiti or a Postmodernist version of Star Trek’s ‘prime directive’. Their insights into the way Vegas worked would not have been any less insightful – and they were, otherwise the entire project would have been stillborn – if they had deigned to notice how corrupt, depressing and brutal the world they were describing could be, or just how mediated this apparently authentic popular desire was.
Unfortunately, what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas. Now, architects – largely if not exclusively in western Europe and the US – daren’t challenge whatever authentic networks they find, as if to do so would be an act of arrogance; as if suggesting that most shanty towns are less humane environments than most council estates is tantamount to a Plan Voisin.
Again, in the 1970s such a reaction to the architect as all-knowing ‘creator’ was understandable, probably even necessary, but it has long since ceased to be useful. ‘Learning from’ now extends from the apparently demiurgic formgivers of prestige architecture (even Hadid designs are justified via references to natural forms, for instance) through shanty fetishism to astroturf movements such as Create Streets, always ready to tell us what people ‘really want’, which somehow always seems to coincide with what capital wants.
Today, widespread disgust at the vainglorious excess of ‘signature’ architecture might be leading to a reaction as shamefaced and grim as the antimodernist reaction of the late 70s and 80s, where councils decided that what tenants ‘really wanted’ was suburban culs-de-sac and then provided them, causing irrepairable damage to the urban quality of cities such as Liverpool.
There is an alternative to ‘learning from’, and it’s not a return to arrogant form-giving, it’s ‘working with’. At Byker, Ralph Erskine and his team didn’t ‘give people what they really wanted’, but listened and made proposals, creating something new and extraordinary in the process, that couldn’t have happened without that interaction. It’s a possibility still largely unexplored.