NOTE: Extracts from a much longer talk given at Ewha Woman’s University, Seoul, on 20 May 2014. The audience was art historians and the event accompanied the exhibition ART AND IDEALISM at the university’s museum.
‘Talking to architects in Europe or North America these days can be pretty depressing. They might have plenty of work in Dubai, or China, but in their home patch, whether it is the United States, Germany or the UK, work can be hard to find – still, six years on from the financial crash of 2008. But worse, in some ways, is the pervading sense that architecture no longer has much meaning. It’s a complex, difficult, labour-intensive and extremely low-margin way of making a living – but seemingly little else. Architects in western countries experience high levels of unemployment, and in work, depressingly low levels of pay, among the worst of the professions. And architectural criticism seems to be practically dead. At least, nobody makes any money from it any more.
‘So the profession is in a mess. It’s probably always been in a mess, of course. What has always saved it has been a sense of mission. (…) In the 20th century this was modernism. Modernism promised a broadly similar future in which mankind would live a better, healthier, more light-filled, and more rational life; the modernist future was a better place, and architecture was one of the key reasons why.
‘I want to fast-forward now to a time – now – when any such consensus, and more importantly, any such idealism seems extremely remote. The world faces the same problems as before, but what is lacking now is any belief in the ability of architecture to do anything about them. Architecture has, more or less entirely lost its idealism. Where I live now is as good an example as any. Scotland, a small country with perhaps a fifth of the population of Seoul, was once a place that produced architectural ideas with global reach. Its early nineteenth century New Town is one of the most complete and convincing examples of Enlightenment town planning in the world. And in the period immediately following the Second World War, it embraced architectural modernism for social housing with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that of the USSR. Yet in recent years, the Scottish architectural profession has struggled to know what to do.
In Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, the authorities have since 2010 had the policy of demolishing all high-rise housing in the city. It has its own weird logic: locally the high rise has come to represent the ‘failure’ of the idealism of the modernist project. Glasgow’s enthusiasm for towers now seems to the political elite to be an aberration, the memory of which must be erased. So the city has decided to remove all physical evidence of its modernization in the 1950s and 1960s and wishes to present this to the outside world as evidence of its renewal.
‘The demolition of Glasgow’s towers represents in an unusually clear form the loss of idealism in western architecture. For these towers – the tallest buildings in Scotland, and for many years the tallest residential buildings in Europe – will not be replaced with anything similar, but instead a patchwork of neo-vernacular buildings based on centuries-old forms. The retreat from idealism is almost complete here, and with it the retreat from architecture. So simple, low-tech and traditional are the replacements that architects are barely needed at all.
‘So what has happened to what might be termed the ‘idealism function’ in architecture? Idealism still, I think, exists but now it is the look of idealism. Consider the work of Zaha Hadid. Or more generally, the architecture of the museum, an area in which the west is still – just – pre-eminent.
Here is a good example, also from the UK. This is the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court of the British Museum in London, built to a design by Norman Foster and Partners and opened in 2002. It is said to be the largest covered public space in Europe; it is certainly one of London’s more extraordinary sights, as well as one of the most visited. It is in essence a refurbishment of the old circular Reading Room of the British Library, a building that used to lie at the heart of the Museum. The project cleared away the book stacks surrounding the Reading Room, faced all the surfaces in marble, rebuilt the neoclassical South Portico, and covered the entire court – which is on the scale of an eighteenth century London square – with an undulation glass roof comprised of x panels, each one different. Experientially it is a remarkable, singular place: light-filled, and gently echoing, it accommodates thousands of visitors on a daily basis, with relatively little fuss. Functionally it has improved the Museum a great deal, providing a space for circulation, orientation, as well as simply pausing in what is otherwise an exhausting and crowded experience.
‘The architects’ design contains an important element of idealism in the design of public space. In western modernism architects invariably imagined the modernist city is as a park, a free space open to all punctuated with buildings. Such a space was, in theory, open to all, and to all possibilities. Something of that idealism remains here at the British Museum. It’s in part a utopian space of circulation, a moment in a much longer pedestrian route stretching 3 km from the mainline rail station at Kings Cross to the Thames. The architects wanted it open 24 hours.
‘But what kind of idealism is this? One of Foster and Partners’ specialities was, and is, the design of airports, and at the same time as designing the Great Court it was completing Chek Lap Kok international airport in Hong Kong (1998). Chek Lap Kok’s outward form is nothing like the British Museum, but it does share with it a number of important principles: both are buildings concerned with managing very large pedestrian flows; both organize flow by providing a single, easily legible space; both seek to extract value from flow. This last point is significant. ‘Flow’ is the critical impulse that drives the design, but the flow in each case is of a certain speed and density that it can support, and generate, other value-producing activities.
And by ‘value-producing activities’, I mean, of course, shopping. The Great Court is, in essence, a specialized shopping mall, a fact confirmed by comparing it with any number of actually existing malls on the world. It contains shops, cafes and restaurants, and processes museum visitors into docile consumers. I have to say it does this extremely well. But the idealism is no more than that a residue. Where the open spaces of architectural modernism declare ‘here you can do anything’, the open space of the museum says, ‘here you can do anything – as long as it is shopping’. Modernism reached out to something like the beach, a utopian space of leisure. The Great Court reaches out to the mall (…)