Knock ’Em All Down

    30 March 2013

    Few things look more grim than once pellucid glass turned opaque by the pitiless progress of urban grunge. Alas, concrete weathers in a fashion that most find less sympathetic than the patina acquired by pietra serena. The dynamic modernist dream may not have turned to stagnant dust, but is temporarily stalled.

    Il faut être absolument moderne!’ was Rimbaud’s dictate, or one of them. But that’s a 19th-century view. Right now, ‘modern’ seems old-fashioned. Clean lines, hard edges and moral certainties as rigid as angle-iron are becoming things of the past.

    All my instincts are modernist. The world needs more technology, not less. I enjoy purist shapes and deplore clutter. I believe the world can be improved through design. My problem is a grumbling disenchantment with the ageing generation of architects who still dominate perceptions of what buildings should be.

    Smiling serenely, confidently tanned, assertively bald (and, I am guessing, moisturised), Norman Foster, a sort of architectural Rambo, recently appeared on the cover of a journal devoted to ‘intelligent life’. True, a younger Foster had once designed buildings of thrilling technical ingenuity and impressive philosophical consistency, but he now seems the ageing herald of a future that’s no brighter than a sheet of old Gyproc.

    Among Foster’s recent designs is the Hearst Tower, New York’s first skyscraper after 9/11. It has several admirable energy-efficient features, but the conceit everyone notices in this 46-storey Columbus Circle building is the criss-crossing framework that creates huge, deep, convex, glazed lozenges.

    These the architects refer to as a ‘bird’s mouth’ — though Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, authors of modernism’s ancient scripture, make no references to avian beaks as suitable inspirational sources. Unfortunately, these windows proved impossible to clean in the normal way and a special rig was required. This, the New Yorker reported, took three years to build and cost $3 million. If this is architectural intelligence, then maybe it is less valuable than we first thought.

    Consider for a moment the Harmon Tower in Las Vegas, a Foster design that is being demolished (at a cost of $400 million) before it is finished. A government inspector found construction flaws and work was halted. There was the usual blame and accusation. The architect was guilty only of executing a brief that the New York Times described as ‘a symbol of overconfidence’, but a building demolished before completion is an unforgettable metaphor of failure.

    The arc of achievement traces a cruel path. Braque said of Picasso that he was once a brilliant artist, but then declined into a tiresome role-playing ‘genius’. Architects too are specially afflicted in the matter of celebrity: something about the calling, something which Ayn Rand recognised, something to do with monumental erections and death-defying presence, tempts vaingloriousness and big gestures.

    And then there are the facts that the arduous training takes so long, the rewards are uncertain and a major building takes so many years to complete. The apogee of an architect’s fame occurs just when old fartdom is inevitable. This can be a toxic combination.

    In architecture, reputation is to a disturbing degree a function of media profile. And it follows that the number of life-saving commissions is related to volume of soul-destroying celebrity. The late Ada Louise Huxtable, America’s greatest architectural critic, deplored the loss of idealism inevitable in this process. A craving for media recognition made civic dignity less important than a showy profile that photographs well. The process encourages small ideas to be writ very large: a ‘bird’s mouth’, for example.

    The distortions of fame bring absurdities. Renzo Piano, a Freedom Pass contemporary of Foster’s and the architect of London’s Shard, has recently finished the Astrup Fearnley Gallery on Oslo’s waterfront. It’s by all accounts a fine building, but there are perhaps 50,000, maybe 100,000, young architects who could have designed something at least as good. Their problem is that none was called Renzo Piano. His is not a special architectural talent. He’s very well known, so he gets the jobs.

    It is true, as the psychiatrist Anthony Storr explained, that in architecture, unlike mathematics, there is no correlation between seniority and creativity. It may even work the other way. Still, you look at Foster, Rogers, Piano or Frank Gehry and the youngest of this multinational group is 75. Zaha Hadid, at 62, alone drops the average age of the stars. As a young architect called Eddie Blake recently complained in Vice, parish magazine of edgy youth, it’s as if Cliff Richard and Acker Bilk dominated the Top Ten.

    Significantly, a new generation of architects — Norway’s Snohetta, London’s FAT and Glasgow’s Nord for example — prefer a group identity to the vanity of an individual name-check. At the same time, this new generation is less doctrinaire than the old modernists and more likely to find different ways of answering the same question. Flexibility is more attractive than monumentality. The belief is: you don’t finish buildings, you start them.

    So what will we remember of the old modernists as they put away their shiny medals and gongs? There is Richard Rogers, whose insistence on hanging the plumbing of buildings on their exterior now seems an eccentric whim with bad implications for the comfort of pigeons and the maintenance budget. And Rogers’s admirable protests about the democratic sanctity of public space sounded hoarse when he put his name to No. 1 Hyde Park, an obscenely dense and heavy-handed over-development for the vulgarly rich, a platinum card’s distance from Harvey Nichols.

    Or Foster himself, still maintaining a loopy reverence for that old phony Buckminster Fuller, the windy prophet of lightweight design who never actually designed anything that worked properly. Take Terry Farrell. The designer of the vulgarly clumsy MI6 building (surely the most outrageous look-at-me spectacle ever occupied by a ‘secret’ service) is now master-planning vast swaths of the south-east.

    Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid make a fine pair, united in a magnificent denial of usefulness. Because a computer says you can do something does not mean you necessarily should. It sometimes feels as if Gehry believes confrontational difficulty, aggressive shape-making, defiance of sense, are actually tests for quality. Actually, I’d be much more impressed to see Gehry’s best ideas for low-cost housing. His genius is undisturbed by this utilitarian challenge.

    Meanwhile, Hadid’s new modern art gallery in Rome does not have flat ‘walls’ to hang pictures. Against this, Renzo Piano’s Shard seems the distillation of calm rationality — although, oppressive and inflexible, it is the last big clunker of the 20th century, not the first important building of the 21st. Just across the river is Rafael Vinoly’s apocalyptically crass No. 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie.

    But the most curious case of demented modernism is the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, routinely black-clad. After a global career that hinted at his belief that the entire globe should be made new after his own fashion, Koolhaas is now proposing a rediscovery of ‘national identity’. This reversal — some might call it hypocrisy — is perhaps a sign of a business-like awareness of new possibilities.

    Architecture is at its most wonderful when the names of the architects are least well-known. Jobbing builders created enduring Georgian marvels and anonymous masons built the cathedrals. Real modernists believe in change. The big change coming up is that skyscraper architectural egos are heading for the builder’s skip of history.

    Illustration by Mitch Blunt