1986 August: 'The New Spirit' by E.M. Farrelly
E.M. Farrelly argues that after the backwardness of Post-Modern Classicism there is at last a New Spirit in architecture
Post-Modernism is dead. Some have known from the start that it was no more than a painted corpse, but for others it has taken a little longer to work through the deceptively populist arguments of the pasticheurs, the quasi-Classicists and the toy-town tarter-uppers towards the realisation that while ‘giving the people what they want’ may sound like all-too-rare architectural humility, it has, with frightening rapidity, become no more than the pretty plaything of rampant capitalism.
The success it has had (and is still, in its obedient, bankable way enjoying) has been achieved by offering an aesthetic path of least resistance and by appealing, after the demands and constraints of Modernism, to some of the least endearing aspects of human nature - indolence, ignorance, oppression and greed.
Now, however, something else is happening. Something new. After the relentless ossification of the Post-Modern era things are beginning to stir again. Like the first breath of spring after a long and stultifying winter, these first stirrings are signs of hope.
There are, of course, those who prefer winter. Who would choose the closed door, the airless room, the neatly shuttered mind over the demands of even the possibility of freedom. Those for whom the future holds only fear, for whom the past is something known and safe, to be therefore not only preserved but imitated, at any cost. For architecture, however, the cost has been silence, docility and despair; the tacit admission that there is nothing left to discover, nowhere left to go, and nothing left to say - in short, a sell-out.
It began honourably enough. Modernism may have been heroic, but it never won the affection of the populace. By the 1970s, widely misinterpreted and misapplied, it had become brittle and diagrammatic; the revolution when it came was driven by a craving for liberation from its strictures, both moral and aesthetic. Post-Modernists, in those very early days, seemed like freedom-fighters, dragon-slayers, heroes. From Schumacher to Venturi they fought to legitimise the small scale, the complex, the vernacular, the historical, the decorative and the popular - all things which had been ousted in the single-minded drive for a clean and brave new world.
Before long, however, the inevitable became apparent, and it was clear that Post-Modernism was not an independent freedom force at all, but a sort of mutant isotope of elemental Modernism; initially radiant but highly derivative, insidious, and programmed to decay. The rebellion, never anything more than a reaction against Modernism, had been doomed from the start to have a short half-life. Its freedom-fighters - unwittingly no doubt - were in fact architecture’s harbingers of death.
WHAT PRICE POPULARITY?
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Exuberant at first in its new-won freedoms, but lacking a positive direction of its own, Post-Modernism has quickly become a meaningless mannerist charade. With the rules of Modernism removed, but not replaced, liberty quickly degenerated into licence, ‘vernacular’ into pastiche, and decoration into the flabby mass mediocrity that has become so unresisting a pawn of monetarism.
Even so, Post-Modernism soon proved to be easy, popular and saleable. Anyone could do it, and anyone did. Students and developers were equally quick to discover that the essentials of the style - the graceless, overscaled columns and arches, the pitched roofs and broken pediments, the half-round barrel-vaults, and gratuitous decorative squiggles that now distinguish mainstreet architecture all over the Western world - were effortlessly imitable, and provided easy answers for crits and planning-committees alike. Architects themselves, eager to keep up and Iacking any more real discipline, soon followed suit. Long-chastised for their monkish elitism, they shed their principles with alacrity, donning instead the gaudy coats of born-again capitalism and strutting in the market-place with the rest, fervent now only in their desire for money and acclaim.
And who, you might say, can blame them? There was a cold wind blowing, and an ominous clanging in the corridors of power; one by one, minds were being closed, bolted against the future in favour of some mythical golden past. Venturi’s celebrated polemic for pleasure and pluralism in architecture provided too easy an excuse for our natural intellectual laziness, and for the mindless laissez-faire stylism which has resulted in the directionlessness of current architectural thought, and endless imitative banality of form.
People, it was said, did not like Modern buildings any more, and if they didn’t like them they wouldn’t pay for them; something must be done. But in rejecting - perhaps rightly - the buildings, they also unthinkingly rejected the principles behind them; baby and bathwater both. Space, for example, was one of the casualties. Dethroned deity of the Modern Movement, Space had come to be seen as the enemy of the new favourite ‘place’, and was rejected outright, making way for the more material obsessions of the new regime.
Modernism was out. All other styles, however, were approved, and freely available in the market-place - for a small (and ever-reducing) fee. Of these there was one which was easiest and most obvious: Neo-Classicism, unlike its original model, is about symmetry, stasis, and sheer physical weight. Hopes that it might further the small-scale planning ideals of those early freedom-fighters soon proved vain. On the contrary Neo-Classicism - or that pastel rendering of it that came to be known as Post-Modern Classicism already had a long history of pastiche, and a pedigree free of any but the merest hint of spatial quality. For the new Materialism it was perfect, a gift.
Great minds have tried and failed to establish a necessary link between Neo-Classicism and political oppression. But one thing is certain, it is a style which in its various forms has given itself uncomplainingly through the ages to the adoration of cultures like ours in which status depends, once again and increasingly, upon the acquisition and display of material wealth. Post-Modern Classicism has brought us architecture-as-commodity; the object cult. It is a style which sits heavily and in fundamental opposition to the forward-looking, life-giving ideals of openness, freedom and, in every sense, light which were embodied, however unsatisfactorily, in Modernism (and, ironically, in Classicism itself).
ROMANTIC v. CLASSICAL: AN HISTORICAL DIALECTIC
Classicism is traditionally regarded as the dialectical opposite of Romanticism, and it is possible to see the history of art - for the New Spirit is undoubtedly one which realigns architecture as one of the arts - as a sort of rectified wave form produced by alternating periods of these two principles; regular pulses of questing, Romantic energy interspersed (and even at times coincidental) with periods of Classical calm.
The analogy is clearly simplistic, but if for the sake of argument we define the terms not according to the forms they produce, but to the spirit that guides them - Classicism as defined opposite and Romanticism as a principle of questioning, contingency and change - it will serve for long enough to suit our present purposes.
It allows us, for example, to see Classicism as a point of momentary equilibrium between times of great change; a state of maximum altitude, but zero velocity. And to understand Romanticism as something which can be either positive or negative, either a breaking-down of the old order, or a building-up of the new. An impulse which may culminate, briefly and almost incidentally, in stasis, but whose primary concern is with the process of change itself; uncomfortable, but invigorating.
It is clear that, in these terms, Modernism - itself initially heroic, explosive and revolutionary in opposition to the perceived decadence of the post-World War I architectural establishment, but becoming gradually accepted and eventually despised - was composed, perhaps even from the start, of both Romantic and Classical impulses (encompassing the absolute, Rationalist geometries of Mies, the warmth of Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright, the waywardness of Scharoun - and even the apparent contradiction of Le Corbusier, in whose work both impulses may be clearly seen).
And it is equally clear that Post-Modernism (having reached zero velocity, but hardly maximum altitude) should be regarded as at best an agent of decay, helping only to break down the Modernist dogma into a state of decay from which a fresh Romantic impulse could grow into new life.
The New Spirit is just such a Romantic impulse. Restless, striving, searching; stirring-up and stripping-bare; never sentimental but, on the contrary, tough, iconoclastic, streetwise; acerbic, often aggressive, and very highly-strung. While trying at times to better the world in which we live, it rejects out of hand any tendency towards prettification or escapism, fierce in its determination to accomplish what Modernism shrank from: the acceptance and embrace of what the world is, in all its complexity and squalor.
But, this determination notwithstanding, there is a direct line of descent from many of the early Modern movements; the New Spirit inherits, and extrapolates from, not only Modern architecture’s concern with space, openness and honesty (while rejecting its grand utopian vistas - Le Corbusier, after all, would have eradicated if he could the very notion of the street) but also the thrusting, dynamic imagery of Constructivism, and something of Futurism’s savage beauty as well. Above all, however, the New Spirit owes its existence to Dada.
THE GENESIS OF FREEDOM
Dada, widely misunderstood as a purely negative force or anti-art, was in fact hugely influential. In a few short years it was to re-evaluate the role of art and artists in society so profoundly that none of the arts - poetry, music, painting, sculpture, photography -would, or could, ever be the same again. It was, in the words of Werner Haftmann, a movement in which ‘all the values of human existence … were brought into play, and every object, every thought, turned on its head, mocked and misplaced, as an experiment, in order to see what there was behind it, beneath it, against it, mixed up in it … a state of mind feverishly exalted by the freedom -virus, a unique mixture of insatiable curiosity, playfulness, and pure contradiction.’
It may have been shortlived, but it was fecund, numbering amongst its offspring many of the most provocative art movements of the century: Surrealism, arte povera, Pop Art, Action Painting, Conceptual Sculpture, Performance Art, ’60s Happenings’, the Situationists, and punk/New Wave itself. Unlike other early movements of this century (Futurism, Cubism, Neo-Plasticism) Dada was not a new style or technique but, in the words of Tristan Tzara, a ‘state of mind’. It could not, therefore, be copied so much as absorbed - and, consciously or unconsciously, and with varying degrees of success and superficiality, Dada’s ‘freedom-virus’ has been absorbed, direct into the bloodstream of twentieth-century art.
But in architecture - which, since Modernism, has distanced itself from the other arts - there has been no really comparable attempt to build anew. (The inflatables, geodesics and wood-butchery of the ’60s went some way toward questioning the established order but have remained, despite themselves, fringe events.) Until now.
Now there is something new happening in architecture. Something which, no longer constrained either by the reductivist morality of the International Style or by the need to revile it, is able to review, re-evaluate and re-use the legacy of Modernism in its various manifestations. There is amongst these new designers a resurgent spirit of enquiry, a renewed interest in space and movement, in the use of real materials - steel, concrete, timber, stone, even plastic, appearing as itself-in a stripping-back towards the essentials of architecture and, most importantly of all, in the dynamism of asymmetry, the very genesis of freedom.
But the New Spirit is by no means a straight Modernist revival, since these preoccupations are combined with a freer use of geometry than the International Style was ever capable of, and the absorption of a much broader range of influence than even Modernism could admit. There are, for example, traces not only of Constructivism, Futurism, Cubism and Dadaism, and of the later wood-butchery, Archigram, technism and neo-primitivism, but also (in parallel with the music, fashion and graphics industries) of rock and roll, punk, and post-punk New Wave. To all this new vitality only the death-merchants of Post-Modern Classicism have contributed nothing, except perhaps in provoking at last the contrary determination that architecture should once again LIVE.
Dada’s contribution, on the other hand, cannot be overestimated. The New Spirit, like Dada, is fired in part by the need to break-down and break through existing patterns of deceit and smug self-interest. It is not only anti-stasis, anti-concealment, but also profoundly anti the increasing smoothness, glibness and facile predictability of the established (and by and large unexamined) canons of the prevailing architectural order.
And, like Dada, its chosen weapons in this battle to ‘see what lies beneath’ are the forces of randomness, accident and chance, giving rise to the apparent anarchy and fragmentation of much of the work shown in this issue. Chance, however, is by its very nature undesigned, you cannot design the accident to happen, so to use such ideas as design principles is clearly problematic (though it didn’t seem to worry the Dadaists). Furthermore, the very idea of chance or randomness in design seems to imply a kind of fatalistic acceptance which is patently contradicted by the sheer dynamism of the buildings that result.
But the paradox is only skin deep. For the apparent anarchy is not, in fact, a lack of order so much as a deliberate destruction of the old to make way for a different, subtler and even in some ways more stringent discipline. Chance and randomness are used only as tools, levers to roll away (or dynamite to explode) the tablets of stone, revealing the multitudinous possibilities hitherto concealed by their weight.
In the work of New York’s Moser and Goodwin, for example, we see a renewed interest in the apparently accidental collision of forms - reminiscent of Tzara’s cut-up poetry-and in the use of real, ‘raw’ materials. Honold and Poschl’s Bogen 13, under the arches in Innsbruck, and their Dragonwing, embrace the grimy godforsaken realities of contemporary urban existence, and celebrate the power of the ‘found’ environment. The flighty, volatile forms of Vienna’s Co-op Himmelblau are like latter-day, built versions of Schwitters’ Merzbauen, and their very method of working, letting drawings ‘emerge’ from the unconscious, reminds one of the automatist techniques explored by Arp, Janco and Richter in Dadaist experiments early this century.
Neville Brody’s now highly influential avant-garde graphics play with ideas of what he calls the ‘randomness factor’ and the ‘found image’, inspired by the work of Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and other experimental typographers of the 1920s. And Hasegawa’s ‘severance,’ her deliberate participation in the anarchic chaos of the Japanese city, Zalotay’s. embrace of accident, or what he calls ‘dissonances’ and Kevin Rhowbotham’s generative notion of ‘spatial collage’: all bear the marks of descent, however indirect or unwitting, from Dadaist ancestry.
It is, of course, a political thing. No movement with this kind of pedigree could possibly be otherwise. Nor is the kind of dynamism and sheer kinetic energy that so characterises the New Spirit even accessible to those who are concerned merely to find a new aesthetic sensibility to play with. Its restless agitation of space and unpredictability of form are built metaphors of the thought processes involved. For some the forms are highly significant, even necessary; for others they are almost incidental.
But either way it is the thinking that matters; the hard-edged individualism in a world of passive consumerist homogeneity, the determined rejection of the conformist ideals that the Establishment would have us adopt, and the refusal to be manipulated by the huge anonymous forces of authority. There is a fierce defence of the ordinary - the found object, the despised material, the unloved environment - and a defiant proclamation of the right of the ordinary human to seize back power from the experts and reassert control over his or her own life.
This, at root, was what punk was all about. It underlies Leplastrier’s studio near Bellingen, NSW, which, despite its meticulous craftsmanship exhibits a queer sprightliness of form and a love of unmitigatedly ordinary materials (plastic, ‘Caneite’ and corrugated iron); Eduard Samso’s quirky but stringent minimalism, Zalotay’s stoic self-build, Alfredo Vidal’s tough, grimy KGB and Himmelblau’s defence of the street.
There is, of course, no creed or manifesto - nor could there be in a movement (if indeed it can be so termed) whose base-line is individual diversity and freedom. Some of the protagonists of the New Spirit are anti-materialist, some are not. Some are consciously subversive, some are not. Some would not even call themselves political. But the political implications are there to be read.
What will come of it all is anyone’s guess. It is possible that the New Spirit may meet the same fate as befell Modernism; understood and imitated as form, not philosophy. (It is one of the dangers of the kind of dialectical approach to history outlined above that it may seem to lend a spurious inevitability to the unknowable, making the end seem certain and encouraging this sort of premature acceptance of defeat).
It is possible, but unlikely, for such timid passivity is emphatically not a part of the New Spirit’s make-up. Diverse it may be, and by no means unanimously optimistic of the future, but it has at least, at last, outgrown that crippling fear of the present which so unmistakably marks the current architectural scene. The New Spirit can be strange, wilful, even at times subversive, but it is unfailingly vigorous, exploratory and, although it takes no heed of fashion, very much an architecture of now.