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Battle of Ideas

A political book written by a traditional architect denounces the disengagement of architecture from the real world as a sheer phenomenon of our era

In From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe bemoaned the fact that early European Modernism had stifled the development of an American architectural expression, at the very time that America was emerging as a global superpower. What kind of confident economic powerhouse, he mused, would allow itself to be subjugated to an alien ideological import?

Wolfe’s intent was to demonise the imposition of non-indigenous belief systems and to defend the unimpeded logic of the US market. Architecture was simply the mechanism that he chose to express this point. Effectively, his was a diatribe against the aloofness of ideas, and for an architecture grounded in real social conditions (preferably those social conditions that he favoured).

‘In fact, there is a remarkable passivity in architectural discourse, design and delivery: ‘no seismic change (in architecture and urbanism) to equal the momentous economic shifts that the press reveals daily’

In this new book, architect Robert Adam similarly offers the reader a social criticism in which he seeks to understand how changes in the ‘real world’ impact on architecture and urbanism. Whereas Wolfe was reacting to what he considered to be the postwar victor not getting their deserved stylistic spoils, Adam notes that even though there are equally momentous shifts in world events today, there is no equivalent power struggle among styles, theories nor movements.

In fact, there is a remarkable passivity in architectural discourse, design and delivery: ‘no seismic change (in architecture and urbanism) to equal the momentous economic shifts that the press reveals daily’. Like the conservative Wolfe, for Adam the Classicist, the problem is that ‘High Modernism still dominates’.

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Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, England; Daniel Libeskind. Architecture of metaphor. A design based on shards of a shattered globe to represent the destruction of war. Photograph by Abigail Benouaich

Adam explains the mismatch between social turmoil and architectural stasis, in part, as a reflection of ‘cultural lag’; the difference between cause and effect; the delay between real events and their representation. At its simplest level, Adam notes that architecture takes a long time to come into being, sometimes creating an anachronistic memory of the period in which it was commissioned. As artist Don Davis once noted, the Sixties actually took place between 1965 and 1975.

‘It is good that an architect has written what amounts to a political book. There are enough coffee-table tomes and architectural hagiographies to go around’

But maybe, the social turmoil to which Adam refers − from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to China’s rise − is not having an effect on architecture because it is little more than a performance; something to be observed. Contrary to popular opinion, it could be argued that the so-called Twitter revolutions of the Arab Spring were an example of disengagement, not just in architecture but in politics. At a time of global financial meltdown, maybe architects aren’t responding to the crisis because nobody is responding to the crisis.

Adam says that he only recently realised that architecture was shaped by forces separate to the discipline (forces reflected in the subtitle of the book) and in the incestuous world of architecture, it is good that an architect has written what amounts to a political book. There are enough coffee-table tomes and architectural hagiographies to go around, so it is worth applauding an explicitly intellectual intervention.

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West Bay, Doha. Qatar. The creation of an anonymous international office environment to attract global business. Photograph by Robert Adam

As with any challenging publishing venture, at times it is found wanting. For instance, describing 2,500 years of architectural history in just under 10 pages is not advisable, especially in a book with such scholarly pretensions. Secondly, having Robert Adam cite Playboy interviews, or explain the finer points of Bhangra music, is as uncomfortable as watching a vicar dance at a wedding.

However, for a book on Modernism and globalisation written by a traditionalist, this is not a score-settling polemic. Admittedly, there is a certain schadenfreude in his use of examples such as Hadid’s MAXXI and Eisenman’s City of Culture of Galicia; both commissioned as expensive follies in a bygone age when clients had money to burn, but which have been completed in an era of austerity.

One key observation in the book is that globalisation unites as well as fragments. This is a useful and nuanced approach to the subject, which may be alien to many anti-globalisation activists. For many, it is counterintuitive to suggest that globalisation reinforces localism, but he describes quite well the particularism of market segmentation, tourist branding or simply the role of ‘a nostalgia for home’. With Adam praising ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘identity politics’ like a latter-day Tom Wolfe, at times this book reads like a Big Society manifesto. We hear that traditions are good and place is important; that informal settlements are character-forming, and communities are empowering, etc. The argument is pragmatic, technical, logical … and primarily succeeds by attrition.

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The universal North Atlantic suburb. A hoarding from Kerala, India.

Actually, there is much to commend this book but an honest defence of classicism − or traditional architecture − instead of weasly calls for Critical Regionalism, Reflexive Modernism or Contextual Urbanism would have stirred the blood a little more and prevented this book sounding like a citation-laden PhD submission. When he asserts (correctly, I think) that ‘Modernism is now traditional in Europe and Americas’ or that New Urbanism is ‘mainstream’, he is identifying a fact, but one borne out of passive acceptance rather than a victory in the architectural battle of ideas. Such is the dearth of political belief in social change, that even critical authors like Adam find it difficult to assert themselves.

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