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Viewpoints: William JR Curtis on the provincialism of the present

William JR Curtis

Architecture today suffers from technological mystification and smokescreens of theoretical jargon.

I recently attended a conference where a well known theoretician delivered a speech on Deleuzian folds, Leibniz’s monads and much else in a sort of fictionalised version of the history of ideas, then in the last 10 minutes suddenly jumped forward to Jürgen Mayer’s.

Seville Metropol Parasol, as if it fulfilled the ‘theoretical agenda’.When I pointed out that this scheme is a piece of techno kitsch destroying a historic urban space − a collection of poisoned mushrooms from the era of ‘icons’ − the person in question had little to say. He had never been to Seville and never experienced the project apart from some sexy promotional photographs. So how on earth could he judge it? This illustrates why the critic should be suspicious of a priori ideas and ideological positions.

Needed is a non-doctrinaire approach open to fresh inventions, to works which add something substantial to their place and to the general culture of architecture. Buildings speak to us directly through space, form, image, material, detail; and they touch us on many levels mentally and physically. That is why it is so important to base judgements on the experience of buildings themselves, and to gradually penetrate to the thought processes and structures of intention which lie behind them.

Interesting works of architecture do not reduce themselves to ‘positions’ or to theoretical slogans. They are not there to fulfil academic agendas. Many works that are proposed as radical innovations fade away because they are transient, without formal presence or underlying content. It is crucial to step outside the provincialism of the present and to maintain the long historical view.

Today it makes no sense to pretend that there is an avant-garde in touch with a supposed zeitgeist and that all else is marginal. Some try to impose an exclusive regime of dogma, for example by promoting ‘parametricism’ as the sole ‘architecture of the times’ or as ‘a new global style’. But their exclusive claim is hollow in a period when quality (and its opposite) takes many forms. Moreover does ‘parametric’ refer to a method or a style? If it is a method, there is no reason that forms should end up with complex geometry. If it is a style, there are many other ways of achieving complex forms.

The links in this ideological fiction are loose. Anyway, the real question for the critic is this: do the results succeed as architecture?One has to keep coming back to the realm of specifically architectural ideas and to buildings in real space, not just seductive images on the computer screen. There are no short cuts in this domain, and mathematical tricks with software are no substitute for substantial architectural thinking, a rigorous architectural language and a culture to back them up.

There are complex curves, folds and irregular geometries which mean something and add to the stock of authentic architectural inventions; and there are others that are meaningless, arbitrary, ugly to look at, hell to live in and destructive of their setting whether in landscape or city. Many of the buildings that fly the flag of ‘geometrical complexity’ are simple-minded and transitory.

There is a weird scientism (‘science envy’?) which pretends that one should abandon human intervention altogether and let the machine do the designing. This is a naïve technological determinism: what comes out is only as good as what is put in. Moreover this risks sidelining the architect who, replaced by the developer and the engineer, is doomed to simply supply a little packaging here and there in the form of a shiny skin.

Once the smokescreens of ‘innovation’ blow away one is left with some challenging comparisons. Is there anyone today who can equal the sculptural and symbolic resonance of the Sydney Opera House? Or who can match the haunting presence, meanings, spatial and geometrical sophistication of the curved side chapels in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette?

In these cases the curves are embedded in the deep order of the building itself and in the mythical structure of the architect’s creative universe, including transformations from the past.There is a huge difference between an abstraction which distils experience and content, and one which derives from a superficial play with arbitrary forms. As always, quality transcends period and style.

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