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Architecture with bad attitude

Bureau Spectacular’s exhibition at the Graham Foundation in Chicago celebrates a subversion of traditional architectural notions

Traditionally, a bad attitude in the workplace or educational environment is something that needs to be corrected. If a disruptive member of a community is allowed to spread his or her terrible outlook to others, it can be disastrous.

When is a bad attitude a positive thing? Can it be productive? Jimenez Lai and Bureau Spectacular seem to think so. For the exhibition Treatise: Why Write Alone? at Chicago’s Graham Foundation, they made a ‘Tarzan call into the forest of bad attitudes’ to bring together a number of young architects who actively subvert traditional notions of what architecture should be. This roster of misfits and hooligans comes from all over the world, from Barcelona to Athens and Los Angeles. The common thread here is that they all share a similar outlook with the curators, and, supposedly, that is it.
The exhibition design is very straightforward — no gimmicks, just well-presented, well-curated and high-quality work shown in a logical, if crowded manner. It is refreshing to see this, as the work becomes the centre of attention and there is no guessing or beating around the bush. The selection of architects attempts to recreate the magic of dissident protest groups like the Chicago Seven or avant-garde architectural collectives like the New York Five, but in a 21st-century context (and where there is no cohesive agenda or ideology, only the thoughtful production of work).

While the true motives of this exhibition are not clear, there are certainly commonalities of the participants, even if they deny it. The overall theme of bad attitude is one way to put it, but it might be more useful to look at the resuscitation of Postmodernism as a hardcore methodology in understanding why this generation of architects behaves the way it does. For the Postmodernists of the 1960s and 1970s, their unprecedented approach to architecture had a political leaning, even if it was sometimes caught in disciplinary roundabouts. They were reacting to the context of the prevailing orthodoxy of Modernism and its failure to deliver a new, egalitarian world full of futuristic space and technology. This definition is the means by which Postmodernism has managed to lump together such diverse talents as Aldo Rossi, Venturi Scott Brown Associates, Stanley Tigerman, Cedric Price, Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas. Their architecture was divergent, yet universally conceived with an attitude that attempted to go far beyond any status quo.

Treatiseinline

100 Drawings by Alex Maymind

In a similar way, this new generation came of age in a context permeated by some pretty weird digital cult-like orthodoxy. Architecture’s intellectual environment is one of hagiography, idolisation and permanence. There remains a tendency, at least in America, to default back to the academy for funding, and other forms of support only amplify this condition. Furthermore, a media echo-chamber based on images and superstars means that there is plenty to be wary of, both in concept and personality. You might say, that in this type of environment it is quite easy to develop a bad attitude.

Rather than adopt the hi-fi digital novelty that was ‘mainstream’ at the time, the designers in Treatise began to diverge by exploring the outskirts of the discipline, such as unfashionable architecture, disjointed and ugly forms, outlawed techniques, fast collages, purposely questionable design solutions, truthfully outrageous conceptual prompts, and a host of other experimental methods and media. The self-deprecating descriptions that are given, such as ‘slouching’, ‘piles’, ‘wrong’, ‘baloney’, ‘misguided’, ‘estranged’, and so on, serve as a wink-and-nod to the Postmodernists such as Stanley Tigerman, who not coincidentally is an avid supporter of the exhibition. This language also distances these designers from the overwrought and equally silly academicism that plagued the profession in the 1990s and 2000s.

While it is not a direct correlation, many of the same Postmodernist ways of thinking are seen in the Graham Foundation’s exhibition. Who says a piece of gutter can’t be an urban through-way? Why can’t a piñata have disgusting yet architectural qualities? Why don’t more architects use fog machines? These questions and more are unanswered, but nonetheless take this exhibition far outside the usual frame for architectural discourse.

The misbehaviour would probably be taken further, but as a body of work it makes a strong case for having a bad attitude. When bad attitudes spread, they become something more troubling for those who have good attitudes. When there is a whole cadre of people with bad attitudes organised into a quasi-cohesive whole, the Graham Foundation becomes a circus of architecture exuberance. Like the radical new conceptions of architecture at the end of Modernism’s reign, these challenges to the conventional react against and circumvent convention, becoming a chorus of new ways to make space.

Treatise: Why Write Alone?

Where: The Graham Foundation, Chicago

When: 23 January - 28 March

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