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Log jammed: the messy reality of contemporary architecture

Reflecting on the first decade of Log magazine, Sam Jacob concludes that the neatness of architectural movements has segued into today’s much messier plurality

‘Sam, you’re looking at me, so you can start.’ Hmm. There should be a word for this, for when the spotlight falls on you on stage at MoMA, your mind goes blank and your tongue feels like an oyster.

What I’m supposed to be starting is a discussion about the state of architecture today. It’s a discussion convened to celebrate a decade of Log, the picture-postcard-cover journal of architectural letters.

Here in the bowels of the venerable institution on one side of a shallow ‘V’ built out of contract furniture, we have 10 architects, each presenting a single building. On the other side are four of us designated as critics. Who, I imagine, have been hired with the expectation of providing rapier wit, searing comment and profound insights into the very core of the zeitgeist.

The day passes. We see some great projects, some not so. We hear interesting things and less interesting things. But, if we’re here to uncover the beating heart of architecture, it’s not only me that’s struggling to find a purchase.

Preston Scott Cohen's museum in Tel Aviv

Preston Scott Cohen’s museum in Tel Aviv

Here are the core samples we’re working with. We have UN Studio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum representing the swooping pre-crash gilded diagrams, but then we have the conceptual straight edge of Office KGDVS. We have scaleless abstracted neo-vernacular represented by C+S Architects, then scaleless pattern in the surface of LAN’s EDF Archives, and scaleless scripted pattern of Reiser + Umemoto’s O-14. There’s Barkow Leibinger’s custom digital fabrication techniques and 51N4E’s TID Tower in Albania. There’s Neil Denari’s highly wrought graphic formalism
and the obsessive spatial manipulations of Modernism in Preston Scott Cohen’s museum in Tel Aviv. Then there’s purposely schizo position-straddlers MOS with their Element House that seems to do all of the above all at once.

With a spectrum as wide as this, it’s hard to say if anything is ‘going on’ in the way that you imagine the terrains of architectural culture past.

It’s hard to see outlines of encampments, or battle lines, to see arrows indicating attacks or retreats. Looking back through architecture’s history, we might imagine architectural culture as a war room with figurines pushed across tabletop maps. But now? It seems like a still life instead. Instead of a clash of ideas where something might be at stake, we find the scene inert, motionless.

You can dice this group in a variety of ways. You can arrange them by generation, or cleave them into camps on either side of the Atlantic. You could draw Venn diagrams that recognise shared techniques, or trace lines of influence like a sketchy family tree. But if, as it does, it feels like there’s nothing at stake, this feels nothing more than a distracting parlour game.

Element House by MOS

Element House by MOS

However, I did feel some responsibility to the role I imagined I’d been hired to perform. To this end, I took different tacks in the am and pm sessions. Morning: ‘OK, well, we all must share something because, well we live in the same world, the same culture.’ This failed to ignite the intended sensation of camaraderie. So, in the afternoon I tried: ‘How can you guys even share a stage? You’re all so different’ which met with an equally mute response, failing to deliver a Jerry Springer flurry of head-height furniture.

The reluctance on behalf of the architects to take either bait, to square up to each other or huddle into groups, might simply be politeness; or stage fright. But maybe there is something more in the laissez faire, anything goes permissiveness.

Perhaps what’s wrong is not architectural culture but our expectation of architectural culture. Maybe we’re conditioned by a received idea of the mechanics of cultural progression to expect a phenomenon that just isn’t going to happen. That’s to say, history − or at least how history has been written − suggests that culture congeals into schools of thought and stylistic constellations. We expect these to progress, lead from one to another, overthrow each other in paradigm shifts and Oedipal rages.

Maybe that itself is the paradigm shift. In fact, it might be that that conception of culture was itself a cultural construct. A view of culture invented by historians, by for example, Alfred H Barr’s 1936 diagram illustrating the historical development, currents and cross-currents of modern art. Part flow diagram, part family tree, its very format argued for a certain idea of cultural progression. The diagrams produced by Charles Jencks at the other end of that century accelerated and exaggerated Barr’s description of cultural progression into a baroque proliferation of schools, movements and lineages.

Alfred H. Barr's diagram illustrating historical development, currents and cross-currents of modern art

Alfred H. Barr’s diagram illustrating historical development, currents and cross-currents of modern art

However fictional it may have been, this view certainly exerted its influence. Not just as art historical classification, but also in the way it shaped the way work was produced. Perhaps we see the last vestiges of this in the rhetorics of Parametricism and the form-making of major players over the last decade or so.

But that’s also why exactly that kind of work suddenly seems so out of step. It’s as though it were born into a world that no longer exists. In an era that seems more characterised by ever more inventive and creative forms of retroness, we no longer feel the need to write stories of progression.

Instead we are surrounded by vast arrays of immediately accessible information that comes to us so fast and fluid, without the inscriptions of scholarly hierarchy and demarcation.

Perhaps this is the new paradigm. Instead of progress we have endless reassemblages of the past fleetingly brought together by the algorithms of a Google image search. Culture, and architectural culture too, is framed by a different model. Not a map of fixed territories scrolling forward over time, but a vast fluid pool, infinitely wide and microns thin.

And perhaps this is what leaves us all tongue-tied when it comes to trying to describe what’s actually happening in architecture. It’s the language we’re schooled in: the words and concepts of 20th-century art history that have suddenly become inert, useless − flabby as a mollusc.

Instead, we need new vocabularies that talk about relationships rather than revolutions, about contingency rather than movements. A language based, as Freek Persyn of 51N4E suggested, on conversation rather than competition.

Image: Charles Jencks’ millennial diagram of architectural evolution ‘accelerated and exaggerated cultural progression into a baroque proliferation of schools, movements and lineages.’

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