Architecture as a means of untying hierarchies has found particular resonance in a sphere beyond architecture: music
At the start of last year, Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York hosted a competition entitled ‘Taking Buildings Down’. Underpinning the initiative was the question of what it means to build today via a consideration of what it means to demolish, a conceptual framework that proposed: ‘making voids is a creative act’. Projects receiving top honours variously dealt with spatial and ideological erasure within contemporary Greek politics (Antonas Office), the loss of memory engendered by the breakneck speed at which buildings become unbuilt (Maciej Siuda, Rodrigo Garda Gonzalez) and the returning of land harnessed for human infrastructure to nature (Untitled Studio). The manner in which the projects engaged with ‘unbuilding’ as a present-day solution of sorts suggests a contemporary appetite for destruction in rude good health. (Rumination on ruination too shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.)
The ‘taking down’ in the competition’s title of course alludes to more than just physical annihilation. It points also to the deconstruction of political frameworks that engender the architecture of institutions. To take down is to claim agency in the resulting space – a sensation all the more heightened amid the ructions of the current political era. An approach of ‘anti-architecture’, oriented toward the physical embodiment of institutions, ‘the expression of the very soul of societies’, remains synonymous with Georges Bataille, as asserted in his 1929 text ‘Architecture’. This thread of his writings has been a key influence on those interested in deconstruction – as opposed to destruction. Bernard Tschumi’s approach to theory and practice, for example, draws on Bataillien principles but is characterised by an interest in wielding space as a tool for enabling wider structural change.
‘What might anti-architecture mean in the post-industrial, digitised landscapes of 2017?’
If Deconstructivism offered new readings of what it meant to unbuild or ‘undo’ architecture, then that process has arguably been presented with yet another trajectory to follow, on account of the growing, pervasive digitisation of our everyday environments: the effects of architecture of a different sort. We increasingly live and work – even build – in a world in which the physical and the digital are evermore seamlessly intertwined. What then might anti-architecture mean in the variously post-industrial, digitised landscapes of 2017 and beyond?
Tschumi is also an example of an architect who has frequently looked outside the boundaries of his discipline as part of his unbuilding, from experimental dance to film to score notation. Bataille’s use of metaphorical and literal anti-architecture as a means of untying existing hierarchies has also found particular resonance in a sphere beyond architecture: music. This may sound counter to the oft-cited close relationship between the two, from architecture as frozen music to the historic, institution-reinforcing power of the two in combination. In his 2013 piece for the AR entitled ‘Architecture Becomes Music’, Charles Jencks deftly explored the affinity between architecture and music as ‘parallel arts of harmonic and rhythmic order’, tracing this predication of order as rendered in forms such as the Classical Greek temple or Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Jencks notes how ‘when music and architecture use such natural and conventional meanings in so simplified a form, they raise emotions to a high pitch’. Invoking the spirit of anti-architecture then, and taking the parallels between the two fields to the other end of the spectrum, what results when those forms are ripped apart post-fusion?
In seeking answers to this question within the physical, one particular musical entity has pushed this as far as possible while cultivating the sort of cultural esteem that attracts invitations to play in some of the most acoustically impressive architectures in the world – most recently the newly opened Hamburg Elbpharmonie. When the line-up was announced for Herzog & de Meuron’s acclaimed new castle in the sky, music fans could be forgiven for assuming that someone on the programming team had a sense of humour; invited to perform was the band in question, whose name translates from their native German as ‘collapsing new buildings’: Einstürzende Neubauten. But given the band’s enduring relationship with architecture – a compilation series entitled the pleasingly Bataillien Strategies Against Architecture, song titles like Architektur ist Geiselnahme (‘Architecture is hostage taking’) – such a programming decision is rooted in more than just an opportunity to play with nomen est omen puns. Neubauten has challenged the old adage of architecture as frozen music through a process of deconstruction – and not necessarily destruction, despite the implications of its name.
According to band canon, frontman Blixa Bargeld chose their name, by coincidence, just six weeks before one of the great concrete arches of Berlin’s Kongresshalle collapsed in May 1980. Designed by Hugh Stubbins and completed in 1957, the building was a gift from the USA as part of IBA ‘57. Neubauten garnered a reputation as purveyors of ‘unlistenable’ industrial noise via their early releases, such as debut LP Kollaps, which explicitly demanded fans ‘hören mit schmerzen’ (listen with pain) all underpinned by a ferocious utilisation of the remnants of decay that littered the still-ravaged Berlin in which they formed: a former powerhouse of a city, bonnet left open with repairs ongoing. (Both city and band have arguably since quietened down a little as the winds of gentrification have blown through.) Sheet metal, an array of piping, rubble and shopping trolleys all found their way into the Neubauten oeuvre, played with pneumatic hammers, circular saws and an air compressor.
‘Musically induced architectural “destruction” for the sake of spectacle was not the primary aim here’
Some particularly notorious antics aside (among them a 1984 performance entitled ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ that targeted the tunnel system running underneath the ICA), musically induced architectural ‘destruction’ for the sake of spectacle was not the primary aim here. On the difference between demolition and destruction, there’s a Walter Benjamin quote Bargeld has referenced again and again in interviews over the course of the past three decades, taken from an essay published two years after the Bataille Documents text, entitled ‘Der destruktive Charakter’ (The Destructive Character). In it, Benjamin speaks to the same creative ‘void-making’ of the Storefront competition:
‘The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.’
But when the institutions equivalent to those Bataille had in his sights are today ever more elusive and harder to identify via their monumentality as rendered in physical architecture, what then for anti-architecture? Arguably, the ‘souls of our societies’ are drifting into the cloud, routed in physicality via the dispersed architecture of a thousand non-distinct (and often unmapped) server farms. What could ‘collapsing architecture’ in order to platz schaffen (make space) mean for artists working at the intersection of music and architecture today?
‘Neubauten’s use of the broken architecture of 1980s West Berlin, quite literally breaks down and “plays” the collapsed, constituent parts of their contemporary environment’
Holly Herndon and collaborator Mat Dryhurst are a pair of contemporary musicians with a strong interest in architecture that extends from the physical to the digital, rooted precisely in that same idea of locating agency in cleared space. They name Keller Easterling, author of Subtraction (2014) and one of the Storefront competition judges, as one of several architectural influences. And like Neubauten’s use of the broken architecture of 1980s West Berlin, their approach involves quite literally breaking down and ‘playing’ the collapsed, constituent parts of their contemporary environment. Here, web browsers, network protocols and ad servers are the ‘architectural’ monuments indicative of institutions: from Google to the NSA et al. In the video to 2014 single Chorus, directed by Akihiko Taniguchi, Herndon is seen rendered in various pixelated permeations, surrounded by the architectures – and detritus – of digital life. An array of desks with open laptops, covered in stacked windows and tabs are shown in this same rendered space, before 3D digitised models of personal effects – a box of plasters, SD cards, a Miffy mug – are seen to take flight around the screens.
This visual is a perfect mirror of the music that soundtracks it, for which Dryhurst transposed the approach of foraging the architecture of the everyday environment to the sphere of the digital by writing a software patch with which one’s browsing activity can be recorded. ‘Then you can smash those sounds together into a kind of Musique concrète collage’, Herndon explains. ‘You end up with this huge mass of material and you go through and pick out the best bits.’ Dryhurst named the result ‘net concrete’; it is layers of this fragmented material, processed and ‘collapsed’ onto one another, which make up the music.
Herndon and Dryhurst too make a distinction between demolition and destruction, keen that any resulting spectacular visuals, or nostalgia for a certain aesthetic – glitch is to the digital as ruin is to the physical – do not distract from what to do with the space that results post-collapse. On this point, Dryhurst remarks, ‘Punk and Industrial were some of the first times that these kind of critical, dystopian narratives were reaching a wider audience through record distribution. That was a really important gesture to make at the time, but this new frontier is where we have to imagine – and create – other infrastructures with which to assert ourselves critically today […] architecture is interesting because it implicitly involves critique that is focused on building stuff’. However, Herndon suggests that online is ‘the only place that’s left. Everything beyond is so perfected and colonised. Online space is rapidly getting that way but there are still a few corners that are messy and chaotic’.
This kind of approach, as with others discussed here, is reminiscent of that Jill Stoner advocates in her book Toward A Minor Achitecture (2012), in which she suggests a counter to the ‘major’ (Bataille’s institutions) via a ‘displacement’ of architecture into the spatiality of fiction. The escapes from the major she proposes – ‘opportunistic events in response to latent but powerful desires to undo structures of power’ – might take the form of physical interventions: an ornate theatre converted for more utilitarian use or a corporate tower becoming a vertical favela are examples she gives. But, perhaps pointing to the virtual, Stoner also suggests that minor architectures ‘will alter and dematerialise the constructed world’, placing ‘the argument for alternate and subversive spatial strategies squarely at our doorstep’. Where, though, is that doorstep now located? Continuing this thought, the aforementioned Jencks’ text contains a point concerning Hadid-esque forms but which seems equally applicable to the other digital architecture in which we are starting to reside: ‘With so much digital architecture, much of the surface is seamless and without cues as to up and down, base and top, gravity and flying’. In terms of taking buildings down – in every sense – if it’s harder to find a way in then by extension, it’s harder to find a breaking point.
2. Georges Bataille, ‘Dictionnaire Critique’, Documents #2, Paris, May 1929
4. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Destructive Character’, from Frankfurter Zeitung, 20 November 1931, translated by Edmund Jephcott in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (1999)
6. Skype conversation between Herndon and Dryhurst with the author, February 2017