Industrial Aesthetics for Industrial People
Two things - me on Barkow Leibinger's industrial kitsch for Frieze, and on the touring Le Corbusier extravaganza, for the current issue of Icon. The most interesting thing in the latter, though, and continuing the general theme of 'thou, the repulsive one, art gorgeous', is the feature on Branislav Kropilak's industrial photography, several pages of bright, lurid images of refineries. Refineries are incredible things. Having lived in sniffing distance from the biggest refinery in Europe, which lines up bizarrely in front of the former site of the biggest hospital in the world, I remember some spectacular hilltop views over what looks in the darkness like a vast, uninhabited metropolis, a jagged, neon-lit cityscape made from an obsessive tangle of tentacles and tendrils. Kropilak's photos respond to the spaces not through the cold camera-eye of Renger-Patzsch or Bernd & Hilla Becher, but instead are deliberately strange and distorting, taken at night to emphasise the spaces' strangeness. They manage to catch the uncanniness of the refineries, presenting images of a weirdly organic technology, its endless connections and intersections showing an industrial non-aesthetic seemingly more inspired by fevered dreams than calm sachlichkeit. Although nobody has ever, to my knowledge, written a tract on Learning from Fawley Refinery, these kind of structures are one of the main inadvertent parents of high-tech architecture, in that, as suggested by Reyner Banham's debunking of the International Style's pretensions to up-to-the-minute technology, they showed an industrial aesthetic that was not calm, that had little in common with the serene Platonic volumes Le Corbusier saw in grain silos, but was instead busy, seemingly chaotic, overcoded and overdetailed, wildly impure.
However they do (again wholly inadvertently) take up a certain other kind of Modernist architecture, the impurism and 'component fixation' of Soviet Constructivism, the techno-messthetic that reaches an apotheosis with Chernikhov's Architectural Fantasies. The architectural question, meanwhile, is the counter-intuitive one of how to replicate these utilitarian forms for entirely different building types. The jibe that Lloyds 'looks like a refinery' should have been taken as a compliment, but the building's function could have necessitated all manner of entirely different styles. It would be strange and Ruskinian to suggest that the refineries are beautiful because of their fulfilment of function, especially given that their absurdly complex nature means that the function can only be guessed at by the person looking at them for aesthetic jollies. But they raise one of the questions begged by Barkow Leibinger's industrial ornamentation - what is the appropriate form for an honestly technological architecture in (very) late capitalism? Barkow Leibinger's answer seems to be to use the same extremely advanced techniques employed within the factory on its facade, on the roof, on the walls for the purpose of aesthetic edification - but everywhere, when you look for the buildings of today's industrial and distribution centres, they look like these places - an architecture more bare, more white, more Platonic and more blandly pure than any Corbusian could have possibly wanted.