Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dialectic of High-Tech


This post on the grim decline of High Tech is brilliant, so much so I feel a bit of a git taking issue. But I've been writing on Ludwig Hilberseimer and such things for the now somewhat less unfinished thesis for the last fortnight, so the intractable questions of architecture, technology and ideology are all rather stuck in my head, and as I only sent off the most recent chapter half an hour ago this might continue to have its tone. Anyway. It seems that loads of the oppositions set up here between technological 'solutionism' and the enormously depressing end result in this post (essentially, how Brits attempting to bring Bucky Fuller to Blighty winds up in Tesco) can be mapped very closely onto the 1920s in Germany and the USSR with rather different results. For instance, E&V quotes Richard Rogers thus:

'Returning to Britain to set up our first architectural practice (Team 4, comprising Norman and Wendy Foster, Su Rogers and myself) we realised the importance of the American experience where the architect is a genuine problem-solver rather than a mere stylist. We understood that the traditional European approach, constrained by cultural and formal conventions, could never meet the needs of a changing society that we were going to try to serve.'

Basically, in a statement like this you have a complete and utter denial of the ideological aspect of architecture.

Well, yes in a sense you do, but you can easily imagine this statement being made by a 1920s leftist architectural figure, a Moisei Ginzburg or a Walter Gropius, who were both entirely intent on using their architecture to serve a very specific ideological client and a specific society. In both cases, we could agree on the virtues of this client in say, 1924, and its barbarism in say, 1934. Context is all. And Rogers (and even Foster, in the attempt to design out in inequality in the Willis Faber building) in the 70s were wanting to apply American industrial expertise to an increasingly 'classless' Wilsonian social democracy of social mobility and technological advance, in much the same way that Gropius or Ginzburg were bringing Taylorism and Fordism to Ekaterinberg and Dessau, applying it to things like socialised housing, socialist cities and what have you, that an actual Taylorist or Fordist would abhor. After the astonishing paroxysm of Lloyds, where the Marcuse-quoting Labourite gives capital the best fucking building it's ever going to have, High-Tech had the choice of going further in that direction, creating an accelerationist architecture, essentially, or of pretending that this 'changing society' was still changing for the better, and toning down the harsh elements of their architecture in favour of an ornamentalism of struts that eventually ends up in Terminal 5 - a building which cloaks its very real and very sinister subsidiary functions and relations better than perhaps any other in Britain; or in the neo-International Style of Foster, where this Buckminster Fuller disciple ends up recreating the very architecture, the same formalised imitation of technology, that Fuller set out to ridicule and destroy.


I'm generally not that bothered about the sin of 'solutionism' any more than I'm bothered about the 'ethical fallacy, at least until it becomes (with varying degrees of regularity) a massive fib, or at present both a fib and a pernicious cliché. I don't think someone like Fuller can be dismissed as merely 'ludicrously naive' - he's both ludicrously naive and enormously important, in the sense that the possibilities he and his English epigones proposed for an egalitarian technological society remain possibilities, and don't cease to be such because capitalism has foreclosed them. Pointing out that foreclosure even has a certain propaganda value - these things were once possible, and now they aren't regarded as such, the phenomenon that Mark Fisher describes as retrospective 'impossibilism' - and to abandon the occasionally illusory idea of 'functionalism', of architecture as merely one, not neccessarily aesthetic component in a larger entity, leads to another kind of idiocy entirely, and one that is if anything more pernicious - the grotesque division of labour between lauded demiurge and obscure engineer in the work of the one-time deconstructivists. Another very very interesting argument in here is that some high-tech, in the most straightforwardly blank version, as Tesco's rather than as the abhorrent Spitalfields Market, is something that

obeys the law far more strictly what the Big Other requires of them. A Tesco superstore, with its boring white structure, its boring white spaces and its boring bottom-line materials; this is the pre-fabricated High-Tech future. I’m deeply ambivalent about this situation – a superstore is genuinely the truth of the High-Tech rhetoric, one could even picture it as a socialist’s dream come true, but of course, it might well have been what was demanded, but it certainly wasn’t what was wanted.


While also describing rather precisely the manner in which Hilberseimer's serried, intimidating semi-satire of a Fordist city ends up as the blank second phase of the Rockefeller Centre (or maybe more interestingly as the DDR's remodelling of Alexanderplatz...), this again seems to me weirdly static. So Tesco's is boring. No shit. But at the same time, what of the suggestion, recently made by Fredric Jameson, that something as skull-crushingly horrible as Wal-Mart contains, in its ease, abundance, cheapness and extremely extensive use of automation, a vision of utopia? It seems as important here to hang onto the dialectic of the avant-garde as the dialectic of enlightenment. Why can't we do with Tesco what Meyerhold did with Taylor - take a form of new domination as something which actually contains something we can use, something that is latent - not as the grim end-point of a once-emancipatory dialectic of clipped-together instant architecture, but as an unknowing component of a potential other society which would have a certain use for the insufferably naive solutionism of those who now design astoundingly bland buildings and sit in the House of Lords. As Jameson writes of WalMart, 'to apprehend it for a moment in positive or progressive terms is to open up the current system in the direction of something else'.

39 Comments:

Blogger adswithoutproducts said...

Where did FJ say the bit about Walmart?

6:42 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Valences of the Dialectic, that's where. The full sentence is "This [his reading of Walmart as a Utopian phenomenon] does not mean that Walmart is positive or that anything progressive can come out of it, nor any new system: yet to apprehend it for a moment in positive or progressive terms is to open up the current system in the direction of something else."

10:44 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...Jameson later devotes several pages to the contention that, as one CEO has claimed, 'Wal-Mart have killed free-market capitalism in America'...

In the post itself I resisted the temptation to link to this, as it's a mix, as ever of things that need to be said, said with aplomb, and absolute nonsense.

12:46 pm  
Blogger ie wataridori said...

Well, Walmart modernism isn't new, is it? I think quoting Koolhaas is still quite fashionable. Maybe not in Britain, I guess.

12:27 am  
Blogger ie wataridori said...

(and now that I think about it, Koolhaas' stuff does look rather high-tech doesn't it)

12:29 am  
Blogger ie wataridori said...

By the way, what do you think about the Case Study Houses? They're definitely very naive and very "solutionist", despite the second-hand Miesian gestures...

12:48 am  
Anonymous adswithoutproducts said...

Thanks for that... There's also, I've found, an anticipatory footnote in Archaeologies of the Future, where he sketches out the argument...

1:31 pm  
Blogger Steven Schuldt said...

Only something as ruthlessly efficient and massively violent as Walmart could upend capitalism and leave it flapping helplessly on its back. If they weren't so cheap, they'd have outbid Goldman Sachs for Washington D.C.

Even so, we're at the bit where Boardwalk and Park Place are owned by the same guy and our global game of Monopoly(R) quickly becomes Oligarchy(R). Then what? Revolution? It's either a new system or oligarchy till the sun winks out...

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And yet Rogers was nothing but a stylist himself.

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