Monday, December 17, 2007

Architecture of the Absurd

I have just read Architecturew of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art by John Silber. The author is a former president of Boston University who himself oversaw a substantial building program during his time there.

The book is a critique of flamboyant gimmickry in many modern buildings, that causes the building in question to be disfunctional, and is claimed by the author to be the outcome of egotistical architects managing to browbeat gullible clients who are spending other peoples' money. (It is claimed that absurdism is over-represented in buildings put up by universities and cultural organisations.) The Stata Center at MIT is claimed to be a leading example of absurdism, and from reading about it, and looking at the pictures, I tend to think I would not like to work there.

The book is most enjoyable to read; it does not take long to read, being short and with plenty of nice high-quality illustrations. It is refreshing because of its iconoclastic aspect -- various high-profile buildings and the celebrity architects who designed them, are strongly criticised. In my opinion, it could go further than it does in that respect -- the author remains respectful of certain famous buildings that fulfil his own conditions for condemnation, such as the Sydney Opera House (massive cost over-runs) and Fallingwater (required major remedial work to keep it from becoming falling-concrete).

Silber's theory is that absurdism is the result of architectural egotism, as I mentioned above, and I will round off this entry by proposing a rival theory. The sort of absurdism he highlights in the book is really an act of desperation brought about the unutterable tediousness and monotonous nature of Modern architecture. No-one likes modern buildings - that is why we take our holidays in places like Paris and Barcelona, and not in Basingstoke, Milton Keynes, or Stevenage. In designing a building in the Modern style, there is virtually no scope for self-expression. (To see why, just notice that you can look at a typical modern building for a minute, and then sketch an accurate likeness of it from memory. Yes, it will look like most other modern buildings, that's sort of the problem.)

So, what's an architect to do, if a design is to be a creative outlet? You're not allowed to use more than one kind of window, and the design you're allowed to use is itself not interesting. No cornices, pilasters, or any kind of ornamentation is allowed; that would not be very modern, would it? Elaborate brickwork, or the creative use of natural materials, is frowned upon. What's left, if there is excess money to be spent, is to go for some sort of bizarre, grotesque shape: the sort of thing that the above book will identify as absurdism. The only way out of this mess, I would suggest, is that we have to extract ourselves from the aesthetic and spiritual dead-end that is modern architecture.

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