This new essay explores the new scenario where Architects has been forced to operate nowadays.
THE WEAKNESS OF ARCHITECTURE
MEMORIES OF SHANXI PROVINCE, CHINA
The death of the project was noticed in a single instance; when we shook hands.
Despite the brutal effort of building something where nothing was before, architecture is defined by a primitive act; when the two sides (client and architect) are measured to one in short. Architecture as more than any other profession has the capacity to produce knowledge. It starts with a statement; developed by a vast intellectual capacity of production; and eventually reaffirmed by the arbitrary mood of two individuals.
In the current developing countries, where Western architects have been forced to develop their careers, the newness is spread everywhere; as much as to be scared of. The urban process is faster even than the particular necessities. It is a process where the need of creating urban substance is beyond than any architectural program. The volume, the occupation of the land, ultimately the built mass, becomes highly prioritized; easier to create context than content. So far, the standard condition of big buildings has been their creation by multiplicity of forces. Those forces comprised architecture and precipitated it into autonomous systems and began, as an ensemble, generating new properties as if it possesses a direction and life on its own. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the overture of China to the Market in the earliest 90s, economy has pushed individual developers (cowboys-like) to generate urban substance there where nothingness is the main condition. Yet, those operators are not getting use of building individual constructions; they are getting use of building whole cities, instead.
This condition becomes as essential to be understood as immeasurable challenge to operate on it.
Mass from scratch
The enterprise was to accommodate a whole urban condition (+-350,000sq.m). The land, in its purest nature, was waiting the erection of a huge mass construction; volumes which were going to contain activities that were not necessary yet. The only viable way of making the enterprise viable was with a mega-construction; a super block. There was not time even to accommodate the land, any imperfection -i.e. topography- would be absorbed.
No more than today the concept of “Bigness” is becoming a routine. That concept which Rem Koolhaas classified it as vehicle of Modernization in his book S,M,L,XL, represents the moment when a project of architecture exceeds beyond a certain scale and challenges the city. In our case, size requirement (mainly political-propagandistic) instigated us to mobilize the intelligence of every field; symbolism, marketing, maintenance, and even length of building life.
“Bigness” was described to be everything about scale, beyond which is the ultimate, the ultimate architecture, because it acquires grandiose properties. “Bigness” was understood as a representation of a society under an absolute control. “Bigness” was a Post-modernist language of multiplicity, complexity, contamination, relinquishment of architectural control. The new economic and demographic condition took “Bigness” as a new urban model; seen not as an alternative perspective of urbanization, but as the powerful possibility for the creation of a fast urban substance.
Following this statement, when architecture transcends the limits of large, it no more contains within it the contamination possibilities of rationalization. Yet, some questions quickly come up to the debate: are they buildings that in their very brutality might contain the urban life as society has known it so far? Or are they only the overcome of the Market force? They are showed as a huge buffer built mass, urban outposts for outside city, urban obstacles to absorb flows; all under the conceived ideas of bastard cities, endless cities where all could be accumulated; “Bigness” seen as the possibility of accumulating uses, visitors, and consumers.
In this twenty-first century, architecture has been unable to answer the contemporary social complexities (one might say: once again). Thus, “Bigness” has been the solution in the Market hands to answer all the new social requirements. When the architecture profession doubts how to deal with the new, refugees in the obstinacy of details, other fields take advantage of it.
“Bigness” as Modernity
Modernity was well explained by Marshall Berman as an element which is transforming the world; provoking disorientation to its inhabitants and disintegrating their life as they know.
To be Modern is based on abandoning the ideas of old to locate new ones; to be Modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction; to be Modern is to encompass the duality of the environment -i.e. of adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world- and also of threats of destruction of everything society has, everything they know, everything they are. What can suit much better than a society willing to make any super human efforts for progress to accommodate “Bigness” as Modernity?
“Bigness” is the landscape of mass, a monopoly of mass, a share size that offers accumulation of masses to fill it with urban connotations of commercial, temporally residential, movement, media or simulation based environs. It reframes the idea of a thing as significant, offering a new economy. They are the new social containers, a celebration of the lusting notion that the “city” is no more; airports, offices, hotels, multicultural centers, and the consumption-based society reveals the death of the city (outside it, ridiculing it, and disregarding it). Thus, blankness of the city, lost of history, lost of context, omission of centralization systems, and evacuation of public realm, hallucination of the normal and social sedation.
The domain of smooth spaces are reflected where the event gets spaced, where the urban is about motion, utility and efficiency; endless corridors supplied by bus lines, light trains, high-speed land communications, Boeings 747, hotel rooms, ballrooms, luxury houses smelling like film sets. Those elements are the new material which creates the new urban condition, the new containers of contemporary activities. “Bigness” observes no beings, no society, no culture, and no place differences. It respects no processes of urbanization, no aspects of life, no needs of individuals, and any circumstances or context. Thus, it represents the lost of the social and public realm, and it prompts us into a new Modernity.
Ironically, identity is no longer a material substance (not even a problem) in this new era; in the virtual space which Modernity spreads out, TV & Internet have the role to create the sense of community; they are the truth, the true world, they reinforce the group identity, that which the physical world does not have any longer.
“Bigness” = BigB@
Big business (hereinafter BigB) is about quantity rather than quality, contamination rather than purity. It builds those relationships which are about expansions, addition, and replacement; a liquid urbanism of grazing perpetually interacting forces. BigB recognizes those constructions as Bastions. It gives a conceptualization of a whole -a mechanism or a machine to live with-. BigB is where economy takes over social matters; inflexible, immutable, definitive, forever there, generated through super human efforts; BigB claims the city.
Even more struggling, I am wondering whether BigBcan play an active role in all models of economies; democracies, communism, nationalists, fundamentalists, dictatorships. Is BigB only as an accumulation of people? Is the city merely a place of accumulation? Is the city a manifestation of economy and a place of segregated events?
We were told to create a strategy of a single container -an indiscriminate reproduction/proliferation container of events-. The complex BigB system might be a worldly object, but it is projected without sustainable roots, without nature, without natural space, natural air, natural light, natural vegetation, and natural organic environs; all that constitutes the world. The argument, thus, is that BigB cannot be sustained and it will be unable to sustain its component life. After all, artificiality cannot create new events or other architecture. Actually, it is neither spatial nor social model. It is neither dependent on specificities nor design strategies. Its economy offers speed and Modernization and disperses the myths of architecture to take it beyond its precedents.
BigB therefore is a model of demand rather than scale, a virtual demand of those who may hardly concern with the cultural, spatial and social impacts. BigB promises another era, another alchemy, and that is another Modernism where the boundaries are re-determined; as a conception of consumption. The majestic scales of Modernism have been layered by the changing nature of the Market.
BigB is about production -not only consumer based needs, but Media opportunity-. It is the opportunistic ambition of exploiter, without any inclusion of history and culture, without the initiation of the local communities. It is an ambition to resurrect the failed laissez-faire economy. For against the Modernist aspirations and possibilities, the question is whether BigB can resist reproduction of clumsy concrete platforms, as slabs with deep, dark, dingy corridors, pit holes of gloomy spaces and pigeon holes for individuals to tuck in, and eventually to wrap everything in a vulgar curtain wall (color according to the customer’s will).
How does BigB as a concept of scale stops from corridors to be long stretches like passages of alien spaces; offices to be private lobbies of claustrophobic private cocoons; spaces to be monotonous, dull and gray; toilets as striking left over joints; housing as a box rather than a place to be at? Or will BigBbe a living environment, partly controlled by video cameras, partly controlled at gun points? Although there is no doubt BigB is already the new sexy object, it is still necessary to theorize about it.
The car took us out of the plot which waits progress. Looking outside, endless Lorries carrying with tons of raw materials were coming into the dust cloud. Although, it was not possible to see it, Modernity was happening in front of us. The question is whether this situation will not be another Potemkin city for the Empress; vanishing as quickly as it came.
In our handshake, both parts had previously known the project was not going to survive; no harmony. As turbulence and instability become the norm in the urban, architectural, and dialogue processes, the most effective survival stance is a constant but highly selective strategy that we can call it pragmatic creativity.
The project did not belong to us anymore.
We were not enough Modern.
Manuel N. Zornoza