Giovanni Intra, ‘Darkness in Architecture’, Stamp Magazine, March 1992.
The Great Fire of Rome occurred in 64AD bringing with it suspicions that the Emperor, Nero was responsible for the blaze that destroyed public buildings, Greek temples and many citizens. Fire is a threat to all architecture and especially paper architecture.
The burning of Rome, and of course Rome itself figures importantly in our mythology of the city, the idea of Empire.
Visiting Russian artist/architects, Sasha Brodsky & Ilya Utkin (both born 1955) are building an architectural sculpture for the Wellington City Art Gallery. Their commissioned sculpture Palazzo Nero (Black Palace, or, Palace of Nero) may or may not allude to the collapse of the USSR or the incineration of Rome as has been suggested. The artists’ world, the domain of Paper Architecture, remains highly speculative.
Today in Russia many architects spend their careers designing state buildings or housing estates: projects racked with bureaucratic nightmares, poor materials, built by unskilled labourers.
In the 1970s, as a kind of architectural avantgarde, Brodsky & Utkin and friends created an ingenious antidote to this uninspiring predicament. They created Paper Architecture. It was a conceptual architecture that from the drawing board speculated on a complex range of issues surrounding the great architectural thesis: the metropolised city.
Their Paper Architecture proposed such structures as a chapel that bridges the gap between two abysses one above and one below, or a Forum de Mille Veritas (Forum of a Thousand Truths). Of course none of this architecture could ever be built. How could one build an Intelligent Market? How could one build a Villa Claustrophobia? Today they do build, but mostly for another stronghold of fantasy: the art gallery.
Russia’s recent presence in the media has given Brodsky & Utkin an uncanny presence in Wellington. Initially it led readers of Palazzo Nero to interpret the work as an architectural allegory of the collapse of the Soviet State. Is it, or is it not? With a gentle touch of humour, the artists discouraged this irresistible association.
From our point of view we must wonder. Perhaps these political projections are from our minds alone. Whatever the case maybe, the Paper Architecture of Brodsky & Utkin presents itself as an elaborate riddle with no final answer. Without a doubt though, political powers in Russia and the world rise and fall and architecture is always a potent witness to this.
Mysterious and elusive it may be but a drop in the ocean Palazzo Nero is not. It is a page in a historic plot concerning Russian Architecture, the Palazzo’s of Venice, and Brodsky & Utkin’s own continuing history: that of the Paper Architects.
Darkness as a theme envelopes the Palazzo Nero. A black palace could easily be the dwelling of an evil emperor, even a totalitarian megalomaniac. Our own horror stories often picture buildings made black by age or evil, one only has to imagine the Addams family in their magnificent abode which in every way is a true classic of Paper Architecture.
In Venice there is such a place as Palazzo Nero. As one of the lesser grand palaces it once expressed its vanity, as Palazzo Nero does, in Venice’s canals (making the threat of fire somewhat less than one would imagine). It is now an obscure apartment block long parted from its nobility.
Today it takes its place amongst the ruins of a Venice that is sinking and corroding due to extreme pollution, floods and a rising water level. The Most Serene Republic will eventually disappear. Perhaps the artists’ Palazzo Nero is a homage to the sinking city of Venice as well as to the old world. Perhaps it is pure nostalgia that has led them to create their own sinking building.
Unlike the brick and plaster palaces of Venice that are slowly sinking, their Palazzo Nero is made from black splintered timber. An architectural skeleton that will become history after two short months in an art gallery.
As a sculpture it is monumental but as a monument it is just passing through. Palazzo Nero sinks on an angle into a pool of sump oil, history’s quicksand. This black reflective slime, covering large areas of the gallery floor, simultaneously claims the Palazzo and makes its dying breaths all the more beautiful.
But what are we to make of this sinking building? Like its cousin the skyscraper, should it not aspire to the moral and physical domain of the heavens? On the contrary, Palazzo Nero dwells indoors and succumbs to the forces of gravity, insinuating collapse. But on the flip side, perhaps this place is on the rise, emerging from the muck, what then?
Towering above Brodsky & Utkin’s matchstick construction is Wellington’s own pitch palace, The BNZ Tower, projecting its own allusions to the ‘evil emperor’.
As Brodsky & Utkin are well aware, changes in political power are reflected in architectural style and as a consequence, architecture has reflected every important political and economic development in Russian history. For instance, the tradition of wooden building in northern Russia was all but wiped out by Patriarch Nikon between 1653-56. Apparently the shape of these beautiful buildings did not conform to the five-domed symbol of ‘true’ orthodoxy.
The answer to the riddle of Palazzo Nero will never be known. It must go unanswered. For Brodsky & Utkin’s Paper Architecture to be true to itself it must be the lie that tells the truth.
Peter Shaw, ‘A Different Way of Thinking’, Metro, no. 130, April 1992.
Among the enormous range provided for those who travelled to Wellington last month for the International Festival of the Arts was an exhibition at the Wellington City Art Gallery, which would have puzzled many. There is no denying that the Wellington City Art Gallery has been responsible for some of the most challenging art exhibitions seen anywhere in New Zealand during the last few years.
The Art And Organised Labour, the Now See Hear! and the Home Made Home exhibitions are all evidence of the gallery’s policy of addressing rather wider issues than those which concern other galleries. Here the public is encouraged to become involved in the discussion of profound issues about the relationship between art and society.
Its managing curator, Gregory Burke, explains that the WCAG takes a broad cultural view of art by deliberately linking it with the world in which it operates. Instead of ignoring the relationship between fine art and advertising or architecture, for instance, the WCAG will confront it. Instead of being given the opportunity to observe comfortingly tidy lines of paintings by big-name talents, viewers are pushed off the deep end and made to find connections between widely disparate items for themselves. Sometimes the connections are anything but obvious.
It’s a different way of thinking about art exhibitions and one which tends to disturb those who think of a visit to an art gallery as an experience which will merely confirm them in their good taste.
Located now in temporary premises in Chews Lane and before that in temporary premises across the road in Victoria Street, the Wellington City Art Gallery will eventually relocate to the former Wellington City Library building which now faces onto the new Civic Centre. But that eagerly anticipated day will probably not dawn until 1993.
Currently showing at the WCAG is an exhibition which drew crowds during the International Festival of the Arts and remains on display until May 3. It features large-scale etchings and two monumental sculptural constructions by the Russian artists/architects Brodsky and Utkin. To have these internationally acclaimed figures in this country for such a lengthy visit is yet another of the coups which now seem as a matter of course to occur within the context of the festival.
Their story is intriguing. Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin met in 1972 during their first year as students at the Moscow Institute of Architecture.
Their professional education took place at a time when Soviet architecture was dominated by the kind of faceless functionalism which characterised the Brezhnev years. It was an architecture of unadorned utilitarianism which had replaced the excesses of the Stalinist years when huge wedding-cake-like edifices smothered in classical decoration provided a facade behind which the terrors of the ageing dictator’s rule were enacted.
When they finished their training, Brodsky and Utkin put in the required years of postgraduate work in state architectural and engineering offices designing such things as sports centres and apartment blocks. The two architects experienced at first hand what it is like to be young and idealistic yet to have their creative urges dispersed by drudgery.
In response they became “paper architects”—interested primarily in solving theoretical rather than practical problems. They worked at weekends or in the evenings eagerly competing against friends in international architectural competitions. In 1982 they won a prestigious competition called Crystal Palace, organised by Japan Architect magazine. Since then they have devoted their energies to designing exhibitions, projects and installations such as the Palazzo Nero currently on show at the Wellington City Art Gallery.
Their etched designs range wide over European architectural history and they borrow from a huge assortment of styles and periods. The work is loaded with detail—the fruits of the years when, unable to travel outside Russia, they learned their architectural history from reproductions in books. Their etchings are scored and pocked to simulate the effects of extreme age. Because they are worked on by both artists, their individual contributions are indistinguishable.
Those familiar with the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) will feel at home with the work of Brodsky and Utkin. They too delight in the vertiginous, the ruined and the massive. Like Piranesi’s, their surfaces are elaborately worked and often gloomily theatrical. Forty of Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings have been flown in from a New York gallery, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, especially for this exhibition which can be seen upstairs in the WCAG.
Impatient of modern technology, having seen what it has been responsible for in Moscow where turn-of-the-century buildings were torn down to make way for ill-planned mass housing schemes, Brodsky and Utkin’s sculptural constructions are precarious, even jerry-built. In Wellington you can see two examples.
During their six-week residency, Brodsky and Utkin have built the Palazzo Nero out of black splintered timber with its foundations submerged in a pool of black oil. It can be found on the ground floor of the Wellington City Art Gallery.
Then during the first week of the International Festival of the Arts, 50 architecture students helped them build another large sculpture in the new Civic Square across the street.
And what have these architects actually built? It comes as no surprise to find that Brodsky and Utkin do not have a string of buildings to their credit in Moscow. Their fantastic schemes were hardly destined to win approval from the masters of the Soviet state.
Their Atrium Restaurant (illustrated), commissioned by a family which wanted to set up an independent restaurant to cater for Moscow’s diplomatic trade, was built in 1988. Helped by friends, Brodsky and Utkin did all the work themselves. Although they were paid, they maintain that they used up all their earnings taking people to the completed restaurant to show them their work!
Palazzo Nero is accompanied by a fascinating catalogue which includes additional information about installations they have made in the Netherlands and the United States. This is something special.
Marion McLeod, ‘Paper Houses’, Listener, 9–15 March 1992.
A crystal palace, glass towers, a bridge above a precipice among high mountains. A group of Russian architects realise their dreams on paper, defiantly etching fantastic designs despite, or even perhaps because of, the dour limitations imposed by the USSR over the past two decades.
One Moscow painter claimed in 1989 that Russian architects are the most neurotic people on earth. It’s not hard to see why. To be an architect in Soviet Russia was to experience total frustration—only three kinds of window were available in three regulation sizes and until recently it was impossible to bring materials in from the West. Unadorned utilitarianism was the order of the day; any design which strayed from the norm was deemed subversive.
This was the situation which confronted Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin when they graduated from the Moscow Institute of Architecture in the mid-1970s. They both came from families involved with the arts. Brodsky’s father was a well-known architect, graphic artist and book illustrator and Utkin’s grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and wife are all architects. The pair met in 1972 in their first year at the institute. When they graduated six years later, they received a single diploma with both their names on it.
The habit of working together continues. ‘Sometimes,’ explains Sasha Brodsky, ‘we do some separate things but basically we always work together.’ Occasional arguments, yes, but no real conflict. The pair are at present in Wellington, where the Wellington City Art Gallery is displaying their etchings and an installation as part of the International Festival of the Arts. Life has changed dramatically for them as for all Russian artists. ‘We have no desire to live anywhere else than Moscow, but our lives have changed because we can go even so far away as New Zealand.’
Back in the 1970s, Brodsky and Utkin were not absolutely cut off from the rest of the world, as they had access to contemporary Japanese, American and European art magazines, and their work refers to international architects over the centuries, to the Bible and to folk traditions and literature from around the world.
Paradoxically, the very stringent and dour moral codes which communism imposed on their daily work made them turn to rich fantasies. Brodsky and Utkin and a dozen friends would meet at night and weekends and work individually or in small groups. They began to refer to themselves as ‘paper architects’—a name which had been derogatorily applied to avant-garde architects still producing radical work after the socialist-realist tenets of the 1930s.
Since the works which they designed were not going to be realised, the paper architects had licence to indulge their imaginations. Repression led to a flow of fanciful creative ideas. Because they were so bored with their everyday work, they loved the evenings where they could work without consultants. Since they had no expectation of their ideas ever being realised, they were not hampered by practical concerns. Paper architecture need have no truck with the compromises required in the real world.
The 1970s saw a flourishing of international competitions sponsored by art magazines. The competitions—many of them organised by the Japan Architect—were often theoretical rather than practical. The paper architects saw this as a chance to take on a challenge. Always, before they sent their competition entries off, they would meet together and discuss the works. They won the first of many foreign awards at a design competition in Paris in 1979 and used the prize money to finance the next round of entries.
While all around them in Moscow many of the old buildings were being replaced by modernist, cramped designs, Brodsky and Utkin drew up plans for a rich and imaginative cityscape. Since the early 1980s, they have worked largely with etchings, scoring and pocking the surfaces to simulate the effects of extreme ageing. They work together on both the concept and its execution, so that it is not possible to distinguish individual contributions.
Their Crystal Palace of 1982 is often seen as an emblem of paper architecture. It is dreamlike: a glass palace with strange domes, arches and pediments crossing each other at remarkable angles. More recent work is filled with strange gargoyles. The pair borrow freely and eclectically: their work contains echoes from the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt, Renaissance details, modernist towers.
Understandably, the pair tired of working on paper alone. In 1989, they accepted a commission to design a restaurant in Moscow. But there were no experienced builders whom they could trust to execute their vision. It took them six months to build the Atrium restaurant themselves, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The finished creation is full of strange gargoyles and Corinthian capitals. A fountain at one end has a steady stream of water issuing from the pouting lips of a fat man.
It was Ronald Feldman of New York—the man who bought Josef Beuys to New York and who was one of Andy Warhol’s dealers—who promoted the paper architects’ work in the United States. Gregory Burke, managing curator of the Wellington City Gallery, has long had an interest in Russian art and the city gallery has always been particularly interested in architecture. It was when Burke was on a USIS grant to the United States in 1990 that he met Feldman and decided to try to arrange a New Zealand visit for Brodsky and Utkin. ‘If I’d left it another year,’ he says, ‘I would have had no hope, since these days the pair are very much in demand.’
Brodsky and Utkin’s Wellington installation, Palazzo Nero (Black Palace), is a structure made of splintered recycled timber, floating in a pool of sump oil. Fletcher Construction provided the materials and apprentice carpenters to help with the construction. About 3.5m high by 23m wide, it fills a large gallery space and took three weeks to build. Says Brodsky: ‘It is a little bit like an Italian palazzo, but not exactly. It’s not exactly like our plans but we always change our ideas as we work.’ With the help of 50 architecture students from Victoria University they will also erect a temporary outdoor sculpture in Wellington City Square.
Mark Burry, ‘Town Bridges and Town Towers: Brodsky and Utkin in Wellington’, Art New Zealand, no. 63, Winter 1992. [Reproduced with the permission of Art New Zealand and the author.]
Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin trained as architects at Moscow’s prestigious Institute of Architecture during the 1970s but were denied any creative opportunity to practise their craft in the conventional manner: that is to build architecture. This led to the sublimation of their particular talents and backgrounds—architecture, book illustration and graphic art—into a graphic critique of architecture in its widest possible sense. A recent exhibition in Wellington of Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings accompanied two installations commissioned by the Wellington City Art Gallery for the occasion, and were supported by an excellent discursive catalogue. Thus the city has been exposed to a very different view of architecture at the point when the pair move on from their earlier involvement with Moscow’s paper architects’ and at a time that the Gallery seeks to increase its commitment to bringing the art of architecture closer to the collective consciousness.
As the etchings are well documented elsewhere, both in a recent publication and the catalogue, this review will focus on wider issues. If the whole show had been contained within the anonymous interior of Wellington’s temporary City Art Gallery, a review might avoid being linked specifically to the Wellington context. But with one of the installations appearing briefly in the recently completed Civic Square, the manifest political and social protest content in their works is echoed in their appearance in the city’s only public place. It would be a mistake, I believe, to perceive their protest only within the limits of 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism, as much of their biting invective applies equally to the capitalist tradition of the same period: alienation from the city and unresponsive public life.
The exterior installation Monument was to complement and expand on the interior exhibition comprising 43 original etchings, mounted upstairs, with a second installation, Palazzo Nero, occupying the whole of the downstairs gallery. For Wellington the work broke new ground: it was very much an architectural exhibition but in a subtle context beyond conventional architectural exposé of models, photographs, drawings and dioramas. Indeed, it was the subtlety of the pairs treatment of wider architectural and urban concerns—that is, issues that are not connections with or representations of buildings—that made this exhibition provocative and wholly worthwhile.
Dictionaries have difficulty with architecture (the Oxford Concise offers ‘the art or science of building’) so small wonder that the public may not have a clear idea of the architect’s role or status in society, despite being aware of what they perceive as the consequences. It is so much easier to blame the messenger than the procurers, and with the dearth of quality public architecture in Wellington it is especially appropriate that the City Art Gallery should extend its role to delimiting the intellectual domain of architecture. Gregory Burke explains this initiative coherently in the catalogue, which also presents an excellent argument from Paul Walker titled, ‘Bridges: Between Theory and Building’.
In order to define the difference between a bicycle shed (not architecture) and Lincoln Cathedral (definitely architecture) Nikolaus Pevsner, in his introduction to his An Outline of European Architecture, states that the term ‘architecture’ applies ‘only to buildings of aesthetic appeal’. He claims that architectural buildings affect the senses in three ways: proportion, composition and spatial effect.
The first of these three ways is two-dimensional; it is the painter’s way. The second is three-dimensional and, as it treats the building as volume, as a plastic unity, it is the sculptor’s way. The third is three-dimensional too, but it concerns space; it is the architect’s own way more than others. What distinguishes architecture from painting is its spatial quality.
If we accept this simple attempt to define the relationship between art, architecture and building, Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings and installations are unequivocally architectural although they are not utilitarian in the sense of a shed or cathedral. At once the etchings with their repeatability, historicist connotations (Dürer and Piranesi) and the mirroring of plate to print, have a significance that exceeds the orthodox architectural representation of an idea. In their content there is a reverse transfiguration of artefact (the city) through to the convention of graphic architectural representation (plans, sections, elevations and perspective) ennobled as etched and engraved (re)productions. They succeed in bridging the gap between discrete territories of idea and artefact through a consummately artistic treatment of their subject as parody of built reality, and the etchings achieve a self-parody in the installations. If architectural convention has been used to lift the etchings into a representation of the third dimension, so too do the installations take the view from the third dimension to the fourth: through participation.
But in our world of specialised and sectional interests, can we not simply consider the installations as sculpture? And given the unfortunate and premature demise of the monumental piece in the Civic Square, failing in a structural and constructional sense shortly after its erection, should not the description of the Russians be ‘artists and set designers’ who should otherwise resist the temptation of exposing flimsy ephemera to the exigencies of Wellingtons climate? I believe that we must avoid such a pedantic conclusion because it is contradicted by their particular contribution to the art of architecture. These were not utilitarian structures with the usual cost benefit implications, but opportunities to bring their etchings to life in the Wellington environment. Functional irrelevance and an apparent absence of site-specificity are not at issue here and the collapse seems just another layer of irony to the ironic condition of a ‘monument’ having a planned life of 60 days. I would argue that the gaunt and Gormenghastian piece, while clearly not morphologically or aesthetically sympathetic to its surrounds, was nevertheless site-specific given its presence in Wellington and its didactic link to the etchings in the exhibition. What a masterly and provocative way to open an architectural debate in a city which has had its share of alienation through the usual built manifestation of commercial power and interest.
The artistic dimension to their work is also very immediate: hence the WCAG’s introduction of them to the city as ‘Russian artists and architects’. They describe themselves, however, as ‘architect/artists’, some kind of middle condition which suggests an amusing ambivalence. Their ambivalence to the distinction between art and architecture can be implied from many of the etchings with their mixture of illustration and architectural convention. Town Bridge is a work in which the illustrative aspect predominates. This etching also makes a link between the Old World and the New. Here the composition bears an uncanny resemblance to the concerns of American colonist/artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848). They, too, have employed similar devices as had Cole to depict ideas such as ‘wilderness’ (which Brodsky & Utkin accentuate with their town bridge between two lands) and the contemplation of the whole scene by a solitary figure in the foreground. The same figurative decrepitude which Cole used to emphasise the new (such as picturesque ruins or decaying tries) is used in Town Bridge. And the bridge itself is not only an eclectic meshing of gothic-like spires and Italian hilltop vernacular (which may be compared with Cole’s The Architect’s Dream), it mirrors Cole’s favoured device of arches achieved through climatic effect, bridges, or simply natural rock formations.
It would be precocious of me to suggest a direct link between this etching (or Hill with a Hole) and the work of Cole, of far more interest to Americans than his native English, and still less New Zealanders or Russians. I raise the connection as the thematic treatment of Cole’s work seems to be reflected in Alexander Rappaport’s essay ‘Travelling Dreamers or the Past in the Future’ (the second essay in the catalogue) with Rappaport’s title implying the same concerns which were symptomatic of Cole’s escapism in early nineteenth-century virgin New England. Of the etchings, to my mind, Town Bridge, which is less severe and nightmarish than Brodsky and Utkin’s urban portrayals, strikes another chord pertinent to the landscape-versus-city context of New World New Zealand.
Brodsky and Utkin, then, are not specialists and their exhibition encourages us to shed such mantles. Interdisciplinary ambivalence registers in their principal installation, Palazzo Nero, a piece of work that shocks yet inspires. A series of regular black skeletal arches, this object is neither structure nor building nor bridge: it succeeds in being all three. It either sags lugubriously or rises triumphal from a miasma of black sump oil. It is either growing or decaying? Is this sculpture or set-design perhaps? Unreservedly it is both, but it also a very particular architectural experience. Composed entirely from black sticks, their exquisite muted reflections in the oil’s polished surface are deliberately mollified by the lighting. The gallery ceiling with its service impedimenta has been delicately screened by a horizontal layer of paper and the lamps have been carefully pointed to provide light reflected from the walls. In other words, anything which would otherwise deny the link between etching and artefact is removed, making a ‘built drawing’—a profound experience for any architect.
The ambivalence of this construction, neither drawing nor building, half in or half out, helps ensure that appreciation is not restricted to the sculptural or the theatrical. Its presence is very strong and engages architect or non-architect alike at various levels. The oil reminds me of exceedingly dangerous holes that may be stumbled upon (or into) on the peat moors of Scotland. The Anglo-Saxon word for such a phenomenon with its awful possibilities is quagmire. In the native language, however, it is suil-chritheach (eye of creation), a resonant noun which is forward-looking rather than regressive; the object in one language receives an entirely different interpretation in another. Language (English, Russian or nonsense) is used by Brodsky and Utkin on nearly all their etchings; etched, naturally, in mirrored reverse.
In the final analysis, it is the theatricality of their work, however, which engages all; and to judge from the ‘comments book’ this has been an exceedingly popular exhibition for its international and local perspective. The Russian Constructivists of the 1920s used the theatre-set to initiate a wider awareness of their architecture. According to Brett Davidson, one of the local architecture students assisting in the building of Monument, Brodsky and Utkin expressed a frustration with their built work thus far seeming more readily identifiable as theatre-sets. There is further irony in that Monument is constrained to the same limitations as their etching Stageless Theatre. With the involvement of students from the Wellington School of Architecture, Monument was Brodsky and Utkin’s first collaboration with other architects and is, one hopes, the precursor to a successful outcome of their projected bridge for Tacoma City where the architect/artists will enter the world of utilitarian built form after an amazing gestation since they first met in 1972.
Director Paula Savage and Principal Curator Gregory Burke’s inspiration and energy in getting the Russians to our land is much to the Gallery’s credit and the city of Wellington’s benefit. For all who think they know what architecture is, or who would wish to become initiated, the Russians’ presence has been a welcome challenge.
- Paper Architecture was a title used to describe the reaction in the 1970s to the lack of opportunity of recently qualified architects to practise without state restrictions. The title is an ironic reference back to the 1930s when the Stalinist era banned the Constructivist movement imposing a classical architectural language, which also confined the Constructivist’s ideas to paper, hence the label ‘Paper Architecture’.
- Lois E. Nesbitt, Brodsky & Utkin, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 1991.
- The installation collapsed dramatically during a storm four days after its completion to the apparent delight of the local press. Brodsky and Utkin were quoted as having commented, ‘It is another sculpture’.
- Richard Sennett concludes his The Fall of Public Man with a chapter ‘The Tyrannies of Intimacy’ in which he states that the ‘belief that real human relations are disclosures of personality to personality has … distorted our understanding of the purposes of the city. The city is the instrument of impersonal life, the mold in which diversity and complexity of persons, interests and tastes become available as social experience In their nice, neat gardens, people speak of the horrors of London and New York.’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1974)
- C. Lodder,’ Constructivist Theatre as a Laboratory for an Architectural Aesthetic’, Architectural Association Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 2, 1979.
Mark Jackson, ‘Brodsky & Utkin’, Art & Text, no. 42, 1992.
Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin are two Russian artists/architects who trained at the Moscow Institute of Architecture in the 1970s. As students they assiduously entered international design competitions sponsored by architectural magazines, in particular Japan Architect. Herein lies the beginnings of a collaborative practice which they have continued as the development of architecture in graphic rendition. Working almost exclusively with etching, the focus for their projects has been a highly allegorical play—fantastic technology ironically interposed with the debris of history and the everyday. As an example, with their Columbarium Habitabile (1989/90), a huge concrete cube stands at the centre of a city, the interior of which has a honeycomb of containers each large enough for a single domestic structure. As a city moves through processes of destruction and construction, the owners of dwellings to be destroyed in urban renewal have the option of placing their houses in this giant museum, on the condition that they remain living in them—inhabiting a museum of domesticity. Once a house is abandoned it is destroyed.
This allegory, for all its fairytale approach to the real relations of dwelling and apart from the exquisite technique exhibited in the etching itself has a far reaching poignancy in alluding to how history, memory and destruction play out their contradictions and constitute our imaginary relations to our cities. In her book on Brodsky & Utkin, Lois Nesbitt references a litany of precursors in this field of what has now been called ’paper architecture’, to, in a sense prop up the legitimacy, seriousness and continuities of this work.
Piranesi’s Carceri are, perhaps, the starting point, and have the double coincidence of also being etching; then Boullée, Bentham’s Panopticon, the sublime of Hugh Ferriss’s Metropolis of Tomorrow, the Constructivist Architectural Fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov. Such historical constructions—and this includes a biographical explication of their work—serves, in a sense, to divert attention from some more crucial issues concerning how ‘paper architecture‘ operates in an economy of the built and the build-able. The ‘failure’ of modernism signals the overturning of a functionalist paradigm, a reinvention of style, decoration, a retouching of art’s relations to architecture, architecture as eclectic surface, as commodity, as the destructuration of structure.
These issues, circulating in debates over late modernism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, are the arena which circumscribes the paper architecture of Brodsky & Utkin. Here the complexity of issues surrounding politics and architecture are deeply embedded. The new valency given to historical quotation in postmodern architecture, the renewal of the art of the architectural drawing, has led to a divided field. On the one hand, architecture has entered the circuits of a revitalised conservative cultural domain. This is nowhere more acutely analysed than in Mary McLeod’s 1989 essay in Assemblage, titled ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism.’ On the other hand, there is the response to modernism localised in critical regionalism, and concerns for an architectural practice which reconfigures the boundaries of practice beyond building or designing, to engage with the very conditions of possibility for equitable habitation.
The architectural work of Brodsky & Utkin is ambiguously sited. This importation of an iconic and ironic signification from the margins of the West, this paper architecture is both the consumable object of a voracious gallery circuit which seeks the pleasure of the textual inscription of the built, and yet, at the same time, this work constitutes a bitter, black, ironic, parodic and at times, cynical illumination of that Western hand which currently extends itself to feeding its all too recent ideological adversary.
The Wellington City Art Gallery exhibition, Palazzo Nero, incorporated the presentation of Brodsky & Utkin’s series of etchings, as well as the culmination of a six-week’s residency in the production of two three-dimensional timber constructions—one sited within the gallery, the other sited in a newly completed civic square in Wellington. The three-dimensional works present a complex translation of the very graphic inscription of the etched image. Composed of multiple fragments of small black timber sections, the sculpted architectural works have the appearance of the fragmentary, striated, multiply-traced surfaces of the etchings. Coupled with this is the sheer physical play of scale within the gallery or public spaces, at once monumental and diminutive, ironically alluding to classicism and the crudely domestic, hovering between the romantic and the mundane. This ‘play between’ itself gestures to the ambiguous position of these artists, so long confined to their national borders, playing at importation and the export of a paper architecture and now courted by a Western circuit of exchange all too eager to expropriate and appropriate the East.
Timothy Nees, ‘In the Metropolis’, Architecture New Zealand, May–June 1992.
Architects, planners, artists and academics gathered in the heart of Wellington’s metropolis on a weekend in March to debate the present state of the urban condition. Instigated by the Wellington City Art Gallery and the Architectural Centre, as an offshoot from the Brodsky and Utkin ‘Paper Architecture’ installation at the gallery, the symposium was an immense success. Seminars were fully attended and much interest was generated in the issues presented.
Gallery director Paula Savage opened the forum encouraging ‘critical debate and education‘, and coordinating chairperson Stuart Niven identified issues of ’alienation and recovery of the individual identity’ as pertinent to the modern city, themes central to Brodsky and Utkin’s obsessively detailed etchings.
The weekend was divided into four sessions—‘Heritage and Continuity’, ‘The Artist in the City‘, ‘The Architecture of the City’, and ‘The Public Realm’. Each session had four speakers and a guest chairperson to guide the discussion. Ideas presented within each topic were enormously varied, and the style of delivery ranged from the ebullient to the dull.
The stellar attraction was Herbert Muschamp, architect and critic from New York. Speaking in the last session on The Public Realm, Muschamp set about ‘analysing the urban unconscious,’ dispelling the myth of alienation in the city. In his view the city is the site for the richest interaction between art and society. Cities can provide pleasure and wonderment, exhilaration and awe, as well as hardship and squalor. ‘We do not want cities constructed from reason and morality alone,’ he said. The challenge is to use the forces residing in the city to humane ends, to ‘create better surroundings for life.’
Paul Walker delivered the most provocative paper from the local contributors, addressing a similar theme to Muschamp. He sees our cities as providing an urban escape from family and community; that alienation has a positive side in individual freedom; that the disjunctive and multifarious in the city are qualities to be actively sought, and ‘any return to order, whether neo-modern or neo-classical, should be opposed or ignored’. (Walker’s paper will be published in the July/August issue of Architecture NZ —Ed.)
The best of the rest…Australian critic Adrian Martin with his entertaining contributions on the city as defined by popular film culture; Mark Jackson, film-maker from Sydney, with his two films allegorically dissecting the role of ‘capital‘ in the ‘empire/emporium‘; Councillor Stephen Rainbow outlining the pro-posed WCC financial incentives to encourage preservation and renewed use of heritage buildings; Peter Beaven with his love for the gothic and the varied spaces of his genteel Christchurch; and Australians Jill Garner and Lindsay Davis, who concluded their discussion on architectural expositions by stating that ‘the city is a narrative of events able to be interpreted in many ways, that we should work inside these fragments to construct change from within, and not wait upon utopian ideals.
Conclusions? The city is not a bad place, and given the chance it should, in most cases, become a great place. Two days, four sessions, twenty speakers…a brief overview cannot do it justice. Praise and thanks to the Wellington City Art Gallery and the Architectural Centre for having the initiative and foresight to present such a stimulating forum.
Paul Walker, ‘Palazzo Nero, Alexander Brodsky & Ilya Utkin’, Agenda, no. 24, July–August 1992.
Wellington City Art Gallery has a reputation for taking risks, for finding provocative work and for presenting it provocatively. While it has offered exhibitions which explore the margins between aesthetics and wider cultural issues, it has also been concerned with boundaries which are of narrower interest—that between photography and narrative, for instance and, recently, that between architecture and the (other) arts.
This concern with architecture and art is most persuasively demonstrated in the work of Moscow-based Russian artist/architects, Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin in the exhibition which assembles 40 or so of their etchings, many done as successful entries in Japanese architectural ideas competitions. Brodsky and Utkin came to Wellington to create two large sculptural/architectural objects for the occasion of the show, one called Monument, the other, like the show, Palazzo Nero.
For Brodsky and Utkin, the link between architecture and art is a fait accompli: their work is interesting for reasons other than anything it might tell us directly in this regard. Rather, it invites our attention to issues deeply entrenched in architectural culture: the architecture of the city; the role of drawing and other graphic practices vis-à-vis building; construction versus figuration or signification. All this is to say that their work cannot be seen just as exotica—a sort of visual arts equivalent of the Cossack dancers Michael Edgley keeps shuffling around this part of the world.
Given recent political upheavals in that part of the world which used to be called the Soviet Union, the material shown in Brodsky and Utkin’s Wellington exhibition is inevitably read in terms of the specific political context in which it has been produced. Such a reading does not exhaust it, however. Brodsky and Utkin may have been driven with others into being ‘paper architects’—opting out of the official system that existed under the old regime—but the issues which they have investigated in their exile from building activity are ones with bearing on architecture nearly everywhere. Architecture is not merely a matter of local physical or political conditions. The apparent references in their etchings to the work of Saul Steinberg (Glass Tower 11, 1984, the ‘head’ etchings) or Piranesi are not incidental and their interest in the narrative and scenographic aspects of architecture (Stageless Theatre 1986), for example, has connections with issues are addressed by designers elsewhere.
Just as Brodsky and Utkin’s geographical labels does not explain away their work, nor does their disciplinary allegiance to architecture (or art) preclude their work from having bearing on other kinds of discourse. It was apparent from Palazzo Nero, the exhibition, that concerns seemingly native to architecture cannot he divorced from the social and the political in the widest sense.
Take, for example, their concern with contemporary metropolitan experience. The interest that architects have evinced in the city in the last decades (following, say, the publication of The Architecture of the City by Aldo Rossi) might have been motivated by a desire to find some new enabling myth for form-making, following the demise of older myths of function and social redemption. But a consideration of the city, no matter what its source, can hardly help but lead to reflections on the complicity of the architectural profession in the urban conditions created under the aegis of state or private capital. Much of Brodsky and Utkin’s work evokes the anonymity and the concentration of this kind of city life (A Comfort in the Metropolis, 1988; The Intelligent Market, 1987). Hence, the Wellington exhibition became the occasion for a symposium with the title, In the Metropolis, which enquired into the role of architecture and art in the city. This attracted the participation of American critic Herbert Muschamp who insisted on the emancipatory nature of urban experience.
Perhaps even such esoteric preoccupations as the role of drawing and other modes of graphic production (writing, etching) in architecture can be seen in terms of the broader socio-economic role that architecture has served. It has been called the most conservative of the arts. It is inevitably so because making buildings is expensive. Architecture has, therefore, been aligned with the powers that be, but only insofar as it is concerned with building. Drawings and writings have only counted as long as they served as devices allowing translation of an architect’s intention into built form. This has entailed a double reification: on the one hand of the architect as creator; on the other of the built object as unique architectural masterpiece. Brodsky and Utkin disdain this economy of authority and authorship: I witnessed Sasha Brodsky autographing a poster not only with his own signature but also with that of his partner-in-art. And prints, after all, are repeatable. In recent years there has been an ongoing concern with the nature of architectural drawing: it does seem to have become a legitimate architectural activity, but in the hands of such different exponents as Michael Graves and Zaha Hadid it has remained an addendum to architectural practice, a supplementary activity subsidiary to architecture proper as ornament is to structure in the Western architectural tradition.
Such supplements, we have been taught, may be more powerful than is customarily supposed. They might appropriate the privileged role. Brodsky and Utkin’s work, even when built, plays with this possibility. Their flimsy and ironically named Monument, built in the new Civic Square (Wellington) from the 50mm x 100mm framing timbers that form the structural framing of most New Zealand houses—they form the structure of the community, it could be said—blew down in a gust of wind a few days after completion, so little cognisance did it give to building proprieties. Rather, with all its spindly timbers painted black, it seemed like a building trying to approximate to the condition of an etching.
Their other construction, Palazzo Nero, is likewise a building not only rather indifferent to its own condition as such, but one which tries to emulate drawing or etching as normal architectural drawings try to stand in for the built. A fragment of antique palace or bridge architecture on first glance, it has none of the plastic modulation of the classical buildings to which it alludes except for a slightly projecting entablature along the top. But this, like the rest, is made from straight, thin, black timber lengths. Palazzo Nero, then, inscribes itself in the white space of the gallery, a space made whiter still by the installation of a ceiling of paper. Reference to the negative/positive procedures involved in Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings could also he found in this work. Under its superstructure was this posed a pool of black oil. The edges of this pool aligned precisely with the timber work above. The resulting reflection gives an immediate sense of dizzy infinitude; the dark mirror-image seeming an intimation of another universe, the obverse of the negative one we usually experience. It is important that this virtual space can only be seen when the viewer is so close that the built fabric of Palazzo Nero can no longer be perceived as complete. The building here becomes the means to construct an image in oil. Or is it printer’s ink?
(Paul Walker of Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue, Brodsky & Utkin: Palazzo Nero and Other Projects, edited by Gregory Burke, Wellington City Art Gallery, PO Box 2199, Wellington, New Zealand.)
Paul Walker, ‘Public Architecture in the Metropolis’, Architecture New Zealand, May–June 1992. Paper for In The Metropolis forum, 7–8 March 1992.
In the metropolis there is no single public life, no single community. There are many communities, many publics. Some of them are perhaps communities of only one. This is to say there is no community at all. The experience of the individual in the city is one of alienation.
This was recognised 100 years ago by European sociologists surveying the effects of rapid and chaotic urbanisation that had occurred in the preceding century. Ferdinand Tonnies published a book in 1887 called Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, (Community and Society) in which the world of the big city (mass society) is contrasted unfavourably with the world of the small rural community. Tonnies wrote ‘All mutually trusting cohabitation must be understood as life in community; society on the other hand, is the public, the world. In community with his own kind a person finds himself from birth linked to them in good and in ill; whereas one goes in society as in alien soil.’ (1)
Georg Simmel around the turn of the century painted a more balanced picture of city life. In an essay called The Metropolis and Mental Life published in 1903 he notes the difficulties of life for the individual in the mass society of the city. The individual subject tries to assert his or her uniqueness against what Simmel describes as the psychological basis of urban existence, ‘the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.’ (2) It is intellect, or, we might say, skepticism, which Simmel saw as the means by which the individual subject could protect himself/herself against the impersonal forces of the metropolis. Thus the city is a place of intellection; the small community a place of emotions. This is still a view played out in film, TV, and the mass media to some degree.
Now the intellectual attitude leads to indifference, to being blasé. In the city you mind your own business. This allows personal freedom that is unknown in truly communal life. The trade-off for alienation is this personal freedom.
The city is the locus of capitalism and mass production, and consumption. Simmel connected money and the blasé attitude. ‘Money, with all its colourlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values, irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific values and their incomparability.’
But though capitalism reduces everything to its lowest common denominator, it also encourages difference—specialisation of work and urban location in the name of efficiency. This is congruent precisely with the desire of the subject to assert his or her freedom, identity.
SEAT OF CAPITAL
So the city is the seat of the capital (state or privately controlled makes no difference) and of production and consumption. Alienation of the subject at the emotional level coincides with freedom of behaviour and intellect. This account seems to me still to be apt though perhaps complicated by the marginal survival in the city of alien immigrant communities.
Within modern architecture (in this story this refers to the architecture of the early decades of the twentieth century) three attitudes can be identified with respect to the city. Each would in some way contest its condition of alienation and nervous excess, would try to reclaim some space, physical or mental, for ‘the people.’
- The first is that of Peter Behrens and other architect members of the Deutsche Werkbund who joined with designers, industrialists, and others in that organisation imagining benefits for themselves and the rest of the citizenry in so doing. Here the architect chooses to collaborate with those who control the productive forces that underlie the city. The architect uses such a position to improve working and other physical conditions in the city, and to make better industrial products. (3)
- In the second response of the modern architects to the city, an entirely new city is projected to replace the old chaotic one. I am thinking of Corbusier’s Voisin scheme for Paris, 1925, for example. Corb said of it: ‘My dream is to see the Place de la Concorde empty once more, silent and lonely, and the Champs Elysees a quiet place to walk in. The Voisin scheme would isolate the whole of the ancient city and bring back peace and calm…
…The Voisin scheme covers five per cent only of the ground with buildings; it safeguards the relics of the past and enshrines them harmoniously in a framework of trees and woods. For material things too must die, and these green parks with their relics are in some soft cemeteries, carefully tended, in which people may breathe, dream and learn. In this way the past becomes no longer dangerous to life, but finds instead its true place within it.” (4) (Conservation and modernism apparently could fit together.)
- In the third response of modern architects, existing conditions are contested not by attempts to ameliorate them piecemeal, or in proposing entirely utopian replacements, but by offering a critique in architectural form. Mies’ early glass skyscraper designs have been seen in this way. The US critic, Michael Hays, has written of one of these projects from the 1920s that: ‘Mies’ achievement was to open up a clearing of implacable silence in the chaos of the nervous metropolis; this clearing is a radical critique, not only of the established spatial order of the city and the established logic of classical composition but also of the inhabiting nervenleben. It is the extreme depth of silence in this clearing—silence as an architectural form all its own—that is the architectural meaning of this project.’ (5)
Now, all three of these positions—Behren’s attempts to intervene in as-found urban/industrial conditions, Corb’s desire to start again from scratch, and Mies’ critique in the guise of an aesthetic of silence—all came to be co-opted. None has been effective in changing the course of the capitalist development of the city. Each has rather been used by capitalism to its own ends. Better working conditions and products become a means to more productivity and consumption; Corb’s designs get appropriated for cheap working class housing; Mies’ silent skyscrapers become the headquarters of corporate capital. And overall, the modernist desire to make it new, a desire still felt by most architects, fitted very well with capitalist cycles of development.
The urbanism of the modern architects failed. It was a valiant failure.
We are now forced to accept that the chaotic character of the city is inevitable. It cannot be improved wholesale by architectural means. The city is not a garden that can be cultivated. What has happened rather is that architecture has become content to construe and construct order in a local way only. The city becomes a collage of architectural orders and enclaves, and of disorder. Each enclave might be appropriate or motivated by a different community. Or by an individual. Here I’m thinking of Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s book Collage City (6). And this applies in the whole metropolitan area, not just those parts which are most urbanised.
Some of these enclaves might be motivated by nostalgia. Wellington’s new Civic Square is obviously connected to a desire for a European cityscape. But that does not matter—architecture has always been informed by memory, and memory is always unreliable and selective. And no civic order is characterised by architectural or social authenticity.
Simmers account of the subject in the metropolis can now be read as a description of urban architecture. Architecture in the city, like the individual subject, is alienated from its roots, and has become various, sly, skeptical, intellectual, individualistic, and nervous. City buildings, like city people, mind their own business.
It is to such nervousness and rootlessness that I would attribute the turn in architecture to such things as systems theory and linguistics in the 1960s, then to its own history, or the history of philosophy, or, as we saw in some student work shown yesterday morning, to painting and even geology. All this is to say that architecture has turned to the realm of ideas and intellect to find an aesthetic. It has been doing so in the Western tradition for 500 years.
As Victor Hugo realised while he was writing Notre Dame de Paris in the 1830s, the intellect, through literacy and the book, had killed the authentic, communal architecture he found epitomised in the front of Notre Dame (7). (It is communal insofar as a community was involved in its devising and its understanding.)
What seems tragic to me though is not the fate of public architecture in our time. The muddle does not matter. What is tragic is to believe that things might be other than this, to let nostalgia for community motivate not just local representations or enactments like the Civic Square, but a global desire for an authentically integrated single public realm, a desire for some unalienated plenitude. Any “genuine aspiration” for such a thing, and accompanying calls for architecture to return to order, whether they come from neo-classicists or neo-moderns, should be opposed or ignored.
- Cited by Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co (1986), Modern Architecture, vol 1, p88.
- Georg Simmel (1950), “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in Kurt H Wolff, editor, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, p410.
- Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co (1986), “The Werkbund: Architecture Faces the Metropolis”, Modern Architecture, vol 1, chapter VI.
- Cited by Manfredo Tafuri (1976), Theories and History of Architecture, p48.
- K Michael Hays (1984), “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form”, Perspecta, no 21, p22.
- Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter (1978), Collage City. 7 Victor Hugo (1978), “This Will Kill That”, Notre-Dame of Paris, book 5, chapter 2.
Herbert Muschamp, ‘The Public Realm’, paper for In The Metropolis forum, 7–8 March 1992.
The ideal of a multi-cultural urbanism is not limited to the task of enhancing the visibility of different cultures that reside in any one city. It is also the prospect of enhancing urban life by drawing on information from many different parts of the world. It’s been the particular fate of my generation to grow up in the world of rapidly accelerating mass travel. We’re all very familiar with the harsh consequences of this development: the standardization of travel into tourism; the flattening of cultural differences into tourist spectacles. But I think the effects of this development have not been all bad. Though mass tourism may have its origins in the tools and strategies of military power, this need not mean that these tools can only be applied to oppressive or destructive aims. Indeed. I would say that it is the responsibility of my generation to apply them to other aims: to construct a conceptual architecture for the global culture that is emerging. Much of this construction must take place at the local level. But it relies on information about the making of places elsewhere.
Though I live in New York, it is not possible for me to write about my city effectively without drawing on the experiences of other cities. We need to raise our horizons now, the way an earlier generation raised the skylines. We need not be merely consumers of cultural differences: we can also be channels for transmitting ideas of human habitation that can form the basis of experiments elsewhere. Just last week, for example, I spent time looking at some of the remarkable workspaces that have been built in Los Angeles in recent years. They confirmed for use the idea that the work place—perhaps more than housing, more even than open public space—is the site that offers architects today the richest potential for fusing formal and aesthetic concerns with progressive social ideals.
My home, New York, is a city that in some respects has seen better days. It often seems that those of us who live there are living amidst the ruins of a once proud metropolis whose moment has passed. Perhaps many of you who haven’t been there have at least seen photographs of the South Bronx, an apocalyptic vision that has become emblematic of the decline of the city’s economy; the fraying of its social fabric; the ebbing of the moral authority that once underscored New York’s power as a centre of progressive modern culture. Yet I’m one of those who feels an extraordinary sense of optimism about the city and, more than that, a sense of responsibility toward it. Not because I’m trapped in the city and have to make the best of it, but precisely because it’s a choice I’m free to make. To an extent, every generation remakes the city in its own image, but I think the experience of my generation has been somewhat different, for we were the first to grow up in the environment of post-war suburban development. We grew up in a kind of urbanism that was based on a pro-found and pervasive anti-urban set of values. The city, collectively, was represented as an Other, a menacing figure from whose clutches we were fortunate indeed to have escaped.
Like many members of my generation, therefore, I developed a profound fascination for this Other, privately, as though it were my dirty secret. The moment I discovered the commuter trains, I would sneak away downtown to walk the city streets. Eventually, when I moved there, I discovered that what had been for me an intensely private, indeed illicit activity was shared by many of my generation. That discovery can he the beginning of a public realm. But it is a discovery fraught with paradox. For we came to the city not to seek common values, but to escape them. We came in search of the differences suburban life tends to deny. We did not intend to be part of the movement called gentrification, or the remake of the city according to suburban values.
But I’m telling this anecdote to make a point: that the city today has a different life because for many the decision to live in the city was a critical act—a critique of suburbanism and its relentless normality. The city for us is therefore a self-conscious artifact, something we’ve chosen to adopt. We’ve heard in this forum about the city as machine, the city as moneymaker, the city as matrix of humanism. What we also need to think about is the city as orphan—an orphan richly endowed with history, material artifacts, economic potential, and rich also in fears for its future. I want to talk about a metaphor that I borrow from an architect haled in New York, Diana Agrest. Agrest describes the city as the subconscious of architecture. In yesterday’s presentations, there were many illustrations of what Agrest means, We saw an image of Parliament Building held up as an example of a monstrosity. We saw glass skyscrapers that were described as grotesque. In the clip from How to Shoot a Crime, we saw pictures of corpses. We saw pictures of abandoned, weed-filled industrial lots described as ‘menacing’, Moreover, we encountered the demonification of the marketplace, the great Moloch that consumes all. The association of such images with the city is very common. They are the kind of images that were used by suburban dwellers to keep the city at bay. And architects and urban planners often invoke such images to represent things they would like to control or to stamp out.
What I wish to emphasise, however, is that this dark side of the city cannot be separated from it without killing the city itself. The laughter that was raised by hearing Parliament House described as a monstrosity is very telling. We enjoy being frightened by monstrosities. We get pleasure from monster skyscrapers, just as we get pleasure from watching horror movies. As any newspaper publisher can tell you, lurid headlines increase sales.
Now I am not saying all this because I think that cities ought to be like horror movies, that market forces should be left unrestrained. I am saying this because to deny the place of monsters is to make them even more uncontrollable. Worse, to deny them is to miss the opportunity to use for constructive purposes the extraordinary power which the subconscious possesses.
It’s hard to remember that the modern skyscraper which many now see as monstrous was once intended to be the very model of rationality. It was to be the building block from which entire cities of reason—‘radiant cities’, to use Le Corbusier’s phrasewould be constructed. The grotesque urban skyline tells us simply this: we did not want cities constructed according to reason. The experience of the suburbs has taught us something similar: we do not want urban settlements to aim sew single-mindedly for the overly pleasant, the overly tranquil, the obsessively normal.
What I am saying is that there are limits to which the ideals of reason and morality—the qualities associated with the Freudian superego—can be of use in constructing an urban model. The greed of developers, the chaos of the market, should be regarded not as enemies of urban life but as scary faces worn by the forces that make cities possible. The question is, how to utilise these forces toward humane ends?
Perhaps the role of the architect, planner or urbanite is to be the analyst who is able to mediate differing desires and make us more fully conscious of their place in urban life. To do this effectively, it’s useful to have an analytic tool. I believe one such tool has been offered by the political economist, Robert Reich, in his recent book, The Work of Nations.
What Reich presents is an analysis, in three groups, of job categories in the emerging global economy:
1. Routine Producersold blue-collar workers. Also applies to white collar workers like data processors—the information age blue-collar equivalents;
2. In-person Service Providers—secretaries, health care providers, waiters, flight attendants—stereotypically women—and security guards;
3. Symbolic Analysts—the elite in the group, represents approximately one-fifth of the population of the U.S. A wide range of jobs from lawyers to art directors, artists and corporate headhunters, sound engineers and management consultants. It includes real estate developers and architects and architectural critics.
The work of the symbolic analyst can be explained in roughly these terms. Symbolic analysts extrapolate information from the environment, rendering it into abstract symbolic form—pictures, words, numbers or other symbols. They manipulate these symbols using inductive and deductive methods, developing formulas, which can then be applied to producing changes in the society.
The work of this group tends to be global in scope, with little use for national boundaries or civic allegiance. This is the group that has given rise to the culture of the fax machine, the cellular phone, the laptop computer.
It is this last group which has fostered the development of the contemporary fortress city, the withdrawal into high-security privileged enclaves linked by privatised modes of transportation and communication that depend less and less on the traditional forms of publicly built and maintained environmental infrastructure.
How does one begin to address such a phenomenon? Is it necessarily such an awful thing? If so, can anything be done to change it short of a massive overhaul of the economic system? Or, must we learn to work within this system and make the best of it?
For me, the starting point in addressing these issues lies in the recognition that the category of symbolic analysts includes many individuals who may mistakenly view each other as natural enemies. We encountered this yesterday when we heard the values of the market described as the antithesis of civic or humanistic values. Certainly, in my city, many artists view themselves as the natural foes of real estate developers. Of course, I am not suggesting that art is the Sallie thing as real estate development, that there is no difference between civic and market values. What I am suggesting is that it may be counter-productive to view these values as antithetical. It can easily become a form of moralistic self-deception through which we seek to deny our own place in a privileged scheme of things. It’s true that artists, architects and those of us who write about them do not enjoy the income levels of developers and stockbrokers. But I think there is also truth in Robert Reich’s assertion that the significant social disparities today do not arise from differences in income level. They arise from the nature of the work we do. (In a way, my presence here this weekend is an illustration of this.)
I’d like to touch briefly on the topic of my own work. For me, architectural criticism begins by looking at two subjects: the creative process—how architects arrive at the forms they use—and the social contract—how those forms meet, exceed or disappoint the expectations of those of us on the receiving end. Beyond that, I’m concerned with the interaction of these two fields: how forms evolve in response to social input, how the production of forms may play a part in renegotiating the social contract. I care very much for forms themselves. I plead guilty to fetishising the aesthetic object. But the forms I tend to fetishise most enthusiastically are those that are rooted in some awareness that architecture is a social art. That is, they are places whose production is linked to a process of social engagement and a belief that this process is beneficial.
Lest this begin to sound too abstract, I’d like to point to Barcelona as a city that in just over a decade has realised an exemplary program of projects that have redefined the role of architecture in the public realm. The large Olympic buildings many people will see this summer are the least of it. Even the large-scale recovery of the waterfront is a drop in the bucket of what’s been done in the creation of civic space. As a critic, I’ve had few experiences so elating as the days I spent last summer visiting the public spaces that have been built throughout the city, particularly in the outer districts of housing blocks built in the 60s for those Reich would call the ‘routine producers’. The spaces vary widely in size and in aesthetic intention. The results are not equally successful, but that very unevenness contributes to the dynamic impact of the whole. For it underscores the extent to which the entire project has been one in which the architects and the city government have given themselves permission to try out a lot of ideas. They’ve said: let’s see what it would be like to turn the median strip on a highway into a linear park. Let’s see what it would be like to design a pedestrian bridge not as s utilitarian object but as a work of art. Let’s make a public space that instead of providing a green retreat from urban harshness, makes spatial poetry out of that harshness.
It happened that there was a mayoral election while I was in Barcelona. There were four candidates for the job, and it is indicative of the role architecture now plays in Barcelona that each of the candidates had a consulting architect to offer the public a vision of what that administration hoped to accomplish in the built environment. Even more remarkably, during election week, interviews with each of the consulting architects appeared on the front page of the city’s newspaper.
The question may be asked: is this coalition between architect and political power a good thing? After all, thanks to poststructuralist theory, we’ve all become acutely aware of the uses of architecture as an instrument of power. Simply because the views of a consulting architect were made known to an electorate, does this ensure that a winning candidate can contribute to the public good?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but perhaps another question must be asked: why become an architect if one is unable to believe in the possibility of making a contribution to the public good, however one may envision it? In the The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi observes that ‘the two permanent characteristics of architecture are aesthetic intentions and the creation of better surroundings for life.’ As we’ve seen in the course of this forum—and in the city outside these walls—aesthetic intentions vary widely. Individuals and groups differ sharply on what constitutes better surroundings for life. One architect’s idea of beauty is doomed to be another observer’s monstrosity. The construction of a public realm is by no means contingent on the harmonious resolution of these differences. Indeed, the opposite is the case. It is from the coexistence of competing visions, from the clashes that result from that competition, from the energy released in conflict, that the public realm assumes its most dynamic form.