The Anesthetics of Architecture / The Emerald City
TWO ARCHITECTURE THEORY paperbacks new on the shelves are deeply concerned with the future of architecture. For Neal Leach, author of The Anesthetics of Architecture, the widespread preoccupation of architects with image-making may be the undoing of contemporary practice. In the Emerald City, Daniel Willis’ contribution, it is the precariousness of architectural imagination that will determine the fate of the built environment. While the two collections of essays take polar approaches, they both seem to be touching on the vague sense of loss, and ultimately, disappointment that is at the heart of present architectural culture.
Leach is the director of the Architecture and Critical Theory Program at the University of Nottingham, UK. He uses his background in theory, combined with the philosophies of Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard, to discuss the desensitization (or anaesthetic numbness) caused by the seduction of images. He writes:
The intoxication of the aesthetic leads to an aesthetic of intoxication, and a consequent lowering of critical awareness. What results is a culture of mindless consumption, where there is no longer any possibility of meaningful discourse. In such a culture the only effective strategy is one of seduction. Architectural design is reduced to the superficial play of empty, seductive forms, and philosophy is appropriated as an intellectual veneer to justify these forms.
Leach views the state of architecture to be no deeper than lip-gloss and he doesn’t offer any way out of the shallows. Although his intentions are good and sound, the future he proposes in this polemic work is often bleak.
Stripping pop and irony of the discussion of contemporary architecture, Leach attacks the authors of Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour. He lambastes them for focusing on the formal qualities of Las Vegas, thus eschewing any political or social consequences from their work. He also takes on, perhaps rightly, the verisimilitude of the War and Architecture projects in Sarajevo by Lebbeus Woods. Leach charges that the shifting angles and organic forms represent not a political, battlefield architecture, as Woods would suggest, but the architect’s fascination with the visual imagery of conflict.
Leach’s suspicion of the image conscious world of architecture seems valid enough, but his examples are a bit dated. For better or for worse, the state of architecture has moved beyond the work of Woods or Kenneth Rhowbotham (another Leach example). Architects from Neil Denari to FAT Architecture (www.fat.co.uk) have a much more intricate and charged relationship with the image, than Venturi or Woods. His diametric to the seduction of the slick image is a frolic in everyday life and lived experience. Given the intense academic discourse used in the book and the sheer volume of footnotes, his yelp, "keeping it real," sounds a bit hollow.
A practicing architect and an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, Daniel Willis’ view of the future of architecture is based more in practice and literature than in philosophy or theory. Taking Milan Kundera’s the Unbearable Lightness of Being as a guide, Willis argues for a weightier architecture, i.e. architecture of substantive craft and imagination. He writes:
Our vacillations between technological positivism and nostalgia are actually manifestations of the identical desire, the desire for what Kundera calls "lightness." As they are played out in architecture, each of the apparent contradictory values produce the identical effect, they withdraw weight from architecture by ignoring the question of materiality.
The title of the collection comes from a piece that compares Frank Baum’s city of Oz with the contemporary, urban metropolis. While the dust jacket claims this essay in the name of pop culture, the piece is singular in type. The essay "Architecture as Medicine" discusses the probable healing power of the Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul in Barcelona designed by Lluís Domenèch i Montaner. The piece "Valor of Iron" and others are more concerned with metaphysical and spiritual relationships between people, materials and the built environment than with popular culture.
Neither book offers a truly satisfying solution to architecture’s troubles, present or future. Both are too single-minded in their approaches and end up more pedantic than visionary. Yet, what each pinpoints is the current of disaffection with the banalities of building, as well as the self-importance and irrelevance of most criticism that runs within contemporary practice.