19 January 2011

Review: Architecture's Evil Empire?

Architecture's Evil Empire? The Triumph and Tragedy of Global Modernism is Miles Glendinning polemic book that passionately challenges the recent history of global architecture and its desire for iconic forms as a tool to regenerate post-industrial cities the world over. Glendinning seeks to find a solution to the problem's he perceives profligate an industry fuelled by both public and private bodies that has created a raft of projects across the globe "stridently disconnected from their visual and social context". However, as Glendinning accurately observes "contemporary architecture is like an iceberg. the excesses of signature icons are just that bit that sticks above the surface, whereas the really intractable part is the great mass that lurks beneath, invisible to public scrutiny". Clearly any 'solution' will have to have to reach down to the 'core' of society and be part of a wider readjustment away from the cult of the spectacular and celebrity that has defined the past 20 years - not just the architectural profession.

Architecture's Evil Empire? (Reaktion Books, 2010)

Miles Glendinning, a Reader in the School of Architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art and Director of the Scottish Centre for Conservation, opens the book by looking at the recent example of The Public, West Bromwich, part of a wave of large lottery-supported projects and has suffered "the same problems of grandiose initial scale and inadequate resources for running costs." It is here that Glendinning introduces the notion of an 'Empire' of 'New Modernism' which was (and perhaps still is) dependent "on the values of individualism and competition, and veneration for the symbols of capitalist commercialism" in direct contrast to the 'traditional' notion of international architectural movements that were also rooted in specific a specific country, city or place. However, in his view this Empire is not an 'evil' one but instead is 'tragic' one, mirroring the great tragedies of Greek story telling, because of "the good intentions, the idealism even, of all involved in building up a structure that would, by its own impersonal momentum turn so comprehensively rotten".

In four chapters Glendinning traces the history of this Empire, observing that "it is not use condemning without understanding", an important assertion that helps add weight to his argument. Moving quickly from Vitruvius, through the individuals of the Renaissance, he stops briefly to assess the impact of Beaux-Arts model in the later stages of the western world's industrialisation before moving into the beginnings of Modernism. This is a time, he suggests, that reflected a 'rejection of the individual' in the architectural profession but that this situation began to change in the later half of the 20th Century. A wealth of sources, texts, buildings and key figures in architecture and urbanism feature as Glendinning tracks "the drift of disintegration" from Modernism to Postmodernism and a "retreat to the city".

The idea of a New Modernism is framed first with the introduction of the 'High Tech' "showing that there were elements of the Modern movement style, or styles, that could be salvaged and adapted to help build a new, more market-orientated society." The importance of 'deconstruction' in architecture is highlighted as a key influence. Rem Koolhaas's seminal text 'S,M,L,XL' is held up as the "foundation stone" of the Empire which represents the 'new theory' and the "great deal of research [that] goes on, but no longer with any idea of contributing to some wider strategy of social salvation, or even of giving any real intellectual substance to an otherwise disorientated landscape". This is part of a wider trend in which research has been converted in to "a kind of spectacle". If 'S,M,L,XL' is the 'bible' of New Modernism then the "foundation monument" for Glendinning is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, described as being "blatantly direct where S,M,L,XL was subtly oblique" and "startingly individualistic and (at the time) unprecedented". The role of the 'Bilbao Effect' has been much documented and these previous discussions are referred to in the book.

As the book progresses a growing image of despair is unravelled and a "discarding of order" in a world of "disconnected form and construction" is revealed - an interesting juxtaposition in a world where connections between individuals are becoming more frequent through the proliferation of various media and technological devices. The critique here moves beyond simple arguments about the relevance of iconic form and into the realm of urbanism and planning on a larger scale - "iconic intervention versus urban cohesion". The rhetoric of 'context' was often used as a method of combating the 'generic' however Glendinning highlights a number of examples where the metaphorical use of context has just created further disconnections.

It is in the final chapter that Glendinning offers some solutions to the disconnected landscape he has been describing. He recognises that "in stark contrast to the brash ebullience of much of the rhetroic of New Modernism, the last few years have witnessed a steady escalation of architectural attacks on the movement" whilst a 'pass the parcel blame game' began amongst architects, journalists and critic-apologists. Central to his proposals are ideas of 'genius loci' and "the resurgence of place", though he is quick though to distance himself from ideas of 'critical regionalism', with inspiration coming from the work of Patrick Geddes in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Ultimately though what Glendinning is searching for is for a "fresh era of socially grounded modernity".

In the end then this book serves two useful purposes. First of all it offers an insightful and scholarly account of the previous 20 years in architecture. The 23 pages of references highlight the wealth of sources and case studies considered by the author with the right amount of information disseminated for each, neither do you feel overwhelmed by the information offered or under-informed. Secondly, the calls for "architecture to come back down to earth" are much needed within the profession and it begins to ask questions of what exactly we, as society, want from our buildings and the built environment.


Glendinning, M. (2010), Architecture's Evil Empire? The Triumph and Tragedy of Global Modernism, 1st Edition, London: Reaktion Books