Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: The Politics Of Architecture

Hello Everyone:

Yours truly has returned to the blogosphere after enduring a week-and-half of major technical difficulties and a trip the emergency room with Blogger Mum (all's well that ended well).  The short story is until Blogger can replace the hard drive on the trusty laptop, yours truly is confined to the equally trusty iPad.  Nevertheless she persisted.  Persist she will with this week's edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.

This week we take a look at the role of architecture in politics. Buildings are records of the time they are (were) put up.  They convey a strong message about how a particular nation defines itself.  For example, when the United States was still a new born nation, the Founding Fathers deliberately chose Neo-Classicism for official buildings.  Not because it was fashionable in the late-18th century, it spoke of the  Graeco-Roman values of virtue, morality, and good governance.  The qualities that the Founding Fathers wished to associate with the fledging nation.  The association with Graeco-Roman traditions was also intended to give the United States a sense of history.  Modern architecture is different-it grew out of the Industrial Revolution, meant to create new forms with new material and technologies.  Now, we have the Alt-Right angry over Modern Architecture.  All Blogger can say is join the crowd.  Amanda Kolson Hurely's CityLab article "Why is the Alt-Right So Angry about Architecture?" looks at why the Alt-Right has added architecture to its growing list of enemies of "white European culture."

Ms. Kolson Hurely writes, "On June 30, far-right website Infowars posted a 15-minute-long video titled 'Why modern architecture SUCKS.'"  This foray into design criticism by the website known for the infamous Pizzagate conspiracy and host Alex Jones's insistance that the tragic Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax-is a follow up to another video, by the National Rifle Association's "clenched fist" ad-described by critics as chilling and an open call to violence.

The NRA has never been known for its aesthetic judgement but the inference in this advertisement is "...almost subliminal, whereas InfoWars launches a full-bore attack.  Both bear the same message about modern architecture: It is the province of the liberal urban elite,and that stands for oppression."

Lest you think that the latest fusillade by Infowars is the work of the desk pounding, red-in-the-face Mr. Jones.  Au contraire, this video salvo is the work of British alt-right Paul Joseph Watson.  Ms. Kolson Hurely describes it as a "...miss-mash of critiques borrowed from highbrow architectural traditionalists with other opinions that seem idiosyncratic to Watson."  He most definitely did his homework, "...albeit through the keyhole perspective of 'globalist' cultural tyranny.'"

The foundation of Mr. Watson's basic argument is a familiar to anyone who has sat through polemics against Modenism.  "High rises and concrete are dehumanizing.  Modernism is the style of totalitarians, etc.".  This is a misreading of architectural history; "Modernism had democratic ideals and aspired to improve living and working conditions for all classes in society."  To support his argument, Mr. Watson intersperses quotes and video clips of critics Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, and Prince Charles, who summarily dismissed one Modernist scheme as a monstrous carbuncle.  Even former Smiths lead singer Morrissey added his (singing) voice to the anti-modernist chorus in a clip, mourning the demise of his childhood neighborhood to the strains of "How Soon Is Now?"

Infowars being Infowars, Mr. Watson turns the rhetorical volume to full blast.  He describes the founders of Modernism as:

...the social justice warriors of their time...aesthetic terrorists.

He calls Michael Graves's Denver Public Library as an atrocity.  Boston City Hall is a callous abomination.  The Whitney Museum in New York City as abortion of a building.  Ouch

Paul Joseph Watson takes particular aim at Pritizker prize winning, Italian architect Renzo Piano's Museum because it appears twice on screen as Mr. Watson accuse architects of gratifying their oversized egos.  Well, yes, that much is true.  The word for it is "starchitect."  However, Ms. Kolson Hurely writes, "...but the smiling bespectacled Piano makes a curious target, given the understated minimalism of his buildings."

Renzo Piano is also the architect of record of the Shard, one of the most peculiar buildings in central London, and the one that stokes Mr. Watson's ire.  He ping pongs between condemning Brutalists blocks to the glass and steel skyscrapers of today, which he refers to a "Postmodernist."  He uses the term to describe any building in the video he dislikes from the 1980s onward.  Amanda Kolson Hurley add, "In fact, Postmodernism was a defined styles that sought, ironically, to revive historic motifs."

Mr. Watson seems to have heavily waded into the writing of James Howard Kunstler, the author of the anti-urbanist book The Geography of Nowhere and TED talks generously excerpted by Mr. Watson.  Mr. Kunstler was an early influence on the retro New Urbanism, whose virtues and new-traditional architecture Mr. Watson rhapsodizes.  He also rightly complains about zoning restriction and advocates mixed-used development, without realizing that this is "...eminently compatible with large, contemporary-style buildings, and harder to find (and fund) in areas of low-rise houses, where he insists everyone wants to live."

Conversely, the NRA advert takes a different visual approach.  The video is narrated by the organization's spokesperson Dana Loesch, who reads a series of charges against the anonymous "they":

They use their media to assassinate real news.  They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.  They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.

Set to this ominous narrative are quick images of the Walt Disney Concert Halls, the New York Times Building, and the outdoor sculpture "Cloud Gate" (i.e. The Bean) in Chicago's Millennium Park by Anish Kapoor.

the viewer is never told who the anonymous puppet masters of the world "they" are but the scenes make it very clear who "they" are.  "They" are the liberal elites of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.

Amanda Kolson Hurley speculates, "Perhaps the NRA's depiction of Disney Hall and Cloud Gate was just an handy b-roll choice, and perhaps Watson's animus against modern design is a personal quirk.  But it seems more likely that elements of the right are deliberately making architecture a front in the Trump-era culture wars.  Why?"

Nothing new here.  Modernism has long been the target of conversatives, usually confined to print journalism or the occasional television spot.  However, we live in the digital age, where a video posted to YouTube can bounce around the solar system in a matter of milliseconds.  Further, it opens the field of design criticism up to amateurs, making it "...possible to skip the textural description and short-cut straight to the offending building itself."

Architecture lends itself nicely to video.  Nothing screams "urban elite" like a Frank Gehry building in one of the most liberal metropoli in the United States.  This stands in opposition to the traditional Main Street or historic church-"a bizarre-looking redoubt where 'they' partake of secular high culture, far from Real America (or Britain's Brexit heartland)."

This is a far too simplistic characterization, and just as unfair, like "Infowars's blaming of Brutalism for the Grenfell fire in London is flat-out wrong."  However, if you repeat an idea enough times, it will stick.  Conservatives have repeatedly attacked Mr. Gehry's plan for the (President) Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. as inhuman, vandalism, and a monument to Gehry's ego; these arguments have resonated among some Republican members of Congress and have helped stall its construction.

Regardless of what Mr. Watson thinks, the public does not hate Modernism.  Think about all the 20th-century design that are regular features on opinion polls of the nation's favorites.  The sad truth is the reason for its rediscovery by conservatives is Modernism's small bandwidth makes it a convenient punching bag.

The profession of architecture is not a exactly a booming profession.  In the United States, "Architects number about 110,000...or about 150,000 if you count junior architects working towards their licenses."  That is a fraction compared to the number of lawyers and doctors.  The profession also skews urban blue-state with designers concentrated in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This fits quite nicely with urban-rural divide narrative.

Amanda Kolson Hurley concludes, "American architects often lament how marginal their profession has become to national culture, compared to countries that invest substantially in public design."  The professional may now be ready for the limelight but in the political arena-not exactly what advocates ever imagined.   

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