The semester is over and Trump is the prez. So this required a little bit of time to write a more theory driven blog.
In this new Trumpian age that we find ourselves in we are witness to the rise of the architectural folly. We all love to go to and visit the follies and drink the champagne or suck on Aperol icy poles. These little follies or pavilions often pop in the parks and cities and galleries. There are few, here and here,over the Southern hemisphere summer in my city of Melbourne. The Serpentine Gallery famously has at least one each year in Kensington Gardens. I wrote about the 2016 folly here. Tiny houses, tiny cafes, tiny pop-up shops, tiny little renovations, eency weency rooms, instantaneous barista centres, decorative baroque makeovers straight out of the flat packs and lots of public sculpture.
All these follies have become interwoven in our lives via their transmission though social media. These follies have quickly developed there own history in our lives. A history made of Instagram moments, Facebook landscapes and Snapchat curiosities.Our social media channels seem beset with architectural follies. Of course, all of this seems pretty innocent and well-meaning, an effort on the part of architects to create a communal connection via the digital urbanisation of the city. But, perhaps this is all architecture can do these days.
I am wondering if all of this micro-designing is a way to make a space for architecture itself, or any kind of architecture for that matter, given that the two extremes of the modernist project in architecture appear to be exhausted. This certainly seem to be the case in my city where the public and civic traditions of architectural language appears to be caught between two poles. I imagine it may be the same in other rich globalised cities. The first pole is the tradition of minimalism of Mies Van Der Rohe (Farnsworth and the like, the brick country houses) , mixed with its precursive tradition in the functionalism of the Russian Constructivists (but, more Melnikov than Leonidov) and uber functionalists like Hannes Meyer. In the traditions of my city this pole exhibits itself in private housing; well mannered modernism usually drawing on the traditions of the 1950s. In the area of housing OMA and BIG are its more recent manifestations. In many projects this becomes an elegantly proportioned but try-hard functionalism; a functionalism, whilst seeming to be objectively expressed, is obviously softened by the markets and so called value management; as a result it becomes a functionalism of mediocrity that struggles to make anything strange as the Russian literary formalist Viktor Shklovsky would urge us to do.
The second pole is easier to identify but it is, I fear, no less empty. It is probably best related to the poetics of Corbusier symbols, volumes, lines and shapes and symbols drawn from the animist and natural world or the architectural canon itself. As Tafuri was to point out in relation to Corbusier’s Algiers project this approach represents a pinnacle of the CIAM avant-garde’s failure to make the intellectual work of architecture mean anything in the face of capital.As well as Corbusier examples of this pole can be seen in the work of the New York Five, both Saarinen’s, Niemeyer, and all of the concrete brutalist buildings in the world that seem nowadays to choke our feeds. For Tafuri these were games without meaning or content disconnected from the real economics of the capitalist universe. In the hands of better architects this poetics becomes a kind of shamanism pointing to its own absurd emptiness. In the hands of other architects it becomes a chaotic cacophony of empty signs.
The architectural folly or project is usually set in a landscape. This landscape is viewed as either being hostile in which case the architectural responses typically point to fortress like metaphors of protection or a picturesque ruin in the landscape. The folly always disengages with its political context. In fact, context only serves to reinforce the folly’s claims to a romantic and ideal sentiment. But in reality this is an attitude denoted by Tarfuri as “the exaltation of apartness” and this contrived apartness is never a terror of faith. It is always so so certain in its cultural, and dare I say it, colonising groundedness.
As Vidler notes in a commentary on Tschumi’s Parc La Villette
“The folly, is on one, level, genuinely a meaningless object, a reassemblage of once-meaningful terms to make a nonsense out of them.” With no political agenda, no revolutionary aesthetic or social aim, and no historicist nostalgia, the allusion to constructivism becomes a mad shot in the dark that at once cherishes its avant-gardism but comprehends its madness. Analogically, the folly stands for a body already conditioned to the terms of dissemination, fragmentation and interior collapse.”
All too often I see these kinds of projects as fragments in architecture schools. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Iconic shapes representing typological figures. The primitive huts evoking the gables houses of Tessenow nowadays rendered in core ten-steel or Larch and packaged up for TV on Grand Designs. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Or worse still: parametric adornments and crystalline jewels, bridges (prevalent), aorta like tubes, shells, distorted urban blocks and even bits of clothing. Beautiful galleries and institutions also feature as fragments in Westchester like verdant landscapes. Many folly like projects ar etaken as rehabilitated ruins, loving crafted to give life to derelict buildings and all to often these are made whole with pop-up stores and shops. Nothing like a bit of retail therapy in the old warehouse.
The sustainability architects have their own follies. Rather than being concerned with issues of climate justice, their proposals are too often about reinforcing fragmentary rather than radical change across the city. In our digital streams we see glimpses of verdant rooftops, recycled facades, algae vats and mycelium walls and strange eco-machines driven by the wind.
In the work of people like Neil Brenner the diagram itself has become a folly (look at how first nations people are represented in these diagrams). From the Smithson’s onwards the diagram as kind of folly that adorns, decorates and tattoos our proposals. My cynicism urges me to say that every folly these days needs a power point presentation and a Ted Talk with lots of clever diagrams and statistics. Another decorative placebo to offer us the hope that as architects and urban designers we are making a difference and have things under control.
The rush to the folly is I think because both of aesthetic tendencies streams identified above, junk functionalism and a kind of poetic bruto symbolism, have been corrupted by the consumptive tendencies of capital. The city has been sped up by the new urban-digital technologies that employ follies for content and feeding the city in order to further fragment it before our eyes. Once adorned with these folly like fragments this new city machine gives the appearance of being the result of intellectual work and critical insight.
It is too easy to think of these fragments and follies as benign. In some ways the folly seems like an escape and a placebo. This may be because the folly and these urban machine-made fragments are so easily attached to our individual lives via social media. Follies seem innocuous perhaps because the are small. Fragments celebrating an otherness we can grasp and exist in before returning to the world. Some are very tiny trinkets indeed. All architects yearn for their own fragment to go viral. Yet are these follys all we can propose as architects?
Yep, some of these follies are as big as cities. Follies can also exists at other scales as geopolitical instruments. In geopolitics the Israeli wall and the new Mexican wall to be proposed by Trump are follies at the geopolitical scale. I don’t know why but Trump’s Tower seems like a folly fragment embedded in the grid of New York. For some reason I associate it with Saddam Hussein’s monuments in Iraq. Maybe, this is why I think Donald Trump’s victory represents the emergence of a Baathism peculiar to the United States. A secularism that is nationalistic in outlook and against pluralism of any kind. Trump, like others Baathist’s is a populist hell bent on urban modernisation. Yes, in the current interregnum between election and inauguration, it is Trump Tower which is the ultimate folly. A folly gone viral.
Trump Tower is now the most famous building in the world. Perhaps very little of our own architecture will escape the taint of Baathist emptiness. Follies have always been empty and I decry their unthinking appearance in architecture and our cities. For the most part, in architectural discourse follies are cut adrift from theory. Seeing another garden pavilion folly in my digital stream only deepens my emptiness and yearning for a different kind of freedom.
Next week normal transmissions shall resume.