Reviews of the year may seem arbitrary, particularly when it comes to architecture, which by its nature takes years to gestate before it is completed. Yet they have their uses. And not simply because they give harassed editors a no-brainer at a time when any sensible human being’s mind is on the office party and a week off. They are also the moment when, in trying to string together a narrative that links all the apparently haphazard events of the year into some single line, journalism becomes the first haphazard stab at history.
It seems particularly pertinent this year as a certain historical turn in architecture has asserted itself. The finest architecture of the year for me were two buildings by OMA both in Italy: one in Venice and one in Milan. The former, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi was effectively an act of archaeology revealing the twentieth century reality behind a building that was supposed to be centuries old. It is a deconstructed building as much as a renovated one which reveals the concrete-and-steel beamed reality of its 1920s conversion and values that as much as the traces of the 16th century.
The Prada Foundation is arguably finer. In one way, it was a rediscovery of OMAs own history. The series of disaggregated yet connected objects in a neutral, potentially hostile landscape. It was also an assault on the European cult of heritage. AA Gill, another loss this year made an aside about Europe in his book To America, With Love. He writes:
“Europe is a place that conserves. It maintains, it curates its civilization, protects it against the ravages and rust of other cultures, and the rot of time and intellectual theft. We are a continent where fear of losing what we have is greater than the ambition to make it anew.”
There is something deeply subversive in the loving restoration of a mundane factory complex from the 19th century. Lavishing gold and marble on quotidian shapes and forms, OMA question our values. Maybe we have misremembered what is truly valuable? The Foundation is a surreal emblem of our times. Di Chirico for the 21st century. The Mystery and Melancholy of Wes Anderson and Damien Hirst.
Nor was this idea of a kind of abstracted intellectual activity in Italy. This rummaging around in the historical fabric of the mundane was also part of the evolving plan for an increasingly important site in the United Kingdom: Shatwell Farm, which, despite its rural setting is according to its client Niall Hobhouse, a potential model for a new suburban architecture: an architecture which is both rural and urban. Indeed, this is particularly compelling when one sees the horror show that is the David Cameron’s garden cities roll out in places like Bicester – strange pastiches not even of old suburbia but town houses with no landscaping amongst them. This historical approach – this understanding that the suburban arrives on top of an industrialised rural experience – is compelling. The Architectural Review’s #Notopia campaign has been largely directed at the homogeneity of cities, but they have nothing on what is being done to suburban development. Of course it is not always possible to work with the fabric of the industrial past – we can’t all live in a post-war Atcost pre-fabricated barn conversion like the one that Clancy Moore have just won planning permission for on the site – but at least it provides a pointer to how we might deal with the fabric of roads and landscape we must build on rather than just carpeting fields up to the ring road with strange agglomeration of simplistic townhouse shapes scaled up to visually reconcile apartment blocks with villas that have the same childlike house-shape. “Look the people buy them,” say the developers as vindication. People just want bloody houses. Build them some good ones.
At the time, I thought that the Alejandro Aravena curated Venice Biennale this year was largely disappointing because the social programme expressed in Aravena’s exhibits was merely rhetorical: the strips of waste metal in the entrance; Anupama Kundoo’s Full Fill Home which was effectively a bunch of ferro-cement blocks which you can build small houses with; Gabinete de Arquitectura pretty latticed arch which was presented as a low-cost construction technique. These were handmade structures by architects who largely didn’t want to engage with the other professions nor the forces that produce scale in our society. They were generally turned away from it, sat onanistically alone, congratulating themselves on their own virtue
There was no real sense that the curator wanted architecture to engage with the positive forces of contemporary society. The material improvement of people’s life was something to be avoided. This was architecture outside of society. Possibly the point to it was that we would all quit our jobs and build our own houses by hand but I think that even this is being generous. Aravena seems very sure that architects have a solution to every social ill and as a profession, architecture can lead society to a promised land in a way which politicians or even citizens themselves were incapable of. I just don’t think this is true.
Fundamentally though, what made the exhibition even stranger was the implicit suggestion that here was contemporary architecture for the very first time, as a principled political position, making a stand outside the construction industry. The idea that off-grid living was somehow novel or a revolution was pervasive to the event. And yet I’m only just 40 and I can remember modularity and prefabrication as being central to many architectural propositions in my lifetime; never mind the historical use of these ideas. Where was the work by Steve Baer and Michael Reynolds? The post-hippy Americans who built off grid after the oil crisis in the 1970s? Where was the endless iterations of prefabrication as a solution to housing shortages that were carried out on a large scale in say the United Kingdom in the 1960s? How about the endless innovative architectural ideas that emerged from that process? (Old hobby horse alert: what about Cedric Price?)
This Biennale wasn’t interested in that and the introduction to it, suggested that the curator believed that the show was the first step in beginning a conversation wheras in fact this conversation pre-existed the Biennale. This idea has played out many times and in many ways which have showed its own shortcomings all too clearly. This Biennale was more about a few people declaring, with mud and sticks and clay, that their consciences were clear and that they far away from the world of shiny materials such as glass and steel. Y’know the kind of things that capitalists build for themselves. Far from engaging with reality, this was a statement of a profound disengagement.
I thought at the time that this would sum the year up all to bleakly. (Especially given that Aravena also won the Pritzker). However, it is telling that the disengagement of the Venice Biennale – the not-in-my-nameness of it – rendered it pretty insignificant even before it was finished. The tail end of the year provided a huge number of opportunities for optimism. For me the highlight was the Form of Form exhibition at the Lisbon Architecture Trienal by Johnston Marklee, Nuno Brandão Costa and Office KGDVS and curated by Diogo Seixas Lopes. Formally innovative it combined both an understanding of historicism as not just the intellectual tenor of our digital, archival web-focused culture – as the exhibition within the structure by Socks Studio made clear – but also the potential material for its architectural expansion. This has limits of course. It’s hard to find a way forward amid the accretion of associations. Yet the great thing about the installation and the whole Trienal was that it was predicated on new types of creative collaboration – architects collaging their colleagues building into the structure – and the scale and the surreal new forms that this work took. (It is telling that one of my cultural highlights of the year were the debates I enjoyed on The Postmodern Society Facebook group.)
Still, the singular event that reverberated throughout the year was the death of Zaha Hadid. A huge loss given her insistent engagement with the reality of the urban experience. Her refusal to have her work circumscribed. It was telling that once a polite period had passed since her death the knives came out for her on the completion of the Port House in Antwerp. No context, screamed her critics, ironically indulging in the sin that they accused her of; just concentrating on the image of the building rather than considering the wider site around the structure: a huge modern port filled with cranes and massive aluminium sheds. As Ed Heathcote wrote in a review of an exhibition of her paintings, which also happened to be one of my favourite pieces of writing of the year, “the critique of Hadid as a diva disdaining history and context falls apart when confronted with some of the most mesmerising depictions of complex cityscapes that contemporary architecture has produced.” It was a telling reminder that the historical context should rarely be the polite, official one.
One hopes that if it is to be historicism: then we have a historicism of the structure before the façade; a historicism of the periphery rather than the centre; of the industrial as opposed to the merely cultural.