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Friday, 3 July 2009

A couple of early construction images from Renzo Piano's mixed-use development at St. Giles Court in London, fantastic engineering but very bad architecture. Before the horrible cladding was applied, the building shells, a mixture of concrete and steel framed structures depending on use, looked very elegant and rational. Then came the architect....

RPBW's description of the project is an exercise in how far semantics could be stretched before they snap: "the project is part of a complex urban patchwork of medieval streets, modern buildings, and traditional urban blocks." No it's not, it's the largest Lego set in the world, the designers are using color in this childish way to simulate variety and freshness. It doesn't work.

The project reveals how distinct and separate aesthetics and structures have become in contemporary architecture. Designing facades has become the equivalent of dressing up dolls, with no relationship to the spatial and tectonic aspects of the design. In this case, Renzo chose fancy summer ball dresses for his latest set of dolls.

Renzo's experimentation with ceramics has been a complete failure so far, it didn't work in Potsdamer Platz and doesn't work over here. Renzo is trying return materiality to modern architecture, but the harder he tries the more plastic the ceramic looks, St. Giles Court is the most plastic so far.

The pathetic lack of innovation in architectural technology especially when it comes to cladding systems has reduced this aspect of building design to two aspects: keeping the water out and meeting the ridiculous European codes for thermal performance of building envelopes. Anything else is a bonus. This is precisely the approach followed with the design of St. Giles Court, it's a direct translation of the codes with mathematical precision that governs even window sizes. Apply color, and presto! Bad design of the year award beckons.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The winners of this year's MoMA and P.S.1's Young Architects Program, MOS, titled their project 'Afetrparty'; 'Wake' would have been a far better description. The deceased is Modern architecture and all that it ever represented: ambition, experimentation, industrial techniques, and rationality. 'Afterparty' is the antithesis of all those concepts: random, reactionary, patronising and furry. P.S.1 had paved the way for this abomination with last year's winning entry 'Public Farm' by WORK architecture company, an exercise in autarky wrapped in a text whose level of naivety is hardly matched outside a Miss America contest. The trend can only intensify in the coming years, although it is hard to imagine anything more dreadfully reactionary than 'Afterparty'.

According to the New York Times the project is 'a mix of what could be described as cones, domes, smokestacks, primitive huts, towers or industrial chimneys.' Primitive hut would have done: the project's main distinguishing feature is its primitivism that, like biodynamic agriculture, represents a yearning for pre-modernity masquerading as radicalism. The project is so imprecise and accidental formally and organisationally that it is completely open for interpretation: this is the Rorschach Test of architecture, a three-dimensional accident of shapes or a giant furball thrown up by Godzilla after a night of rampage in a hippie market.

Michael Meredith of MOS said the structures were meant to evoke the fading factory vernacular of the P.S. 1 area in Long Island City. “We’re interested in building typologies,” he said. They must have tried very hard to resist showing this interest in 'Afterparty'. Rather than evoking the 'factory vernacular' the project is symptomatic of America's ending love affair with industrialisation. For the second time in the space of a few decades America is losing nerve and turning to imported ideas from Europe for inspiration, the Green assault has truly began in the US. Three years ago it would have been really hard to find advocates of sustainability outside Hippie communities in Nevada, now architects are competing really hard to learn the New Speak of the environmentalist dogma.

The connection between declining production and the recession has still not been grasped in America, so it's not strange to see MOS trying to pass off their cheap knock-off of a primitive village as a thoughtful response to the economic situation. There is still talk of an 'economic party' and an 'economic hangover', isn't it fun how eco-geeks always try to use words like party and hangover to pretend that they are cool? It still hasn't dawned on American intellectuals that financial hyper-activity is not equivalent to productive economic activity, never mind they are still willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, let them eat biscuits. The result in architecture? MOS's masterpiece, a monument to garage sales and Sunday markets across the land, where the fetishistic value of recycled materials is elevated above real innovation in architecture.

The architects are obviously free to present whatever design they come up with, the real blame falls on P.S.1 and MoMA for encouraging and supporting this trend towards reactionary architecture and celebrating it as good architecture. This is not a one-off, it's a trend that started with last year's project and is bound to continue as long as architects will continue to pursue this obsessive form of self-harm that is passed off as 'environmental responsibility'. Solving challenging economic and environmental problems requires innovative thinking and advanced technologies, not the escape from modernity that is represented by projects like 'Afterparty'. Let's interrupt this assault on Modernity before it escalates into a full return to primitivism.