Distortion, Delusion, and Dystopia in Architecture
In December of 2014, an op-ed article titled “How to Rebuild Architecture” was published in the New York Times. Bingler and Pedersen, the authors of this work, framed the following critique of the contemporary state of architecture:
For too long, our profession has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work […] We’ve confronted this problem before […] our response, broadly speaking, was more of the same, dressed differently: […] -isms that made for vibrant debate among the professionals but pushed everyone else further away. […] The question is, at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?1
In grasping the scope of Bingler and Pedersen’s rebuke, an immediate connection is made to the vast range of twentieth-century texts which have offered similar points of criticism. Most poignantly, perhaps, one is drawn to the work of Venturi et al. in the early 1970s, which comparably pointed to the divide existing between the language of architecture as vocalized by the public versus that as espoused by the profession. A humble sentence, which was written as a simple aside in Learning from Las Vegas, still remains deeply etched in the discursive archives focused on this topic:
(The inevitable plastic flowers at home in these windows [of the non-modernist Guild House] are, rather, pretty and ordinary; they do not make this architecture look silly as they would, we think, the heroic and original windows of [Paul Rudolph’s modernist] Crawford Manor.)2
What Venturi et al. here are pointing to, is effectively a gap in terms of material culture—that is, a gap between the kind of built world that architecture as a profession generally pursues, and the kind of material fabric generally produced and collected by broader society, that eventually occupies it.
The resolution to this material-cultural gap, according to Bingler and Pedersen, lies in an architecture that (re)embraces the radical middle—that is, in an architecture that reestablishes a wider scope of sociocultural legibility by having a language that is anchored in, and continuously revised through, an open-ended and collaborative dialogue with the broader public.3 What will be rediscovered through such an approach, they assert, is an architecture that can provoke a “sense of awe” from the proverbial Philip Johnson’s and little old ladies of the world, simultaneously4—propelling, incidentally, the profession to potentially reclaim authorship over the large swathes of the built environment that have previously been relinquished, in the authors’ words, to “hacks.”5
Here, a slight side step is necessary, for it is not the purpose of this article to delve into the grammatical idiosyncrasies or discursive vulnerabilities of a particular op-ed. Rather, what is important to recognize is that the presumptions floating below the surface of Bingler and Pedersen’s text are the same presumptions that can pervasively be found dwelling beneath the broader discourse concerning architecture and its idealized societal role—namely, that (1) architecture, as a profession, can (and ought to) be in service of the people; and (2) a significant reason why architecture has thus far fallen short of serving in such a populist manner is due to the aforementioned divide concerning the language of architecture. One final quote from this op-ed piece serves to illustrate these submerged presuppositions quite succinctly:
We’re brilliant at devising sublime (or bombastic) structures for a global elite who share our values. We seem increasingly incapable, however, of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population, the very people we are, at least theoretically, meant to serve.6
If one can ignore for the moment, the odd neutrality with which Bingler and Pedersen refer, in passing, to “a global elite who share our values,” a more serious question concerning the failed societal role of architecture can be considered here. What if the inability of architecture, as a profession, to achieve this idealized, populist societal role is not due to a hyper-specialized and -insular vocabulary, but rather due to the bureaucratic, administrative, and financial machinery through which it has grown accustomed to operate and, through its own internal momentum, continues to reinforce?
Before proceeding though, perhaps a brief clarification is needed.
What is meant, for instance, by machinery? With this term, a wide definition is being put into motion—referring to the range of institutional bodies, discretionary agencies, policies, codes, laws, and so on, involved in the various processes concerning construction and design, building permitting and inspection, zoning and land-use review, loan and mortgage financing, parochial planning-policy formation, building-code revision, societal building cultures, and beyond. This is a machinery, in turn, that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In this article, what is truly being discussed is the machinery of the United States and, subsequently, the failure of American architecture to achieve a populist societal role on a significant level. For although there are commonalities to be considered throughout the proverbial West, the United States seems to exist in rather rare historic and contemporary company in regard to: (1) the bulk, excess, stagnation, and convoluted as well as contradictory nature that characterizes the machinery within which its architectural realm operates; and (2) the seemingly systemic engagement of a predominantly higher-economic echelon clientele that its architecture depends upon.
The immediate and historically oft-repeated rebuttal, of course, is that this is a civilized machinery—a machinery essential for societal health and safety, public welfare, ecological preservation, urban functionality, etc. And partly, there is truth to this. Certain aspects of the machinery being discussed here were historically developed, maintained, and revised in order to avert, what in political discourse is referred to as, a race to the bottom (in regard to human rights, socioeconomic standards, ecological systems, urban conditions, and so on). What is similarly undeniable, however, is that the developmental trajectory of the policies, codes, institutions, and procedures surrounding this American machine have also been heavily molded since their inception by idealized, narrow-sighted, and at-times extremist conceptions of morality, gender, ethnicity, civility, economics, genetics, etc.
A quick but earnest study of the historic fabric concerning these subjects readily unveils, in fact, a rather complex and dark narrative at play—namely, that the machinery that surrounds architecture in the United States is not only profoundly laced with inherently exclusionary conceptions of who has the right to the American city (and who has the right to American society), but more egregiously, that it is not merely by chance, but rather significantly by design, that the poor, the non-Anglo-Saxon, the non-nuclear family, etc., have continued to find difficulty in achieving a genuine architectural and urban voice in the United States, and rather have succumbed to assimilating into and mimicking existing architectural conditions, habits, proclivities, etc. Regrettably, this is a subject area far too broad to develop in full in the short span of this article. For those interested in this realm of study, however, Michael Wolf’s (2008) The Zoning of America, David Langum’s (1994) Crossing over the Line, Roy Lubove and Samuel Hays’ (1960) The Progressives and the Slums, and Charles Eagles’ (1990) Democracy Delayed may serve as a few critical points of entry into the discourse concerning the subject.
In the absence of awareness of these latter histories, when confronted by seemingly trivial points such as minimum parking requirements, minimum insulation requirements, zoning issues, minimum square footages and maximum lot coverages required to be considered a single-family detached house, minimum property offsets that change from locality to locality, minimum construction specifications, permitting costs, land-use review processes, etc., what will be evoked in the architect is the presupposition of neutrality—that is, the assumption that these standards and minimums are merely neutral and apolitical details required to maintain societal stability and order or, at the very least, are parameters of bureaucracy that must, by their nature, inherently lie outside of the critical gaze of the profession.
It is in this commonplace discursive erasure and subsequent formulation of presumption—the presumption of the neutrality of this societal machinery (that is, a machinery of pure administration, as opposed to a machinery of partial regime)—that one of the fundamental ideological distortions of architecture, as a profession, a discipline, and a discourse, begins to find root.
This distortion, being the distortion of ideology in a fundamentally Zizekian sense,7 takes place at considerable depth. By the time it breaks the discursive skin, it is no longer recognizable by the bearer (the architect) as being anything but the natural condition of the null state. What manifests at the surface, rather, is delusion—a surface-level skewing of reality, constructed in order to conform to an underlying ideological malformation.
It is in the 1949 theatrical film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that a range of these delusions can be found unwittingly captured. The specific one that is of importance for the purposes of this article is highlighted by the architect-protagonist’s misconceptions regarding the struggle for architectural integrity—namely, his delusions regarding where the lines of battle are actually drawn.
From the start of the film, Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, is portrayed as being in active discursive struggle. In the very first minute of the film, the viewer observes him being expelled by the dean of his university, who chides him by pointing out, “There’s no place for originality in architecture. Nobody can improve on the buildings of the past; one can only learn to copy them.”8 Roark, a few minutes later, establishes his own anti-historic-mimetic stance in asserting, “A building has integrity just like a man, and just as seldom. It must be true to its own idea, have its own form, and serve its own purpose.”9 Thus standing in the face of a vast mass of critique, he holds resolute—the purported champion of individualism.
Upon deeper inspection, however, it becomes apparent that for Roark, the fight for architectural integrity, for authorship, occurs specifically at the level of form, at the level of aesthetics—that is, at the level of the surface. While it is briefly mentioned, for instance, that he has engaged “the problem of low-rent construction”10 for many years, this point only comes up in passing. Throughout the film, the dominant narrative that appears is that the nature of the project, the nature of the client, the socioeconomic implications of the work, and so on—these facets have no bearing on Roark. He is simply in waiting for a client who will adopt his form-based ideas, without alteration. “Those who need them must take them my way, or not at all,” he asserts.11 And for this assertion, he is cast as the hero of the battle for architectural integrity.
This assumed state of conflict achieves its climactic end towards the latter half of the film, wherein Roark sets out to dynamite a large-scale low-income housing project for which he has been commissioned (indirectly commissioned, since he is essentially functioning as an architectural ghost writer in that circumstance).
His reasoning is that his initial design has been radically altered—radically, but at the surface level of the aesthetics of the architectural envelope, if the oxymoron of radical surface-alteration can be forgiven. The project, so far as is understood by the viewer, still remains a low-income housing project. It simply looks different. And for this, Roark destroys it, in its totality. He does so without the slightest hesitation and is eventually acquitted by a jury of his peers, after delivering a lengthy monologue on the nature of individual integrity. As the film comes to a close, we find Howard Roark has done well for himself following the trial. He is framed standing atop his latest commission, the Wynand Building, the tallest skyscraper to be built in New York and one can assume, by extension, the world.
If one strips away the delusions of Howard Roark, what effectively remains? (1) He is an architect who takes on any project so long as the form and aesthetics of his work remains unaltered; (2) his portfolio seems to consist entirely of projects for higher-end clients, even when the scope of the work is a bit humbler in scale;12
(3) the only project which may be considered even slightly populist in nature, the low-income housing project known as Cortland Homes, he dynamites due to issues of form and aesthetics; and (4) his greatest commission is the equivalent of the contemporary Burj Khalifa, with his client being an ethically unrestrained newspaper mogul in fervid pursuit of societal power—a building, furthermore, aptly stripped of program and client (due to the client’s suicide) by the end of the film, and exists solely at the level of pure form, pure aesthetic, pure phenomena.13
Burj Khalifa via Flickr by Stefano
So how is it that Roark is able to retain the status of hero? Why is it that he is portrayed as the victor of the battle for architectural integrity, given that the very nature of his architectural practice seems to be the perfect partner to unrestrained real estate speculation and development, or more broadly, a predatory-capitalistic socioeconomic system?
Here, we may step back to the notion of delusion—delusion rooted in the fundamental distortions found at the footings of architecture. Gail Wynand, the aforementioned newspaper mogul in The Fountainhead, once stripped of his own delusions and ideological distortions, finds himself in an acutely agonizing crisis from which he is unable to recover.14 His downward spiral is remarkably reminiscent of the last chapters of Mark Rothko’s life, specifically following the crisis of ideology Rothko himself suffers during his attempted confrontation of “the richest bastards in New York” via his work on the Seagram murals.15
For those who know said story, a chord will be struck with the following sentiments of Wynand, which are vocalized after the newspaper mogul realizes who truly wields control in the context of his relationship to the mob of Manhattan:
I have no power. I never had any power. Nobody’s ever listened to me because nobody’s ever respected me. I wasn’t the ruler of the mob. I was its tool. […] I never ran the banner; they did. The men in the street. It was their paper, not mine.16
There is an overlooked, yet remarkably blunt narrative here. Howard Roark, although presented as having a clarity of conscious thought that is unmatched throughout the story, in fact never seems to be able to step out of his ideological distortion and surface-level delusions. He is, fundamentally and superficially, blind: he never sees or recognizes the nature of the societal role that he occupies.
As the film rolls to black, Gail Wynand remains dead of his own hand, having been granted the horrifying gift of sight on a Sophoclean scale, yet Roark stands atop the Wynand Building, straddling with great pride the literal architectural embodiment of unrestrained capitalism, unable to see his work for what it is. Rothko gave up the Seagram commission, yet Roark remains in full production, his vision focused on the surface, on the form—solely on the phenomenological character of the architecture he is being commissioned to produce.
It is at this level that one sees delusion transformed into dystopia. That is to say, one finds the delusions of architecture, as a discourse, profession, and discipline, being mobilized by inherently dystopian and predatory socioeconomic structures in order to further propagate said dystopian tendencies, while veiling the architectural manifestations of such tendencies as being the victories of individualism and integrity. The discursive rearguard is thus effectively veiled as the avant-garde.17 The words of architect and architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, in this context, continue to ring with criticality:
Modern architecture has marked the paths of its own destiny by becoming the bearer of ideals of progress and rationalization to which the working class is extraneous, or in which it is included only in a social democratic perspective. One might well recognize the historical inevitability of this phenomenon; yet having done so, one may no longer hide the ultimate reality that makes the choices of “leftist” architects so uselessly anguished. Uselessly anguished because it is useless to struggle when one is trapped inside a capsule with no exit. The crisis of modern architecture does not issue from “weariness” or “dissipation.” Rather, it is a crisis of the ideological function of architecture.18
With this explication of the crisis within architecture, we can loop back to the text of Bingler and Pedersen, published roughly seven decades following the work of Ayn Rand. When one reads this op-ed with an earnest eye, one encounters a glimpse of a purportedly critical architectural discourse caught in the same delusions and distortions as embodied by Howard Roark—that is, a discourse stuck at the level of the surface (architecture as form, aesthetic, and phenomena) and unable, due to the fog of distortion, delusion, and dystopia, to even attempt to restructure the means of architectural production that confine it. It is thus, in the words of Tafuri, that “the circle closes […] The avant-garde critique [revealing] its role as ideological tool of the current critical phase of the capitalist world.”19
To break this cycle, the critique of architecture must be operationalized at a deeper level. The minutiae of the purported null state must be examined and challenged within the range of scales it occupies. The machinery must be unveiled for what it is. And while it is possible that a new surface language of architecture will be produced via such a radical restructuring, it is critical that the battle for the surface is not confused for the battle for the fundament. For it is the latter which we are after, and the former within which we are predominantly lost.
1. Bingler, Steven and Martin Pedersen. “How to Rebuild Architecture.” New York Times, 15 December 2014. Web. 15 June 2016.
2. Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1972, p. 93.
3. Bingler and Pedersen 2014.
7. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Perf. Slavoj Zizek. Blinder Films, 2013.
8. The Fountainhead. Dir. King Vidor. Perf. Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Kent Smith, et al. Warner Bros, 1949. Film. 1’.
9. Ibid., 12’.
10. Ibid., 71’.
11. Ibid., 73’.
12. Throughout the film, the viewer is granted brief glimpses into the client list and portfolio of Roark, which includes a new building for the Security Bank of Manhattan which he rejects (11’), a luxury-apartment building known as the Enright House (38’), a new building for the Civic Opera Company of New York (52-53’) for which he is rejected due to “too much talk and public resentment” (52’), a gas station (55’), a store (55’), a farm (56’), a residence (56’), an office building (56’), a factory (56’), a 500-acre country house for Gail and Dominique Wynand (59’), the low-income housing development known as Cortlandt Homes (73’), and the Wynand Building (108’). Even though Roark’s portfolio does include some humbler works, such as those shown around the 55’ mark of the film, the fact that his formal language (which includes rather extensive cantilevers and wall windows) remains consistent throughout would seem to naturally imply that even in such projects his clients are most likely on the higher economic spectrum.
13. The Fountainhead, 109’–112’.
14. Ibid., 110’.
15. “Rothko.” The Power of Art. Written by Schama, Simon. BBC, UK. 8 December 2006. Television. 35’.
16. The Fountainhead, 96’.
17. Tafuri, Manfredo. 1969. “Manfredo Tafuri, Toward a Critique of Architecture Ideology.” In Architecture Theory Since 1968, 1st ed., 6–35. 9. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000. p. 33.
18. Ibid., 32.
19. Ibid., 30.