“Something Awful being built” – or not as the case may be.

Astute venue of architectural criticism, the Capital Times (8-14th April 2009) came up trumps recently via comic strip “Jitterati”‘s social commentary. With one foul swoop (or more accurately four comic strip frames) local building, the recession, class politics, and architectural disillusionments ensued. One cultural giant was pitted against the merits of another, as the comic strip queried the relative value of stalled developer architecture (represented by the Watermark Development) and cinema (represented by the Rialto). The unbuilt Watermark apartments were described as stupendously ugly. But, while some of the films at the Rialto were good, the now vacated interior of the Rialto was a shocker, unsuccessfully dwelling in the deception that a coat of black paint is both artistic and can hide the architectural unseemly.

But it’s not the relative architectural merits of the unbuilt and the vacant which entertain “Jitterati.” Instead it’s the class politics which architecture institutes (something we in New Zealand usually circumvent rather than acknowledge) via the Hoi-Polloi as architectural critic or consumer. In another day Modernists in NZ consciously and explicitly engaged with politics. Socialism, and an architecture achievable for all was their political aim. Prior to that Colonialism peppered the land with architectural mini-mes from the “Mother” country. Post-Modernism might have given us short-lived and excessive play things for the upper-classes (with more dollars than sense!) – but how do we as architects position ourselves as politically influential now?

The political vacancy of the Neo-modernism of Urbis architecture (perhaps New Zealand’s largest architectural show-pony paddock?) has clearly disconnected Modernism from its Socialist agenda. It is a slick, clean, and desirable architecture. It is, one might say, aspirational in the way that drives the wheels of Capitalism and credit-crunches.

While Jitterati define Hoi-Polloi in terms of barometers of architectural taste (“When we see something awful being built we go “Hoi””), perhaps there also needs to be a barometer which queries architecture which reneges on the obligation for architecture to be politically aware. Crude Consumerism maybe aspirational for the masses – but is it something architects should happily replicate in their designs?

We are in the practice of making images. But architecture, as aspirational image, often constructs an illusion of habitation without its reality, and without its affordability. Perhaps, in these days of economic re-evaluation, the superficial architecture of projects such as the Watermark development will also be questioned and scrutinised because of an increased political and ethical awareness about the impacts of the images we make and the reality of what we do. Jitterati‘s clarification of the Watermark as the “Most Obnoxious way to fence off the harbour from the Hoi-Polloi” not only bears some truth, but it also raises the challenge for architects not to blindly follow the developer dollar but to bring an ethical practice and awareness back into the profession.


6 responses to ““Something Awful being built” – or not as the case may be.”

  1. Aye, and of course it was the socialist agenda that saw an institution such as the Wellington Architectural Centre arise. If such a political vacuum exists amongst our practitioners today, is there still a place for that once-revered institution?

  2. richard Avatar

    presumeably there’s even more of a need for the Arch Centre – but only if it works to address the political vacuum situation. I wonder what today’s Demonstration House would look like. Given the right photographer I suspect it could probably appear completely at home in the next issue of Urbis.

  3. jayseatee Avatar

    One only needs to look at NZRAB for the direction of the political agenda of the leading generation of architectural practitioners in this country. Raise the fees 5 fold for registration to ensure indentured servitude, and in the process use their own failures of ensuring weather tightness as the reason to raise the bar for entering the profession. These indicate pretty clearly to me what ethical standard the practice of architecture has set for itself. Decisions made for money, control, and shifting of blame, on to young practitioners that have none of them.

  4. I have a feeling that the socialist origins of the modernist movement may have not only evaporated long ago, but may have truthfully never existed at all. What is the architectural altruistic tendency after all, than a manifest desire to construct and thereby to occupy space, whether on one’s own behalf or in pretense of supporting the needs of others?

    Early modern masters such as Gropius, Corb, and later on, van der Rohe, all end up as lackeys to the capitalist overlords, serving Mammon more than the needs of the poor and down-trodden. The needs of the meek, the indentured greek, and the “Hoi-Polloi” pale into insignificance besides the fat corporate cummer-busting paunches of the robber barons of capitalism, and its a rare architect that can withstand the pull to the dark side.

    Jayseatee’s comments on the ineptitude of the NZIA to persuade young players to stand and deliver are merely symptomatic of the depth of the divide between the alleged fee-earning potential of a graduate, and the stark reality, whereby a grad in the current climate is better to go to ground for several years than to bother to try to set forth on the current global curren-cies….

  5. “presumeably there’s even more of a need for the Arch Centre – but only if it works to address the political vacuum situation.”

    My point is that Arch Centre were very much part of an established international movement, even if in the van guard. To take part in today’s zeitgeist would be to affirm and celebrate the ‘vacuum’ would it not? Or should we wheel out the big green coloured ‘S’ word as our 21st century ‘raison d’être’… (which to me, given current usage of the term, pretty much amounts to the same thing, generally speaking of course).

  6. richard Avatar

    I guess I still believe that architecture might offer something positive in a disciplinary sense, and offer new and creative ways to understand how we live and how we might live. I’m sure it could be argued that Capitalism has provided new ways of living – some might say in smaller and smaller spaces for the poorer, and larger and larger ones for the middle classes and status quo (larger and more spaces) for the rich. But it can also be argued that internationally the rich (and Capitalism) have funded the great (or well known) experiments in architecture – the Farnsworth house, Falling Water, Villa Savoye etc. But this isn’t necessarily so in NZ – the Group houses, the Toomath snr house, the Athfield house etc. have been innovative but not with extravagent budgets. Okay so in the more recent post-Modern era the Gibbs house etc. are definitely have more Capitalist tendencies.

    I don’t know what this means for the Arch Centre – but I hold out more hope for it to give some kind of integrity to architecture (and yes M-D I’m sure I’m still stuck in an unrealistic Modernist utopia). I don’t have the same faith in the NZIA which is a protectionist group for architects and has no mandate to provide anything productive for architecture per se.

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