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.