After Oligarchitecture

Where will the starchitects go?

Text by Owen Hatherley

Illustrations by Charlotte Krieger

In his Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and, most recently, A New Kind of Bleak (2012), radical critic Owen Hatherley dissected the pretensions of contemporary architecture, highlighting the damage it has done to the UK’s urban environment. Here he turns an acerbic eye on the global scene, to see whether a new post-crisis aesthetic is taking shape.

In late 2012, the architect and historian Alan Colquhoun died. Colquhoun was known for an approach to architecture that took discipline to the point of astringency, most evident in his north London housing projects with John Miller and in his criticism, where he subjected both functionalism and postmodernism to ruthless analysis. Colquhoun advocated an approach to the city based less on objects in space than on a deeper sense of urbanism and history. But he may be best known for a 1977 essay called “Plateau Beaubourg”, on Rogers and Piano’s just-built Centre Pompidou. It was a ferocious attack on the use of an industrial vocabulary for a non-industrial building, on the woolly hippy utopianism of the architects and, most of all, on the project’s fundamental pointlessness. The whole purpose of placing the pipes and escalators on the outside of the building, Colquhoun notes, would be to free up space inside. Yet what possible function could the Pompidou have that would require such vast, sublime, uninterrupted spans? The answer, of course, is that the form itself was the function. You were supposed to be awed by the space, by the intricacy of the services on the outside: the entire complex was an empty signifier, referring only to itself. Colquhoun had inadvertently pinpointed what the future of the architectural avant-garde would be: the design of cultural buildings whose actual purpose, whatever it might be, remained secondary, whose structural feats were an end and an object in themselves, meant simply to be admired; heavy engineering geared towards nothing more than tourist consumption.

As some pointed out at the time, there was something puritan in this critique, in the implication that architecture created purely for the purpose of spectacle and spatial pleasure must be somehow illegitimate. That Colquhoun was prophetic, though, can hardly be doubted. Looking at the renders of cultural buildings designed for the latest unpleasant political regime, it is clear that the process has only accelerated. At the moment, it seems it’s Qatar’s turn, after the UAE, China and the petro-states in the Asian part of the former Soviet Union. The Qatar Museums Authority has been commissioning new buildings at a rapid clip – Jean Nouvel’s National Museum, OMA’s National Library and IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art just in the last couple of years. With the possible exception of Pei’s effort, in its evocation of ancient desert cities, these buildings give off a vague sense of enervation, as if even the practitioners are becoming bored with all this vaulting formalism.

What exactly is the nature of that formalism, dominant for so long? It emerged out of two 1970s movements: high-tech and deconstructivism. The first, all airports and factories, was grounded in functionalism; the second, with the unnerving geometries of its private houses and art galleries, in Derrida. Yet despite the former’s technocratic positivity and the self-cancelling negativity of the latter, they merged into something essentially identical. Nouvel, Foster, Rogers, Shuttleworth and Grimshaw on the one hand; Gehry, Libeskind, Hadid, Koolhaas and Eisenman on the other: by the mid-2000s, they all seemed to have converged on an orthodoxy of the unorthodox, with compulsory non-orthogonal geometry, computer-engineered curves and swoops. The only difference between the two factions today is that one lot cover their steel frames in cladding, the other with glazing.

One anonymous wag christened the ruling aesthetic “oligarchitecture”, after its usual patrons, but there have been other names: “shapeism” captures its deployment of arbitrary forms; “parametricism”, coined by Zaha Hadid’s partner Patrik Schumacher, refers to its computerised origins; “supermodernism” and “pseudomodernism” have both been tried, to emphasise how it has reversed the traditional order in which form follows function. Five years ago in Tank, Tom Dyckhoff called it “the international style 2.0”, and the term is still apt: here are the same globe-trotting architects, their work appearing on the same archi-porn websites, usually with the same photographers following them around. Dyckhoff argued that the hunger for the “Bilbao effect” – what British deputy prime minister John Prescott called the “wow factor” – had created an unseemly scramble in the UK, with each town eager to “put itself on the map” via some wonky cultural building, and elsewhere in the world, a series of grand projects amounting to little more than “new faces for dictators”.

Like any international style, this one paid little attention to place, and there was also nothing unprecedented about its dependence on despotic patrons. In the 18th century, the baroque was exported to various absolutist regimes when Italian designers such as Rossi or Rastrelli became international architects-for-hire in serf-built new towns such as St Petersburg. Perhaps only the comparative formal discipline differentiates this from what is happening today in the Gulf. It would be too easy to see it as some sort of neocolonialism, with western architects imposing their styles on the east: in fact, in the context of massive inequality within societies east and west, this is simply the international style of an internationalised upper class. Many of London’s recent “iconic” structures – Richard Rogers’ “most expensive residences in London” at One Hyde Park, The Shard, the Olympic Village – are partly or exclusively owned by Qatari Diar, absolutism’s property development arm. The neo-feudal pattern was especially obvious when Prince Charles personally convinced his Qatari fellow blue-blood to drop Richard Rogers as architect for his Chelsea Barracks development. It is true that this sort of patronage began to look more precarious during the Arab Spring, not least for the many architects who had had projects on the go under Gaddafi. Still, the major clients in the Gulf have so far avoided any serious upheavals.

What of the forms themselves? The need for a constant “wow” has visibly crippled the talents of some architects: note, for instance, the flowing ‘n’ swooping interchangeability of recent Hadid projects compared with the complexity and diversity of her work before the big commissions came. The buildings appear increasingly difficult to justify, and Hadid’s entry in last year’s Venice Biennale seems a case in point – a series of images of paraboloid roofs, feats of engineering for its own sake. Could it be that an era is ending and something is emerging to take its place? The 2012 Biennale, under the direction of David Chipperfield and, in practice, British critic Kieran Long, focused largely on the dense collages of existing cities rather than the tabula rasa. A curiously classical, European architecture was on display, and a vaguely conceived sense of political malaise that almost (but not quite) involved a direct critique of neoliberalism. Rumour has it that Hadid walked around the show muttering: “This is all so boring” – which must surely have been the intended reaction. What linked Swiss social housing projects to squatted Venezuelan towers seemed to be a determination to reassert the city and politics. Project after project showed a hard, tectonic yet urbane approach, with the likes of Caruso St John, Sergison Bates or Hans Kollhoff appearing as exemplars of a civilised modernism of the kind Alan Colquhoun had advocated in the face of grand projects and “big guns” architecture.

It may be in housing that these formal changes are finally becoming apparent. In London, after a decade and a half of a deliberately tinny, thin aesthetic of trespa cladding and barcode façades, there appears to be an incipient new orthodoxy: housing is becoming visibly austere. The several new projects across the city by Glenn Howells, Maccreannor Lavington and Haworth Tompkins make this especially clear. Architecturally, this new sobriety is refreshing in its rigour and attention to urban coherence – yet the appearance is often deceptive. Whether the panels applied to the concrete frames are made of brown brick or pink trespa, they are still attached to luxury flats, which contribute directly to the English capital’s acute housing crisis. The King’s Cross development currently under construction, for instance, with the brick-clad, disciplined architecture of its blocks by Chipperfield, Maccreanor Lavington and Howells, represents a vast improvement on the recent developments near the former Olympic site in Stratford, which manage to appear flimsy and monolithic at once. But that apparent advance hides the fact that both places are essentially the same: yet more speculative housing estates for the wealthy, with flats in both snapped up by investors in China and the Gulf.

Architects, if we take a generous view, seem to be trying to evolve a new social aesthetic. Housing designers in western Europe are apparently taking their cues from 1950s English modernists such as Leslie Martin, embracing straight lines, coherence and masonry. Photographs by the current hot property Iwan Baan include people and mess inasmuch as they can be combined with the chic and shiny. There is a cult of the informal settlement, from the popular Chilean architects Elemental, who have designed fit-outs for slum self-builders, to OMA’s enthusiastic interest in Lagos’ super-slums, or Urban-Think Tank’s documentation of the squatted Torre David in Caracas, which won the Golden Lion at Venice. Yet all this amounts to a search for the look of the social, usually – as neoliberalism endures the financial crisis apparently unscathed – in the absence of real social programmes. At worst, then, the purported alternative to oligarchitecture risks becoming merely a fetishisation of poverty. Iwan Baan’s photographs of raw concrete interiors in the Torre David are indistinguishable from his publicity shots for Herzog and de Meuron’s Tanks at Tate Modern. “The slum’s got so much soul”, as the Dead Kennedys put it in “Holiday in Cambodia”. And today, at least in Europe, the aesthetic of austerity strangely belongs to those who are suffering from it least. § 

  • After Oligarchitecture