alan balfour
Effect ::
Alan Balfour

Significant insights into the current state of architecture and the idea of ‘Baukunst’ lie not in the casual attempt to extract meaning from an increasingly diffuse present, but in returning to the radical adjustments to the concept of art that began to effect the European imagination inn the 19th century.


In my two books of essays on Berlin I was impressed by the way in which major shifts in the cultural imagination were stimulated by the insights of individuals. The way in which after Hegel, for example, beauty as an idea, or beauty as a singular virtue, was displaced by something else which for convenience I will call the effective. Such thinking is evident inn the work of a formative ‘Baukunst’ theorist, who faced questions in many ways similar to those we are facing today; Gottfried Semper. The heroic character of Semper’s intellectual and professional struggle makes him a most appropriate witness. It is a salutary tale. (Semper is of particular interest to me because he attempted to establish a school of architecture in London in 1851 at a time when the AA was just beginning.)


Semper’s major achievement was in the two volumes of design theory entitled ‘De Stijl: The Technical and Structural Arts and Practical Aesthetics’. He saw contemporary architecture as “faceless empty and impractical.” He wrote that it was “arrogant to strive for immortal fame as a creator of a new style. This has led many a person at best to fall into ridicule and at worst to gain the sad fame as having advanced the state of anarchy that exists in the field of art at this time.”


Simper’s third volume was planned to focus on architecture. He contracted with the publisher to produce a work that would define its most important tasks for the present, and offer a critical assessment of the then state of architecture. These promises proved for him unanswerable, and after twenty years he died with the work barely begun. He revealed his agony in correspondence with the publisher, “the media expects to be lead by me to new points of view that will make the long familiar appear in a new light…that is just what frightens me and deprives me of my former spontaneity.” And later, “much of what I had written then would have been strongly rejected y a tribunal of art historians” a concern with which we should all sympathize. The constraints and procedures imposed by the manners of respectable scholarship can seriously interfere with thought.


The strength of Semper as a theorist and an observer of history is that he wrote from the perspective and imagination of a practicing architects, and despite all the struggle that later texts contain some remarkable propositions on what architecture might become, “if I may make a prognosis on our future” he wrote, “a peculiar evolutionary trend, possibly arising out of our fast moving present, will be a mainly dynamic character. The principle of movement and also that of direction, and more exactly “Richtung” will be affected in this trend.” I presume ‘richtung’ implies a progressive force within the culture, but that aside, this vision of an architecture whose effective form and content are wholly white result of the force of circumstance, unconcerned with beauty, is powerfully subversive.


The two influences that have weakened architecture in the last century are the persistence of idea of beauty, and the use of architecture as an instrument of social policy. Beauty has long since been an irrelevance and the last eighty years of practice have shown the instable and frequently destructive relationship between architecture and society. There may be necessity I the form but not in content of architecture, just as there can be not necessity with regard to the content of music. Architecture’s content is presented in a myriad of interesting effects, generate by individual imaginations out of a mess of complex circumstances. This sensational condition is increasingly pursued for its own sake not in relation to any with to embody meaning.


This may seem too diffused and ephemeral a condition for something so permanent, yet architecture has always been conditioned by the irrational and the fashionable. Its instability is a Twentieth Century phenomenon. Trust in the establishment of stability through architecture was a habit of aristocracies. An under-acknowledged legacy from this inheritance is the fallacy that the content of each age will form a dominant architecture. This presumes an authority over the culture that neither architecture nor politics can any longer sustain.


Projecting narrowly formed idealizations of reality has been an element in all the catastrophes of the Twentieth Century phenomenon. Trust in the establishment of stability through architecture was a habit of aristocracies. An under-acknowledged legacy from this inheritance is the fallacy that the content of each age will form a dominant architecture. This presumes an authority over the culture tat neither architecture nor politics can any liger sustain.


Projecting narrowly formed idealizations of reality has been an element in all the catastrophes of the Twentieth Century. Such cultural behavior remains the product of 18th and 19th century Western and dominantly German philosophy. It is without exception a history of manipulation by political and economical forces. Significant architecture remains the product of wealth and power and the will to influence. What has changed as the century ends, is the emergence of many competing centers of powered and the displacement of political idealism and nationalism by muli-national corporatism. Architecture and ‘Baukunst’will be transformed by this but can resist this threat to the consumption of reality by cultivations the autonomy of architectural effect.


Freedom and the persistence of history have created too much architecture, too much vulgar effect, and nothing can be done about it save by example. The task for ‘Baukunst’ will be to create the condition for the continual transformation of architecture; the continual extension of the range of theoretical and sensational invention, both to stimulate yet subvert the fashionable desire for the new and the manipulation of consumption by industry.


Let me set out the concept of the effect and the effective. First, as the essence of music is the effective ordering of sound so the essence or architecture is the effective ordering of space and material. Architectural effect will inspire symbolic, and metaphoric readings, but these are conditions of sensation not instruction. Just as it would be futile no matter how tempting, to use a work of literature, say Ulysses by James Joyce, to formulate social policy so it would be equally absorb to see a work of architecture, say the Wexner Centere by Peter Eisenmen, as a reflection of the restlessness of America. Wexner is significant as an artifact not as a political statement.


‘Baukunst’ must recognize the distinction between architecture and building. Architecture is that part of building that is unnecessary but essential. It is that condition external to the material of building that defines space and form and creates effect. The last decade has seen many varied experiments in the production of effect. These have, on occasions, been over-intellectualized and depended on over-elaborate formal strategies. The most influential of these conceptual tactics used figures based on narrative or deconstructions of existing form to achieve effect. These tended, in the beginning, to be deprived from the content of the program. This has evolved to a point now where graphic and spatial effects are employed wholly for their own sake and whose effect can be quite unconcerned with the building program. Architectural effect can take as many forms as there are effects in music. Irrelevance and confusion produced in the attempt to embody meaning does not imply that there is not relation between effedt and event. The effect simply exists in a form internal to the nature of architecture and acts on the senses exactly as sound operates in the construction of music. Frank Gehry is the most confident practitioner of such performance.


Let me therefore propose that the essential task of ‘Baukunst’ is the inventive manipulation of effect drawn freely from all conditions of space, form, and material. It is intimately related to fashion and to ephemeral desire. It is a process which is a state of continual competition for the attention of the mass imagination, transforms and extends architecture in ways both unpredictable and novel. It is premised on the view that ‘Baukunst’ should be applied specifically to that essential component of all the arts which sees to transform and to reveal in their creation the promise of the new. Rather than weaken or trivialize architecture, this acknowledges the essential means by which architecture operates. Recognizing the power of effect allows us not only to understand the essential nature of the architecture of such a Gunther Domenig- there is no other stimulates landscapes of future desire to overcome the persistence of the past.

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