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Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture

edited by William S. Saunders

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005

xviii + 122 pages. Notes and halftones

$69.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8166-4753-4; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8166-4752-6

Over the past decade, a substantive discussion on the relationship between late capitalism and the built environment has emerged within the pages of the Harvard Design Magazine: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and Planning. The trend in critical attention being paid to the subject was noticeable even before William S. Saunders, editor of the journal, cleaved a selection of articles free from their original context to concentrate them in a slim volume called, most appropriately, Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture. By gathering together ten essays written on the subject between 1998 and 2004, and adding to them an introduction by Kenneth Frampton, Saunders has heightened the critical impact of the collection. Taken individually, each piece could be dismissed as an idiosyncratic response to the latest and greatest design project. However, when read in sequence, the selected articles highlight the sometimes latent anxieties in the profession over the cooption of architecture by capitalist forces. The profession in its many guises is adequately represented here: in addition to the Marxist-inspired speculation by the always critically engaged Kenneth Frampton, we hear opinions penned by a well-balanced and well-published group of architects and historians, including of Luis Fernández-Galiano, Michael Benedikt, Michael Sorkin, Rick Poynor, Kevin Ervin Kelley, Thomas Frank and Daniel Naegele.

There exist some obvious threads connecting most of the essays together. For instance, Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas/OMA make an appearance, for better or worse, in almost every contribution to the volume. Clearly, “starchitecture” is the most obvious force against which critics can react; the buildings of the mundane, the spaces of quotidian life, play a smaller role in these examinations of free-market economics and conspicuous consumption. (Benedikt’s celebration of his firm’s design for a grocery store, and Naegele’s examination of Michael Graves’ theories of architecture as represented at the neighborhood Target are two of the exceptions to this generalization.) And, of course, all of the essays represent some engagement with the modern-day marriage of architectural practice to a globalized, neo-liberal economy. Few of the essays analyze closely the production of “spectacle” (summarized in the preface by Saunders as a design that seduces consumers with its “Wow!” value, only to then leave them disappointed and disillusioned after the mechanics behind the spectacle are revealed) in contemporary architecture, possibly because such an engagement would require a doubter’s eye be cast on the means of economic and architectural production. To really see the spectacular nature of Guggenheim Bilbao, for instance, the viewer must be intellectually available to the disenchantment following the flash of CATIA-warped steel against the retina. Following that eye-blink of experience with a thorough analysis of architectural spectacle would require, at minimum, a suggestion of skepticism directed toward the economy that enabled the spectacle. As Frampton notes in his introductory essay, most of the writers who contribute to this volume fail to seriously challenge the complicity of contemporary architectural practice with a capitalist mode of production, opting instead to view the commodification of architecture as inevitable or, in at least one example, quite desirable. Intense scrutiny of the spectacle cannot follow from such positions.

The obvious exception to resigned acceptance is the essay written by Madrid architect Luis Fernández-Galiano, entitled “Spectacle and Its Discontents; or, The Elusive Joys of Architainment.” Fernández-Galiano mourns the loss of gravitas in contemporary design, linking “an architainment of fleeting images and flashing screens” with the emergence of a late twentieth-century mass dot-com culture. Noting that even when works of “tactile presence” are created (Herzog and de Meuron’s Dominus Winery, for instance, or Peter Zumthor’s Baths at Vals), they “[fall] prey to our voracity for images” in a matter of moments, becoming more notable for their association with fashion and advertising than for their own materiality (3). He argues that the dividing line between the architect that produces the material object and the mass culture that reduces architecture to consumable image is much finer than we would like to believe. As he points out, “the intellectual venture capital of many an architect has been invested in the new casino economy of fashion” (7). By partnering with the very industries that reduce their work to icon and image, architects are complicit in the dematerialization of their own creative work.

Fernández-Galiano’s argument is further supported by the ruminations of both cultural critic Thomas Frank and architect Michael Sorkin. Frank makes absolutely clear in his “Rocking for the Clampdown: Creativity, Corporations, and the Crazy Curvilinear Cacophony of the Experience Music Project” that the work of “name brand” architects sits precisely at the intersection of built form and a globalized market economy. For example, the Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project (EMP), funded in large part by the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, exemplifies the symbiotic relationship of the design profession with corporate monetary interests. Ostensibly an homage to the independent spirit behind rock music, the EMP can be read as a multi-dimensional testimony of the ability of the “New Economy” to nullify the politics of resistance that informed rock music through a careful packaging of the museum experience. Though Frank casts Allen as the cultural villain in this story, implicit in his discussion is Frank Gehry’s elevated position within the power hierarchy of corporate wealth. Although stopping short of Fernández-Galiano’s exhortation to his fellow architects to step away from free-market temptations, the author still suggests that the starchitects should re-evaluate their role in the nurturing of a free-market economy, particularly in light of developments at Enron.

A significant element of this re-evaluation should also include a critical analysis of the packaging of the architect as an individual product available for purchase. In “Brand Aid; or, The Lexus and the Guggenheim (Further Tales of the Notorious B.I.G.ness),” Michael Sorkin’s attempt to amplify the alarm over the commodification of artistic space, Sorkin the architect manages to simultaneously implicate both Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas in the crime of turning the museum, as well as the museum’s designer, into a brand-name product. The deliberate practice of branding by Rem “is a sellout in architecture, reducing [architecture’s] meanings to mere advertising, a fine obliviousness to the larger social implications of architectural practice” (31). While architects can pretend they are simply “restyling” concepts of identity through the creation of recognizable brands, they are actually deploying the brand as a controlling mechanism, distracting our gaze from the real issues of power inequalities behind the spectacle. Sorkin’s criticism ultimately focuses on Rem’s own branded identity. The Dutch architect’s repeatedly successful product placement—employing himself rather than a building as the product—threatens to leach the substance out of architecture, leaving behind an hollow shell of representation in its place.

Is this substitution of image for substance or materiality a problem? Not according to Kevin Ervin Kelley, founding partner and principal of the Los Angeles/Charlotte firm of Shook Kelley. In his contribution to the debate, “Architecture for Sale(s): An Unabashed Apology,” Kelley demonstrates that he willingly pursues and even celebrates the replacement of building with image. Kelley views the architect’s job as producing something people want, not something they need. Or, to be more precise, the task at (his) hand is not even to create a desired object, but rather to manage the perception or the experience of the object. In Kelley’s description of the work produced by his firm, Shook Kelley, the designed space seems secondary to the image of the space being sold to the client (and re-sold to the client’s client, since Shook is designing grocery stores). Should Kelley, or the firm’s partners and principals, feel guilty about deploying their design skills to deliberately manipulate shoppers’ experiences, creating instances in which “the shopper’s fantasy of living better has become more important than the actual product”? (2) I suspect Fernández-Galiano, Sorkin and Frank would all answer that question in the affirmative.

However, Kelley is not alone in attaching increased value to the marketing of image. Michael Benedikt, Director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at University of Texas at Austin, follows a parallel line of reasoning in his essay, “Less for Less Yet: On Architecture’s Value(s) in the Marketplace.” Arguing that current design values are inadequate, Benedikt posits that we arrived at this moment of architectural rubbish through the failure of the architect to adequately valorize her or his work in a market economy. As he sees it, in a flourishing peace-time market economy, “People can get what they want; what they want depends on how successfully their needs and values are addressed by competing producers. With a modicum of prosperity, people have choices” (11). The trick, then, is to make people want good architecture. Unfortunately, architects have relinquished their role “in upholding standards and modes of discourses about design that ordinary people can understand and the produce buildings that people want to live and work in for reasons other than the fact that they are new” (11). Instead of complaining bitterly about the corrosion of design values in an era of global capitalism, architects should be seducing their clients, inculcating in them a desire to purchase not just new or fashionable architecture, but good architecture. Again, viewed from a post-Enron—not to mention post-Katrina—perspective, we might ask if Benedikt really intends that good architecture should only be made available to those with “a modicum of prosperity.” Is good design, however we want to define it, really to be withheld from those who cannot participate in a free market economy in a financially rewarding way?

This is not to say that all of the authors included in this volume follow Benedikt’s belief in the transparency of the market economy, or its necessity in the production of good architecture. In fact, many contributors criticize sharply the “selling out” of architecture to corporate interests (in addition to above-mentioned articles by Frank Thomas and Michael Sorkin, see both “Hyphenation Nation: Blurred Forms for a Blurred World” and “Inside the Blue Whale: A Day at the Bluewater Mall,” by Rick Poynor). However, even though the majority of authors protest the loss of design integrity, the erosion of artistic values, and the troubling connection between architectural production and corporate money, few seem to be willing or able to provide any means of ameliorating the problem. Poyner, for instance, editorializes nostalgically about his earlier attempts at resistance design, yet fails to offers any workable alternatives for today’s professional. Even Michael Sorkin’s concluding essay reads like a melancholic eulogy for the irrevocable loss of principled architecture. Where are the dreams of self-sufficiency and equitable designs so visible in his “eutopian” imagined cities? Is architainment really inevitable? Must we accept image and representation in place of substance? Is there no such thing as an activist architecture?

It is impossible to know if Saunders meant this book to be read as an architectural call to arms, even if that is the tone set in the introduction by Kenneth Frampton. Intentionally or not, the final impression left by Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture is one of looming crisis, not just for the architectural profession, but for the society out of which building practices develop and grow. It probably is not fair to wish that the contributors to this volume had provided solutions to the problems they so keenly identified. Perhaps the best for which we can hope is that this book encourages discussion of the pitfalls of the commodification of architecture not within the hallowed halls the major design firms, but in front of the workstations in first-year design studios. If the critics represented in this volume are unable to re-imbue a representation with meaning and materiality, perhaps it is time we turn to the next generation of architects to see what kind of world they would imagine for the rest of us.


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