15 November 2008

Design Museum: Richard Rogers exhibition

A couple of themes struck me about the Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum a few months back - absence and the nature of the architectural model; and microflats and confined urban living. The latter will be another post, something to discuss in relation to my own 250 sq ft dwelling. So here I will talk about:


I've mentioned the dissertation I wrote on the philosophy of dust - how, if you think about it far too much, dust is this really weird force in the domestic. Dust holds a mirror up to human dwelling, showing us back to ourselves as alien. Derrida was an influence here, offering ideas of absent presence and spectrality. And it's those sort of questions I want to ask about the architectural models displayed. What isn't there, and how is this a problem for architecture?

The idea came to mind when I was looking at this perspex-built model, and realised that there wasn't a speck of dust on it. Helen Lloyd at the National Trust has done a lot of research on visitor numbers, the dust they produce, and what this means for their conservation work. The Design Museum hae to be cleaning like maniacs to keep these models pristine (wonder if they pay living wage?). So what does this mean symbolically? It is an erasure of the traces left by people and time, when people-over-time equals life. It is a desire to elevate these models into the Ideal, to proclaim their forms as absolute truths like Platonic solids. It's a great big denial and repression of materiality, and when the practical outcome of the architectural design process is building stuff for embodied use, that's a fucking problem.

This is the big objection that, coming from a social sciences perspective, I have with architecture. It's not about fucking form. The arrangement of pretty shapes and lighting in space (whether in the model or the actual construction) is... method, means to an end. What actually matters is the effects of these forms: environmental impacts, the responses and feelings that buildings elicit from people, the social interactions they enable or proscribe. But the architectural model stops half way through that process, reifying what's secondary to built space (i.e. form) to the sole signifier. It's exactly a monumental arrogance on the behalf of the architect, this desire to deny the fact that every single person's use of the building is a form of interpretation and thus authorship, and to claim this creative generation for themselves alone.

To be sure, I know that architecture students are now trained to think seriously about inhabitation and use and radical architecture - and that's great. Sometimes the results aren't so abstract as to be incomprehensible and useless: even better! But these traditional models ignore all of that, and by being shown in this museum they're being called definitive architecture. NO.

This is a model of the Millennium Dome. What does it say? Everything it tells us is in the absences. The failure of the Dome project was that it was planned as a model (and reconstructed at 100x the scale as the same); that its contents went in because they seemed educational and a good idea in theory, and theory only. The model is white and sterile; the Dome was never planned as living breathing processual space, somewhere that could encourage culture rather than just displaying it dead and fixed. Was its handling of multiculturalism and Britain's hybrid and colonial history also pristinely white in the sense of racially normative? Sure there was PC, but that's not real inclusion. Planned as an unpeopled model, the only participation the Dome allowed was consumption, the only way we could express what we thought of the place was by where we chose to queue. And then they put this model in a museum like it is a good thing?

I want to look for people who are modelling and planning architecture in other ways than these perspex and plastic tombs, ways that bring what matters about the discipline (that is, staging social life) in from the beginning. Suggest things to me...

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