As well as being the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) and many other things, Ole Bouman is contributing editor of the journal Volume , which is jointly produced by Archis Foundation , AMO (the research bureau of OMA) and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University (GSAPP ). He has been curator of a series of public events for the reconstruction of the public domain in cities plagued by violence such as Ramallah, Kabul, Beirut and Prishtina. Ole Bouman has been lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge MA.
by Orhan Ayyüce
Ole Bouman is co-author of the encyclopaedia The Invisible in Architecture (1994) and the manifestos RealSpace in QuickTimes (1996) and Architecture of Consequence (2010). He has curated exhibitions for the Milan Triennale, Manifesta 3, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. His articles have been published in The Independent , Artforum , De Gids , Domus , Harvard Design Review , El Croquis , Arquitectura & Viva , Proiekt Russia and elsewhere. He regularly lectures at universities and cultural institutions with an international reputation.
Ole Bouman and I have compiled this conversation over several weeks.
Orhan Ayyüce- A scenario: Many will describe the architecture's crises as if it is a software issue. For example: closed loop arguments about CAD drawing vs. charcoal drawings, form generating tasteful philosophical theories vs. the talented social theories, educated vs. uneducated, placement vs. replacement, excitement vs. boredom, etc...
The main issue is the growing obsolescence of ‘architecture’ as we know. Architecture no longer matches the current complexities of mass public, economics, politics, conflicts and power. It is increasingly complacent and heavily produced by upper class of the society, in the exaggerated sense of Ivy League schools, corporate paychecks and boutique offices.
It is an expensive product that can only survive by following the money.
In other words, architecture is not housing the large segment of everyday life on the ground. It is predictably occupied with spatially aristocratic, western and philosophical ways of feeding its own development.
Architecture is the do-gooder positivist party and a mouthpiece who speaks for the conservative liberalism.
The worst thing that could happen to architecture (as with any cultural endeavor) is that it would be too widely associated not with wealth, but with greed. It would then, for the majority of people, soon lose its legitimacy.
Ole Bouman- From your different observations I will focus on the growing obsolescence of the well-known dialectics through which we have understood architecture for so long: functional use of generic software vs. subtle craftsmanship, self-referential philosophy vs. social theory, educated vs. dumb. Their obsolescence rapidly becomes clear. I could add: context vs object, figure vs ground, analogue vs digital, architecture vs plain building. They were useful distinctions as long as both sides were serving clear values within a legitimate system: artistry to match human ingenuity, and a social impulse to serve human needs. Civilization can not dispense of either of them. However, if the elite does not take on its social responsibilities, than the elite is not an elite. If you give yourself a bonus for failure, the end is always near.
The worst thing that could happen to architecture (as with any cultural endeavor) is that it would be too widely associated not with wealth, but with greed. It would then, for the majority of people, soon lose its legitimacy. Greed is the obsession with wealth, so excessive it becomes obscene. Some architecture equally becomes obsessed with itself, which is not a good sign of health. People easily bash it by calling it architect’s architecture, or architecture as a collector’s item for vain clients.
The second part of your question is more dangerous: I read it as hinting at the risk of do-gooderism as a socially accepted costume for the same obsession. It is easy to identify this fake moralism if you start to notice major shifts in peoples’ position within the discipline. If someone made their career with disengaged postmodern theory or the production of iconic buildings for instance- doing little to situate creativity towards the common good, then a shift towards social responsibility or housing for the poor needs some additional scrutiny with respect to honesty. But if architecture needs to recalibrate its mission and discourse, then all talent is needed, even if it wakes up late.
OA- Even though most architecture is developed from functional programs of mechanical nature, traditional vocabulary and tone of its criticism often limited to sensory commentaries that demand so called cultural refinement and taste. For many, outside of that limited critique, architecture ceases to exist.
OB- Yes, very often architecture is measured just on how its looks. It is tolerated for its ornamental value. To check its performativity is too complicated for that; for that you need knowledge. To gain knowledge you need time. And to spend so much time you need dedication.
OA- What about the nature of popular architectural media? It is over decidedly consumer product friendly. The actual content of the featured story is hard to separate from adjacent advertisement page of the material manufacturer.
In that way, it goes as far as feeding and, in the same time, contaminating the architectural practice. Architects do submit to the media. That submission is usually very ‘buzz’ like.
What are your thoughts about architectural media, writing and the audience? What can be innovative in this area?
OB- Architecture media are of all kinds. As long as they are facilitating a market, they tend to turn into a commodity. If the media are giving the answers to what has been done (info updates), on how it is done (technical stories) or who did it (celebrity press), the media will move between trade and human interest. This is not particularly destructive to architecture, but is not productive either. It is a derivative, a secondary economy of first hand production. It capitalizes on the perceived greatness of architecture without adding much to that. I have always been fond of the question that as a sign of curiosity leaves all other questions far behind: why . The greatness of architecture needs a culture of speculation, reflexivity, good story telling. Architecture can not thrive without the continued probing of its promise.
I myself have always tried to associate architecture to the world of ideas, to cultural analysis, to historical backgrounds, to psychological set ups, to technological revolutions, to social tendencies, to economical models. Currently, by publishing a book on Architecture of Consequence, I try to reconnect architecture to the burning issues of our time and give it back its tremendous relevance that large parts of society denies it. Architecture, the lucid organization of space, is the pinnacle of human inventivity. It deserves our best minds.
OA- Speaking of the best minds.., let's say I am looking at the published photographs of a new project (science fictionally named Happiness (Saadiyat) Island... A post medieval ultra-hyper-culture-city, colonized by American and European art dealers.
In this format, not so sustainable in a socio-economic and psychological sense, yet, Saadiyat Island is designed by leading architects with medals. Can you take Saadiyat Island and dissect it for us? What is it?
Happiness Island is the perfect example of that this kind of urbanism, that starts with a story or an image, and seduces people and capital to be spent on it. An architecture not consolidating reality, but creating one.
OB- It is easy to dissect it. More difficult to comprehend it. I just wrote a piece about it. It will be out this spring. It is not just about the island, but about the current practice of “urbanism by speech” to which it belongs. Happiness Island is the perfect example of that this kind of urbanism, that starts with a story or an image, and seduces people and capital to be spent on it. An architecture not consolidating reality, but creating one. For some it is a fake operation of epic proportions. I myself describe it as the ultimate social historical gamble. Something that may go terribly wrong, but also something that may rescue current prosperity from almost a certain collapse. We can not judge it from a general perspective of the discipline. We need to understand it from its regional perspective to which global players are lured in.
OA- The Louvre and Guggenheim. The Museums, a biennale ‘palace’ and a performance art swoop, the speculative unilateral culture gentrification and marketing, I am now looking at the renderings of the gamblers...
I guess this might be a question on the urban branding stamp and putting the city dweller in the mercy of falsely benevolent powerful few. Should these few people allowed to define and parcel culture in a metropolitan scale?
OB- With gamble I do not mean sheer speculation of the Ponzi kind. I mean that at some historical moments urban decency is not enough to move forward. The extremely rapid urbanism in the Gulf for me is not the ultimate gentrification, but the only possible way to redeem that region from its geography. Apparently for whatever it takes. Do you understand what this means? This has never been done before in history. If this succeeds the results will be disastrous for the so called west. It will start to realize that with all its thirst for oil, it has funded its own new competitors on the world stage. But if it fails, the accumulated fossil wealth of millions of years will be wasted on a fata morgana in only a few decades.
OA- A theoretical question on the meaning of architecture: Artists took it fairly bravely when it was said "painting is dead" in the past and were able to move on.
What if somebody said "architecture is dead?"
OB- Architecture as our capacity to perfect shelter is never dead as long as we have a body in need of it.
Architecture as our capacity to organize space wisely is not dead as long as we do something with that body. But yes, architecture as the art of expressing ourselves in built form may be comatose for a while, since now higher stakes are to be met.
Architecture has no successor. If architecture is dead, we are dead. It is indispensable. Architecture is much more resilient than other arts, because it serves all levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Much more than painting which in many ways, has been succeeded by new means of representation. Architecture has no successor. If architecture is dead, we are dead. It is indispensable. The issue is not dead or alive, but does it live up to the expectations of today. Is architecture challenging enough to attract our best minds?
OA- Ordos, Mongolia. The blooming desert of the metrosexual horsemen’s 9000 square foot sex pads. Are these served as innovative solutions, or, as you described above, a greedy venture model? Majority people in architecture love it. It's buzz press. Ordos event was curated by leading architects. They even flew the contestants there with tape measures and digital cameras to see and record the site. It was like a TV reality show. Though, the Mongols themselves disappeared from their land. Can we call this architectural disconnect? Did you say architecture is in coma?
OB- I didn’t say architecture is in coma. Architecture as a form of self expression might be, which is a specific interpretation of what the essential value of architecture can be, an interpretation on which architecture based its social respectability for such a long time. If we make this diagnosis, for many it could be very confrontational. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we are declaring architecture out of order altogether. On the contrary, we need architecture for more than self expression. Beyond extreme individualism, we have to rely on architecture more. To me, architecture, by definition, reflects the adventures of modernity. This will continue. What is happening at the moment is the detachment of modernity from what has been its driver for 500 years: individualism. It also is detaching itself from its arena for the last 500 years: geography. It is out of the question that architecture as the encounter between an individual architect and a place to build, will be left untouched by this paradigm shift.
Of course you can understand examples like Dubai or Ordos as the last stages of a disciplinary solipsism and hubris. But what interests me is how they can be interpreted as examples of a modernity that has entirely lost its connection to geography.
There is, of course, a more general motive that needs to be taken into account. Think of Knossos, Chartres, Versailles, Magnitogorsk. Despite a deep sense of responsibility to people’s needs, you can not deny humanity’s quest for grandeur. We cannot do without Icarus. The goal is not to get rid of Icarus, the goal is to have him fly in the right direction.
OA- I quote from you:
“Architecture of Consequence proves that any notion that architecture should be an “expression of its time,” or should do no more than express the vanity of its commissioners, pales into insignificance when compared to its tremendous potential for resolving urgent societal problems.”
This kind of brings some of the things we so far talked about to a more focused area.
Can you now talk about your recent book, Architecture of Consequence ? Concerning the architecture discipline, are we in for, or ready for a game change? Is transition happening and how and where? Do you have some case studies?
OB- Architecture of Consequence is about the transition architecture can make to move from image to performance. Of course we have seen this kind of shift before. Perhaps it is the key antagonism that energizes architecture in modern times. Form versus function - oh no, not again. However, this time the antagonism can not be resolved at the level of the building, by choosing to be a formalist rather than functionalist or vice versa. Or to focus on facade over groundplan etc. We already discussed how these oppositions have lost their appeal. The urgencies architecture needs to meet today are simply too big for that. And the time pressure to resolve those urgencies is simply too great to leave it to personal choice. This time it is not about a personal choice of attittude, it is about an existential choice for mankind.
... we are increasingly coming to realize that for far too long we have been privatizing the gains and socializing the losses, resulting in an intense crisis of the economic system. It has become common knowledge that humanity faces enormous challenges that, for many or for all, have become existential threats. 1) food chains are undermined, 2) public health is at risk, 3) energy is running out, 4) space to live is becoming cramped at many points, 5) the valuable time of our lives is slipping away, 6) social cohesion is in decline, and finally, 7) we are increasingly coming to realize that for far too long we have been privatizing the gains and socializing the losses, resulting in an intense crisis of the economic system. We can not deny these realities, nor avoiding coping with them.
And we need all the help we can get. In meeting these challenges no creative discipline, creative individual, or creative country can remain passive. And architecture has an even a more direct role to play. Since all these issues have strong spatial implications, architecture has a special obligation to help resolve them. There is a whole set of strategies and techniques to think about, all based on a strong will to resolve rather than to express:
Reuse materials, energy, old buildings; densify and merge different programs, build flexibly and allow time to exert its influence by incorporating maintenance in the design concept; incorporate the public domain in urban planning, scout for the unexpected building sites on water, under ground, on the roofs; make use of existing forces on the ground and capitalize on their energies, combine tasks that belong to different domains and design comprehensive solutions that unify them. There is an entirely new practice in the making. All these techniques do not come to the forefront when your building wants to say “I am a monument”. But they do when your motto is “we are an environment”.
This the mindset of the shareware generation. To share space, time, services, materials, energy, public space and wealth. And hey, I’m not talking about socialism here - I’m talking about survival.
OA- Thank you. If I may add, ‘survival’ as a concept is often understood as a bitter pill. It is made to translate as an inferior product.
Maybe we re-assign its meaning into architecture as a design necessity, something better in practice, in its spatial manifestation and as better mental and physical health, improving the economic, social and design value of architecture, sort of like easy ‘ideology’ for architects, for everybody.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License .
/Creative Commons License