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Murray Fraser, in ‘Beyond Koolhaas’ posits that there is a need for architects to come up with a novel type of critical architecture. This new kind of critical architecture should be able to rejuvenate the level of critique amongst architects especially in developed Western countries. Fraser argues that the architectural discourse has arrived at a critical moment whereby architects need to discover a new approach that is capable of being adapted in other parts of the globe where opportunities of speculating on alternative social and economic realities using architecture are still in their preliminary stages (Rendell, 2007).
Fraser critiques the critical architecture adopted by Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi. He argues that the two architects have failed in their approach that criticizes the dominant economic and social order, although their ideas are framed in an approach that, otherwise, accepts, and operates inside the realities of capitalist development. Fraser points out that this critical approach should be replaced by a model of Peter Barber who is a crusader of the division between classes and social groups in his native country (Rendell, 2007). Fraser also adds that the new critical architecture should be able to address such issues as tackled by Barber as urban spaces.
The Death of Post-Critical Architecture
Fraser’s argument centres on critical architecture. As such, before analysing his text, it is important to understand what the term implies. Architecture is a subject that entails other disciplines such as history, criticism and design, as well as urban, technological and professional studies (Rendell, 2007). Therefore, this discipline comprises of knowledge, understanding and means of operation exclusive to a number of disciplines that range from the sciences through to the arts and humanities. As such, viewed from this perspective, architecture is a multidisciplinary subject with the ability of operating in an interdisciplinary manner. Critical architecture makes clear that design is a mode of enquiry that is able to generate novel means of knowing and understanding the world through creative processes and the production of artefacts, but also that designers are capable of offering critiques of their own mode of practice, both self reflective and politicised. Although criticism works trough the medium of writing, it can also work through other media (Rendell, 2007). Concerning post-criticism, criticism and design can work together to unveil the social, cultural and ethical concerns at the middle of contemporary aesthetic and spatial practice and experience today. As such, in a world that is characterized by an oppressive corporate and imperialistic capitalism, there is an urgent need of critical architecture.
Fraser argues that post-critical stance has ended since its advocates have long abandoned it. As a result, he posits that weaknesses of these models of critical-architecture have begun to surface. The writer cites two prominent figures of the earlier generation of critical-architects, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi. Fraser adds that Koolhaas and Tschumi developed their critical position as a response to the intellectual challenge posed by Manfredo Tafuri to fellow architects in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Tafuri, 1976). Tafuri, a renowned Italian Marxist critic and historian, had questioned the practicability of the use of architectural design in ameliorating the living conditions of ordinary citizens while the exploitative capitalist system persisted. Fraser adds Tafuri revealed the delusions of the pioneers of modernism in the interwar era who held that they could use the resources of industrial capitalism towards a common social goal (Tafuri, 1976).
Tafuri also pointed out to the futility of the efforts of the Welfare State Architects in the period following the Second World War. He noted that the efforts of these architects in European countries were only adding to the already miserable state of the lives of the common working class citizens. The dilemma of the impracticability of architecture as a tool for improving the living conditions of common citizens made Tafuri retreat into a state of ‘pure’ criticism. His role was to unveil ideological falsehoods of those architects who thought they could ameliorate the lives of the ordinary people through their designs (Tafuri, 1976).
Tafuri’s pure criticism approach agitated a number of architects who were opposed to the capitalist system, but held that they could still use it to improve the living conditions of ordinary people. This is what prompted Koolhaas and Tschumi who reacted against Tafuri’s approach by stating that their architecture entailed ideas that criticised the dominant social and economic order. However, unlike Tafuri, Koolhaas and Tschumi admitted that their critical approach was framed in a way that accepted and operated within the realities of capitalist development. Indeed, Tschumi admitted that he used the judo tactic of judo, which entailed using the opponent’s force to defeat it, and changing it to something different (Tschumi, 1995).
Fraser questions the practicability of Tschumi’s approach by stating that even the cunning judo artist can end up being defeated in a battle. Therefore, he implies that the efforts of Tschumi to use capitalist-accepted ideas in his fight against the dominant economic and social order are tantamount in fighting a losing battle. However, as the 1980s ended, Tschumi was forced to resign and adopt a counter-position, hence; losing the initial momentum that he had set his critical approach (Tschumi, 1995).
Unlike Tschumi, Fraser argues that Koolhaas architectural criticism had a bigger scope. Koolhaas attacked the entire Western architecture by use of the rising realties of globalizations as his weapon of attack. Koolhaas ridiculed the sluggishness of Western architects in adapting their thoughts and modes of practice to befit the new global conditions. This line of attack seemed successful at first. However, Koolhaas’ iitial enthusiasm in his attack has since declined following a number of direct hits with Delirious New York. This took place in the 1970s when Koolhaas inaugurated his project on the contemporary city by focusing on Manhattan. Koolhaas unconsciously claims that the forces that produce Manhattan become the paradigm for the development of the contemporary metropolis, beyond, and besides modernism. Koolhaas calls upon these forces to rejuvenate the production of architecture able to cope with the contemporary city. Although Koolhaas writes for Manhattan, his manifesto is for the present-day metropolis (Tschumi, 1994).
Koolhaas believes the true nature of Manhattan to be delirious. Etymologically, the delirious is that which veers away from the directness of the ridge between furrows. According to Koolhaas, the multiplicity of New York’s blue print derails from the projected a priori straightness of the lira and can only be described and elucidated by an irrational activity. Nonetheless, this derangement is in tandem with the rules and regulations of the city’s planned linearity. This implies that the architectural delirium occurs within the control of the numerous techniques of environmental formation that are external to the architectural discourse (Koolhaas, 1997).
Fraser notes that following Koolhaas’ decline in his critical theoretical writings, the architect has been able to pay more attention on his architectural designs, which, according to observers have improved in quality. Despite this improving in the quality of the designs, Koolhaas’ designs seem not to have any social critical impact (Rendell, 2007). Fraser cites two of Koolhaas’ designs: Prada stores in Soho in Manhattan and Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Fraser argues that the two designs may contain a lot of space that may have no commercial value. However, Fraser adds that this superfluous space may not be intended to create free public promenade since the conspicuous waste is a feature that reinforces the Prada brand. Fraser also acknowledges Koolhaas’ design of Chinese Central TV headquarters. Fraser observes that the design entails a public right of the way that coils through its knobby shape (Rendell, 2007).
However, Fraser is quick to state that this design does not criticize the notorious secrecy and tyranny of that state-controlled institution. Fraser asserts that the design is a symbol of critique, but not a form of critical architecture. Following the decline of the critical approach once adopted by the two architects, Fraser argues that the critical discourse, whose pioneers were Tschumi and Koolhaas, has had to fade away making it dissolute and lacking direction. Fraser, however, acknowledges the works of these two architects was instrumental in reacting against the banal complacency of Western State modernism. Nevertheless, their approach has had to live with the reality of the impracticability of transforming the dominant economic forces of capitalism. Fraser admits that the capitalist economic system is, indeed, oppressing many people around the world, but employing a cynical worldview, cannot solve anything (Fraser, 2005).
In order to show the demise of the post-critical stance taken by Koolhaas and Tschumi, Fraser cites two events that took place in the recent world of architecture. One of them is the participation of Koolhaas in the award ceremony of Royal Institute of British Architects in which he was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in February 2004. The other one is the participation of Tschumi in a panel that Fraser considers misguided in February 2006. The participation of two architects in the named events clearly demonstrates that they are no longer possess the same spirit of critical architecture as they did in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s (Rendell, 2007). Instead, Fraser sees the two architects as only superstars in the field, and unsuitable for leading the way in the milieu of critical architecture.
Thinking outside Koolhaas
Following the end of the post-critical stance once initiated by Tschumi and Koolhaas, Fraser believes that a more useful critical practice in architecture can be found in the works of such architects as Peter Barber and in such practices as evident in Rural Studio. Fraser goes into detail in analyzing Barber’s career as an architect given his emerging popularity in the media. The design that capitulated Barber to the current fame is the Villa Anbar in Saudi Arabia, which was designed in the early 1990s. Barber designed the building to be typical of the gender divisions of female and male spaces, which are characteristic of the Islamic culture Studiohousedesign.com, 2012). However, the client urged Barber to cut a slot into the way demarcating the two gendered zones. Apparently, this caused protests among the men who resided in the villa, and Barber was requested to close it using a shutter, which he did, but intentionally had the handle being on the women’s side, hence, able to control the opening and closing of the shutter (Barber, 1996).
Villa Anbar, Dammatan, design by Peter Barber
Image courtesy of studiohousedesign.com. Retrieved from http://www.studiohousedesign.com/villa-anbar-peter-barber-architect/
Barber’s career in Britain has been dedicated to the relationship between the private domestic environments and the public urban spaces lying outside. This is an issue that is used to divide classes and social groups in England. Barber’s challenges the re-establishment of s sense of street culture within architectural discourse, as well as the associated goal of increased housing density, are his objectives (Rendell, 2007). Contrary to Koolhaas and Tschumi, Barber is not merely critical, but also furious with the way society is being controlled, as well as how the consequential design of cities. Therefore, Barber champions dense and vibrant urban spaces. He advocates the features of pedestrian movement and social geniality that were advocated years ago by architects such as Jane Jacobs and Walter Benjamin. Since there is no alternativve solution in the near future, Barber believes that the design of the street as a spatial movement device is the only remedy to allow social mixing.
Walter Benjamin once attacked the urban designs by architects who are controlled by the business and activity of the cities. By adopting the critical approach, Barber consciously questions the conservative or radical nature of the shared public street (Walter, 1996). Barber’s position is a radical one as it embraces the consistent human need across the ages to participate daily in a lively and shared urban environment. Fraser holds that human beings are social beings; hence, there is no extent of privatisation of wealth can do away with the basic need for visual and physical relations amongst human beings.
Barber’s Matching of Architectural Critical Theory with Designs
Barber matches his critical theory with his scheme by designing a series of high density, low rise housing projects organized around re-stitching the existing street pattern in areas where this sense of historical spatial continuity has been eroded, through either post-war planning, or even the inroads of vehicles. Barber first worked on several small schemes that inculcated the idea of high-density low-rise buildings in Hackney (Rendell, 2007). Later, he won a competition that was run by a housing association to design a prototypical urban centre for the future. This resulted to the Donnybrook Estate in Bow. Although the scheme is already receiving a number of awards, as well as attracting critical acclaim, other architects are bitterly attacking it.
Barber’s scheme comprises of 42 houses and apartments, with a density of 111 dwellings in every hectare (Rendell, 2007). This represents four times the recommended density of the conventional garden city. The scheme is in tandem with Barber’s concept of social mixing because the dwelling comprises of houses for both selling and renting. Indeed, when his client once wanted the two sets of houses to be separated, Barber almost left the design. Barber’s design also bestows people with freedom of designing buildings that suit them instead of having designs handed to them from whatever authorities. For instance, in Donnybrook estate, the occupants of the first floor of maisonettes have the freedom of infilling and protecting the open courtyards from weather. Further, Barber’s scheme goes against the British tradition of imitating the surrounding designs (Rendell, 2007).
The scheme is located on a prominent corner location in the East End of London. The aim of this scheme is to offer lively and colourful public space that is bordered by a hard edge of buildings. The starting point of this scheme is urban. At the centre of the scheme, is the new street running north south across the location allowing the houses to be accessible from both sides, as well as providing a pedestrian that links the adjacent streets. The street has an intimate scale with a width of seven metres and bordered on both sides by half storey high buildings. The facades of the buildings are animated by balconies, bay windows, and many front doors. These create private spaces that hang over and overlap street. Barber enhances the chance of people meeting by creating deckchairs and colourful plants (Peterbarberarchiects.com, 2012).
Where the buildings meet Old Ford Road, they rise to four storeys. Barber then introduces commercial purposes for building such as a shop, a cafe, and even a community centre. On the east side of the location of the scheme, a stylish residential terrace follows the far-reaching curve of Parnell Road. Barber explains that every typical double unit in the scheme has a two-bed roomed maisonette at upper ground, as well as the first floor. The lower ground floor houses a two-bed roomed flat. Barber believes that this type of configurations ensures the attainment of ultra-high densities of more than 500 habitable rooms in every hectare (Peterbarberarchiects.com, 2012).
Fraser argues that Barber’s mission in the milieu of critical architecture is not that of a ‘fifth columnist’ such as was the case with Koolhaas and Tschumi. Instead, the author argues that Barber’s critical tactic entails addressing social problems directly without any mark of pessimism, and with totally no intentions of irony of even of playing up to the fashion brigade. Fraser holds that architecture for Barber is supremely serious business, and he considers the role of an architect as being more of public intellect who is bestowed with the responsibility of improving the living conditions of citizens through urban improvements (Rendell, 2007).
Fraser asserts that criticality does not originate from any intrinsic condition of architecture, which, by all means is inclined to support the prevailing power structures. Instead, Fraser believes that critically emerges from the persistence of social inequality, and warranted that the future will never be utopian; the critical function of architecture must always be sustained and rejuvenated as a part of architectural practice (Rendell, 2007). As such, Fraser believes that the question should not be on the need for critical architecture, but on the means of framing it. He urges that there should be a rejuvenated sense of the significance of critical architecture in which architects should no longer adhere to the proud pioneers of early modernism, nor the equivocal and cynical later adherents.
In conclusion, Fraser asserts the need for a critical architecture that goes beyond mere criticism to one that addresses the social needs of ordinary people. He emphasizes the need for adopting a critical approach like that of Peter Barber. Barber’s architecture design is driven by an optimistic, yet realistic, perception of society. His architecture is based on the concept of ‘street’, and is designed to bring people together whereby occupants are highly visible to one another, and where there is a high chance of meeting.
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