Sunday, May 2, 2010


Modern society has brought its urbanites economic independence from their parents; medical security against disease and surety of income in one’s old age. Working women, equal opportunities and fast track professions have made the traditional family redundant in many societies, and in a large segment amongst India’s young urban population.. The glue that used to hold society in place has melted! Maybe stickier glue has come in its place?

Architecture is as much an engine of this change, as it is a result of this phenomenal transformation in our cities. Indian architects are quick to implement the new world order, eager to appear creative and different, by copying the banal and the mundane. The cell phone has replaced physical neighborhoods and the Internet is the street corner gossip! The blast of media information has made news boring, and just to catch attention one has to yell ever louder to turn a head. The design profession is likewise promoting sensationalism and “the spectacular,” rather than good urban form and human values. True, this trend represents only a fraction of Indian society, but a majority of the new built form in the metros has turned its face from community building. Moreover, willy-nilly this model is the road we are pursuing in every aspect of daily life. It is the reality of the urban niche that is in the limelight, growing day by day.

City form has responded with a myriad of branded eateries that are replacing kitchens; multiplexes, lounges, bars and discos that are replacing living rooms; beauty parlors and spas that are replacing our bathrooms and, practically all that is left of the traditional home is the bed room! Every building wants to spread over its own full city block; each plot is walled-in and guarded; gyms and health clubs are replacing neighborhood play areas; buildings are becoming monumental and impersonal, with harlequin facades. The roads are widening, sidewalks and cycle paths are shrinking, and the scale of cities is morphing from human to the machine in motion. More is more, and big is beautiful in the new city!

People whose parents survived in comfortable simplicity on Rupees fifteen thousand a month, feel a pinch in their “life style” earning anything under sixty thousand a month! They covet and protect every Rupee, counting up who pays what share on each outing. Habitat is no longer a home; it is a “pad.” Protecting one’s wealth from parasites, opportunistic relatives and hangers-on is a matter of daily management. The accepted dependents of the house are cell phones and credit cards that eat up every paisa unnoticed!

As the city, its architecture, and urban society all morph into a bland chess board of stand alone people and facades; which are deposited in glass walled blocks with no courtyards or street life; so too does the individual psyche, the persona and the personality transform. People don’t like people any more! People love themselves. The word “communities” is becoming as archaic as typewriters. “Neighbor” is a bad word! Everyone is worried that everyone else wants their money, and every one else does want their money!

Style, facades (personal as well as architectural), packaging, attention getting stunts, fashion, anal retentive behavior and spectacularism are all part of the NEW LIFE that is a product of the new economy, new society and the new urbanism. Bland and ugly buildings merely mirror the people who live inside of them. In the “me, my, mine culture” which is emerging the only true friend is one’s loyal pet dog.

Europe, which is six decades ahead of us in the search for self, has invented the “single person family” as a demographic profile. It is the self fulfilled prophesy of the paranoid urbanite who fears that human beings are predators and scroungers. Moreover, each average person imagines their life partner to be incredible: great looking, super intelligent, professional, high earning and possibly even loving. Thumbing through Page Three they think Wow, Fantastic, First Class Act, Spectacular or How Clever! The average person wants to settle for nothing less than the spectacular, who they know they will never meet, and that the attraction will not be mutual even if they ever do. But the media and the taste makers tell them not to settle for less! So they cruise the streets with pet dogs in toe, glancing here and there for companionship.

In the single person family what one is talking about is more important than who one is talking to. If your topic is not about the spectacular, your victim will fain busy and hang up! Family, close friends, and even lovers, are passé! That people are talking about you, good or bad, is more important than having a civilized conversation over a night cap. The weather and politics are no longer topics of discussion; sensationalism is the topic of catchy dialogue: Paris Hilton, a terrorist attack, the Birds’ Nest, or upside-down buildings! Where architects used to talk about community, engendering interaction between people and neighborhoods, they speak of new visual tricks, driven by computer graphics! Where people used to discuss ideas they now talk about other people, software and objects. There is no time for quiet times at home! Even sex can be purchased off-the-shelf, or experienced in thirty second trysts in aircraft toilets 35,000 feet above sea level, but not with a long term partner at home. The redefined human being is labeled a metrosexual. Yet at the end of the day the contemporary single person family needs companionship, without the hassles of people and community. Yet the single person family still wants something warm, with loving eyes, waiting at the door to greet them when they return home after a long day!

According to recent census data on dogs in modern societies, the canine creature is on the rise. Its ascendance shadows the rise of single person families! There are as many dogs in Amsterdam as there are people. This is all very important to us creatures who imagine ourselves as architects, as we are willy-nilly creating cities that not only respond to, but simultaneously catalyze the new social structure, culture and demography. Public screaming, posing, posturing and yelling are somehow the natural corollary to life alone with a dog! Just look at Europe, its new architecture, and its love affair with beasts!

Modern architecture, the kind of modernism that Josep Lluis Sert practiced and wrote about, was focused on resolving the conundrums of urbanism and our human condition in the bee hives we call cities. Modernists dealt with urbanism, the aesthetics of new materials, and a rejection of effete styles and fads. Heading the International Modern Architecture Congress (CIAM), Sert incorporated the Team Ten revolt within the movement, and then founded the first Urban Design course [at Harvard], which changed the way designers thought about built form and community. Le Corbusier was equally concerned with issues of humanity in transitional societies, and Wright championed craftsmanship and integration with context. Aldo van Eyck knew that “place was the realm of the inbetween” and he created 860 small play parks almost out of thin air. All abhorred effetism!

As the modernists searched for human scale and social reality, the theorists were flip flopping with new ideas and new heroes! Instead of evolving from a platform of ideas, a kind of incestuous love affair emerged between designers, magazines and architectural critics. Postmodernist theories in architecture attempted to piggy-back on French philosophy and the literary criticism of the late 1960’s. Semantic Analysis, Structuralism, and Deconstruction that had come and gone in the arts in the early Twentieth Century, decades before “liberal humanism” was debunked by French theorists, re-emerged as clichés of the effete elite! Philosophical and literary Postmodernism really shares nothing with architectural Postmodernism. Postmodernism in architecture seems to be some kind of neo-capitalist Employment Guarantee Scheme for a clique of academic theorists, journalists and designers, rather than a guiding criticism of design, leading to a better future. The prime beneficiaries have been the writers, publishers, magazines, media, and a few grandstand architects who vomit out the spectacular at the cost of good community building principles and practices. Honest expression of structure and materials has been labeled as passé.

Just as the “Chicago School” of architecture met sudden death with the Chicago International Exhibition in 1893, modern architecture wilted to the blow of a few humongous projects in the 1970’s and 80’s. Effete though spectacular architecture caught the public imagination. Giedion cites America’s cultural inferiority complex as the reason that effetism triumphed at the close of the Nineteenth Century, stating “it was to France that the builders of the (1893) fair turned for their search for beauty… which gave the French academicians a dominating role at this Chicago fair.” And again the world of architecture looked to France for intellectual reasoning in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Again, it is a sense of inferiority that leads to bombastic exhibitionism and narcissistic isolationism. The terrorism of the avant-garde has invaded the half awake mind, the fear of being correct; of not displaying one’s stupidity, has made us stupid. The only creatures we dare talk to without recrimination are dogs! In fact within totalitarian regimes where people snitch upon each other’s wrongness and wield “politically correct” thinking as a threat, pets are the safest bet for a trusted friend. So aware were the Soviets of this human weakness, that when they invaded Prague in 1968, their first act of state terrorism was canine genocide; the killing of all the city’s dogs within the first week of occupation!

Lacking any complex order to sustain thought, buildings catalyze us to ask questions about the intellectual context, that is abstract analytical context, rather than content and the actual setting. A theory is the idea behind it, rather than the physical and social context! Some theory about the building has to be explained to justify its existence. Success is in evoking questions: “what is the reason for all of this?” Yet, this is not a reasonable question in our postmodernist times wherein it is the institution of the media, the galleries and the critics who have declared a mound of nothing to be “Architecture”! Postmodernists would like for us to ask questions about the justifying ideas that surround iconic architectural monuments. The buildings do not contain their putative poetry or beauty. You have to think over it and figure it out, and probably read several books on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to fit things in! Like Duchamp’s famous URINAL, or Gehry’s Fish, these monumental clever buildings test our patience and intellectual skills. As Butler analyses, “calling into question”, or “making the viewer guilty or disturbed” seems to be a common element amongst the spectacular buildings being created. There is a neo-Marxist tint to it all as it makes everything from personal relations to buildings into political constructions and challenges. On the other hand the stunts created are to be consumed rather than used! A fire station can be turned into a profit centre “museum” harvesting income from visitor tickets. A project that is five times over the budget can be justified on the grounds that it was paid for through the entry fees of ogling tourists in the first year! The Wal-Mart business model has become the justification for art! Mercantilism justifies the tyranny of the spectacular.

According to some critics, contemporary society is immersed in a special situation where ironically in the new information society ideas and information are “suspect” of being the manipulative image-making of those in control, rather than the advancement of knowledge (Butler). Frederic Jameson sees much built environment as “a mutation into a postmodernist hyperspace which transcends the capacities of the human mind to locate itself, to find its own position in the mappable world, and this milling confusion is a dilemma, a symbol and analogue of the incapacity of our minds to map the great global multinational and unfocused communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.”

But yes, we like to talk about the SPACTACULAR and about things “new”; we write about style, about fashion and about fleeting things that are here today and gone tomorrow. Cute and clever designs rule over context, community and the reality of materials. The victims are the people who live in little repetitive boxes and are told spectacular sculpture is their compensation. They are told good architecture is a stunt of monumental construction, which massacres anything inside of it, all in the name of a vague concept of art, with a little French philosophy thrown in for good taste.

It seems architectural critics swallowed their own propaganda about “modernism” and began to believe that “modern architecture” was all about “isms”, great men, sculptural buildings and icons! In fact it was exactly the other way around! The Postmodern era we are living in, is in fact a form of pre-modern effetism, which the early modernists raved against! This is the same effetism which killed the Chicago School at the close of the Nineteenth Century, opening the door once more for the make believe of the spectacular.

The city make-over of recent decades is just cold facades; inhuman objects; machine scale monumentalism; stunts and spectacular structures and materials. Like the fashion ramp, our cities are getting cluttered with mimics of the Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the Valencia City of Arts and Sciences, China’s CCTV Tower, the Vitra Fire Station, and Amsterdam’s Nemo. These are the scraps thrown out to the public for visual consumption! Museums have become the opiates of the masses! The urban landscape dies when the malls close, the lights go off and the pizzazz dims into darkness. Like the spectacular, anal retentive buildings all alone in their own little city blocks, the city dwellers all go home to their little boxes to feed canned food to their cats and dogs, with whom they cuddle up and go to sleep! This seems to be the India of our dreams!

Butler, Christopher: Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002), pp 2.
CIAM: Can Our Cities Survive? (Harvard, 1942).
Derrida, Jacques: Acts of Literature (Routlege, 1992).
Foucault, Michel: The Order of Things (Tavistock, 1970).
Jameson, Frederic: Post Modernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Verso, 1991), pp. 42.
Giedion, Siegfried: Space, Time and Architecture (Harvard, 1959) pp. 393.
Said, Edward: Orientalism (Harmonsworth, 1985).

03 11 08 ccb : all rights retained by the author.

*Christopher Charles Benninger is an urbanist practicing architecture out of studios in Pune, India and Thimphu, Bhutan. He has won the Designer of the Year, Golden Architect and Great Masters’ Awards in India, and was A+D’s first recipient of their Recognition in Excellence in Design Award for Architecture. In the year 2000 he won the American Institute of Architects (Business Week/Architectural Record) Award for the United World College near Pune.


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