The book The Architecture of Failure (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012) written by Douglas Murphy is a reading of architecture history from Crystal Palace (1851) to our contemporary ‘parametricism’ through a very corrosive filter as the title could suggest. However, what this same title fails to describe is what is being really criticized by D.Murphy between his lines, not so much the architecture that creates a new paradigm by its very existence and narrative, but rather the movement that emerges consecutively to the birth of this new model. The first part of the book is dedicated to the second part of the 19th century’s reign of iron and glass engaged in a technological progressism along the various spectacular World Exhibitions hosted in Europe. He then skip the first part of the 20th century, probably acknowledging the multitude of discourses critical of modernism already existing, and write our contemporary architectural history starting from the 1960s and what he calls ‘solutionism’.
Although critical of the manifesto architecture that the Pompidou Center embodied, he is more waspish towards the movement that followed its creation including one of its architect, Richard Rogers, and his alter-ego, Norman Foster as their own self-caricature that offered a new architectural embodiment for capitalism when it was originally though in opposition of it:
The multitudes of spindly atria and oxidized curtain wall of the last generation of office blocks built all over the world are very much the children of Foster and Rogers, as are the endless sterilizations of once interesting spaces in the name of regeneration. The high-tech spaces we walk through now are fit only for the smiling ghosts of computer visualizations, a purgatory of ‘aspirational but accessible’ restaurants and bars, ‘media-walls’ and ‘public art’ of unremitting dreariness. Where socialists and radicals could once read within the language of explicit engineering signs of redemption or change, the post High-Tech architecture in our cities has no such associations: it may not be historicist, like the postmodern architecture of the neo-liberal turn in the 1980s, but rather its anaesthetized formal language is a perfect complement to the hollowed out shell of social democracy.
Murphy Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. P92
A similar reading can be done of modernism early on. Originally envisioned as a philanthropist (although certainly patronizing) movement towards the creation of a cheap and efficient mean of production for a proletarian architecture, its exile in the United States during the war changed its essence to embrace the fordist spirit of profitability.
D.Murphy dedicates then a chapter entitled iconism which reflects on a movement that defined itself as the architectural equivalent of the Derridean deconstruction in philosophy despite its limited understanding of such a concept. The ‘stararchitecture’ as we know it nowadays is born from this movement as theorized by Peter Eisenman and paradigmatically materialized by Frank Gehry. The ‘Bilbao effect’, as we called it, is born from this movement, and now constitutes an efficient recipe of gentrification or ‘economical revitalization’ of zones or cities that disappeared from the maps of developers and tourists. Once again, D.Murphy does not focus so much on the founding stone of such process (Bilbao’s Guggenheim in that case) than the systematic repetition of this same process:
By the late 2000s, the story had further mutated to something along the following lines – A grasping local government would announce a competition for a cultural building to stand on a piece of derelict post-industrial land, often at the side of a river. Bypassing an excellent if dull scheme by a local firm, the jury would select a world famous architect’s generically bespoke design that made some half-baked and utterly spurious reference to the history of the site; the rest of the land in the area would be sold on to property developers to be turned into luxury flats.
Murphy Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. P115
One could probably notice that criticizing ‘iconism’ is easy and comfortable as it involve a very little amount of architecture offices which have taken advantage of this recipe in branding their architecture and that we, mere mortals, are not concerned and questioned by this phenomena. This is why the next and last chapter of the book, entitled virtualism, is more interesting and challenging for us. Addressing the American mainstream academy’s interest for theory, D.Murphy describes the shift of reference from the Derridean deconstruction towards the rhizomatic and fluid philosophy created by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari:
…the work of Deleuze & Guattari, with its theories of rhizomatic (non-hierarchical, dynamic, even anarchic) networks, would conceptually map onto electronic systems and digital culture with a vibrancy that would make Derridean theory seem archaic and ill-equipped to explain the cultural paradigm shifts the computer was supposedly bringing about. The frenetic Deleuzo-Gauttarian paeans to flows, to becomings, to schizophrenic processes reflected an impression of digital space as a radically democratic zone of infinite connectivity.
Murphy Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. P122
D.Murphy observes then how this philosophy -paradoxically deterritorializing itself from its essence- is being often used as a justification of computerized experiments driven by no-other goal that their own existence:
But even those who are skilled and thorough readers of Deleuze, such as Manuel DeLanda, often have a tendency to exorcise both the Marxist and Freudian ghosts from their systems, in favour of treating Deleuze as a (comparatively) simple materialist-of-flux. But surely even the simplest of class analyses can discern a method of separation; a fashionable secret code, the more controversial aspects dropped away to prevent it from causing any irritation to what is still a remarkably bourgeois culture of architects.
Murphy Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. P130
Of course, none of us would recognize their mis-use of Deleuzian and/or Gauttarian concepts. We are all convinced that the mistake comes always from the others and that we are the only truly balanced readers and users of such a philosophy. This blog itself, and through it my own writings, is the regular scene of a profusion of ‘becoming’, ‘smooth and striated space’, ‘deterritorialization’, ‘desiring machines’, ‘holey space’, ‘folds’, ‘immanence’, ‘ritournelle’ etc. and a continuous questioning of the good understanding and use of these concepts i something that I should certainly undertake.
Nevertheless, it is probably not innocent that Douglas Murphy does not provide any alternative directions to this dominant ideology and field of interests. This can perhaps be explained by the fact, that we can not really operate from outside the cultural background we create and think in. If concepts and ideas provokes a resonance for many people, at a given time in a given place, it certainly illustrates that we cannot think in a vacuum and that radicalism can only be achieved through the good understanding of this culture we are embedded in. This book should therefore not be understood as a manifesto for a refusal of any dominant cultural influences, but rather as an invitation to understand the processes of capture that dessencialize (sorry for the recurrent neologisms) and normatize the original richness of an idea.