05 mars 2006

Charles Jencks : Being Iconic

Charles Jencks is an author, architect, historian, critic, and occasional soothsayer. He is synonymous with the concept of the Postmodern in architecture, as he was the first to extend those ideas into architectural discourse with his book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. His numerous books are a perpetual mapping of the trends and paradigm shifts in the lexicon of architecture. Jencks’ massive success as a writer and a historian comes not only from his brilliant mind, but also, his accessible writing style, which is a testament to his long-standing credo of pluralism.

image His latest book The Iconic Building examines the phenomenon of the icon in contemporary architecture and the meaning of signature buildings in today’s world of hyper trendiness and celebrity. Recently, Charles Jencks came to New York City for a debate versus Peter Eisenman at Columbia University, titled “The New Iconic Building.” Archinect editor John Jourden followed Jencks to New York to find out what the implications of the iconic building are and what is its impact on the future.

John Jourden: Your latest book, The Iconic Building, explores the current condition and evolution of the icon in architecture and basically leads us through what has been termed as the “Bilbao Effect.” Can you highlight the meaning of this event within architectural history, and where do you see this trend going?

Charles Jencks: It’s linked to the decline of religion and the decline of metanarratives—that is, the belief in progress, socialism, democracy, freedom. Not that those things aren’t believed: They’re not believed in enough or with any conviction and passion. Weak belief reigns today. Everybody believes something weakly, despite the fact that they’re dogmatic and they go out and kill people. You can say it’s weak because it doesn’t produce things of depth. Instead, they’re thin.

Weak belief is a problem. Iconic buildings are caused by weak belief, because clients don’t have the strong belief to say to the architect, ‘This is what the icon should be about.’ Up to the Nineteenth Century, the client always imposed their taste, iconography, and meaning on the architect. Or they shared that with the architect, so they wouldn’t have to tell them, but they knew what they were about. And they did, I think they did up until the Modern period even, to a degree. Today, clients are insecure and society is completely pluralist and insecure, and doesn’t know what it wants. But they (society and clients) do know they want a landmark. Weak belief plus the desire to have a landmark, plus celebrity culture, plus globalized capitalism, plus the art market’s desire for the new—all those factors together produce iconic buildings. This is why we’re in an iconic building era, not because we want to be—people don’t want to be.

You heard Peter (Eisenman) pretend he didn’t want to be, which ended up being a good show. But he wants to be (an iconic architect) desperately. Aside from that, I think a lot of people do. I have misgivings as you see in the book. I know how awful this condition is, and anyone who gives it a moment’s thought knows its not good altogether. Though it produces every now and then a wonderful building, which would have never been produced ten or fifteen years ago? They would have been stopped! The Disney Concert Hall by Gehry was stopped, designed in ’88, it wasn’t going to go ahead til Bilbao—The Bilbao Effect had an effect on (Gehry), I mean he could build (the WDCH)! Now everybody wants one, and that’s driving architecture. It’s a real double-edged sword, as I was saying last night. You’re in a double bind—you know, astonish me, excite me, show me something. Wow! That’s never been done before! And make it cheap, efficient functional, da-duh-da-duh-da, and make it fit in…

JJ: And green on top of all that.

CJ: And green. You’re given an impossible brief, and architects are really frightened. How do I do this? And they can’t get out because they’ve got to compete for it. Renzo Piano, who I don’t think can do it. I hate to say because I admire Piano on many levels. And he is certainly pretending to be an iconic architect, designing the “Shard” in London, which is a kind of obelisk building. He designed a waveform for Paul Klee (Zentrum Paul Klee) and the shoe (Parco della Musica) that I put in the book. And all of those buildings are stillborn at the level of iconic because they don’t take risks. They’re frozen gestures. Peter (Eisenman) didn’t go into Piano, but had he I’m sure he would have…

JJ: Given him a lacerating critique? (as he did Calatrava the night before)

CJ: Yes.

This is the authority of the architect. It’s not easy, but if you take this high risk and you fail, you’ve spent a hell of a lot of money, you’ve failed in public, and you’ve hurt the city. We’ve got to be with (the architects) because we’re the ones who force them into these contortions.

JJ: One thing you said that struck me though, this notion of the “enigmatic signifier,” does this come about because people want to maintain an apoliticallity [sic] about everything? You kind of create something that can be consumed, so you don’t make a statement at all. So you (the designer) can constantly say, ‘Well I like it both ways.’

CJ: There is no doubt you put your finger on something I didn’t say last night. But if you want to look at the enigmatic signifier as I quoted Louis-Philippe the king. The great busheller from the point of view of the architect is that it allows them to be evasive where as they could have been particular. No doubt it is a political neutrality and a cultural neutrality even more. In other words, if someone says, ‘Oh well your building is that,’ you say, ‘Well how do you know?’ You can wash your hands Pontius Pilate-like of the blame. This is a response to the first thing we clepe because people are confused about what they really value. And when they are, they don’t want a strong statement, and the architect can’t make a strong statement.

JJ: Yes, and when you’re a public figure, you have to maintain a balance…

CJ: A balance and an evasion—it’s political evasion!

JJ: Where before it was more about making a statement.

CJ: Exactly. Yes! Here is where I stand. Usually in the past, icons were statements: This is the meaning of that. You put your finger on something. I should have answered that, but you’re dead right! I would have said that 20 years ago—I would have really gone in on the attack, but now getting older, I feel sorry for architects. [laughs]

JJ: So it’s sympathy, not an apology? [laugh]

CJ: Well, I know they have to keep the jobs going, and this is kind of a protective coloration to get them through a very tough…Let’s have the blame game—whose fault is that? That society doesn’t know where it’s going? Is that the architect’s fault? No! Is it all right that society has gone and walked off the job? Rem (Koolhaas) and I are writing a book called How to Fire the Client. The client should be giving more to it.

JJ: This situation seems to promote the desire for the architect to become what Ben van Berkel has described as the architect as fashion designer or Koolhaas’ position of architecture intensifying its mode of production to keep up with fashion, or better yet make fashion. Would this be the full realization of architecture within the context of Postmodernity?

CJ: No. I don’t think that it’s to do altogether with fashion. Celebrity more than fashion, but you could say they are connected. Fashion in the sense that you have to reinvent the enigmatic signifier again and again and again, and that has a fashion syndrome component to it. You have to stay ahead of the curve. Gehry is always complaining, ‘Am I repeating myself?’ And people are saying, ‘Yes!’ [laughs]

So it’s hard. Rem (Koolhaas) and FOA (Foreign Office Architects) are devising tactics to always vary their production, precisely so they cannot be typecast, and so they can stay ahead. So fashion is becoming more pressing, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing you can say about it. I think Rem (Koolhaas) is slightly perturbed. Maybe he has had to run so fast to keep fashion away that he is just exhausted.

JJ: At the end of last night’s debate, you and Peter (Eisenman) at the end were discussing different Italian post-Renaissance architects.

CJ: Yeah, he was mad.

JJ: Yeah, he was… [laugh]

CJ: Crazy, Palladio not an icon, get real. [laugh]

JJ: So were there always starchitects—celebrity architects—or is this a symbiotic relationship to the manifestation of iconic building?

CJ: No, I think there were always star architects. Vitruvius, if you read the second book (Ten Books on Architecture), tells that amazing story of the architect—how to get the job. He opens the second book with the story of how Dinocrates gets to be the architect of Alexander the Great. Dinocrates dresses himself in leopard skins and oils his body, and he comes to the games and sits right next to Alexander. Alexander says ‘Gosh, here is a good-looking man. What do you do?’ And Dinocrates says, ‘I’m an architect!’ [laughs] To get attention from society and the ruler, oiling your body, imagine—I mean how humiliating that must be! You don’t have to do that today—almost, but not quite. [laughs]

Then he suggests to Alexander, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a city designed in the shape of your body?’ And Alexander the Great says, ‘Yeah, that’s not a bad idea, by god yes, please!’ (Alexander) talks to his minions and they say, ‘It’s not going to be functional.’ Dinocrates produces this design of Alexander with a bowl, which is the water system—(Alexander) sitting on the side of a mountain. It’s quite striking. Then the minions say, ‘We can’t afford this,’ and Alexander says, ‘Well that was a good architect. Let’s hire him for another job’ And that’s how you get the job. Now if Vitruvius is telling you that story…

JJ: Then this is the way it has always been?

CJ: No, that would be wrong to say, because it comes in and out of focus, but there are moments when the architect is a star and has to be. I mean you can say under King Djoser in Egypt 2700 BC, the second most important person was Imhotep, the architect. Power and architecture have a long history. I don’t think it’s a happy one usually. It’s extremely unhappy usually. We are certainly in a period when Lord (Richard) Rogers, Lord (Norman) Foster, lord-this, lord-that—socialists supposedly, are chasing power and money like everybody else, and without being cynical about it, because they have to work. That they have to get jobs is the logic of that situation. Let me say, I do think that there is great architecture that doesn’t have to do this. People do turn down jobs. (James) Stirling refused work for Disney. There is architectural integrity. There is no determinism in history. There are great architects produced outside that system. So don’t succumb, resist it, but know it’s there. And I understand why most people give in.

Are you a young architect?

JJ: Yes.

CJ: Okay, don’t give in. [laughs]

JJ: I’m not trying to, but I haven’t been confronted with the temptation of that Faustian bargain yet.

What do you think about the new trend of the celebrity wannabe architects such as Brad Pitt and Lenny Kravitz?

CJ: Well, that’s got to be one of the funniest inversions. Yes, I think it couldn’t be funnier or better. Someone could write a very good play or skit, couldn’t they? [laughs] How to whip a superstar; force them to do your models… [laughs]

JJ: Kenneth Frampton has stated that it’s not enough to be just a good architect anymore. Do you think the role or position of the architect has changed? And what is the impact of this?

CJ: Can you give me the context of the statement, “It’s not enough to be a good architect anymore?”

JJ: Well, I believe it would be in the context of what you discussed last night (at Columbia), where there is a list of the same 12 short-listed architects, which appear all the time. There are other people who are just as talented who just can’t crack into that list. You also have to be part of the media, as Peter (Eisenman) rightly pointed out. So I guess, in terms of that symptom—should you resist this also?

CJ: Let’s discuss this in two ways: One as a citizen, as a political person—one who acts according to the golden rule, so that their actions can be generalized. Of course you should resist it. Of course we owe something to architecture outside of our own success and our own ego, and it’s important that we give it to architecture. I believe that Eisenman, Koolhaas and a lot of those good architects who are consumed by the media and allow themselves to be consumed, also resist it by giving something to architecture. So I think you can be both in and out of the system at once. And I would say those architects do that. So that’s one way of behaving. Another way is to work on two levels that you work a lot of things that never are seen, and people don’t know about them. You spend a lot of your life doing that, and you’re a good citizen.

At the same time, if you’re realistic about competing at the highest levels and in a way the logic of the situation is that you must compete at the highest levels at least some of the time, or you’re not going to get the best jobs. So that logic means at a certain point you’ve got to be a media starchitect or you won’t make those short-lists. If that’s what the name of the game is, I don’t believe that Constable Frampton can tell the traffic to turn around—put on the red light and hold up like King Canute, the whole world and have it go the way he wants. It doesn’t work that way Constable. Yes, I understand that resistance is important, but let’s not fetishize resistance because resistance, which is completely ineffective, is not true resistance. I have a respect for the people who have managed to take resistance through the door and give society another view of itself. I think Porto (Casa da Musica), for instance, is a very good building which resists easy consumption. Of course this is why Peter (Eisenman) was going after me, and Calatrava because it (the critique in the book of Calatrava’s work) isn’t resistant enough. Of course I agree with Peter (Eisenman). Although Peter does quite well to have it both ways: I haven’t been to Berlin to see his field (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), but for me it’s not enough. For him it is, and he has his hands clean, but that’s another whole story…

JJ: In 2004, you appeared on a VPRO documentary where you describe the Potsdamer Platz projects as “trophy buildings of the worst kind.” Could you discuss the difference between what makes a trophy building and what makes an iconic building?

CJ: For me the whole development is a graveyard of the world’s best architects. I believe I was making a political point about size. I have done these graphs of when does good architecture become bad architecture—over 72 stories and a million square feet of office space or 250 million dollars. With all of these graphs of money, size and volume produced at a certain rate, even if you’re a good architect you have trouble. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but size matters!

And my argument on size is like biologists when they argue—there is a very famous article on why there aren’t very many large animals, why most animals are small. [laughs] It’s a pretty interesting thing written in 1975. You know most animals are about the size of a small puppy dog, and the power law works here. So there is one dinosaur, two hippopotami, and there are three elephants and that’s it. This forms a power curve, and the reason for that is ecological, but it’s also structural/gravitational. If you’re a dinosaur, not only do you eat a lot, but your bones are always breaking up. Most dinosaurs, I believe, just died because they were too big. [laughs]

And there are dinosaur buildings and dinosaur commissions, so my argument over trophy buildings in Potsdamer Platz is that you have seven great architects and they all produced their worst work. Piano did awful, for me. However, a lot of people love it there. I just think it’s neither great architecture, nor great urbanism. I don’t know how many millions—six hundred or eight hundred million square feet of work produced in six years—eight years? It’s too much, too fast—inflation, inflationary architecture. There is always this tenacity in the icon, and a trophy building can be considered a failed icon, to dash off or do quick gestures—boom-boom. It’s pretty obvious…

JJ: So if there are too many iconic buildings in a row it ends up looking like a wall of trophies?

CJ: In fact, they’re (the buildings of Potsdamer Platz) self-important, heavy in this case, and they aren’t so iconic. They both try to be background and heavy foreground; they’re neither good urbanism, nor good architecture; the Mercedes building, with its huge Mercedes signature brand on it, is so vulgar, trite, and dumb, produced by one of the great minimalists who’s trying to pretend that I’m very politically Framptonian correct. If this happens, why—why are these guys who are suppose to be background sober, decorate, having great propriety, clean-in-keeping, suitable, understated, da-duh-da-duh-da? Why are do they produce these pompous, heavy, dumb, big, in-your-face symbols of corporate late-capitalist power? Is there a reason? Yes. That’s how the clients are commissioning, and they’re commissioning fast, big—too big, too fast trophies. Again I sort of blame architects and society equally. Its tough, but conceptually there are ways out of it. They could have broken it down more, had better urbanism even within a bad paradigm. And I regard Potsdamer Platz as a bad paradigm.

JJ: Marx’s critique of capitalism illustrates a commodity as a mysterious entity full of theological caprice—a particular object sufficing a particular need while at the same time promising to deliver something more—of an unfathomable enjoyment whose true location is fantasy. Isn’t this the essence of the Bilbao Effect, with cities competing for the new architectural commodity that promises something culturally more?

CJ: I don’t think motivations are ever pure. A utopia fantasy has to be what architects sell, the value added is to sell a better way of life—an imaginative leap! And that has its dark-side too, which is prosaic and kitsch. It would be absurd to not think that it works sometimes. It works at Bilbao. And when it works it can rejuvenate a city and it’s perfectly valid. Why else go to an architect, if you don’t want something better or best that changes your life? Architecture is the last utopian profession, the first and last and it has to be. The minute you get rid of utopia forget it. You might as well. You don’t have an architecture profession.

I’m not sure from, a Marxist position, where this leads. It obviously can lead to conspicuous consumption and all of these horrors that come in the wake of the Bilbao Effect. In other words, most iconic buildings, I have argued, are failures. On the other hand, just because that’s true doesn’t mean they’re going to go away. We have to bite-the-bullet, and say okay there will be failures. Okay, our society doesn’t have strong beliefs. Okay, it destroys cities. These are not good things. But just because all of that is true doesn’t mean we can turn away from it. We can’t go into denial. That’s what I’m worried about.

I’m worried the profession will become as it is in Britain: Angry, upset, and in denial that they simply don’t get the jobs. [laugh] And they don’t do the iconic buildings better—I keep coming back to this. If it’s enviable let’s do it better, not deny it. See it as an opportunity, this opening; because the great opportunity is that there is a lot of creativity in society at the moment allowing us to do things that were never allowed in the past. So in one sense this is the most exciting time ever in architectural history because it’s like the art world: The wraps are off for the first time, and you can do anything—well almost. Arthur Danto said, anything can be a work of art today after Warhol. I think that has a terrible downside, but let’s not underrate the upside. The upside is society, the client, and the profession—well, we can forget the profession—want something exciting, new, and creative. They want architects to be artists on a deep level, and they’re giving them the ability to be that. In the iconic building their saying, take this chance, they’re giving us that opportunity, and we have to step up to meet the challenge. That’s my view.

Dangerous times…the Chinese have a famous saying: May you be doomed to live in interesting times. [laughs]

JJ: In The Iconic Building, you layout the trials and tribulations of Enric Miralles’ embattled Scottish Parliament. Do you see the awarding of the Stirling Prize as a vindication of iconic architecture and the architects?

CJ: I think in a way it vindicates—although not politically. In fact, I just wrote a critique in response to Building Design. They said that it should not have gotten the award because it sends the wrong message, that the fact that such expensive buildings could be built messes up the profession. I think that’s dead wrong! First of all, prizes should not be read or given as if they were indicators—public indicators on where architecture should go. You award a building for its architecture—not because it’s politically correct or incorrect, ecologically correct or incorrect, or that’s where architecture should go. No! If prizes are to have any integrity, they have to reward architecture that’s a global judgment. It’s a great building globally (The Scottish Parliament), it has great faults, but so does every other building. It was clearly the best building on the short-list.

I was on another commission which awarded the McLaren building (McLaren Technological Centre) the best building of the year, and I objected like mad. I said, ‘You can’t be serious, the Scottish Parliament is the most important building of its type in Britain for a hundred years, and not to give it the award you’re crazy.’ But they overruled me because the judges were all high-techers. So I was overruled and the McLaren go it. Now, the McLaren building is okay, but it’s mid-tier James Bond—it cost 380 million pounds, so it was very expense, but no one brought that up because it wasn’t public money. It was a private individual’s money. So I don’t think the prize vindicates it, although the Scots and people who support it, they do think it does. So for them it’s a vindication, but I think prizes are prizes. The (Scottish Parliament) is a great building, and it should have won and did win. I really refuse to think a building because it won a prize, vindicates everything. It’s a great building, that’s it. You don’t need to win a prize to be the great building—everybody who is a critic, who really gets into it, goes, ‘Basta (enough), it was the best!’ It will live in architectural history that building, it has real faults, but the faults are very great.

JJ: Thank you very much

Interview by John Jourden (2005)


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