Beyond Buildings


A Misbegotten MONU(ment)

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Image credit: MONU magazine.

For those mourning the loss of both optimism about what we can build and idea about how and why we should build, the recent issue of the Dutch magazine MONU, entitled “Editing Urbanism,” can serve as the tombstone to a period of both theoretical and actual exuberance.

The bankruptcy of ideas married with a loss of building opportunities is apparent in almost every aspect of the magazine. Starting with a meandering cafe chat among architects who like to do renovations (now there’s a newsflash), it moves on to piece by the usually thoughtful Henk Ovink, one of the Netherland’s central figures in state-based planning, who says: “Politics has to act but dare to want not to lead.” Perhaps it is a problem of translation. But Ovink sinks into bureaucratese when he calls for “an organizational perspective in an alliance-wise way” and such. You get a sense why the Dutch have abandoned their ministry for “spatial arrangement,” whose most imaginative planner Ovink was, and made a Tea Party-like, racist party the second largest in the country.

Simone Pizzagalli, an Italian working and living in the Netherlands, calls the most thoughtful piece in MONU “Beyond Editing.” It starts out by pointing out that our culture is dominated by editing, sampling, and otherwise rearranging the pieces of a global image culture. She sees it as a “just another a-critical, therefore weak, process of bricolage.” What is needed instead is “narrative,” a word she extends to mean everything from coherent to imaginative to mythic: “We could consider that every major design act that transforms the urban fabric in fact aims to re-establish the city and is therefore in need, as in the mythical founding rituals, of a boundary determining ‘where space begins its presencing’ and where the narration can take place. Framing and tracing borders are therefore the ways we deal with the arbitrariness of the editing process."

Beyond the Heideggerian reference, Pizzagalli seems to be evoking Aldo Rossi, and the recipe seems to be one that calls for lots of frames and grids within which evocative elements recall a more coherent, less edited city. Though she rejects Postmodernism, that is what it sounds like to me--a suspicion that I find only reinforced by the prominent place given in the issue to the review of the second rate buildings Adolfo Natalini plunked down in the Netherlands when his stripped-down neo-classicism didn’t work in his native Italy.

The real reason many people will buy the issue, however, is “Extreme Demolition and Extreme Preservation,” trumpeted on the cover as the first article, by “OMA/Rem Koolhaas.” It turns out to be an interview with Ippolito Pestellini, who works at OMA. It repeats the same diagrams and figures Koolhaas has been showing as he goes around the world railing about the fact that preservation has gone too far and has made it impossible to build (renovating and preserving OMA’s 1993 Kunsthal, by the way, is, according to Pestellini, “maintenance”). I am still not sure what the point is, except that, in “Conclusions,” Pestellini points out that fascist and post-War communist architecture has been neglected in the drive to restore and renovate older structures.

Beatriz Ramo, MONU's editor, makes the same point in a more radical manner in “In the Name of the Past: Countering the Preservation Crusade.” She points out that, under current guidelines, the Cordoba mosque would never have been embedded in a cathedral, and that whole cities are become protected zones in which modern architecture is banned.

Yes, it is absolutely true that there should be room for innovation and for new forms. But it is exactly the emphasis on newness that has produced such a strong reaction against modernist architecture. The problem is not preservation or conservation, but a discipline that believes that only by producing the novel and the daring it can make a name for itself. If architects can figure out how to weave the new out of and through the old, to evoke and respect while also creating spaces and forms appropriate to who we are today and how we live, we might be able to make a stronger case against blanket and mindless preservation.

Ironically, OMA is very good at that, as are firms such as Herzog & de Meuron or Neutelings Riedijk.  What is missing from the work of both of the latter firms is an ideology or big idea. They just make good buildings, and have managed to continue to do so even in the recession. I would hope that MONU or some other magazine could help figure out not how to get beyond bricolage, editing, or preservation, but how to develop a critical theory for such thoughtful reuse of what we already have and cherish.

A new issue has just appeared, though not yet in the U.S., entitled "Post-Ideological Urbanism." It promises to show how we live in a Postmodern world, though the synopsis of articles does not promise any answers or suggestions for clear strategies.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.