Opinion

False idols

March 17, 2009

Contemporary global architecture seems to have two unfortunate directions. The development of tower offices and apartments, in a new boom town style and the proliferation and assimilation of tourism on a global scale.

Share This

Presently Dubai has the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai. But, not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Walid bin Talal is planning to erect one twice as high (over 1600 metres) near Jeddah – yet another wholly unnecessary building by the world’s super rich.

One may have thought global architecture was a force leading to homogenisation and uniformity. In fact, the opposite is occurring, in both the proliferation of office buildings and tourist developments that chase wealth around the world. Novel sensation is pursued. Our world sucks at the teat of multiple transmitted images. The mother’s breast provides the first loved and hated dream screen.

Contemporary global architecture seems to have two unfortunate directions. First, the development (in the cities of the rich and powerful) of tower offices and apartments, in a new boom town style – a world of shape and branding, tallest buildings and bad art; and second, the proliferation and assimilation of tourism on a global scale.

Boom style and tourism architecture are having an unfortunate impact on many cities around the world – the towers, apartments and resorts of the boom by ‘starchitects’ and big-name practices. In the words of the Architectural Journal’s Patrick Lynch, work by these practices is characterised by:
* a belief in self-promotion
* mute acceptance of air-conditioning
* design and build contracts
* the reduction of architecture to branding
* ‘archi-tainment’, and
* millimetre thick ‘design’.

I would add ‘management’ over ‘design’.
They show, I suggest, an extraordinary wilfulness. By wilful I mean ‘governed by will without regard to reason’, ‘obstinately self-willed, or perverse’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

All around the world, we see these ‘archi-tainment’ icons financed by highly engineered and leveraged credit. These objects, these playthings of a privileged world, are themselves a sort of leveraged opportunity waiting for investors. This, I suggest, is a new way of looking at architecture – a ‘wilful gaze’ – eschewing both the principles of sustainability, of architectural institutes and schools, and of the architects’ own consciences. Will the unravelling of our damaged economy, with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, lead to a new architecture emerging of less image, with more experimentation and refinement? Is the ‘wilful gaze’ so part of our profession that it cannot be changed?

There is unfortunately a companion gaze to the ‘wilful gaze’. The old modernist categories of life – living, working, recreation and transport – now need to have tourism added to them. Global tourism has produced new responses in both planning urban design and architecture. People will go anywhere in the world for ‘authenticity’ or ‘apparent authenticity’.

Mass touring with cheap airfares has initially sent people to special places that are in contrast to their home town or the boom towns. Mass tourism pretends to seek authentic places of difference – real beaches, real villages, real islands, real mountains. The ‘tourist gaze’ affects much more than tourist destinations, it influences our planners as they see villages, cafés and ‘the smell of baked bread’ permeating all urban environments (Hans Ibelings). Global tourism does not just affect tourist destinations. It perverts genuine urban situations. We are now in the thrall of a ‘tourist gaze’ and, as mass tourism has increased, it has become as Ibelings has described, a remarkably uniform cultural and economic phenomenon.

‘The moment tourism reaches a certain critical mass, an irreversible mechanism is set in train whereby places become increasingly interchangeable – and familiar collections are the same,’ (Hans Ibelings, Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalisation, 2002) – think resorts, hotels, restaurants, golf courses, discotheques, water worlds, theme parks, casino hotels, marinas with plastic boats, harbours turned into tourist water fronts and cruise ships. If we add to this the ‘eater-tainment’ (‘Do you want Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian?’) that we see in shopping malls, we see that the ‘tourist gaze’ transforms our world. The extreme of the ‘tourist gaze’ produces Las Vegas with its Venetian Casino, New York Casino and Paris Casino, hilarious attempts at authenticity. As Jean Baudrillard famously said, we have more and more image and less and less meaning. We have city environments that are at once:
* hilarious and depressing
* unique and redundant
* kitschy and original, and
* irrepressible and totally controlled

Global boom towns are affected by both the wilful and tourist gaze – a reduction of architecture to branding and ‘archi-tainment’. Great cities like Beijing and Shanghai are not immune from these unanchored forms and the wilful gaze. One of the worst examples is Dubai, where buildings twist and turn in a story that amounts to nothing. Dubai represents the sum of the tourist gaze and the wilful gaze – a superficial play of empty seductive forms creating no meaningful urban (or architectural) discourse. This ‘archi-tainment’ is not aimed at the local population, but at the world – trying to make an expensive splash.

Many cities are now centres of consumption, not production. We find it unusual if we can name what a city produces. Some of the main drivers of our cities are not an industry, they are a service. Tourism relies on the evocation of experience and this act of consumption permeates not only tourist related development, but much city development.

Architecture today has many parallels to tourism, television, film, music and the sex industry, all of which are geared to the consumption of experiences. Our cities sit at the intersection of the ‘wilful gaze’ and the ‘tourist gaze’.

This column is an extract from a presentation given by Lawrence Nield at the RAIA Critical Visions Conference 2008, ‘Predators, False Heroes And Heroines’.

Leave a Reply

x
Keep up-to-date with our bi-weekly newsletter

You’ll get

  • News, insights and features from the interior design and architecture community
  • Coverage on the latest projects, products and people
  • Events and job updates

Join now!
X

Sign up to the newsletter