Icons designed to rise up out of the destruction

The Architecture of Aftermath
April 27, 2007

When Vitruvius listed the attributes of good building as " firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis ", he failed to mention the need for meaning. Ever since, the Western tradition in architecture has had difficulty with meaning, deprecating its literal occurrence in narrative ornament and symbolism in favour of the abstract and formal qualities that we define as classical. One way of explaining the Modern Movement of the early 20th century in architecture is as a long-forestalled crisis of meaning, precipitated by social and technological change. Was the movement a solution or simply another evasion, postponing the problem for a later generation? Is modern architecture capable of confronting crisis in a meaningful way? Terry Smith of the universities of Pittsburgh and Sydney seems to be asking this question but, like many other commentators, he is perhaps too respectful of architects' own hang-ups to get to the root of the matter.

The four introductory case studies (Sydney Opera House, Guggenheim Bilbao, Getty Museum and Jewish Museum) offered by Smith do not knit well together in the theme of aftermath. Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum is the only one to suggest conscious response to past trauma, and Libeskind provides text to chew on, full of rich chunks of Adorno, Heidegger, and Benjamin, with concept drawings as visual references. As we know, the museum was at its best before the objects moved in, since its meaning was too overt to require them. The recent Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, by Noero Wolff Architects, offers a comparison of better co-ordinated frame and contents around a theme of comparable gravity, where the architecture does not try so hard.

Libeskind returns to the story with his project for replacing the World Trade Centre. In three concluding chapters, Smith tells the story of the 9/11 attacks and the place of iconicity in stimulating them and trying to assimilate them in the aftermath. Nobody ever thought much of Yamasaki's twin towers as architecture, any more than they considered the Pentagon.

Had they become obsolete in a more normal way, there is no certainty that an icon would have been called for to replace them because the district has been perceived as failing in recent years, with an oversupply of office space.

As the "Freedom Tower" (a little of Libeskind plus a lot of David Childs, the developer's own man) begins to rise in Lower Manhattan, Smith's book is a timely exploration of what he describes as "the role of visual art and contemporary architecture, in three distinct settings, negotiated cultural exchange, mutual destruction, and aftermath, recovery and reinvention". He reflects on the dislocation this produces among "conventional disciplines devoted to the study of visual arts not just out of gear but into fast-forward, imminent crash mode".

Is this an apology for a book that could have been tightened somewhat? The imminent crash is not just in the realm of academia. As Smith mentions, the lamentable Stanley Kubrick/ Steven Spielberg film AI, released earlier in 2001, showed the Manhattan of the future, with familiar skyscrapers rising out of the sea. Aeroplanes may occasionally threaten buildings from the sky, but Smith makes no mention of the threat of rising sea levels to his three harbour-side icons, an omission likely to make this discussion obsolete all too soon. We don't need H. G. Wells's Martians or even Islamic terrorists to destroy our showpieces when, with the encouragement of George W. Bush and Big Oil, we have been working hard to do it ourselves.

Alan Powers is reader in architecture and cultural history, Greenwich University.

The Architecture of Aftermath

Author - Terry Smith
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 246
Price - £47.50 and £19.50
ISBN - 9780226764689 and 4696

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