The Art-Architecture Complex

January 12, 2012

Hal Foster, a highly respected academic and veteran art critic based at Princeton University, intends this book to address a wide audience. The shifts in artistic and architectural practice that he traces serve as a broader barometer of cultural change.

After the mid 20th-century dominance of High Modernism that actively policed the separation between sculpture, painting and architecture, the inter-relationships and possible collaborations between artists and architects have been back on the agenda for a generation. However, as Foster makes clear in the early part of this book, the cultural conditions and questions that such inter-relationships raise are currently undergoing significant change. His particular concern is with the image, with surface, superficiality and spectacle, and throughout the book he makes use of Pop and Minimalism (as artistic, architectural and critical movements) to frame his discussions. Pop's concern with the image can provide a contrast with Minimalism's direct physical engagement with material or space, although Foster is at pains to contest this easy opposition, arguing that they cross over into and inform each other. His lament is that while they fuelled and checked each other in the years following their emergence during the 1960s, this balance has recently been lost as the image has become dominant.

The opening chapter - and most important contribution - follows the trajectory of this awkward relationship through links to technology, politics and various moments and forms of practice. It presents a persuasive account of the lineage and currency of this complex mix, and prepares the ground for a wide-ranging and nuanced discussion of the contemporary links between artistic and architectural practice. This makes it all the more disappointing to discover how little these questions are explored in the subsequent 10 chapters. As the preface acknowledges, much of this material has been rehearsed elsewhere, and it gives the impression that it has been reassembled here without much more thought or work. The first set of three chapters - "Global styles", covering the practices of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano - is very thin. It reads as a list of projects, loosely linked to notions of iconography, transparency and architectural expression.

More recent work by younger practices (Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Herzog & de Meuron) holds Foster's attention enough for him to set out a more involved and persuasive discussion, but of these only DS+R gain his qualified approval for their collaborative practice and "blurring of genres". When Foster discusses arts practice - sculpture, film and painting, through the work of Richard Serra, Anthony McCall and Dan Flavin, respectively - he is clearly on home turf, and a much more engaging and higher-level discussion is given, albeit without express examination of how these might inform the main questions of the book.

Without a conclusion to help (the closest we get is the analysis of the Dia Art Foundation), this book tends to perpetuate a highly institutional and geographically delimited discourse, with New York the implicit centre. There are many collaborative practices where artists and architects (and others) do now work together, but who approach Foster's concerns regarding superficiality, identity and human agency from different and more political positions, who work with different tools, and who produce projects that are harder to recognise as either art or architecture: they, however, don't feature here.

The Art-Architecture Complex

By Hal Foster. Verso, 316pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781844676897 Published 26 September 2011

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