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The Stardom of Demagogy:
another Wrong Move

This pervading renaissance of a concern for the social values of architecture seems somehow more a kind of trendy celebration of precarious architecture, rather than a sensible understanding of what social responsibility is supposed to be and how it is supposed to act –which should have been the desirable aftermath of the collapse of that era of icons and stars. An architectural system which spun around money, nurtured and fostered by the neoliberal policies that followed the fall of Berlin’s Wall and that was strengthened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union: the architecture of extravagant buildings, as outrageously egocentric as the architects who envisioned them and bestowed them with their unique signature.

After 2008’s sudden economic collapse (arguably minor, but substantial nonetheless), the intelligentsia was impelled to set up a brand new architectural scenario −and they duly did so by resorting to the usage of realities which, albeit co-existing next to that reality of fanfare and excess, had been overlooked or blatantly ignored. From a neo-colonialist perspective, the spotlight was put onto the misnamed ‘Third World’ and an endearing choice of alternative faces, names and key buildings got swiftly on display as the political and aesthetic counter-reaction to the despotic vain grandeur of the (suddenly, abhorrent) architecture of neo-capitalism.  An insultingly simplistic show of ethical redemption, because such focus on impoverished or struggling realities was based on lazy clichés purely destined for First World’s consumption. The new raising (anti) stars could be directly or indirectly blamed for encouraging the dissemination of that easy-to-digest version of realities which actually were much more complex than that sweetened vision that Western ‘do-goodism’ was adopting as the revelation that would heal and restore the meaning and purpose of architecture.

The urgent search for new directions in architecture can be traced back to 2008. This is the year when Alejandro Aravena and his office ELEMENTAL were awarded the Silver Lion at Venice’s Architecture Biennale as recognition to the social dwellings he had built in Iquique (Chile) in 2003. The choice didn’t seem incidental at the time and appears absolutely deliberate now: the sound of the swan song of star-architecture was growing louder and, rather cunningly, Aravena had been paving his way to the star-architects arena through a carefully constructed narrative of his project and his persona. Rather than the actual project, it felt as though the Silver Lion had been awarded to that seductive presentation of scarcity as (apparent) stimulus for creativity, innovation and moral renovation embodied in Aravena’s charismatic figure.

Although there is a chance things were more casual. A few months ago, shortly after Aravena’s appointment as Pritzker laurate, Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi shared a statement where he told about the story behind the Silver Lion Award in 2008. He was a member of the jury then and advocated for an award to be given to a developing country instead to some digital technology old toy, and Chile, Aravena and his Iquique project came up. Time has gone by and Prestinenza Puglisi admits he regards nowadays as nothing but a radical chic game what seemed a consistent decission at the time.

Still, the fact that the exhibition Small Scale, Big Change. New Architectures of Social Engagement (curated by Andres Lepik) opened at the MoMA in 2010 (in the footsteps of Bernard Rudofski’s Architecture without Architects held in 1964-65) can be retrospectively interpreted as the confirmation that, after the economic breakdown, star-architecture was understood as no longer profitable. The ideological turn that this exhibition seemed to promote did not stem from an honest self-critical reflection nor any cathartic crisis, which assumed the utter unsustainability and damaging consequences of the ‘iconic architecture’ model.

The Golden Lion awarded to Urban-Think Tank as recognition to their vindication project of Caraca’s Torre David in 2012’s Biennale came as the proclamation of this new pattern. Ibero-American architecture goes definitely beyond this sensationalist reductive vision of social marginalization. This reversal of ‘star-architecture’ by means of another kind of ‘star-architecture’: from the veneration of flashy icons to a pornographic sacralisation of poverty (styled to appeal First World’s taste). The triumph of a simplistic and opportunistic discourse on scarcity and humble concern for social welfare that, in most cases, is hardly linked to the actual and ascertainable facts. And which also distorts the real meaning of the term ‘social architecture’, because all genuine architecture in the 21st century should bear a sensible and broad sense of social concern.

Even if heralding Aravena might appear as recognition of the prestige of Ibero-American architecture and its capacity to deal with harsh social / political circumstances as a lesson for a greedy ‘First World’ that saintly wishes for redemption, from the point of view of an Ibero-American architect it is nothing but a dismal failure. It means the triumph of the negative homogenization of a heterogeneous and complex reality, which Aravena and many other architects jumping on the ‘social architecture’ bandwagon are reducing merely to delight the patronising eurocentric gaze, which so gladly enjoys commiseration and the reductionism of foreign realities.

The infatuation that a remarkable portion of the decaying ‘First World’ is nowadays feeling towards Ibero-American populist processes, the endemic illness that afflicts the region and that is being manipulated by these boosters who fake reality for their own benefit by spreading dead ideas as new beliefs for salvation (see also Donald Trump’s election), is nothing but the road to another dead-end. The invention of a new hegemonic thinking, of a spectacle as equally fictional, degrading and negative for architecture as the preceding one proved to be.

It is evident that Ibero-American architecture has been in the spotlight over the last years. Nevertheless, only a reductionist cliché based on its most populist side has been highlighted – and this cliché is nothing but a biased fad, that has been manufactured by the vanity and interests of some insiders and the urge for new media-feeding celebrities and cleansings of conscience of some outsiders. The challenge for Ibero-American architects now is to take this visibility in stride and, without any sense of inferiority complex and servile respect, show the propositioning and constructive values of their architectures, which act beyond marginalisation and cheap good-will.

Posted
24.Jan.2017 2023 views 333 shares
Author
Fredy Massad

Fredy Massad (Buenos Aires, 1966) is an architecture critic and contributor to several international media. He is the author of La viga en el ojo, a key reference among the Spanish-speaking architectural community. He is Professor at the School of Architecture, UIC-Barcelona; Visiting Professor ad honorem at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Buenos Aires and Visiting Professor at the Vilniaus Dailès Akademija. He debates current architectural issues, developing an approach that emphasizes the political and ideological dimension of architecture in present society. In 2016 he has curated the conversation series Cruces Críticos at the Roca Barcelona Gallery.

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