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Global Architecture Platform

Finding our Way

by Andrew Leach

In the final weeks of the course I teach on modern architecture at the University of Sydney, my students and I worked over developments in architecture and its institutions from the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century—part of a decade-by-decade, decade per week orientation in a long century’s worth of efforts and ideas concerning architecture and cities. I am always struck by the sense of change wrought from this moment, affecting the assumptions around architecture and its relationship with the world that determines what architecture chooses to respond to in different ambits and what it, through this, asserts itself to be as an art, profession, practice, discipline, or whatever else.

This is hardly a revelation, of course. But rehearsing this historical episode over the last few weeks rendered stark, for me at least, the sense of this present moment being the corresponding endpoint to what we could consider as its origin. The acceleration of global cultural-corporate systems and the quick normalisation of late capitalism across the 1970s and 80s doesn’t exactly mirror (but doesn’t exactly not mirror) the sudden deceleration of the last few months towards a something else that we’re yet to determine.

The acceleration of global cultural-corporate systems and the quick normalisation of late capitalism across the 1970s and 80s doesn’t exactly mirror (but doesn’t exactly not mirror) the sudden deceleration of the last few months

At the moment, I am writing on the way “mannerism” has figured in the history of architecture, art and culture over the last century and a half. It is a device with which to draw a cross-section of modern architectural culture, read through its response to historical moments of change. Umberto Eco captured the pattern of this term’s recurrence (with all it is made to signal) when he observed in 1982 that “mannerism is born whenever it is discovered that the world has no fixed center, that I have to find my way through the world inventing my own points of reference.” (1) It is not a stretch to locate one such instance of this extending from mid-1960s to the mid-1970s: the postmodern embrace of a world adrift, in which one can be everywhere and nowhere at once, setting to rights a ship that could never remain afloat. The exaggerations, manipulations, ironies and deformations against which the idea of mannerism had been tested since the 1910s moved from architectural form to the entire territory architecture occupied.

Concluding the arc of the last half century, many of the institutions and stances that have been important to how architecture conducts itself that took root in the 1970s now seem thoroughly precarious: how novel work is brought into public view, ideas are tabled and tested, leader boards maintained and adjusted as they inform our disciplinary economies. At the outset, the greatest change was in the range of things that institutions were prepared to legitimate as architecture—none of which really new (paper projects, community building, activist practice, etc), but which in their aggregate established the norm against which things have proceeded in subsequent decades. Beyond the instantaneity with which the money went away and, with it, the arrival of a new (if historically familiar) pressure on architects to keep their business affairs alive, a number of our collective habits have been allowed to fray, and we would need to be particularly determined to ignore that into the coming months and years.

I am mindful as I note these thoughts that all writing in this genre—covid: quid tum?—is, as Mark Lilla has observed in The New York Times, just guesswork and, as Hans Ibelings has written on this platform (citing Bas Heinje), is a guesswork informed by various forms of instrumental optimism. The future will, ultimately, settle somewhere between an entire reorganisation of society and its values and a return to 2019 behaviours (and problems) within a year or so—scarred by 2020, but willing to move past it. Something, that is, between everything and hardly anything. I wonder how closely the return to the Giardini will resemble the rush of Floridians to the beach once travel restrictions finally ease. And I wonder what kinds of risks—how many deaths—we will have to quietly push to the back of our minds as we board our flights. If our record on ecology is any indication, we will be fine.

Since March, many of us have embraced patterns that seem decidedly old-fashioned, with the limited range of movement, access, and choice that we experienced therein. Here in Australia I have had the sense that this event has framed a kind of post-traumatic regrouping after the last (extraordinary) bush-fire season, albeit couched in a new crisis. We understand that what feels like a moment of environmental recuperation is just a pause before that whole situation kicks off again on the other side of the winter. Predictably, California is facing the confluence of these crises sooner. Is the future one of perpetual crisis—a pyrocene (2) at once real and analogical? Perhaps. Covid may simply have been the crisis that stopped us in our tracks, and to which we actually paid attention, that helped us to see other things a little easier.

For many of us, our mode of operation has been as a kind of St Jerome with broadband, occupying a moment of pause without a break. There is a kind of clarity that comes with those aspects of this pause that you can experience as such. It has something to do with being tested on the difference between what is and is not important—in work as in life. The kind of reclamation that now, and consequently, seems possible of the university for intellectual work must also translate into something for architecture. This pause will, though, be wasted on us if not treated as a moment in which to think, to try some things, to speculate, and to reflect—without anyone (necessarily) watching.

This pause will, though, be wasted on us if not treated as a moment in which to think, to try some things, to speculate, and to reflect

As the semester’s teaching rounded off a few weeks ago, I am back into my studies on the historiography of mannerism (Dvorák, Hocke, Fasola, Battisti, etc), but facing the threat of a new phase to the crisis. What exactly we will have been going through—the situation in all its complexity—remains very much up in the air and will remain so for a while. I suspect our worlds will remain small for a spell, in a sense. I will find ways to think about that which is essential in my own little world, how to reach those beyond it, and to be clear about the point of extending a figurative hand. And I will write, try to figure some things out.

(1)

Rosso, Stefano, and Carolyn Springer. “A Correspondence with Umberto Eco Genova-Bologna-Binghamton-Bloomington August-September, 1982 March-April, 1983.” Boundary 2 12, no. 1 (1983): 1-13. Accessed July 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/302934

(2)

For the term Pyrocene see: http://www.stephenpyne.com/disc.htm

Posted
30.Jul.2020 166 views
Author
Andrew Leach Andrew Leach

Andrew Leach teaches history of architecture at the University of Sydney, where he is a professor and associate dean (research) in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. He is author of Rome (Polity 2017), What is Architectural History? (Polity 2010), Gold Coast (Lund Humphries 2018), Manfredo Tafuri: Choosing History (2007), and Crisis on Crisis (Standpunkte 2017). His edited books include Sydney School (Uro 2018, with Lee Stickells), On Discomfort (Routledge 2017, with David Ellison) and The Baroque in Architectural Culture, 1880-1980 (Ashgate 2015, with Maarten Delbeke and John Macarthur). His current writing is on the history of the idea of mannerism in modern architectural culture, extending his work as a Wallace Fellow at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti; and on the history of private property in colonial Australia—new work developed, in part, as the Stuckeman Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Design at Penn State University (2019-20).

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

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