Ai, Adam and Alsop – the establishment breaks the silence; regrettably
Posted: May 20, 2011 Filed under: Establishment, Politics | Tags: Ai Weiwei, Daniel Rosbottom, Robert Adam, Will Alsop
On the face of it, Will Alsop and Robert Adam would like to think they stand at opposite ends of the architectural spectrum, but the reality may be that commercial concerns make them into matching-pajama bedfellows. The similarities are all there, and they run deeper than a trendy haircut, pre-smile, “I’m listening” eyes and knowing head-tilt.
Both of these architects have a proven ability to design buildings with an aloof pomposity uniquely derived by a mutual talent for composing architecture that can appear both out of scale and imperiously whimsical. Compare Robert Adam’s office building in Piccadilly with Alsop’s Peckham Library – or Adam’s Wiliam Wake House to Alsop’s New Islington in Manchester (known hilariously as “the Chips” because, well they are inspired by – as I often am – flash-fried potato chunks, though not directly it seems in the sense that they are as shit to look at as to eat), and you quickly realise that the seemingly divergent architectural fancies count for very little when the awkwardly sized windows, and the unsatisfying bulk, and the carelessness of the massing, and the barren sense of joy bring into sharp focus that there are more things in common than one first thought; namely: a vacuous allocation of the architect’s eye that results in a deeply underwhelming sense of the waste of it all. What sounds so promising on paper does not always have the intended result (for believe it or not, I find many admirable qualities in the idea of building using knowledge gained through ‘tradition’ [for want of a better word] and equally by appealing to a joyful and inclusive populism, but it is a pity that it so often looks ridiculous and irrelevant when applied as style). Perhaps the similarity stems from the surety of their respective positions as flag-bearers of opposing architectural factions, which is ultimately revealed as an over-compensating reliance on motifs (squiggly lines and classical ornament) that belies a profound self-consciousness.
This is the point where I really should go into how different the two are: Alsop is an avante-garde modernist you see, while Adam is a boring classicist boo-rah… Both architects speak rather well, albeit rather provocatively, about their work; the various factors that play a part and the means of realising the work can construct a very vivid and often persuasive argument regarding the appropriateness of their way of making architecture. But the truth is they are very visible peas that have found themselves well-connected within the architecture-world pod by peddling their work as examples of this or that architectural style – and quite regardless, one may conjecture, of any extenuating moral responsibility that might come with it. For Robert Adam can get away with very idealised building forms because he calls himself a traditionalist – and Alsop can churn out loads of facile, unconvincing playfulness because he is a staunch modernist and he won’t stand in the way of progress. But clearly Robert Adam is only cladding the same old drab modern office block in Portland-stone pastiche that Will wraps in a version of a Wombles stage set. The reality may be they make buildings that are overtly stylistic, and equally inflated claims to the efficacy of their buildings – Robert Adam: that neo-Egyptian pomp is suitable for Beirut, while Will Alsop: that an über-housing block inspired by three fats chips one on top of the other is anything but woeful.
As you can tell, I had very little time to begin with for either of these architects, as architects, for various reasons that relate back to a certain attitude that an architect might possess – you could call it conscience, or conviction; motivation even. But an article in BD today has brought them far closer together than they probably would wish to be and consequently, I am more than inclined to give a shit.
It follows a letter written by Daniel Rosbottom of DRDH Architects, wherein he questions the quiet non-reaction of the architectural community to the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei. The article lies behind the BD paywall (£), and I have no key, but I believe I can applaud his outspokenness and stick to the main article that deals with the reaction of the architectural community. It all regards the apparent silence of architects condemning the imprisonment (to put it one way) of Ai Weiwei (and, one might well add, the continuing persecution of China’s dissidents, Liu Xiaobo notable among them, and China’s disregard for human rights generally). I’ll say little more of Ai than I admire him a great deal precisely because he possesses and uses that thing I hesitated to call a conscience. In truth, I cannot think of many out there who wield it quite so much, or so well. But since his disappearance in early April there has been a growing chorus of outrage and outspokenness in the art community over Ai’s detainment, only to be counter-balanced by the deafening silence coming from the architectural establishment (though there are many individual cases of architects registering their protest; here for example). As I have seen it noted, this moral quietude is of little surprise when there are top firms out there (I must add, Robert Adam and Will Alsop are not guilty of this) who defend as standard practice the presence of unpaid interns in their office who do all the crap work they can’t be bothered to pay someone to do.
There was a deafening silence when Egypt and Libya started to shoot at their own citizens; it was quickly followed by an unconvincing sense of shock and statements that “we will not work for you until you be nice to those protesters”, which transpired to be in truth more like “you haven’t paid your bills on time recently, what with all the riots and what not, please call again when it’s business as usual”. See here>
Anyway, read the BD article and assess the comments of Will Alsop and Robert Adam. It is a truly shocking indictment of the prevailing cosiness of the architectural establishment to a warm moral relativism or to put it plainly, a moral bankruptcy. It does not strike me as defensible that one could suggest a moral aversion to the Chinese state, but not say it.
In future I will try to make clear my position regarding the role of the architect when working (or not) in countries with poor human rights for their citizens. I find it necessary work for an architect, but not one that is easy to summarise. But suffice it to say that there are matters of a personal moral attitude that are more important than where one stands as an architect.
In the meantime, the Financial Times (that hotbed of reactionary politics!) has the latest on Ai’s case, here.
just read this article in Spiegel Online. Quite shocking stuff.