Mark Jarzombek*, “The Shanghai Expo and the Rise of Pop-Arch,” Log 31, Spring-Summer 2014, p145-160.
Determined that architecture is firmly locked in metaphysical abstraction, here Jarzombek is trying to find a way to break out of that institutionally enforced “compulsion.” He turns to the 20th century European divide between the avant-garde and kitsch, between the fashion-forward and the every day, in order to liberate the long-suppressed value of cultural signifiers in architecture, repressed since Postmodernism. The result is “Pop-Arch,” an architecture that is unabashed about its cultural references and allusive games, an architecture that is specifically not interested in the Postmodernist game of codifying and control, but that uses “cultural signifiers as bullet holes in the hermetically sealed institutionalities of architectural abstraction.” Jarzombek looks at several non-Western pavilions at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and a wider body of projects dating back to the 80s to present the case of Pop-Arch as “theoretical other”—whose idiosyncratic non-theory poses a departure point from formal abstraction.
Jarzombek spends little time proving architecture’s covert metaphysics and the veracity of the point is immediately apparent: the contemporary discipline is locked in a two-directional end game of metaphysical abstraction. Regarding the historical, we are presented with UNESCO’s catalogue of sanitized architectural objects, hygienic and abstracted from either contemporary or historical context. Regarding the contemporary, Jarzombek describes a Google Image search of “contemporary architecture”: white, angular and curvilinear abstractions. Little more proof is necessary as we are all familiar with the overwhelming body of renders and controversial projects he has invoked.
“In essence, UNESCO wants us (“universally”) to use the sites of architecture’s sanitized history to build a new society elevated above the presumed groundlessness of modernity and the cluttered realities of local politics. The same ambition…is implied in the aesthetics of ‘contemporary architecture.’ It too promises a metaphysical break, or at least a calculated reprieve, from the ugly reality that lurks just beyond the frame. Together they promise a symmetry of redemption.”
The specific metaphysics of this two-headed abstraction are not necessarily important. Historical abstraction harkens to a metaphysics of universalism and idyllism; contemporary abstraction reduces the realities of our world to an altogether ignorable entity, further separating internal disciplinary dialogue from the real world, while evoking the promise of utopia. While the Postmodernists rejected abstraction as being “mute” or as an “empty signifier,” instead promoting a semiotics of cultural signifiers, Jarzombek points out that abstraction is “saturated with metaphysical promise,” is “the signifier of teleological cleanliness.” It is in this ideologically charged cleanliness and general “reified sanity” that we can see UNESCO and Zaha performing the same function.
The rise of abstraction is more or less easy to trace, and Jarzombek points to its origin in midcentury theory, particular the battles over Postmodernism. Specifically, he points to the avant-garde/kitsch divide of Clement Greenberg (1939), though later the battle for the every day was pitched over the agenda and, eventually, legacy of Postmodernism. Jarzombek mentions here Venturi and Jencks, predictably bracketing the Postmodern movement, but we should also remain aware that the Postmodern endeavor to codify cultural signs and space was undertaken by many others like Denise Scott Brown, Diana Agrest, Mario Gandelsonas, and the Smithsons.
By the 80s, Postmodernist cultural fluency was almost completely routed by the formal abstraction of the establishment’s new favorites, and the digitally-articulated formalism of the last decade and a half is a consequence of that original theoretical turn. The institutionalization of abstraction, it’s mainstream hegemony, has produced a “self-dialectic that disavows the presence of a whole range of imaginaries.” Just as, arguably, Sherer accuses the “digital regime” of having excluded methodological alternatives, so too has abstraction elbowed out cultural signs as material for ‘legitimate’ architecture.
For examples of this Pop-Arch of cultural signifiers—that is, importantly, free of the Structuralist endeavors of Postmodernism—Jarzombek looks at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. On the one hand we all can remember the Heatherwick Pavilion, and may set it firmly in the abstract column. On the other we see the pavilions of Macau, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, each employing signifiers of culture, tradition, and crafts to develop rich architectural semantics. For more literal deployments of the “kitsch,” there is Sang Architect’s Orient Tower (Auckland, 1985)—which is clearly the skyscraper version of a pagoda—and Longaberger Company Headquarters (Dresden, Ohio, 1997)—which is a seven story basket housing the offices of a company that makes baskets, complete with functional handles. “Pop-Arch,” says Jarzombek, “becomes a supplement that ‘plays’ between presence and absence. It is an embarrassment to the field of architecture.” It doesn’t promote kitsch over abstraction, but rejects the division altogether, allowing “for a whole new set of epistemological experimentations to be figured forth.”
The role of the avant-garde / kitsch divide as origin point for contemporary abstraction and the wholesale institutional rejection of cultural signifiers is presented as only one possible explanation. Consequently, Jarzombek’s Pop-Arch is also presented as one possible means of producing a theoretical other with the power of challenging the hegemony of abstraction. Even then, by being inherently ironic and subversive, Pop-Arch is not a discipline-wide solution to abstraction; it’s status as “theoretical other” is limited, shockingly, to the dialect challenge it presence to the discipline’s contemporary metaphysics.
There is also proof that the increasingly reductive abstraction of the last decade has, at various moments, become uncomfortable even for the most institutionally lauded firms. This is apparent in efforts to further justify abstraction with function, resulting in methodologies like UN Studio’s working diagrams or the faux-functionalism of BIG’s architectural “solutions”—which read more as sales pitches than architecture-planning responses to urban problems. And as abstraction confronts localized applications of technology, there has emerged the endeavor to functionalize the façade or justify even minor aesthetic choices as function-driven. These are cases where the hegemony of metaphysical purity directly confronts the emergence of other institutionalized fashions—another, separate discussion.
*Jarzombek is the associate dean of the school of arch and planning at MIT.
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