Architectural culture has less to do with buildings, and a whole lot more to do with the reproduction of its own image. It significance is communicated through media – from super-fast blogs, news driven magazines, to books and the journals of academia. Each of these media sites allows a particular view of architecture – but in each case we see a representation of buildings that is skewed to serve a particular agenda inherent to the media itself. The difference between architecture and building might be described by its mediation, rather than its inherent quality: representation bestows the cultural value of architecture to built fabric. The overpowering effect of media allows us to engage with architectural culture but it also resists alternative views of what architecture might be.
At the Barbican, the Architecture Foundation screened two films as part of its Architecture on Film series which sought to explore views of architecture outside of these typical media windows. Niklas Goldbachs ‘Gan Eden’ and ‘Koolhaas HouseLife’ by Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine explore two iconic buildings designed at the height of late ’90s Super-Dutchism.
Gan Eden was shot in the derelict site of the Dutch Hanover Expo pavilion – a remarkable structure designed by MVRDV which surreally stacked landscapes on top of each other, looping upwards from cave to forest and so on like a multi-story car park. It represented a particular moment of architectural utopian-ironicism. Seeing the very same structure as a ruin inverts the buildings attributes: optimism is revealed as an ephemeral sham, while flippant collage becomes poetic authenticity. As we follow an unknown character up through the layers of the building, the most striking image is of large text reading ‘Future’ amongst the detritus of abandoned expo-scape.
Koolhaas Houselife also shows architecture after the media storm has passed. It tells the story of OMAs Maison a Bordeaux through the eyes of its cleaner. In a series of vignettes, we see the iconic late-twentieth century house from an alternative perspective.
We see all kinds of things broken, falling apart and leaking – as though the house as becomes a character itself straining at maintaining itself as a piece of extraordinary architecture. As water drips through the ceiling, as the cleaner struggles with a vacuum cleaner on statement spiral stairs, as books spill out of staircases we feel at once the absurdity of the design, while understanding its exceptional quality.
The film also is a meditation on the act of cleaning – joining cinematic cleaning scenes such as Snow White, where woodland animals help her spring clean, or Anthony Perkins scrubbing the bathroom at the Bates Motel. Here, isolating of the act of cleaning as the subject matter is a means of leveraging critical distance from our normal understanding of architecture. It also connects to a fundamental component of modern architecture. White, machine aesthetic modernism was in part a response to the dirt, filth and disease of the industrialised city. Light and hygiene and the aesthetic of cleanliness were part of the Modernist utopian project. In this way, we may think of cleaning as a fundamentally architectural act.
As a bonus, Koolhass Houselife also includes a short interview with Rem himself. We first see him – somewhat uncomfortably – watching the film. As the interview continues, we can almost perceive the process of assimilation that seems to characterise so much of his work, as though he’s absorbing the critical content and rephrasing it as a polemical position.
The space between architecture and media has shrunk to a point where it is hard to distinguish one from another. The power of the spectacular, fresh image has distorted the ways in which we make architecture – as exemplified by the rise of so called iconic buildings. By prising apart buildings from their typical representation these films destabalise architectural certainties and allow us to see things that we thought we knew in new ways. They are examples of media which recognise its role in architectural culture, but resists traditional formats and expectations in favor less circumscribed ambition. They show un-idealised architectural scenarios beyond the rhetoric of architects or the hype of media. By evading these formulas, they demonstrate opportunities to escape from the feedback loop of architecture and media.