Every success harbours the seeds of its own failure. Somewhere in the hubristic peak of what feels like complete accomplishment lurks the complacency, arrogance and absence of doubt that fans the inevitable, all-consuming bonfire of vanities. It’s just this kind of raging self-immolation that has cindered the global economic landscape – in days, the terrain completely transformed.
This swiftness of the transformation hits built culture hard. The economic collapse has revealed the world as a place undescribed by the maps and charts we had drawn. Designed for one scenario, buildings find themselves completed in a different landscape, appearing on the skyline like giant mausolea for a failed ideology, or abandoned half-built like freshly minted ruins.
The markets had evolved into hyper sophisticated, super-calibrated, cleverly geared systems whose logics supported an ever-finer kind of abstraction. They became a machine for manufacturing value and growth in vaporous form, decoupled from substance. Their failure is the failure of a particular kind of technological, algorithmically programmed fantasy of abstraction.
History suggests that the construction of the most ambitious architectural projects immediately precedes the deepest economic slumps. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen in progression from the Guggenheim Bilbao to the cities from zero in the Gulf. This headline grabbing architecture has been driven by the logic of the boom. That’s to say, the ideology of the global market has been the context for architecture. These projects attempted to turn the flush of cash and credit delivered by fluctuations of abstract systems into something real: a thing or a place. They sprung up in the ruins of industry or were fueled by the fleeting bounty of mineral extraction. And they were designed around the most distracted and least reliable kind of programme: tourism. Each project competing as a destination to max out vacationers credit lines. It’s created an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes.
This unreality has infused architectural production, often finding resolution in hysterical, liquid, fluid form at audacious scale – the kind of thing recently dubbed ‘Parametricism’. (Note: Just as the height of building might be a warning sign of impending turmoil, the articulation of a stylistic manifesto is a sure sign of hubristic overconfidence). Displays of beyond-human formal complexity drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference – a difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism. Appropriately, these projects seem to use the very same kind of tools that has maximized, magnified, and deepened our current financial crisis. If the Modern movement had the abstraction of industry as its reference, millennial architecture had the systemized abstraction of late capitalism.
This union of ideology and form has decoupled in dramatic fashion. The swift disjunction leaves a generation of architecture rendered instantly out of time – as un-possible as Gothic architecture in the Renaissance. These glistening new-ruins are adrift in the landscape of global recession, abandoned like ghost ships, doomed to unknown fates.
Architecture stands as a record of sensations long vanished. Through it we can vicariously experience sensations of vanished cultures. At Versailles we can feel the vanity, excess, and self-glorification of pre-revolutionary France; At Chartres, the soaring, overbearing might and mysticism of medieval religion; At Stonehenge we feel the presence of something than we will never know.
Tomorrows visitors to todays (or yesterdays) iconic buildings will feel the swoosh of volumes, the cranked out impossibility of structure, the lightheadedness of refection and translucencies. They will marvel at buildings that hardly touch the ground, which swoop into the air as though drawn up by the jet stream. They will feel stretched by elongated angles that seem sucked into vanishing points that confound perspective, and will be seduced by curves of such overblown sensuality. And in this litany of affects they will find the most permanent record of the heady liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics. We might rechristen these freakish sites as museums of late capitalist experience, monuments to a never to be repeated faith in the global market.