Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Speer's spawn

The architects, including Norman Foster and Rem Koolhas, to whom Richard Lacayo refers in The Architecture of Autocracy (Foreign Policy, May/June 2008) are probably more talented (at least at architecture) than Albert Speer, and work for less odious clients than he did. But the comparison is not completely out of line.

Lacayo says he once asked Koolhas if he had any qualms about providing the headquarters for a government controlled news operation in China:
He replied that China was evolving, and he hoped that its state controlled media would eventually 'evolve into something like the BBC.'
I don't think Lacayo is impressed by this answer. I am not. It reminds me of an anecdote in The Megacity, a 2006 article by George Packer about Lagos:
Rem Koolhas described how his team, on its first visit to the city, was too intimidated to leave its car. Eventually, the group rented the Nigerian President’s helicopter and was granted a more reassuring view:

'From the air' [wrote Koolhas in an essay titled Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos], 'the apparently burning garbage turned out to be, in fact, a village, an urban phenomenon with a highly organised community living on its crust…What seemed, on ground level, an accumulation of dysfunctional movements, seemed from above an impressive performance, evidence of how well Lagos might perform if it were the third largest city in the world'.

The impulse to look at an 'apparently burning garbage heap' and see an 'urban phenomenon,' and then to make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all.
Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Koolhas, but it does look as if, at best, some 'big' architects too often look at people through the wrong end of telescope.

And -- who knows? -- perhaps the Chinese media will be shaken up by the recent earthquake in Sichuan, responses to it, and other events.

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