Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Delirious Recession

Andrew Herscher

A recent editorial by Nicolai Ourousoff, architecture critic of the New York Times, provides a very instructive glimpse into contemporary architectural politics.

According to Ourousoff's editorial, "It Was Fun Till the Money Ran Out," the profession of architecture was recently in the midst of a "major renaissance"--"one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history." This "renaissance"/"delirium" (does one always have to be the other?) came about, according to Ourousoff, because architects "once deemed too radical for the mainstream" were finally able to enter that mainstream: Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid, et al were "courted by developers" and "celebrated as major cultural figures," and their innovations were seized upon as potential elements of "shrewd business strategies," able to "win over discerning consumers but also persuade planning boards to accede to large-scale urban projects."

You could immediately inquire into the nature of this "renaissance" and ask, for example, what it was, exactly, that was being reborn here: ambition? avarice? a naked will to power? or the profession of architecture itself? And, still further, you could investigate whether a renaissance of architecture that serves to sponsor such things as what Ourousoff delicately terms "large-scale urban projects" is a renaissance worth having at all.

But such questions are no longer germane because, Ourousoff writes, the recession has withdrawn the capital that fueled the renaissance. This withdrawal, however, is a mixed blessing; while it has put a stop, for now, to architecture's willingness to "service the rich," at the same time, "a lot of wonderful architecture is being thrown out with the bad": some "spectacular additions to the Manhattan skyline" and "promising cultural projects" which are now, unfortunately, on hold.

What's striking about Ourousoff's narrative is how architecture is portrayed as a mere pawn to economic forces it can only attempt to exploit or survive. Architecture either gorges on capital, as in the recent renaissance, or it starves on capital's absence, as in the current recession. What's precluded, by definition, in Ourousoff's narrative is how crises in capitalism are not only problems for architecture but also opportunities, facilitating new sites of work, new forms of intervention, and new concepts of practice--how, in short, recessions contain their own delirious possibilities.

"It was fun till the money ran out," Ourouroff's headline announced. What he doesn't know how to announce, or even hope for, is how to "have fun" after the money runs out" how less can be more, even--or especially--when the matter at hand is capital.


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