These were the words of the year in architecture: Basic. Fundamental. Primitive. Ancient.
If fashion had normcore — the flaunting of a bland, practical and Gap-like aesthetic, the plain sweatshirt as statement of principles — architecture reset itself this year in an even more fascinating (if occasionally desperate) way.
In a culture and an economy being dizzyingly remade by technology, architecture chose to embrace not the future, where architects, like so many creative people, can seem superfluous, but the past. And not the recent past of the 1970s and 1980s — a bit of post-modern revivalism notwithstanding — but the long past.
Because architecture is slow, we’ve yet to see this impulse reveal itself in finished buildings (although there is something of the super-normal, the banal stretched to its monumental breaking point, in Michael Maltzan’s One Santa Fe apartments on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles). But in exhibitions, temporary pavilions, little magazines and lectures, it was seemingly everywhere.
Rem Koolhaas directed this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice — still the most important gathering in the field — and called his version “Fundamentals.” He dedicated a gallery each to the history of the floor, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet and the elevator.
It was a back-to-basics bacchanal, a return-to-first-principles extravaganza, with all the Koolhaasian contradiction that implies. It was also a way of taking comfort in architecture’s origins, in a time when architects had more power than they do now.
There was, in other words, a critique of the present inherent in the show’s backward gaze. Instead of giving architects more control, putting more and better design tools at their disposal, technology has in fact dramatically reduced their sphere of influence.
One of the Biennale’s representative villains was Nest, the digital thermostat maker, which stood in for all the ways that high-tech breakthroughs are colonizing territory once controlled by architects. In the old days an architect put a fireplace in the wall and people gathered there; soon enough Nest or a company like it will be able to follow individuals through the house, surrounding them with little moving pockets of heat.
What architect can compete with that?
The Biennale dissected architecture’s building blocks, its basic corpus. That made it an autopsy — a joke that too many people reviewing the show missed. I was also disappointed that so few critics made the short leap from “Fundamentals,” Koolhaas’ title, to “fundamentalism,” a third-rail word he studiously avoided.
Who embraces fundamentalism most passionately? The powerless. Not just the faithful but the desperate.
But let’s not give Koolhaas too much credit. The show was uneven and sometimes too pleased with itself. As usual what he demonstrated most clearly was his talent for weather-vaning, for measuring the zeitgeist down to the millimeter.
And what’s in the air at the moment, as he divined, is this embrace of the basic. This year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, by the Chilean architect Smiljan Radic, was an egg-shaped structure that looked a bit like a spaceship in photographs but in person revealed itself as downright prehistoric. It had an obvious kinship with Peter Zumthor’s primordial, tar-pit-inspired design for the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
At the REDCAT gallery inside Walt Disney Concert Hall, Ruth Estevez and the Belgian architect Kersten Geers organized a smart and exquisite if rather opaque exhibition called “Small Museum for the American Metaphor.” Though ostensibly about how Europeans look at and think about California, it was also a collection of objects from architecture’s near and distant past: photographs and models arranged with a kind of archaeological enthusiasm.
The show managed an anachronistic trick that seemed entirely of this moment: It made the sleekly ahistorical (Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center) look historical, comfortably old, and the cleverly historical (Robert Venturi and Scott Brown’s scheme for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio) look freshly contemporary. It was about the distance — of time or geography — required to change architecture from cliché to revelation and back again.
The most intriguing architectural journals were mining a similar vein in 2014. San Rocco, based in Milan, dedicated an issue to the “primitive hut.” In an issue guest edited by Dora Epstein Jones and Bryony Roberts, New York’s Log profiled a group of mostly youngish designers, curators and academics interested in what it called “history’s history,” calling them “The New Ancients.”
This was architectural history of the nimbly time-traveling sort, starting before post-modernism but also before neo-classicism and classicism itself. The (often unsung) hero of many of these efforts is Bernard Rudofsky, who organized an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1964, exploring timeless, authorless vernacular design, called “Architecture Without Architects.”
Technology has made it easy for buildings to look exotic, futuristic and otherworldly. It has given young designers as well as consumers the ability to rifle effortlessly through the cultural past. (See: Spotify, Netflix, Google image search, etc.) But it has also made clear that power and influence increasingly lie outside of architecture, in other fields.
The emphasis on the basic this year is surely a response to that digital upheaval. (As San Rocco put it, rather grandly, an interest in architecture’s origins “resurfaces every time we are confronted with great transformations.”) It is also an effort to recapture and reanimate the territory that belongs to architecture alone.
Whether this turn is productive or merely a cover, a place to hide out while Zuckerberg, Bezos et al remake the rest of the world, is an important open question. Closing ranks can be useful — but only as means rather than end.
Architecture spent the year puzzling over its own self-sufficiency, finding various ways to wonder if it is capable, for the first time in a long while, of standing on its own two feet. Next year maybe we’ll start seeing answers to that question.