Jonathan Meades

Monumental Vanity

The Age of Spectacle

By

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At the very beginning of this discursive, knowledgeable though sometimes clumsy book, Tom Dyckhoff declares that an architecture critic is a sightseer, a professional tourist. As job descriptions go, this appears perfunctory or falsely modest. But read on and it becomes clear that while it might not apply to the majority of architecture critics, it gets Dyckhoff to a T. He is not a particularly critical critic.

He complains, astutely enough, about the editorial pressure exerted on a newspaper critic to treat buildings as jewelled objects that are made in a vacuum uncontaminated by politics, wrangling, vanity and money (ideally someone else’s), that are pristine, stand-alone entities with no context and no neighbours. This pressure is exacerbated by the sticks and carrots of the construction industry’s massive, insidious, mendacious and threatening PR machine, which often does its grubby job better than the developers, engineers and architects whom it (mis)represents do theirs. It controls how buildings are written about and, more importantly, how they are visually portrayed. The critic is expected to compose endless paeans to the star names in the architectural firmament, even though these tin men are, with a few exceptions, far removed from the processes by which ‘their’ constructions are made: Milord Foster saw ‘his’ Millau Viaduct for the very first time a few weeks before it opened, when he spared forty minutes of his valuable time to helicopter himself to the wilds of the southern Aveyron.

Yet Dyckhoff frequently adheres to the journalistic programme he abhors. While he is no more than an apprentice starfucker, he does bring to mind Conor Cruise O’Brien’s admission after meeting the Prince de Ligne, ‘I was not insensitive, at a sub-rational level, to the penumbra of a historic name.’ Sixty years on, ‘historic’ has given way to ‘celebrity’ or ‘volubly mediated’. Dyckhoff relishes the massive privilege of hanging out with Daniel Libeskind. And absolutely nothing equals getting cosy with Frank Gehry, who, we are fascinated to learn, once shared a psychotherapist with one Herbert Muschamp. Muschamp was a ‘writer’ who expectorated the most astonishing drivel about Gehry’s buildings: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is ‘Lourdes for a crippled culture … it is a sanctuary of free association … it is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe’. Dyckhoff is more circumspect, but that is evidently not difficult. Nonetheless, he describes Gehry as the most famous architect in the world, which may or may not be the case. It is certainly indisputable that Gehry and Libeskind are, together with Santiago Calatrava, the most sedulously self-plagiaristic architects in the world. Each has an unmistakable ‘signature’, so the Croesus clients at least know what particular form of dysfunctional folly they’re getting. This is not the case with the ever-protean Richard Rogers, Rem Koolhaas or Rafael Moneo, whose Bilbao library Gehry predictably and gracelessly dismissed because it had the audacity to impinge on his Guggenheim Museum.

Cities of spectacle are becoming this young century’s norm. The bling school of architecture is a global nostrum. Take Pekka Korpinen, until recently deputy mayor of Helsinki. He would like to see an example of jaw-dropping architecture in that city. Is the man blind? Has he not noticed Lars Sonck’s magnificent work? Ah, he wants something jaw-dropping and new. Unimaginative local politicians, borderline-criminal elected mayors, vain ‘philanthropists’, thick Rotarians, optimistic local-enterprise partnerships and regional development agencies determinedly assume that non-orthogonal, sculpturally outré new buildings will foster regeneration (whatever that is). If it worked in Bilbao it’ll work in Lille, Bremen and Malmö. But has it worked in Bilbao? Gehry reels off statistics to demonstrate the supposed benefits to the city of his creation but quite neglects to mention the considerable increase in poverty there since the museum was opened and the consequently greater dependence on income assistance. Dyckhoff doesn’t challenge him.

In an interesting early chapter, Dyckhoff traces the history of the idea of ‘gentrification’ and its stuttering progress over half a century. The term was coined in 1964 by the sociologist Ruth Glass. She observed at first hand the phenomenon of inner London being slowly rebourgeoised. She ascribed this shift to the coming of age of a generation of people, then in their late twenties and early thirties, who shunned the anti-urban bias of their parents and grandparents. These were often people who worked in what was not yet called the media: their just-about fictional analogues were the characters of Mark Boxer and Peter Preston’s ‘The String-Alongs’. Glass might also have drawn attention to the minimal difference between the cost of a house in Holland Park and one in Worcester Park. London was not at that time a ‘city of spectacle’. Indeed its appeal was founded on qualities architects find difficult to understand – it was dowdy, run-down, seedy, slummy and cheap. The Clean Air Acts had been passed but the yellow-green smog wasn’t to know that. It was a delight to explore in the company of the illustrator and writer Geoffrey Fletcher’s The London Nobody Knows, which Dyckhoff evidently appreciates.

But London had once been a city of the greatest spectacle. So, at different times, had Glasgow, Hamburg, Marseille, Paris, Rome… Just about every city has at some point in its history created monuments to its might. These monuments might take the form of churches, markets, town halls, railway stations, universities, law courts, stadiums and so on. What distinguishes them from the current generation of monuments (whose terminally cool, black-swathed begetters would shudder to think of them thus) is that they were built to fulfil a purpose beyond that of being a sight-bite, a three-dimensional logo whose role is to be a photogenic, telegenic, outsize conversation piece. Some of these are sheerly ridiculous, none more so than the 170-metre-high Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, which cost £30 million to build. On the day this ‘British national icon and world class visitor attraction’ opened, its project manager got trapped in the lift to the viewing platform for ninety minutes.

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