Architecture and failed revolutions

Taken from notes for a review

Image: Elevation and floor plans
for Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851)


Douglas Murphy’s Architecture of Failure (2012)

On Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851) and the failed revolutions of 1848:

[W]here there is self-aggrandizement, fear and doubt is never far away — the Great Exhibition being held in 1851 cannot help but bring forth images of revolutions and insurgency. The Great Exhibition was being organized and formulated in the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848, and in the UK, the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law movement threatened to unleash the same turmoil on British soil. In this context the Great Exhibition has been understood as a “counter-revolutionary measure,” as a symbolic plaster over open social wounds, but it was also moving in the direction of economic and political liberalization; “it offered the tantalizing prospect of implicitly supporting free trade but distracting the public from revolution.” It was a path between a volatile working class and a protectionist aristocracy. It is well documented that before the exhibition there were all kinds of worries — of assassinations, of terrorism, of petty violence, of disease, of infrastructural collapse, but it is equally well documented that the exhibition passed without any violence or even significant disruption; the hordes of anarchists failed to materialize. [Pgs. 22-23]

William Edward Kilburn, photograph of the Chartists' meeting at Kennington (1848), under five miles from Hyde Park

William Edward Kilburn, photograph of the Chartists’ meeting at Kennington (1848), under five miles from Hyde Park

Sketch of the interior of the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park (1851)

Sketch of the interior of the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park (1851)

On Piano’s Pompidou Center (1971) and the failed revolutions of 1968:

The Pompidou Centre marks the largest attempt to elaborate the theoretical and practical concerns of the period in a single building; and we can compare it to the Crystal Palace in a number of interesting ways: both were commissioned by the state, both were conceived within the context of periods of social unrest, both called for an unprecedented programme of display (the Pompidou Center was to be an art gallery, but an art gallery stripped of the institutional elitism associated with that particular typology; rather, it was to be the first “cultural center”). Finally, both were “radical” designs by relative outsiders, won through public competition. Rogers and Piano’s winning design was filled with “Zoom” ideas; the concept hinged upon notions of flexibility; the building would be a massive shed with little or no internal division; massive moveable internal spaces serviced entirely from their periphery would be created; the designers would merely provide the space for ‘events’, with all the post-’68 connotations that the word brought up.

The problems of the Pompidou are well known; the much-vaunted flexibility was compromised from the very start, budgets and regulations led to static floors and partitioned halls and the exposed services led to massive maintenance costs. We find here the problem of the “solutionist” denial of aesthetics: no matter how much the rhetoric might speak of indeterminacy, what actually came about was that “the Piano and Rogers team managed to erect the monument to the zoom wave.” As well as this there were conceptual problems; just as the Great Exhibition can be analysed as marking a fundamental shift, the birth of the modern consumer, the Pompidou Centre can signify the shift into the postmodern world of consumption. Jean Baudrillard would say: “Beaubourg represents both the fact of culture and the thing which killed culture, the thing it succumbed to, in other words, the confusion of signs, the excess, the profusion.” And true enough, this new paradigm of culture-machine would indeed spread massively towards the end of the century, but of course without the unpredictable freedom that was the original intention. [Pgs. 84-85]

3th arrondissement, Rue Beaubourg. Monday, May 13th 1968. Students and workers demonstrating from Place de la Republique to Place Denfert-Rochereau. Paris, France

3rd arrondissement, Rue Beaubourg. Monday, May 13 1968. Students and workers demonstrating in Beaubourg. Paris, France

The Centre Pompidou in the Beaubourg district under construction (1971-1977)

Centre Pompidou in the Beaubourg district under construction (1971-1977)

On the question of their comparison:

Should the comparison between contemporary architectural culture and the late 19th century be taken seriously? Although it has a neatness to it, it is not my intention to posit some kind of perfect cycle of history here; it is enough to point out that the bearers of the avant-garde legacy actually have more in common with the culture against which modernism defined itself than they do with radical modernism itself. [Pg. 138]

The fact is that the poor architecture that manages to get built is a reflection of our depressing political situation. This is nothing new; but certainly it has been strange to see what has happened to modern architecture under the influence of the politics of the last thirty years. The helpless apathy of populations is reflected in the apathy of the designers who are supposedly working at the cutting edge, and this book is at least partly the result of a conviction that the lack of any genuine radicalism in architecture is a deeply negative trend. [Pg. 139]

Charles Fourier's phalanstère (1848)

Charles Fourier’s phalanstère proposal (1832)

Hannes Meyer's submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition (1931)

Hannes Meyer’s submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition (1931)

On the remoteness revolutionary architecture today:

In light of the new lessons learned in our historical study of these architectural failures we will also examine a number of movements supposedly carrying on the technological tradition of modernism, using the new insights to critique supposedly radical streams of contemporary architecture. The analysis of the iron & glass buildings and their failure will show that far from a continuous legacy of radical modernism, the problems of architecture and its relationship to culture and technology that they posed are still unresolved today; in fact, it will be argued that we are as far away from a revolutionary architecture now as we were at the time the iron & glass buildings emerged. [Pg. 3]

5 thoughts on “Architecture and failed revolutions

  1. The post makes the general mistake that the mid-19th century was a failed popular revolution, or at best a counter-revolution. However examination of even the basic facts of the period indicates neither is the case, unless one wants to side with slavery as a popular cause (American Civil War 1861-1865) or wants to ignore the creation of two new great powers (Germany, Italy), or wants to ignore the fall of a 250 year old regime (Japan) and would prefer to forget about the liberation of Latin America (1810-1829), as well as smaller events (Switzerland 1848).
    Instead, it is better to look at architecture as an expression of the forces that are driving successful revolution, and accept the revolution as it was, rather than prescriptively presume what revolution should have occurred.

    • The book could do more to question of how to define revolution in relation to architecture, yet Murphy’s handling of Benjamin is masterly on all counts, excepting an understanding how archaic structures (The Arcades) can be recycled rather than torn down, and this happens much more in slower economies, or at least left standing as ruins, …
      Or whether the failure he means is that of revolution or simply the lack of continuation of these structures. He seems to deem iron and glass as failure simply because these materials and structures were superseded by steel and concrete, yet the exhibition hall format that brought together decorative arts and inventions were transported to Exhibition Road, which surprisingly, he fails to mention or the links between Bucky’s and Frei’s bubble structures and the Crystal Palace, which had as far as structures go a long life 1850 – 1930s. A brilliant book worth reading.

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