Through iron and glass, darkly

A review of Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure

Image: Cover to Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure (2012)

The following review was published in shortened form several weeks ago in Radical Philosophy 181. Included here are some passages that were excised from the final printed version, as well as some footnotes.

Douglas Murphy’s debut, The Architecture of Failure (2012), is an odd and unsettling monograph. The book begins with a description of our present moment as heralding “a new period of Ruinenlust,” in which there exists a preponderant passion for the ruins of modernity, as opposed to Romanticism’s earlier infatuation with the ruins of antiquity. Like his peer, the British architecture critic Owen Hatherley, Murphy sets out to recover through his study the image of “a potential future that only existed in the past.”1 Whereas Hatherley approaches this theme head-on, however — directly confronting the avant-garde legacy in his 2009 manifesto, Militant Modernism — Murphy prefers to address it more obliquely.2 The Architecture of Failure looks at the spans of time that bracket the modern movement on either side. Murphy opens with an examination of the “ferro-vitreous” age, from Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 to Dutert’s 1889 Galerie des Machines. The second half of the book covers the drift from exhausted postwar modernism toward the renewal of architectural transparency following the turbulence and upheaval of 1968.3

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (1997)

Certain peculiarities complicate what is otherwise a solid and convincing, if perhaps a bit oversubtle, thesis. One of The Architecture of Failure’s more confusing features is the structural asymmetry of its two sections. While the first part of the book is devoted to an interpretation of three specific buildings of the iron and glass age — the glamorous Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, its decidedly less spectacular reincarnation at Sydenham two years later, and the ill-fated Albert Palace off the River Thames — the second part instead deals with three general trends within post-’68 architecture — trends that Murphy christens Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism.7 This imbalance can be slightly disconcerting for readers who anticipate a continuation of detailed analyses of individual structures beyond the earlier chapters. To be sure, the chapters on Solutionism (postmodernism/“high-tech,” roughly) and Iconism (post-structuralism/“decon,” again roughly) include passing treatments of Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Center in Paris and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.8 But Virtualism, a kind of Deleuzean neo-baroque, finds no built equivalent. Its reality is instead displaced onto the unconstrained imaginary space of digital “diagrams,” allowing for infinitesimally intricate, schizoid patterns of design.9

In fact, there is a way in which the second half of the book almost forms a microcosm of the original Crystal Palace at Hyde Park described in the first. Following a brief interlude near the middle where Murphy touches on the modernist moment, the architectonic of his argument opens up, beginning to resemble the format of a classic nineteenth-century Expo. Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism are itemized, stereotyped, and put on display, as if laid out in booths or pavilions that the reader-flâneur can wander spectrally to and from. If not an historicist inventory of styles, The Architecture of Failure at least in this respect showcases the various ideologemes, mannerisms, and rhetorical conceits that comprise contemporary architecture. Murphy recapitulates this Expo effect in miniature modules, outlining the characteristics that most exemplify each tendency.

Patrik Schumacher, architects' hotel in Belgrade

Patrik Schumacher, architects’ hotel in Belgrade

But Murphy’s sympathy for interdisciplinary usages of “Theory” only extends so far. His criticism of the role it has played in recent architecture is twofold. At one level, he objects to its superficiality. Murphy has little patience for building proposals that look to press “Theory” into service in order to fulfill arbitrary stylistic ends. He therefore faults some practitioners for “bringing theory into architecture as a purely aesthetic device.”13 Relatively speaking, however, this part of Murphy’s criticism is rather tame. Its other side is, by contrast, far more damning. For insofar as it supposedly constitutes a form of “radical critique,” he contends, “Theory” functions to exonerate architects in advance for whatever oversights or questionable design decisions they might make. It becomes a kind of ritualistic gesture, simply “a way of avoiding a wider self-criticism.”14 By citing the right authors and referencing the right texts, the book alleges, architects are able to set up an ideological smokescreen so as to disguise the actual content of their activity.

Murphy does not mince words condemning such methods, however. Those who rely on them are, to his mind, nothing more than “conservatives masquerading in ‘radical’ clothes.”15 Still, The Architecture of Failure wisely refrains from committing the opposite error of denying all legitimacy to theoretical explorations of architecture. Generally speaking, the stance Murphy adopts toward the predominance of “Theory” in the field of contemporary architecture is far more nuanced than those that either blithely celebrate its sophistication or sneeringly dismiss it out of hand. Ultimately, his appraisal of its effect is historical in the way it gauges the cumulative influence of “Theory” upon the discipline: “Difference is becoming standardized, the unique is becoming generic.”16

Exterior of Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

Exterior of Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

“The Crystal Palace was certainly one of the most significant early moments of modern capitalism,” Murphy writes. “Indeed, it is widely described as the moment in which modern (or even postmodern) capitalist culture was born, the point at which the gaze of capitalism first turned back upon itself and the symbolic value of the products that it was consuming; the very beginnings of ‘the spectacle.’”18 This spectacular reflexivity, whereby men stand transfixed before the products of their labor, is part and parcel of the phenomenon of reification. Incidentally, this also allows Murphy to establish a homology between the Crystal Palace (1851) and the Pompidou Center (1971) in relation to their time. Whereas the former recalls liberal policies of laissez-faire and free trade promulgated by Cobden and the Manchester School, the latter conjures up associations with neoliberal policies of deregulation and financialization as formulated by Hayek and the Austrian School:

The Pompidou Center 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 program of display…Finally, both were “radical” designs by relative outsiders, won through public competition. Rogers and Piano’s winning design…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.

Once again Murphy emphasizes the element of “social unrest” that lay behind the building of the structure, in this case the Pompidou Center. The passage is packed with a number of embedded references, which might be briefly borne out: “flexibility” suggests the well-known Marxian interpretation of neoliberalism as a regime of “flexible accumulation”;19 the description of Pompidou as a “massive shed” calls to mind Brown and Venturi’s populist ideal of the “decorated shed”;20 the word “event,” as Murphy mentions in passing, acquired unmistakable political overtones after the “events” of 1968 (particularly in French Theory).21 As before with the Crystal Palace, the Pompidou is understood as a spatial manifestation of broader historical forces. Murphy draws another parallel between the two buildings, this time in terms of their epochal significance. “[J]ust as the Great Exhibition can be analyzed as marking a fundamental shift, the birth of the modern consumer,” he writes, “the Pompidou Center can signify the shift into the postmodern world of consumption.”22

Figure 4: Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

All this should raise some questions regarding the nature of the “failure” contained in the book’s title. What sort of failure is Murphy investigating in The Architecture of Failure? Though the author insists that the issues discussed in the text are “as much architectural issues as any other kind,” it is difficult not to feel that there is something more at stake.25 Murphy is engaging in a species of ideology critique — a “critique of architectural ideology” in the vein of Tafuri.26 Some of the failures portrayed in the book are strictly architectural in character, but more often than not these failures attest to deeper political failures that have taken place in society over the last sesquicentennial. Murphy’s The Architecture of Failure skillfully maneuvers over diverse historical terrain without ever losing sight of this central thematic, using architecture as a lens through which the political regression of recent times may be viewed with melancholic lucidity.


1 Murphy, Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. (Zero Books. Washington, DC: 2012). Pgs. 1-2.
2 Compare: “We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism. (Zero Books. Washington, D.C.: 2009). Pg. 3.
3 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pg. 76.
4 Ibid., pg. 138.
5 Ibid., pg. 139.
6 Ibid., pg. 3.
7 The book’s structure runs as follows. Part I — the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park: ibid., pgs. 12-23; at Sydenham: ibid., pgs. 24-43; the Albert Palace: ibid., pgs. 44-60. Part II — Solutionism: ibid., pgs. 77-98; Iconism: ibid., pgs. 99-118; Virtualism: ibid., pgs. 119-137.
8 On Pompidou: ibid., pgs. 84-86, 97, 118; on Guggenheim Bilbao: ibid., pgs. 100, 113-116, 121.
9 On “diagramming”: ibid., pgs. 123-125, 127, 134; on “schizophrenic processes”: ibid., pg. 122.
10 On Schumacher: ibid., pg. 135; on Eisenman: ibid., pg. 105.
11 Ibid., pg. 103.
12 On Derrida: ibid., pgs. 20-21, 38-39, 59-60, 107, 109, 119; on Benjamin: ibid., pgs. 34-35, 59-60; on Deleuze and Guattari: ibid., pgs. 122-130, 134. On the irony: ibid., pgs. 100-101.
13 Ibid., pg. 107.
14 Ibid., pg. 104.
15 Ibid., pg. 111.
16 Ibid., pg. 136.
17 Ibid., pgs. 22-23.
18 Ibid., pg. 23.
19 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. (Blackwell Publishers. Cambridge, MA: 1990). Pgs. 141-172.
20 Brown, Denise Scott and Venturi, Robert. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1972). Pgs. 87-89.
21 Some prominent examples include Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 89, 93,187-192. Original from 1968.
…….Barthes, Roland. “Writing the Event.” Translated by Richard Howard. The Rustle of Language. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1986). Pgs. 149-155. Original from 1968.
…….Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Translated by Alan Bass. The Margins of Philosophy. (The Harvester Press. Chicago, IL: 1982). Pgs. 307-330. Original from 1971.
22 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pgs. 84-85.
23 Ibid., pg. 69.
24 Ibid., pg. 80.
25 Ibid., pg. 23.
26 Tafuri, Manfredo. “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” Translated by K. Michael Hays. Architectural Theory since 1968. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 29.

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