Book review: Architecture between spectacle and use (2011)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein
(edited by Ross Wolfe)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein contacted me about a week ago inquiring if I’d be interested in publishing her review of Architecture between Spectacle and Use, edited by Anthony Vidler, on The Charnel-House. Glancing over it just superficially, I could immediately tell it pertained to the blog’s focus and broader statement of intent. Though it was a bit rough in parts, I edited it down into its present form, appearing here for the first time.

Architecture between Spectacle and Use
, a collection edited by Anthony Vidler,[1] focuses on the concepts of “spectacle” and “use” as they appear in many recent international projects and designs. It evaluates their role by situating within a broader historical context, moving on from there to consider current examples. As its title suggests, the book’s essays examine the condition of contemporary architecture in terms of factors such as “usage” and “display.” The book advances a comprehensive criticism of prevalent architectural tendencies today, going over specific examples and approaching them from different angles. In so doing, it focuses on the various contexts in which spectacle and use relate. This review primarily assesses the relationship between spectacle and use and different approaches appraised within different contents and submits a certain role of criticism about the theme of the book.

In the introduction, Vidler starts the discussion by evaluating Hal Foster’s critique of the “spectacular” Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. Foster clarifies by indicating that “spectacle is an image accumulated to the point where it becomes capital,”[2] Vidler continues by citing Hal Foster’s position on contemporary architecture. He makes three general comments on Foster’s critical framework. First, he draws a comparison between Frank Loyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. He adds that although Wright’s Manhattan Guggenheim has a formal logic based on programmatic considerations, Gehry’s museum mostly serves as a tourist attraction.[3] Secondly, Vidler mentions not only Foster’s criticisms of the “Bilbao effect” associated with Gehry, but also his criticisms of other master architects like Rem Koolhaas. Vidler’s third major point regards the way Foster approaches architecture in terms of expression. This leads Foster to characterize it in vague, underspecified terms such as “the sublime,” “the baroque,” etc.[4] The most important thing for Vidler about Foster’s critique is its emphasis on the way in which images directly serve the market economy and the limits this imposes on architects in design process, especially given their responsibility to the public.

Though Vidler explicitly criticizes some of the terms Foster uses to conduct his analysis, he implicitly reaffirms Foster’s centrality to the discussion. He accepts that architectural images are designed according to the demands of consumer society. But at the same time, he also explores some of the incidental benefits that accrue to contemporary architecture even if it has become “identical” to this society of consumption. Vidler begins by quoting the Situationist critic Guy Debord:

The problem of architecture is not to be seen from outside, nor to live inside. It is in the dialectical relationship interior and exterior, at the scale of urbanism (houses-streets) and at the scale of the house (interior-exterior).[5]

Working from this passage, Vidler explores some of the relationships that exist for Debord between an architectural “image” and its public “context.” Continue reading

Lenin of Borg

It’s likely, after all, that the Borg Collective in Star Trek was based on Evgenii Zamiatin’s satiric — if not dystopic — depiction of a collectivized society in his 1921 book We. So it is only right and natural that Lenin would eventually be assimilated into its hive mind as well. Patrick Stewart of the first-person plural.