Roger Connah: on cultural and architectural relativism

“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground. Suffering, criticism then begins to carnivalize itself, repeating and replicating tired schemata. And when such free-for-all occurs, criticism so often seeks more than mere support from other disciplines.”

Roger Connah – How Architecture Got Its Hump

A recent reading group discussion focused on Reyner Banham’s classic essay on brutalism. After a lively debate I noted that such an essay would probably be impossible today. Impossible because there are no collective movements or shared beliefs against which one could propose an alternative view. The Smithson’s brutalism, whatever one may think of the movement and its legacy, had the benefit of making us see what was wrong with the status-quo. In a sense, it didn’t matter which side of the debate you stood on, at least you could identify the traits of the adversary and they could identify yours. Such engagements, which happened throughout the history of modern art and architecture (purism versus cubism, colour-field painting versus abstract expressionism, futurism versus dada versus surrealism, CIAM versus Team X, the Whites versus the Greys, etc.) enabled one to hone one’s position. When you go public with a critique of a large group you need to have done your homework. A reply from the opposing side often meant you had to refine your critique, respond to weaknesses, or clarify your intentions. This was good for both sides. It kept everyone sharp.

This kind of discourse seems absent today despite the fact that there are some rather contradictory practices out there. Even traditionalists escape criticism from those that are resolutely contemporary in the name of let’s-all-get-along pluralism. It’s a nice ideal but it makes you lazy and complacent. But the biggest problem is that of the ‘private worlds’ and private languages which serves to alienate more and more of the general public. The absence of shared languages means an absence of shared discourse. No discussion, no debate, no public.

If this self-imposed moratorium on critical discourse has a birth date, in the spirit of Charles Jencks (who dated the death of modern architecture), I suggest 15 November 1987. This is the date the Chicago Tapes was published (Rizzoli, ed. Stanley Tigerman). This book was a follow up to the Charlottesville Tapes, both of which consisted of a transcription of a super-crit among the leading architects of the time. The first event burned a number of well-known architects – in the introduction to the second volume Stanley Tigerman refers to participants being ‘bloodied’ in Chicago. Tigerman then describes the ‘carefully cordial’ behaviour and laments the absence of the ‘behavioural outbursts’ of the Chicago event suggesting that a kind of tacit truce had been established. Since then open debate and conflict has all but disappeared (rare exceptions exist like the Michigan Debates on Urbanism).

The latter part of the quote is a reference to inter- and multi-disciplinarity – the suggestion is that the absence of shared discourses has led criticism to seek support elsewhere. But in the rest of Connah’s book we see that this engagement with non-architectural fields has not always been (or mostly been) productive. The relationship between relativism and inter/multi-disciplinarity is an interesting one – one that is not often noted and one that I hadn’t quite picked up on. It’s encouraging that someone of the stature of Connah can say out loud that something has gone wrong in the last thirty years. Still, it’s a drop in the ocean; the quote is 12 years old now and not much has changed.

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