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A video talk about modern architecture

At some point last weekend, on a whim, I did some ego-googling, and discovered that maybe I should do this more often. Because, what I got to was a video of me giving a talk, last February, about modern architecture to the Libertarian Alliance, early this year. I of course knew that it was being videoed at the time, but had assumed that they didn’t reckon it good enough to see the light of YouTube. But I was mistaken.

I managed to watch the thing all through without too much pain, but there is one glaring contradiction built into it, which is that my account of the emergence of the nineteenth century American skyscraper contradicts what I later said about form in modern architecture never following function. If by “form” is meant how a building looks, then it is indeed the case, as I said, that “form” in modern architecture follows fashion rather than function. And as a general rule, as I go on to say, a building can pretty much be changed from one use to another, depending not on what shape it is but depending on what people want to do in it. Most buildings have floors, walls, roofs, and provided you aren’t trying to accommodate a Boeing 747 or a rugby match or some such thing, then for most purposes any old building, plus a bit of indoor rearrangement, will do.

But there is (at least) one huge exception to this generalisation about the tendency of form not to follow function. The function of a skyscraper (the skyscraper and its emergence in late nineteenth century America being central to the entire story of modern architecture) is to fit a lot of people into a small urban area, and the characteristic form of a skyscraper accomplishes precisely that. It is that shape because it has to be. Form follows function. So, bad me.

But then again, part of the reason you give talks is for you yourself to listen to what you said (which is far easier if someone records it for you) and then for you to decide what you think about it.

Chairman David McDonaugh’s introduction of me was more an ambush than an introduction, and I floundered about in his trap for a while (be patient please). The title was one thing when I started talking, but they ended up calling it something rather different, and for good reasons. The talk is rather episodic, the episodes towards the end being in a somewhat random order. My attempts to wave drawings in front of the camera were not always as informative as I would have liked. Plus, I refer to my friend Patrick Crozier without making it clear video viewers that he was present, in the front row. (Patrick and I did a recorded conversation about architecture in 2007, which covered similar ground to this talk, and which I listened to again by way of preparation for this talk.)

So, a bit of a muddle. But nevertheless, overall, I am still sufficiently pleased with this performance to want to flag it up here, if only to provoke others who could do better on this topic to go ahead and do so. My belated thanks to the LA both for making the video, and for making it available.

5 comments to A video talk about modern architecture

  • Dave Walker

    I remember seeing a documentary a few months ago on either Channel 4 or 5, I forget which, about the rather splendid puece of civil engineering that is the Burj al Arab. An interesting argument went that skyscrapers are inherently green (unless, perhaps, you build them in the desert) since, given its height and the area of its base, the Burj can claim to support 3 people per square metre of Dubai soil. If it had been built elsewhere, that would equate to a whole bunch of land which could instead be devoted to growing things or letting nature run riot, both of which were considered Good Things.

    It also discussed how a phase of building skyscrapers seems to be a modern expression of economic hubris, right before the economy in question falls off a cliff.

    When considering more conventional modern housing, I admit I find that while architects and builders are still very good at designing and constructing exterior walls and putting a roof on top, the art of dividing the resulting enclosed volume into a sensible and worthwhile arrangement of rooms seems to be a rather more hit and miss affair…

  • bta

    Architectural form may be determined by factors other than function, if a recent report can be believed. It stated that architects actually see forms differently to us ordinary folk and it’s this peculiar perception that determines their designs.

    Maybe that would explain the differences between the lack of enthusiasm among the public for most modern buildings and the bed-wetting excitement of the professionals.

    Oh, if they haven’t yet read it, Tom Wolfe’s ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ is recommended to those interested as a an entertaining an informative look at the rise of modern architecture.

  • Robbo

    Are you familiar with the work of Christopher Alexander ?
    He makes it obvious why so much modern architecture is…let’s say , very poor, and how architecture can be brought back to serving the needs of people, rather than the fashion-driven (at the high end) and cost-accounting driven (at the low end) inversions we suffer now.

  • Laird

    I’m not familiar with Christopher Alexander (although I will check out some of his work), but I have no interest in architecture “serving the needs of people”. It should serve the needs of those who pay for it, which might be completely utilitarian (low end), pure vanity (high end) or something entirely different.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, changing the subject slightly, if you take a stroll down past the Bank of England in the City you will notice there are suddenly a lot more cranes up, erecting some new mini-skyscrapers around in the financial district. One thing that impresses me is how a firm can, for example, put a building “on hold” due to economic reasons but as soon as a certain variable changes, immediately start building again.

    One of the reasons for this is the “just-in-time” inventory approach to manufacturing components for things like prefabricated bits of buildings, girders, boxes and other things used to make modern high-rise buildings. It is like watching a child’s giant meccano set being put up in front of your eyes.