Hall of Nations: On Architecture’s uselessness.

I’m sure a lot of people will hate me for this, but let me put out a completely non-radical notion of how the destruction of Hall of Nations foregrounds one simple stark truth about architecture. Architecture is a cultural practice – as “useless”  ( or if you will as useful”) as art, sculpture, music or literature. No one cares too much, if a particular piece of music, suddenly goes out of circulation.  Architecture at it’s most potent professional form is not at the “service” of the public/mankind destined to solve poverty, homelessness, fascism etc.

These arguments are ultra fashionable now as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by Architecture firms, small and big, and they celebrate their tokenistic pointless projects in an excess of social media blitz, precisely because they are deeply aware of it’s uselessness. It is the equivalent of Starbucks’ promise to save the world’s rain forests.

On the other hand, the solution put out  by some academics, wrt the “lesson” of Hall of Nations is the “need” to be more “meaningful” and “relevant” to the society. This completely misses the point. Architecture is like any one of those strange Tagore drawings – to the sensitive person however philistine it is worthwhile and valuable, for others ( and they aren’t bad or worse people) it makes no difference.  You can educate and educate to no end, but it’s not gonna matter beyond a point to them – especially if it has no instrumental value for them ( money, power etc.).

 Why? If tomorrow, all of us architects are deported to another planet, it will make absolutely no difference to 99% of people – I mean for rich, middle class and poor alike. Buildings will still be built, plumbing will still be laid out, facades will still be fixed,  – there is absolutely nothing, nothing we do that will stop life as it is. On the contrary, think if there were no doctors, no engineers, no economists, accountants – catastrophic.

I don’t say any of this in a negative sense. Let’s stop pretending architecture is merely a profession with the radical instrumentality to eliminate climate change, solve poverty and homelessness only by building better, more technologically sound buildings. At it’s best, architecture can support these essentially political objectives and turn it into cultural arguments – Karl Marx Hoff on one side & Moisie Ginzburg’s Narkomfin apartments on another. But such things become political objectives rarely – once in a generation. Mostly power tends to find ways to multiply and reproduce itself.
This is why we are mostly employed to give permanence to politically dominant ways of life or beliefs – the pyramids, temples, churches and palaces. In that context, we are more of a guerrilla discipline that sneaks up on people – mostly unsuspecting ( except for enlightened patrons), offering momentary alternatives, subjectivities outside the norm.
This is the sense in which one says Architecture does not matter to the 99% – it is a secret tool to ontologically reorganize the world hidden under excuses of functional and symbolic value. Why? Because as Walter Benjamin says Architecture is always seen by a distracted viewer – we’ve always lived in and are surrounded by buildings – they are programmed not to disturb, . Like Heidegger’s tool analysis, it’s only when a building is “broken” – does something weird ( and I don’t mean the typical libeskind – box standing on its corner weird) we notice it.  For the poor whose struggle is with real and violent forces of nature & culture, perhaps architecture can and must affirm, for the rest –  the majority – it has to destabilize – fully knowing that as the political objectives and climate changes, when the cunning of architecture’s subersiveness is out or when the thin veneer of “functional” or “symbolic” relevance to mainstream society decays ……..they get pulled down. It is terrible,  but we have to start building new subterfuges….and stop fretting about ‘serving’ society.
This is the secret of the discipline of architecture.

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