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 the Hall of Nations in Delhi 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 with the agency to solve poverty, homelessness, fascism etc. in one fell swoop. Like most things, the truth is complicated.

“Architectural activism” seems to be ultra fashionable now as the social media blitz around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects by Architecture firms, small and big, abound. It seems like this veil of misleading propaganda about architectures’ supposed ‘social’ potency is precisely because these firms are deeply aware of the tokenistic nature of their attempts and it’s ultimate 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, w.r.t. 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 tangible 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 a profession with the radical instrumentality to eliminate climate change, solve poverty and homelessness that can be brought about by simply building better, more technologically sound buildings. At it’s best, architecture can support these essentially political objectives and turn it into cultural arguments. Either Karl Marx Hoff and Moisie Ginzburg’s Narkomfin apartments on one side or Lever House and Seagrams on another – take your pick. But such transcending social justice motives 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 this 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. Our attempt to work in radical politics or social justice are mostly covert and very rarely overt.
This is one sense in which one says Architecture does not matter to the 99% – architecture 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, architecture can and must affirm and describe/evoke the ‘good’ life. For the rest –  the majority of architectural projects – it has to destabilize – fully knowing that as the political objectives and climate changes, when the cunning of architecture’s subversiveness times out and 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 in the totally pedestrian sense in which we have come to understand ‘service’.
This is the secret of the discipline of architecture.

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