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The Post 2008 Icon

Neil Denari

The Post 2008 Icon
By Neil Denari -

Before and After

The financial crisis that befell the world in 2008 will surely be remembered, not only for the calamitous events that precipitated it, but also for its severe aftereffects, most of which have driven the confessional zeitgeist that has come to define our age since that time. It has been an age that has had to, by necessity, examine the decisions made at every level of business and culture since the devastating events of 9/11 and prior to the greatest economic collapse since American Depression of the 1930’s. Like most global crises, at least those that throw the balance of the world off its previously smoothly revolving axis of economic expansion, this one erected a wall between the world before 2008 and the world after.
Between 2002 and 2008, the world economy grew at an astonishing rate, especially in China, where it was commonly believed that 80% of the world’s construction cranes were on site. Asia in general boomed as architects were called in daily to design projects of enormous scales, 200,000 square meters being on the low end. Previously obscure countries such as Kazakhstan were cashing in on their mineral resources, inviting forms of speculation sure to endanger local cultures, but otherwise defiantly acting as hosts to the influences of the West. And in North America, New York City awakened from a decades long slumber, the sleeping giant of giants, back to reclaim its title as the Center of the Universe (a title that it never really gave up but only pretended to).
NMDA were involved in both continents at the time, working on, among other things, commissions for luxury housing to accommodate the accelerating frontline of global wealth and not entirely coincidentally, a series of banks in Japan to store their holdings. Along with everyone else, we were lifting off in the world before. After, there were disastrous conditions to confront and new ethics to adopt. What these new ethics were to be was not entirely clear however, but it was widely agreed that some sort of new feeling was emerging and it was not just the anxiety of despair or the strange solace gained from knowing that everyone was in the same boat together.

Life Won’t be the Same

We all know that feeling now, that how we work and how we think can (and should) only be measured in relation to a time that, whether we consciously understood it or not, was free of a type of sobriety usually imposed upon culture after bad things happen. Never before had the desire to reestablish a vital economy after an earth shattering event been acted upon so quickly. Since safety was impinged upon on 9/11, it theoretically made sense, in fact, that the recovery of personal freedom would also include the corollary quest to develop new identities, from the individual to the State, perhaps at any cost. Whether through lifestyle adornment (the individual) or monument building (the State), new market capacities thoroughly suffused the ambitions of nearly everyone with a renewed sense of economic empowerment that was nothing less than, looking back on it, an historic boom era euphoria. One reflects here on Jean Luc Godard’s aphoristic critique of consumer culture in his 1967 end-of-cinema film Week End, that “Freedom is violence.” In this case, the phrase could be reversed: Violent freedom as the expression of Capital.
Had a new amorality unwittingly set in, fostering a period where rules and limits were thrown out in favor of opportunism and the relaxation of fears? Was it finally possible to say that anything was possible? Had money and technology aligned so perfectly that every fantasy would eventually become a reality? Were architects finally set free from the claustrophobia of theory that had come to dominate much of the 90’s, so that they could go build without disciplinary restrictions? Even in its least dramatic form, the answers would have to be yes and it was this very affirmation which has led to an unrelenting reexamination of the values of culture since 2008.
Whereas 9/11 challenged our understanding of what it meant to be safe and secure in contemporary society, the 2008 collapse challenged our way of life at the other end of the lifestyle spectrum, a point more aligned with freedoms, possibilities, and most of all, temptations. It is no secret that powerful economies activate the suppressed libidos of all cultures, exciting the senses, making way for the type of progress that is usually associated with accumulation, not reduction. And the soul searching that ensued exposed our vulnerabilities, and of course, the consequences of our decision making.
While those left with nothing after the crash had no other alternative but to physically suffer, those who found ways to otherwise survive had begun to battle the demons of consumption. The questions on everyone’s mind were: How can we, going forward into a murky future, correct the tendency to over-consume in a time of (apparent) prosperity? How can the desire for economic vitality be checked by rational thinking or by empathy for others who have less? How can the things we make or design reflect a new set of values in the new age of austerity? These remorsefully tinged questions have transfixed many first world cultures, especially those that have some degree of collective human consciousness, and are just the latest version of a larger social and political issue that goes back to the 1960’s Post- Marxist revelations of Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard (among others), both of whom outlined a semiotic framework for the new consumer culture.
In Baudrillard’s case, beginning with his first major work, “The System of Objects” (1968) through “The Mirror of Production” (1973), he excoriated consumption at the very same time he declared it a fatal, inevitable discourse, one that would continually define his subsequent manifestos on media and simulation, as he inhabited the fine line between love and hate for the image. Forty five years later, in contemporary liberal societies, this is an issue that remains deeply connected to action, identity, and representation as much as it does to politics, because what is built, what is worn, what is bought, what is consumed, and what is torn down, thrown away, or preserved can be seen as a diagram if not a complete blue print of a what culture is interested in at any particular time.
And to invoke Barthes, since everything in culture is ultimately coerced into becoming a sign, all of these actions that affect the material world create a Gestalt identity, one made up of more and more complex interpretations of the signs themselves, which in turn assert a heightened reality. Indeed, material culture then and now is not only an expression of technique and production, it is first and foremost a culture of signification. In his 1995 book “The Perfect Crime”, Baudrillard writes that “we labor under the illusion that it is the real we lack the most, but actually, reality is at its height. By our technical exploits, we have reached such a degree of reality and objectivity that we might even speak of an excess of reality, which leaves us far more anxious and disconcerted than the lack of it.”
In September 2008, the funhouse mirror into which we saw the illusion of prosperity suddenly crashed down upon us. It was a deeply humanizing moment and for many, the cause (or effect, take your pick) was too much reality, too many signs that reminded us of excess. And in a culture where every object is forced to participate in the system of signification, what is the medium that is responsible for producing the largest and most expensive objects? That’s right, architecture.

The Blame

No medium, no message, no profession, no organization, no culture has escaped the search for culpability amongst all the recriminations that have flooded our lives since 2008.
On paper, history will say that false credit, overvaluation, dubious bank solvency, Wall Street, plain old delirium, and myriad other coincidental financial debacles will collectively take the blame, but out in the world, literally everything has come under fire for contributing to the fall, especially the built signs of cultural progress that were based on the accumulation and activation of money, vision (whether through hubris or benevolence), and technology. In this retaliatory phase, the phase perhaps before the new ethics were to be written, many fingers were pointed at the biggest objects: Architecture, too, would have to take the fall this time, not only for being a medium of extreme consumption (as it always has been), but now, also for its diverse set of aesthetic ecologies, many of which were ridiculed as empty, bombastic, and capricious.
After ten years of fairly wild experimentation, a time in which the likes of a Dubai emerged as a land of opportunity for architects, the entire array of new and often spectacular architecture, both the good and the bad, came to be seen as a set of repugnant signs. If the world had to downsize, if it had to get rid of the things that not only consume too much but also visually assault us, then architecture had to become a talisman of everything the opposite, and commensurate with this, it could no longer internally tolerate the production of ICONS. Or so it seemed.

You only live twice

Imagine this scene: A group of people (a type of mafia lets say) who have encased a series of models of recent iconic buildings in concrete boxes are floating miles offshore in an unnamed Ocean. One by one, each box is dumped overboard, plummeting into the dark, turbulent waters that will be their final resting place, an unceremonious though dramatic end to architecture before 2008. Like a series of voodoo dolls, the deaths of each model would magically translate to the death of its real world doppelgänger.
Some time later however, these boxes defy gravity and become buoyant, enough to be washed up on the shores of every continent on Earth. To both the amazement of those still interested in architectural experimentation and the sadness of those who thought architecture would easily find its way without the icon among its possible manifestations, the icon had in fact been called back into play by certain sectors of culture who could not live without architecture’s capacity to transform imaginations. Upon opening the boxes though, it was discovered that these icons had sustained many changes. They were weirdly transformed into smarter, more controlled, more beautiful objects. If they were to have another life, then it would not be business as usual for the icon industry. Like they say, doesn’t it take a near death experience to really change your ways?

Just Conspiracies, but they may be True

A convenient, but possibly very persuasive conspiracy theory one could propagate regarding the insistence that the icon be exterminated would be this: When the Lehman Brothers crash occurred, the last afterimages of global architecture were the Watercube and the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Games had concluded on August 24th, just 20 days before the beginning of the end so to speak. Where before the image of Chinese progress (and the inventiveness of Australian and Swiss architects) was a captivating duo of telegenic buildings, they suddenly became, after the fall, signs of excess.
For the Watercube, ETFE pillows that charmingly looked like foamy water (fulfilling the Chinese interest in narrative iconography) were now just a representation of overblown technology. And the Bird’s Nest, well, that became a sign for negative connotations, as if the birds had flown away to an authentically natural environment, leaving behind a corrupt version of nature itself. Through no doing of the architects (no good deed goes unpunished!), these projects were held up in many quarters as spurious artifacts, placed not on the stockpile of progress but rather thrown into the bonfire of hubris.
Aided by China’s inability to re-impregnate these buildings with any sort of new life, these apparently expended but beautiful hulks were sacrificed for the cause.
Of course there are many other conspiracies one could construct and foment, based on other events, processes, and buildings, as to how architecture came under fire by many, both within and beyond the profession.
Had Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum of 1997 used up all of its eponymous “effectiveness”? Did the computer cloud rational judgment or disrupt too profoundly the tried and true methods of analogue design? Had signature design in general become too distasteful? Was this an attempt to snuff out the May ’68 generation before more “radical” work was completed? Regardless of which tack one could take in the argument, each has already, in one way or another one suspects, been used as a set of reasons, or at the very least as cautionary tales, as to why culture should only exist within a post-icon world.
But if we return to our little story of the rebirth of the icon, culture has again asked architects to move mountains and make cities come alive and to do it with the same effervescent energy as before but with one caveat: the new icons must somehow be irrefutably sustainable, both at an environmental and cultural level. Who would, in their right mind, resist or excuse that challenge?

What’s next

The argument that iconic buildings symbolized all that was corrupt and misguided during the last boom era did manage to reach a large audience, at least for a while, including clients who thought twice about the value of architectural difference. Many were unwilling, it seemed, to set foot again so quickly in waters made noxious by aesthetic fatigue. But with relatively little trepidation and delay, others moved oddly enough, back into the game, armed with a newly constructed set of values that replaced impulse and hubris with analysis and sensitivity while still maintaining the bravado necessary to do big things. Beyond the fact that China and the Middle East continued to pursue the icon in a rather unabated fashion (i.e. Dubai shuts down and Abu Dhabi heats up), other vital economic regions (i.e. Russia and Brazil for instance) saw global design as less a purchase of signature (and therefore a pure expression of wealth) and more a part of an economic logic that included a newly reformed speculative aesthetic value.
Detached from the unfettered conditions of the pre 2008 architectural field, the new requests issued to architects focused on a perennial question but asked in a new way: What is the next generation icon, the one that can respond to both restraint and the age old demand for uniqueness? What sort of architecture could be neither ostentatious nor boring, but otherwise curious and captivating? Undaunted by the withering critique against style and expression, the world after 2008 showed its enthusiasm for design intelligence once again by eliding the negative image surrounding aesthetics, in order to promote architecture as a transformative discipline, not as the medium of pure ego. Indeed, what is currently most fascinating about this reaffirmation is that it is culture (yes, this includes the speculative market) that is asking architects to invent the new icon rather than the architect having to continue to shill for the pleasure of pure expression. Wiser, yet still full of the desire to at least partly see into the future, people, cities, and organizations are now approaching architects to build long lasting, captivating projects.
Almost without exception, each commission or competition brief comes with this opening gambit: Design a world-class icon that embodies the special qualities of the program, time, and place of “x” building. Indeed, while the rest of the world is busy plotting the demise of the icon, many clients and organizations are submitting contradictory demands to architects, asking for the sublime but in a sustainable form. In these terms then, the icon is today governed not by the deadening morality of neo liberal politics, but is rather leavened with the optimism that aesthetics, ironically, could be an agency of difference again. And although architecture has and probably never will escape the persistent shadow of environmental culpability, netzero carbon footprints notwithstanding, it seems to have not only survived in the most pessimistic economic time since the 1930’s, it has also found new missions to fuel speculation sponsored by open minded cultures.
The icon though, is just one part of a new system of architecture and should not necessarily disproportionately represent the discipline. That seemed to be in fact a problem that beset the profession before 2008, that architecture only came in two forms: spectacular and respectful, with the respectful camp getting ironically, no respect. The debate may still be there about the role of aesthetics as we are now in an era when the icon may take many forms. But it is still there, operating perhaps more subversively than ever. After washing back up on shore, the icon has now morphed into a highly desirable endgame. No longer an autonomous commodity, the signform of the Post 2008 icon is now an integral, not discretionary (or reviled) element within architecture production.

Epilogue

Attached to this essay are a number of competitions and commissions that NMDA has undertaken since late 2008. Each in their own way respond to the call for architecture to be iconic. We have attempted to expand our design repertoire across the last five years rather than polish a previously crafted image or brand. We have opened ourselves up to the vagaries of time and place and have been less obsessive than ever about protecting whatever habits and tics with which we felt comfortable. As a whole, however, even with a new ethics of openness at work, we hope that there is consistency amidst greater diversity. Somehow, a particular sensibility always comes through.

Neil Denari

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