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Allusion-Imitation-Innovation

March 8, 2014

Zaha-Hadid-Al-Wakrah-stadium-vaginaExtremity is not a new virtue. Pilgrims, Nazi’s and Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid swilling compatriots all believed in absolute truths that alienated them from others. Architecture has its versions of extremity, but it’s a mistake to be distracted by “style”, no matter how extreme its expression.

When buildings are set into our culture it’s the motives and values of their design that impact our living with them far more than their “style”. The values of “imitatophobia” – fear of being imitative- are ascendant in haute architecture, where any allusion is perceived as creative incompetence.

During my 35 years designing buildings the currency of valuing work has skewed into unthinking validation of what is perceived to be “innovation”. But declaring pure motives can imply not believing what your eyes clearly see. Glass buildings are energy efficient. Flat roofs are sustainable. And any scintilla of allusion, let alone imitation, is denied more quickly and definitively than when Peter threw Jesus under the cross 2,000 years ago.

The origins of rejecting precedents, context or even familiarity is, ironically enough, quite familiar.

Many fine artists have found their voice in alienation. Disaffection clarifies one side of your perspective – what you hate puts you in a place away from that reality. But humans also find comfort in being with other humans. The cascade from tolerance of like-minded coalescence creates movements out of insights. Perfection is only conceptually possible, people and buildings all have virtual feet of clay.

The 4 Gospelers of the New Testament have odd distinctions, but they and their fellow ancient zealots presented enough of a unified perspective that 2,000 years have netted a few billion followers who have radically different cultural legacies. So when manipulating color and light trumps form and iconography becomes “Abstract Expressionism” or when white planes, frameless voids and rectangular geometry becomes “Modernism” individual radical innovators like Kandinsky or Le Corbusier had their personal, idiosyncratic and oppositional extremities become places of gathering for parts of the creative class.

Fundamentalism is not limited to religion. The last generation of architectural celebration has radicalized as much as our politics have. “Moderates” are now viewed as traitors by both “Progressives” and “Patriots” alike. An invigorated backlash to conventional architectural Modernist orthodoxy has become radicalized in a few schools and a flock of firms: “Traditional Architecture” is viewed as the Tea Party by main stream Modernism, and has taken on an aggressive defensive posture that has real teeth. Even if overtly imitative following history seems more intellectually legitimate than imitating innovation.

As with all fundamentalism the Yin-Yang of Only New and Only Old are just 2 sides of the same coin: defendability via intolerance.

But, as stated, it’s not about how a building looks, it’s the essence of the values it embodies that becomes problematic for our culture when irrelevancy is too great a byproduct. But any legacy can become as unthinking as historicist replication, and aesthetic correctness can be as judgmentally thoughtless as any prejudice.

The common signature of the dominant Modernist legacy is a contempt for recognition of context and celebration of craft as pandering to lazy “vernacular” cliches that mongrelize genius. Even the whiff of precedent can be seen as sell-out.

Zaha Hadid is the human personification of architectural ascendance in the world today. Her conceptual work led to veneration, veneration led to commissions, commissions led to awards and more commissions, and along the way, ideas became built. Now, once again she has to defend a design. Not because its dissociative from gravity, buildability or any context, but simply because it’s clearly allusive to something other than itself.

The FIFA World Cup will be played in Qatar in 2022. Hadid has created a design (above) that by any definition is biomorphic, and by implication vaginal. The Hadid response to Time is outrage over the notation of the building’s obvious capacity to be viewed as referential: “Its really embarrassing they came up with this…That’s ridiculous.” She plays a gender card too: “Honestly, if a man had done this…”

Truth be told male architects have had to address their maleness in relationship to the skyscrapers they design, so while sexist, the allusion to anatomical realities of a designer’s inspiration is not anti-woman. Also true is that all buildings convey allusions they cannot control. More intellectually legitimate would be the building’s allusiveness to the work of  Santiago Calatrava:calatava

Whether you like the aesthetics of any given building or not the millions of other structures and cultural realities that envelope any object are part of how it’s viewed. Absent imitation, it’s absurd to denigrate any allusion, implication or reference that anything has for another as devaluing its embodied creativity.

Loyalty oaths can be assertive or defensive. Orthodoxy and canon both assert and pre-empt. But when work that is canonically based in a model of innovative purity has to fend off charges of precedence, allusion, or more heretically, imitation the allure of fundamentalist innovation – it’s obvious New-ness is not obvious.

Truth be told, The New is always born of, and in and with The Old. To eschew any relationship with any entity other than the brain of the creator is beating against the ultimate tide: reality. Even theoretical subatomic physics has to register with the laws of gravity. The most rarified poetry has words. The Newest Music uses some instrument. Art has to be perceived to be appreciated – and the media of all creation has the baggage of this world, not a conceptual one.

When the creator efforts the unprecedented, the media is part of the message, and the media is of this world. If it quacks like a duck, looks like a cigar, or walks like an Egyptian whatever you have created lives in this place and experiences the time of its realization and the out years after – like it or not.

Sometimes a stadium is a vagina to some people, no matter how much you argue that it shouldn’t.6a00e55290e7c4883301675ea7fd66970b-500wi

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