Thursday, 27 August 2009

REVIEW: The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture

The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture edited by Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister
010 Rotterdam 2007

This volume brings together a heterogeneous collection of images, essays and conversations to probe around the issue of globalization and architecture, and the many and varied products of this phenomenon. From the position of the present economic circumstances it might well be that some of the impulses portrayed will be curtailed, and therefore this book will be a useful document of some of the attitudes of the period up to the year of its publication, produced in a seductive style which concentrates attention on physical manifestations, planned and unplanned. There is a mixture of leading international practitioners and younger researchers whose work is solely unified by its very diversity. But this attempt to construct a theory around issues of architectural and social identity suggests the setting up of a pervasive paradox—that a cultural phenomenon which is regarded as immediately apparent and visible, which receives much popular commentary, and which yet seems to require explanation in the most excluding language.
The problem is exposed both in the book's structure and its content. The process of globalization certainly exists and neither, despite the appeal of novelty, is it a new phenomenon, merely an accelerated one. Therefore, it is so encompassing in cultural history that it is difficult to consider with anything like objectivity. Its relationships to post-modernism and modernism alike imply that the twin-headed monster of uniformity and eclecticism stalks this particular architectural labyrinth. The phrase 'anything goes' springs unaccountably to mind, although translated into the intellectual Esperanto favoured by the evangelists of form over content. Surely, globalization is a phenomenon constructed on the very different aspirations of the global 'player' and the migrant worker, and therefore fundamentally dependent on the perspective provided by one's economic status? How will this situation play out in the present global economic crisis?
Notwithstanding these reservations, especially when one considers the vagueness of the project, the collection in this volume presents many stimulating images, thoughts and testimonies especially from Stefanie Burkle, Nezar AlSayyad, Gordon Mathews, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, where experience of the world is used as a measure to assess contemporary architecture with all its desolations and wonders. As might be expected, one of the most provocative contributions is Sang Lee's interview with Rem Koolhaas, where the apostle of architectural globalization opines on the 'stupidity of architects' without enlightening us as to what extent he suffers from the affliction or, if he does not, to what extent he has been able to use that superiority to his commercial advantage. The other individuals are rather more circumspect, coolly outlining their own contribution to the growing body of eclectically rootless international work. In many ways, the editors' search for authorial explanation is futile, since a largely invisible—though not insignificant—amount of the globalized work being undertaken is through the outsourcing of drafting services by relatively obscure corporate consultants.
A significant problem lies in the neutrality of the editorial stance, obviously intending to provoke, but unable to present a strong theme for fear of excluding a counter position. The social evils of rapid urbanization are almost barely touched upon—as if globalization is only an issue for the international elite. However, against the general trend, Diego Barajas does explore one manifestation of the migrant communities through the exploration of the telephone shop—although he deadens the political impact of such spaces by analysing them in a series of beautiful and slightly impenetrable diagrams. The diverse eclecticism of such environments, providing the perennial seductions of home for those who find themselves abroad, perhaps presents a paradigm of the increasingly uncertain urban future.

Published in JOURNAL OF URBAN DESIGN 14:3 2009

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