Value: Culture and Commerce; Led by Richard MacCormac, the RA Forum Set out to Unpick Architecture's Relationship with Value, Culture and Commerce, Concluding with a Discussion of One Manifestation of Values within Architecture, the Icon
Melvin, Jeremy, The Architectural Review
Architecture seems caught in a trap between culture and commerce, or between its ability to express diverse and complex values, and the obligations it carries to create value, as Dickon Robinson puts it. However awkward and frustrating, these relationships define architecture's role and position in society, and one measure of its relevance within culture in general is its ability to deal with the visceral impact of function, budget and political expectation. To paraphrase Hegel, it is through architecture that concerns of this sort are brought into the aesthetic realm, that the rarefied is brought into contact with the real. If, as Jean-Louis Cohen suggests in borrowing Nietzsche's phrase from The Gay Science, that architecture should allow us to 'wander within ourselves', it is to architecture's relationship with culture that we might look for its potential to embody ideas and offer experiences that are not available elsewhere.
Such concerns run through the entire discipline of architecture, from negotiations with clients and contractors, through the obligations on a profession, to esoteric academic discussions. The RA Forum set out to investigate how they could be better understood, and to begin to establish a basis on which they could be discussed. A central premise was to examine how cultural, economic and social value interact and are contingent upon each other. As Peter de Bolla and Graham Ive showed, the terms and concepts we use in such discussions started to take shape in the eighteenth century, when both culture and economics became some recognisable ancestor of their present form. As these two discourses emerged, the notion of social value also evolved, and the interrelationships developed all sorts of inversions and indirect linkages. Richard Sennett identified three instances of relatively small financial investment leading to enormous social benefits.
Another concern that arose from this was the extent to which one definition of value might dominate the others. Richard MacCormac's experience will be familiar to most architects. The old division between what can and what cannot be objectively measured often leads to the supposedly quantifiable economic value overriding all other considerations, especially those which relate to feeling and emotion. It takes a rare client to overcome such practices. But even here there might be some respite. As Ive argued, even Adam Smith, often considered the founder of 'utilitarian' economics and progenitors of the narrowly proscriptive definition of value, buries in his concept of 'luxury' the idea that 'wandering in ourselves' might have its place alongside the pursuit of wealth.
But could social or cultural value become dominant in the way economic value can? Though the issue of 'icon' buildings is hotly and all too often superficially debated, it certainly suggests the existence of a rarefied system of values which at the very least constitutes a particular relationship between cultural, social and economic worth. Charles Jencks makes a cogent case for the continued existence and production of iconic architecture, but it presumes a differently balanced relationship rather than the dominance of one definition over the others. To test this proposition further we have to go back to two nineteenth-century concepts, the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art], and the French sociologist Emile Durkheim's definition of the 'total social fact', which Jean-Louis Cohen outlines and places among a series of fundamental concepts that might help to structure further discussion.
In Richard Wagner's formulation, the Gesamtkunstwerk, which was naturally only achieved not just in his own music dramas, but when they were presented in his own Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 'art value' rises to exclude all other values. Among the more important of his many sources was Arthur Schopenhauer, who argued that aesthetic contemplation was the only way to negate the inevitable suffering caused by the blind impulsion of the will--though Schopenhauer was sceptical about opera. Wagner, never one to lack self confidence, countered that a feast of architecture (the theatre), painting (set design), music and poetry (libretto), could not only overcome the limitations of individual arts, but their totality could also transcend the miseries of everyday life. In a world where Nietzsche--another influence on Wagner--was about to declare the death of God, the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk had enormous resonance, not least because it elevated art to the place of a surrogate religion. The Viennese Secession learnt that lesson well, but the most complete post-Wagnerian realisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk was in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes where dance joined music and set design in one of the defining initiatives of twentieth-century cultural activity.
Whether Diaghilev's audiences were really experiencing 'culture' and nothing else is of course highly questionable, though similar beliefs were not uncommon early in the twentieth century: Theo van Doesburg argued that in effect 'architecture' would disappear, subsumed within the aestheticisation of all aspects of life. In establishing an intense relationship between supposedly spiritual ideas and the self, the Gesamtkunstwerk does share something with the icon in its traditional sense as an object to aid religious devotion. But they differ in their means. An icon, such as those painted by Andrei Rublev, is a discrete object in a single medium, and the relationship it creates is purely bilateral. It shuts out extraneous factors, but does not attempt to deny that they exist. The Gesamtkunstwerk not only seeks to exclude anything which is not to do with culture, it also externalises the relationship between self and spiritual revelation, and to some extent makes it collective by implying complicity among the audience. Whether or not that simply reveals how increasing complexity of society made some form of objectifying framework necessary to communicate 'spiritual' ideas, this does suggest one reason why iconic architecture is so problematic.
In the colloquial sense an icon building is shorn from its physical and to some extent its social or functional context. These have become the socially accepted means of 'objectifying' and assessing 'design quality', or of measuring 'cultural value' as opposed to economic value. Yet if the term means anything, icon buildings carry the highest levels of cultural value--even to the extent of endorsing expenditure which eludes economic justification. So if the concept of iconic architecture is to give any help in resolving the trap in which architecture is caught, we will have to first understand how the discourses around culture and economics emerged, and then seek to overhaul the means by which we discuss them.
PETER DE BOLLA
Where and when did culture, in the sense of the social consumption and production of artworks, begin? I suggest the first public exhibition of contemporary paintings by British artists, held by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce on the Strand in March/April 1760 as a starting point. Of course this statement …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Value: Culture and Commerce; Led by Richard MacCormac, the RA Forum Set out to Unpick Architecture's Relationship with Value, Culture and Commerce, Concluding with a Discussion of One Manifestation of Values within Architecture, the Icon. Contributors: Melvin, Jeremy - Author. Magazine title: The Architectural Review. Volume: 218. Issue: 1302 Publication date: August 2005. Page number: 87+. © 2008 EMAP Architecture. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.