The Art-Architecture Complex
By Hal Foster
Verso Books 2011


“If you ask me Jeeves, art is responsible for most of the trouble in the world.” — P.G. Wodehouse

These days I rarely read anything labeled “architectural research.” Call me curmudgeonly, but as far as I’m concerned, architectural research needs to be related to practice. Most of it, however, seems a collage of opaque, self-referential clouds of irrelevancy, unrelated to anyone’s practice on the planet, a closed loop, theory written for theorists. I find greater wisdom, and certainly wit, in Bertie Wooster anytime. But, like the inimitable Jeeves, Hal Foster’s newest contribution to the genre, The Art-Architecture Complex, stands alone. Recently, I was upbraided (by a theorist) for being overly generous with my praise in print, so take this with the proverbial grain, but for those of you unfamiliar with Hal Foster, let me introduce him: brilliant thinker, lucid and entertaining writer and – what really sets him apart – equal parts critic and socially committed human being, connected and sympathetic to architectural practice.

As an academic (Princeton), there are times when Foster can get a little professorial, but don’t hold that against him—he always brings it back to ground within a page or two. He’s really a cultural critic, with art/architecture as his lens of provocative observation. It’s refreshing to find writing on design that isn’t attempting to force a straight jacket of idiosyncratic theory onto the world at large. Foster writes because, through the fog of our distraught culture, he perceives an outline, the shape of something important and useful to our collective evolution and well-being, drilling into the complexities of contemporary architecture and art with unmatched clarity and social concern. No other academic of his stature (except Kenneth Frampton) has the humility to introduce his work by admitting to “…the fatigue that many feel with the negativity of critique, its presumption of authority, its sheer out-of-date-ness in a world-that-couldn’t- care-less… .” Explaining his persistence in the field, he muses that “one sometimes becomes a critic or a historian for the same reason that one often becomes an artist or an architect—out of a discontent with the status quo and a desire for alternatives. There are no alternatives without critique.”

For those of us putting together buildings and places, a good critic is invaluable. She can open our eyes to ideas and connections we hadn’t seen before, thus informing and enriching our work. (Kahn famously paid a completely unknown individual an annual salary to be an office critic, much to the consternation of his accountant.) Foster is terrific at unearthing the unintended consequences of our consumer-oriented culture on architectural/artistic ideas, in particular on those architects who imagine their work as critiques of consumerism. Like an experienced doctor, Foster knows right where to find the malaise, putting his finger on the inherent contradictions and the enormous difficulties of escaping the ubiquitous and voracious cultural forces that instantaneously consume, repackage and sell such criticism as a new commodity.

Foster’s excursion begins with well-known “avant-garde” contemporary architects, zeroing in on their romance with modern and contemporary art. We find the usual suspects here – Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Koolhaas, Diller-Scofidio – all self-labeled as “artists,” and Foster is quick to point out the many differences between intention and reality in their work. Many have noticed these discrepancies, but never to my knowledge have they been expressed so clearly. More fascinating are his observations on architects who attempt to resist consumer/corporate culture head-on with “straight” architecture – Rogers, Foster and Piano, for example – and yet remain unable to make headway (at least in large-scale projects). Norman Foster’s office, as the most influential of the group, finds itself in the double-bind of attempting to critique the culture it has been coopted by. The enormous financial and artistic success of this office has led to its own internal corporate structure that in turn produces expensive scenographic objects conducive to slick corporate imagery. This paradox is not uncommon and raises the question—is it possible for an office (or anyone) to retain a critical stance while raking in large fees from a corporate clientele, having achieved a status of influence?

There’s no easy answer, and Foster doesn’t attempt one, but he does a good job of raising our awareness.Less enigmatic but no less observant are the contradictions Foster sees in Zaha Hadid’s emphatic self-proclaimed status as an avant-garde artist/architect. Clearly and methodically, he fires his arrows straight to the heart of the matter. Hadid’s built work:

"…has carried the utopian visions of Suprematism and Constructivism into the promised land of actual building, yet…in the final analysis…her relation to all these modernisms is less deconstructive than decorative—a styling of Futurist lines, Suprematist forms, Expressionist shapes, and Constructivist assemblages that updates them according to the expectations of a computer age. Too often, then, Hadid suggests not a formalist whose reflexivity is generative, but a stylist whose signature shapes become involuted and stagnant."

After the book’s rousing architectural discourse – and I’m leaving out much that is good, like Richard Gluckman’s work with the Dia Art Foundation – there is a jump in content over to minimalist art, focusing on Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Anthony McCall with a little Robert Irwin and James Turrell; boxes, neon tubes, film, abstract space and light. I nodded off a little here, as my artistic fire isn’t lit by the idea of a neon tube buzzing away in the corner of a room. If this makes me an artistic cretin, so be it. But it’s like those passages in The Magic Mountain—you trust the author and figure you’ll come back later when the time is right. The master sculptor, Richard Serra, ends the book in an extended interview/discussion with Foster in what really is an understated afterword that has a peculiarly quiet strength. Listening to artists talk about themselves generally makes my head throb – almost as much as listening to architects talk about themselves – but Serra and Foster are straight shooters, and it’s a pleasurable read. In Serra, Foster seems to find a felicitous blend of cultural/ architectural/artistic critique that is as good as it gets for “summing up.”

Foster is too careful a thinker and writer to reduce his research into any facile single conclusion, but I’m not. What I see in all this is the simple fact that art/artists may at times achieve certain goals usually found in the realm of architecture– tectonic presence, site specificity, sentient and corporeal awareness – but the reverse is untrue and undesirable, architecture being inextricably enmeshed with requirements and responsibilities foreign to, and even hostile to, art. This book sets a standard for bona fide research into contemporary architectural theory and lays the groundwork upon which architects, artists and cultural observers can further reflect. The mysteries of what Foster calls “the art-architecture complex” haven’t been solved – and perhaps they’re not supposed to be – but there’s more light on them than before. As for those self-referential clouds of irrelevancy, my theoretical sky now resembles one of Bertie Wooster’s description: “light blue with cotton-wool clouds and a bit of a breeze blowing from the west…a kind of uplifted feeling…”