The grand utopian visions have become just another chapter of a book about the idealistic nature of society at the turn of the century and while Stockholm still hosts an annual “World Utopia Competition” we doubt that it can mean more then a nostalgic look back at our past. Grand societal utopias are dead and we’ve replaced them with a “bricolage” of narcissist individual utopias.
So goes the story of the disintegration of the modernist architecture style when it became to entangled in its love affair with industrial capitalism and with the Taylorist model of society that they gave birth to. There was no one -ism that could fit the plurality of the 1960s and architects went off in various and often contradictory directions in their pursuit to express it. Two groups, the Grays (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour) and the Whites (Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier), became emblematic for their pursuit towards a new post-modern style of architecture. Both groups focused on theory and cultural criticism in order to steer the profession away from the mainstream consumerism that had come to dominate it, towards a more intellectual base for form-making. Most importantly both saw the demise of the modern program as an opportunity for a context of plurality for which the proper response of architects and clients is choice.
But while Grays looked at commercial vernacular to define new directions for architecture, just as modernists architecture got its inspiration from industrial forms, the Whites were seeking to to revive the modernist tradition purism and clarity without all of its corporate “vulgarities”.
Under consumer culture, Whites obsession with the high inner-looking abstract formal quality of architecture gave birth to the iconic building as an “enigmatic signifier” (Jencks, 2005) which could be filled in with symbols of a particular brand identity. Their creators, Starchitects, represent emblems of the shifting role of designers under post-Fordism and consumerism post-modernism aesthetics. They act both as brand ambassadors, creating recognizable global icons which are used by patrons to associate themselves with members of the elite but also as brands themselves, which like a watch or a car become a commodity (Dunham-Jones, 1997) and a status symbol.
On the other hand, Greys approach of creating material forms that relay for effect on symbolic references to popular cultural narratives was clearly reflected in the growing trend of designing themed environments (Isenstadt, 2001) by “melding of material forms and commercial culture” (Gottdiener, 1997). In commercial environments, theming coordinates symbolic and sensory cues in order to evoke an overall mood, time or place, outside the current context, providing a scripted retail experience (Klingmann, 2007) in which a user can experience material goods and services. The key offering of this experience economy (Pine & Gilmore, 1998) is no longer the functional object but a symbolic good and the experience itself (Pine & Gilmore, 1999). In this economy, the environment takes a shaping agency and the human subject becomes its chief artefact.
Put into a business perspective (Trout, Ries, 2000) commercial success was no longer about making the things but rather about framing them and guiding consumption with fresh scripts that would cater to individual choices (Gottdiener, 1997). The invention of choices became an effective method of splintering a market dominated by a single brand, just as a context of choices in architecture signified the demise of modernist ideological hegemony.
In this sense both architecture groups were susceptible to exploitation by the commercial interests they had set out to escape (Isenstadt, 2001) and in fact, probably nowhere was a self-consciously counter-culture ideal of authenticity more promulgated then in the very commercial culture so many were seeking to replace (Frank, 1998).
Post-modernists focus on decorated sheds, symbolic surfaces and referential theoretical meaning became the perfect driver for commercial use due to its attention to packaging (Dunham-Jones, 1997) and/or on defining a script for the architecture object. “The design movement of the past thirty years (structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, neo-rationalism, neo-historicism, critical regionalism etc.) can be seen as a collective effort by the profession to provide consumers with the level of product choice consistent with the expectations of post-Fordist production.” (Dunham-Jones, 1997) Thus, the various -isms of postmodernism have come to be described as forms of niche marketing (Kieran, 1987) appealing to particular consumer lifestyles and in the process, they became styles that hardly challenge the social systems in which they operate.
We can conclude that by being subjected to commercialisation, the search for personal self-definition of the 1960s has been commodified through the construction of selfhood from a range of off-the-shelf products, architecture included, which provide personal legitimation to its users through their symbolic rather than material value and the memories and experiences which can be associated with them. All of these aspects, are consistent with the characteristics of the Dream Society Logic (Mogensen, 2004) outlined in our last chapter.
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