The Art-Architecture Complex

I like this title. It suggests the uncovering of a huge conspiracy, a moneymaking axis on a par with the military-industrial complex or the newer, more sinister military-entertainment complex (which sees the confluence of shoot-’em-up computer gaming and training soldiers to kill without compunction). Unfortunately – because, surely, we all love conspiracy theories – it is nothing of the kind. Instead it is a collection of essays, some very good, some less so, on the state of contemporary architecture and contemporary – particularly minimal – art.

Hal Foster, a US art critic and author who writes for the London Review of Books, purports to reveal an alliance of the corporate and the cultural in an increasingly globalised world of contemporary visual culture. He backs this up by pointing to the ubiquity of big-name artists in homogenous new museums designed by an elite group of “starchitects”.

It is an intriguing proposition and one, you would think, that could be bitingly critical. But Foster feels, perhaps, too much affection for his protagonists. Essays on the architecture of his namesake Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Zaha Hadid present standard histories paired with perceptive but slightly bland analyses of their work. A chapter on what he calls “minimalist museums” – white walls, concrete, raw industrial spaces and so on – identifies a trend that is by now so familiar as to have become a cliché. We all know these are the default spaces of modernity; the question is, what is the next phase?

In 1976, Irish artist and critic Brian O’Doherty published “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space”, a series of essays examining the critical and intimate relationship between the avant-gardes of art and architecture, how space informed the art that was shown in it and how the art dictated the space surrounding it. Nothing in the intervening years has come close to its alacrity and I had thought The Art-Architecture Complex might be some kind of 21st-century riposte, but in fact the whole thing seems less radical and less modern than O’Doherty’s text.

The reason for any disappointment is that Foster has chosen exactly the right theme. For the early modernists, social housing was the holy grail; for the mid-century modernists it was the private house and the corporate office (equally political statements in their own way). But from the post-modern era onwards, most attention has been lavished on the museum. From Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome to Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern and from Yoshio Taniguchi’s extension to New York’s MoMA to Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, these have been the key buildings of the age – contemporary cathedrals stuffed with relics, to which audiences are compelled to make cultural pilgrimages on cheap airlines. The increasing public acceptance of modern architecture seems in large part due to the popularity of these buildings (more people visit art galleries in the UK on a typical weekend than attend football matches). The trend has culminated in absurdly overblown projects like Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.

But in concentrating on the cultural world, these global architects are shying away from their traditional social role; they are making themselves marginal whilst enjoying an enviable lifestyle of adulation and fame. As the glamour of culture rubs off on to architects, their real responsibilities for making the cities that will need to absorb hundreds of millions of new inhabitants each year fall by the wayside. Architecture has been depoliticised and architects are in danger of becoming mere decorators of minimalism – slowly diminishing their own justification for existing at all.

None of this is to say this is a bad book. Foster writes well and, if the ground is unfamiliar to you, there is much to learn here. But what could have been an excoriating examination of the contemporary avant-garde instead becomes a friendly guide to an art and architecture phenomenon that now appears rather last century.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

The Art-Architecture Complex, by Hal Foster, Verso, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

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