Architecture and Rhetoric

October 24, 2008

Every so often the ideas of a political movement and the form of the built environment coalesce. Since ancient times, architecture has interacted with the power structures of society to create a physical image of abstract ideas.  Architecture, it may be argued, is at the height of its power when it finds its self to be synchronized in such a way.

Like fire, Architecture’s rhetorical capacities can be used for both noble and nefarious purposes.  What’s more, is that the more totalizing the architecture becomes the stronger the rhetorical relationship of form and power become.  We are currently embarking upon the pursuit of a totalizing environment that has not been seen for many decades.  The recession of the post-modern collage world, and the emergence of a technologically immersive one raises the question of who this architecture is in the service of?

In previous iterations of technocracy we have been provided a clear manifesto as to the aims of the aesthetic environment.  If we begin with the Renaissance we can see the resurgence of a national Italian identity giving form to a reclaimed Classical language.  Two centuries later during the Baroque, that same Classical language is deployed parasitically to allow the rhetoric of the Counter Reformation to renew the image of the Church.  As a further note, the plastic nature of the Baroque allows the Church to surgically intervene in the urban fabric of the city and the internal workings of its edifices; Architecture is now the vehicle of power.  As we move through the Enlightenment we find a split trajectory in the rhetoric of Architecture, where the rise of the modern technological state and the grasping for a forlorn terrestrial harmony compels Architecture to be both nostalgic and projective in its form.  The rise of industrialized form is given a revolutionary purpose following the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War, where for the first time in history, there is a broad international desire to use architecture in the service of social justice.  The radical shift in the Modernist aesthetic agenda allowed architects and politicians to use Architecture as a purely projective medium, the stunning array of utopian visions that arose in the first half of the 20th century provide the fodder for perhaps the most revolutionary moment in human history, the first flights into outer-space.  The architecture of the second Modern movement provided our world with the tangible evidence of otherwise sublime processes.  The global vision of this architecture, it may be argued, was a direct call for global unity as the human race faced an uncertain future in an increasingly volatile and polarized world; Architecture became the lens for understanding the interconnections of our species.

Several decades of political turmoil and fragmentation have limited Architecture’s capacity to effect change; Architecture has been in exile.  Our pursuit of an increasingly narrow formal agenda has limited our capacity to respond in a broad and influential way to issues that face our world.   I believe however, that Architectures time has come again.  Our world faces is facing a stunning array of potentially species ending challenges, Climate change which is chief amongst them.  Ecologically minded architecture is nothing new—we have seen comprehensive approaches to these problems since the 1970’s.  What was lacking however, was a compelling aesthetic agenda.  What was previously framed in purely moralistic terms, where in earthiness was the dominant aesthetic of the environmental movement, has been supplanted by a much more compelling aesthetic of high performance.   This is not to say high tech—which is a fetishized mutant offspring of the space race—it is to say that the architecture of high performance seeks the most elegant formal and systemic solutions to the problems of sustainability.  In order to be successful, an architecture of high performance must be parasitic in its assimilation of existing buildings and infrastructures, and amorphous in its stylistic presentation.  It must be 99% stealth, and 1% iconic.

My thesis will attempt to define the qualities and characteristic of the stealth environment, while using a single iconic example as a rhetorical device for the Architecture’s ambitions.

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