‘Do you want to be relevant?’, was Ole Bouman’s rhetorical opening. ‘Yes’, nodded his audience. Of course, agreed Bouman, and he then showed them five ways to be relevant.
- You keep doing your work like you’ve always done
- You try to be contemporary
- You try to be hip
- You try to be relevant
As an architect you base things on the past, or the present, or next season, or next year, respectively. But:
- You can also look ten years ahead
The person who tries this will not have it easy, Ole Bouman argued proudly because, ‘Prophets are dubious figures’. Was Bouman referring to himself here? Always looking ahead, but misunderstood in his own time. Isn’t that a little arrogant?
He was going to raise a number of issues this evening, added Bouman. He would look ahead 10 years, even if the room was mostly filled with people on pensions. The main question: What will happen to architecture if we’re busy, in all disciplines, bridging differences and making them vanish? What will them happen to our discipline, which is about making differences?
It sounded like a desperate cry from someone who no longer knows what sort of opinions he’s expected to come up with, who no longer knows how he can make a difference. What followed was an endless list of examples intended to illustrate that loss of differences. The differences between inside and outside are disappearing, claimed Bouman, and so are the differences between men and women (!), and between the private and public realms. The loss of differences has even permeated our language with words like fusion, Creative Commons and cross-media.
The only real difference that we can still make, argued Bouman, lies in defining our enemy. It’s an enemy that’s not really there of course, but we can create it if we continually inflate it until it’s recognised as such. A YouTube film in which a naval officer on an American warship literally zooms in on an Iranian dingy proved the point. Bionic legs proved that the difference between being handicapped and not being handicapped has vanished. The virtual reconstruction of the extinct saber-toothed tiger proved that the difference between death and life has gone. And the TomTom has signalled the end of the difference between you as a person and the world outside. All you have to do is follow the instructions and you no longer look around.
Did anyone in the audience swallow this nonsense? You could just as easily give a PowerPoint presentation the next evening to prove the opposite. There are, for example, navigation systems that incorporate ‘landmarks’ (i.e. architecture) to ease orientation. Matters became totally ridiculous when Bouman argued that Jean Nouvel’s proposed extension to the MoMa illustrated the ‘blurring of branches’, because: it was not only a museum but also a hotel and residential building.
Bouman moved onto a slightly different point for the last phase of his lecture. In a world in which differences are still made by companies only, making differences has lost its value. It’s not worth it any longer. Company icons such as the ING House, intended as advertisements for companies, are now used against these very companies. ‘Some banks think about architecture first. Binck thinks about your commission first.’
The worldwide race for more and more icons is senseless, concluded Bouman. It’s coming back at us like a boomerang, as we can read in publications like ‘Architecture of the Absurd’ by John Silber. This writer argues that icons only serve to boost the ego of architects and not to function. ‘Isn’t architecture meant for people?’ Bouman quoted John Silber. Another gem from Bouman: ‘Dear architects, I am sick of your shit,’ by Annie Choi. ‘Appears on all the architecture blogs,’ according to Bouman. As if that means anything.
Bouman ended with a surprising twist to his story: ‘The “bulk” of architecture should not consist of making the exceptions but should consist of making the norm.’ Why? ‘The rat race for differences only benefits a small group.’ Out of his tall hat Ole Bouman then pulled the solution in the form of Maslow’s pyramid:
‘That has been proposed before,’ someone from the audience replied. A platitude. Is architectural theory turning in circles and now biting its own tail?
It was an enjoyable evening at the NAi. But it also raised lots of questions. It was one of those classic presentations that tried to suggest a crisis, only to come up with a solution. If there’s no crisis, then we’ll just have to think of one. True to tradition, the bogeyman is capitalism and its assumed excrescences. Today they are called ‘globalisation’ and ‘icons.’
That reading is just too simple. By lumping all so-called ‘icons’ together, Bouman ignored the fact that certain icons are the architectural highlights of today. Let me mention the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Swiss Re Tower in London, and the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Of course there are lots of bad icons, but the few good ones are much more important. But simply ignoring that fact, the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute chose to ignore reality. That’s not looking ten years ahead, but looking ten years back.