The architect as lubricant

Last October it was the turn of the Jon Jerde Partnership to spark a discussion about ‘power and architecture’ at the Berlage Institute. It was something of a home game for Jerde, the brains behind the Koopgoot shopping arcade in Rotterdam, whose spokesman David Rogers was able to voice his cynical view on the theme unchallenged.

4 Olympische Spelen L.A.

5 Cover Times Magazine

6 Hangzhou (China)

Rogers thus played to perfection the role of ‘rogue’ architect peddling all sorts of cynical truths about architectural practice as though they were eternal laws of the power game to which the architect has to conform in order to survive. Rogers did, however, emphasise that quite apart from the profit motive or power objective, the aim of the architect is to satisfy human needs as best he can. But the problem lies in precisely those words: ‘satisfy needs’. Rogers’s entire discourse depicted people as needy, consuming and hedonistic creatures who must be accommodated in satisfying their natural urges uninhibitedly.

After outlining this sobering vision of architectural practice, Rogers sauntered through a number of projects. Saunter is the appropriate word here, for he his comments were limited to a few one-liners with emphasis on the ‘home-run’ character of the projects. A shopping plaza in a dour industrial city in China would have turned this city into the ‘place of the year’. Jerde’s master plan for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles would have helped organiser Peter Ueberroth’s nomination as ‘man of the year’ in Time Magazine and also have made these the most profitable games ever. Regarding Zlote Tarasy, a massive development in Warsaw, Rogers even repeated the pathetic quote of an anonymous citizen who claimed that the project ‘brought them hope’. To which Rogers added in equally pathetic language: ‘That’s the kind of thing you live for’.

In short, by showing all these ‘toppers’ he mainly seemed to want to prove just how good Jon Jerde is in pandering to the wishes and needs of the various players involved in architectural processes.

The surprisingly polite questions from the audience were unable to shake Rogers’s masterful combination of sentimentality, false modesty and cynical jokes. He was easily able to parry the implicit criticism when asked whether the political role of the architect shouldn’t also encompass questioning the programme. If you as an architect operate in places with lots of people, then you have to think of something for these people to do, he argued. For that reason, he continued, a good understanding of the market study conducted by the project developer is crucial. Project developers know more about the city than you would ever imagine. For architects it’s a matter of adding those programmes that aren’t included yet. In answer to the question whether there was space for unplanned programmes in the carefully controlled spaces of Jon Jerde, Rogers replied that the ‘scripting’ of space doesn’t necessarily constitute a limiting factor when it comes to spontaneous activity but forms a potentially positive precondition for such activity instead. Without too much protest he cited the example of a ‘poet’s corner’, a planned corner in a shopping mall, where poets can entertain the public on Sunday, as proof that ‘you can do everything’ in Jon Jerde’s spaces.

Due to the lack of a proper rejoinder, Rogers was left unchallenged as he told a cynical story about power and architecture, a story in which even the Berlage Institute, a critical think-tank, was accorded its own niche when he boomed: ‘You guys (Berlage) do the research, we just do the projects’.

Jon Jerde and company can be considered the founding fathers of the type of shopping and leisure plaza sought after by every city that wants to compete against other cities in the global arena: large in scale, all-encompassing, spectacular, a mixture of pathetic architectural rhetoric and the latest technological gadgetry. In the Netherlands, we know the Jon Jerde Partnership as designer of the Koopgoot shopping arcade in Rotterdam. A development that every Rotterdammer can be proud of, claims Rogers. To him it’s the ‘hottest’ project in Rotterdam, unique for its open, urban and public character. Jerde also developed the ‘vision’  behind the GETZ entertainment centre, which was supposed to turn the ArenA Boulevard into the second centre of Amsterdam (according to the brochures). Rogers’s lecture was therefore a perfect opportunity to turn up the heat for the makers of these mega-developments that are supposed to make Dutch towns competitive. The opposite was the case.

Rogers began his lecture with what he called ‘self-evident truths about politics and architecture’:

1) Developers are still looking for a good deal, a ‘home-run’ as he called it. As an architect you can adopt a critical attitude, but without the profit-seeking motive of the developers you simply don’t have a project. So the architect has to come up with something that not only attracts people but also gets them to spend money. According to Rogers, the architect shouldn’t object to this because ‘people just like spending money’.

2) People like going to places designed to offer comfort. Rogers even cited a study by a neurosurgeon about the chemical changes that occur in the brain when people feel good in a place. He cited ‘meaning’ as an important factor in creating comfort. It is an ideal instrument to get people to return to a place.

3) Every politician wants nothing more than to be re-elected. To please politicians, the architect has to make sure that his project benefits the local economy and pleases local people.

According to Rogers, the architect shouldn’t worry about the ethical side of things. To him architecture is a question of ‘you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours’. If the architect wants to achieve something he simply has to jump into bed with politicians, developers and consumers and please them all. And he only achieves that when the project is a financial success and the electorate gives it its undivided support.

Conversely, that’s also the reason why politicians and developers cannot do without the architect. Or, as Rogers put it, the architect holds the ‘key to the candy store’. Rogers’s solution to the problem of the architect’s social conscience is simple: the architect must play the role of binding factor (glue) or lubricant in the threesome involving politicians, society and project developers.