Life Out of Balance, pt. 2

Posted: February 17, 2020 in Artistry, Culture, Skyscrapers, Taste, Technophilia
Tags: , , , ,

Color me surprised to learn that 45 is considering a new executive order mandating that the “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings, revising the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture issued in 1962. Assuredly, 45 is hardly expected to weigh in on respectable aesthetic choices considering his taste runs toward gawdy, glitzy, ostentatious surface display (more Baroque) than restraint, dignity, poise, and balance (more Classical or Neoclassical).

Since I pay little attention to mainstream news propaganda organs, I learned of this from James Howard Kunstler’s blog Clusterfuck Nation (see blogroll) as though the order had already issued, but it’s apparently still in drafting. Twas nice to read Kunstler returning to his roots in architectural criticism. He’s never left it behind entirely; his website has a regular feature called Eyesore of the Month, which I rather enjoy reading. He provides a brief primer how architectural styles in the 20th century (all lumped together as Modernism) embody the Zeitgeist, namely, techno-narcissism. (I’m unconvinced that Modernism is a direct rebuke of 20th-century fascists who favored Classicism.) Frankly, with considerably more space at his disposal, Iain McGilchrist explores Modernist architecture better and with far greater erudition in The Master and his Emissary (2010), which I blogged through some while ago. Nonetheless, this statement by Kunstler deserves attention:

The main feature of this particular moment is that techno-industrial society has entered an epochal contraction presaging collapse due to over-investments in hyper-complexity. That hyper-complexity has come to be perfectly expressed in architecture lately in the torqued and tortured surfaces of gigantic buildings designed by computers, with very poor prospects for being maintained, or even being useful, as we reel into a new age of material scarcity and diminished expectations …

This is the life-out-of-balance statement in a nutshell. We are over-extended and wedded to an aesthetic of power that requires preposterous feats of engineering to build and continuous resource inputs to operate and maintain. (Kunstler himself avers elsewhere that an abundance of cheap, easily harvested energy enabled the Modern Era, so chalking up imminent collapse due primarily to over-investment in hyper-complexity seems like substitution of a secondary or follow-on effect for the main one.) My blogging preoccupation with skyscrapers demonstrates my judgment that the vertical dimension of the human-built world in particular is totally out of whack, an instantiation of now-commonplace stunt architecture. Should power ever fail for any sustained duration, reaching floors above, say, the 10th and delivering basic services to them, such as water for sinks and toilets, quickly becomes daunting.

However, that’s a technical hurdle, not an aesthetic consideration. The Modernist government buildings in question tend to be Brutalist designs, which often look like high-walled concrete fortresses or squat, impenetrable bunkers. (Do your own image search.) They project bureaucratic officiousness and disconcern if not open hostility toward the people they purport to serve. Basically, enter at your own risk. They share with the International Style a formal adherence to chunky geometric forms, often presented impassively (as pure abstraction) or in an exploded view (analogous to a cubist painting showing multiple perspectives simultaneously). Curiously, commentary at the links above is mostly aligned with perpetuating the Modernist project and aesthetic as described by Kunstler and McGilchrist. No interruptions, difficulties, or vulnerabilities are contemplated. Commentators must not be reading the same analyses I am, or they’re blithely supportive of progress in some vague sense, itself a myth we tell ourselves.

  1. Greg Knepp says:

    Yes, I found the Trump directive on neoclassical architecture most interesting and quite welcome. I missed JHK’s piece on the topic (I’ve found him a tad shrill lately) but I enjoyed Greer’s recent article on the same topic and would heartily recommend it.

    But I wanted to address something you brought up last week in part one of your series; you mentioned the movie Powaqqatsi. I didn’t see the other two films of the trilogy, but I really loved the visuals and especially the music of Powaqqatsi. I’ve been a big fan of the minimalists since they first broke into the symphonic scene back in the sixties. Adams, Reich and especially Philip Glass presented a rich new sound exhibiting neither the grandiose melodies nor the gaudy juxtapositions of tempo and color presented in traditional symphonic repertoires…Don’t get me wrong – I adore classical music, and have since childhood. But most cultural forms usually carry on long after their creative juices have been depleted. So let it be with the symphony.

    I’m not saying that minimalism sprang new from whole cloth. Unlike technology, culture is inherently of a conservative dynamic, and, of necessity, all art is derivative – at least to some extent. One can easily detect influences of progressive jazz in minimalism, as well as liberal dashes of Shostakovich here and Stravinsky there. Still, in the aesthetically convoluted atmosphere of the turbulent sixties, the new music came as a gentle, albeit chilly, breath of fresh air. Glass, Reich and Adams seemed to paraphrase the words of their contemporary, Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment, which isn’t really about the subject of this blog post or the previous one, but I’ll entertain it anyway. Yeah, Kunstler has grown shrill. Not sure I can blame him considering what a shit show things have become. I don’t read Greer at all but may have to check him out on the subject of architecture.

      Powaqqatsi is quite different in tone from Koyaanisqasti, though the music shares the essential Glassian blankness onto which listeners and viewers are implicitly implored to project meaning and emotion. Some say that by stripping down music to its minimal elements (by avoiding, say, grandiose melodies and gaudy juxtapositions) an essence is revealed that transforms minor changes to major events. There might be something to that. However, I subscribe to a different analysis, namely, that seemingly endless repetition breaks down barriers and eventually causes the listen to cathect with the music or art object. This same psychological effect is found in propaganda and advertising, both of which gain effectiveness with repetition and ubiquity. (“Good to the last drop.” “Coke and a smile.” “Can’t eat just one.” “Iraq has WMDs.” “Bernie is — gasp — a socialist!” “Democrats are coming for your guns.” “Russia is our enemy.”) Of the three composers mentioned, Glass employs a Beethovenian harmonic power behind the surface. Michael Torke is another. So there are two paradoxes to his music: (1) stillness and calm despite furiously active arpeggiation and (2) strong teleological drive (again and again) toward harmonic resolution.

      How that derives from the 1960s Zeitgeistis another matter of analysis. Several diverse musical styles from that era (e.g., rock ’n’ roll and Latin jazz) are iconic. I don’t regard such developments as conservative. I’ll go along with derivative, sure, but they’re restless and innovative, not classical in the summary sense of the word.

  2. Greg Knepp says:

    I certainly agree that minimalism reflects the “wash, rinse, repeat” culture of post-war America. After all, an intensely psychological approach to advertising was developed in the late 40s’ and early 50s’ as a way to bolster the economy. Such an effort seemed necessary to keep manufacturing humming along in the absence of wartime production quotas. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of veterans who needed jobs. Hyper-consumerism was a tool by which these goals might be realized. A massive public works program was another. (The interstate highway system and the space program were the big two.)

    The ad man’s repetitive drone, combined with the already ubiquitous ‘pockety-pock’ rhythms of the industrial age, established an auditory background motif which the minimalist musicians then formalized. The fact is, this musical genre was a response to existing social, political and material realities – not a precursor of same. This could be said of the art of Andy Warhol as well. His work was a recognition of the prevailing visual aesthetic already deeply embedded in an overwhelmingly commercialized culture. Little coincidence that Warhol’s work was a product of the 60s’.

    My point is that art is always reactive – at best, reflective. It detects and reveals existing societal patterns, priorities, material conditions, and dynamics; otherwise it would be unmarketable – unsupportable. This is what I mean by “conservative” and what is meant by the term ‘cultural lag’. Technological innovation appears to be unencumbered by such considerations. This seems logical, but too often the results are unpleasant.

    • Brutus says:

      We’re saying mostly the same things and are in fundamental agreement. My term is derivative, yours is conservative. I don’t particularly wish to get hung on definitions or nomenclature.

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