Opinion: as 2015 draws to a close, Will Wiles offers five New Year's resolutions for architecture and design, ranging from less Zaha-bashing to abandoning the idea of favela chic.
For my last column this year, here's something different. Let's call these my New Year's Resolutions on behalf of architecture and design, the things I'd like to leave behind in 2016. Or, keeping it Dickensian, a blast of bad-tempered Bah Humbug to sign off for 2015. Ho, ho, ho!
In 2015 Zaha Hadid was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to do so unaccompanied. This, I think, completes her Panini album of architectural accomplishment with the Royal Gold Medal, Pritzker, Praemium Imperiale, Mies van der Rohe, Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
This will I'm sure have been a welcome note of cheer in what was otherwise a torrid 2015; the ongoing Tokyo stadium brouhaha, a lawsuit (settled) against a journalist, radio interviews abandoned mid-way, Chinese projects drying up. All this amid the now-familiar barrage of criticisms against the countries she works in and her buildings. In October, for instance, Stephen Bayley railed against her "intractable views, aggressive demeanour, lack of charm and ocean-going bitterness".
ZHA's client list is sometimes unpalatable and its parametric ideology is indigestible. But does she deserve to be quite so hated? The atmosphere around her work has become poisoned with the most extraordinary rancour, including from her defenders – who, it should be said, have some cause to feel embattled. (Try to write about ZHA even-handedly, as I did in Disegno early this year and here a couple of months ago, and you end up being shot at by both sides.)
My political sympathies almost always lie with Hadid's detractors, and aesthetically I'm unconvinced by parametricism in theory or practice. Nevertheless, I spent 2015 becoming gravely concerned about the spirit and basis of the relentless attacks on Hadid.
The chronic furore that surrounds the practice has, it seems, become self-sustaining and is increasingly divorced from the practice's actions. Continual negativity – for instance in a BBC Radio studio – leads to a certain natural standoffishness from Hadid, which further incenses her critics.
Attacks like Bayley's should give us serious pause, as they focus so hard on Hadid's manner. This comes down to wanting her to behave differently – to be a little more clubbable, less assertive, to shrug off what is said to her a little easier.
An architect from a different background would not, I think, be treated this way. And she might not have accomplished half so much if she had taken this advice earlier in her career. Hadid's accomplishments do not exempt her from criticism. Hadid's background does not exempt her from criticism. However this cycle of negativity has to be broken, and I think architectural discourse has been somewhat quicker to ignore the shortcomings of its Great Men than it is for this Great Woman.
Related aside: "In 2015 Zaha Hadid was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to do so unaccompanied." The first woman to do so. In 2015. What the hell? Seriously. What the hell?
Please, let 2016 be the end of the hype over 3D printing. Not 3D printing itself. It's useful and it's here to stay. But the applications of the technology, so far, fall into two categories: functional and boring, or glamorous and useless.
Things that are functional and boring still have the potential to be revolutionary, of course, albeit in a very low-key way. That missing peg from your Ikea Billy bookcase, for instance – the one-centimetre bit of metal than makes a whole shelf unusable. No need to traipse to the nearest superstore or open a vein trimming down a bit of dowel. It could be 3D printed.
Being able to blurt out a replacement pot handle, washer or wedge could extend the life of any number of cheap household objects. This will happen if the technology drops its price to, say, £200 to £300, which makes economic sense against a couple of year's worth of busted Billys. This will need mass-market adoption, and some work might need to be done on the interface software to help that.
So we might all end up having 3D printers at home. What they won't be doing is churning out parametric vases and shoes. The kind of baubles and gimmicks presently being produced to showcase the technology are almost always trivial and ugly.
Designers are wrong to expect that 3D printing will produce its own aesthetic, or that they can impose one on it. One of the strengths of the technology is that it has no inherent aesthetics.
What they risk doing is hijacking a technology that can cut down on consumer waste and using it to produce a flow useless, cheap crapjects straight into landfill. As the author and designer Ian Bogost has said, people who think 3D printers will be revolutionary should ask themselves what's so revolutionary about paper printers.
On the building site, the lesson is similar. The historical precedent is prefabrication, which experienced half a century of being the "next big thing", while stealthily becoming an important part of construction without either transforming it or leading to an aesthetic revolution.
It would take much more space than I have here to fully explore the appeal of airships. A technology tried and abandoned in the 1930s, they combine the exoticism of the road not travelled with Art Deco glamour. From Michael Moorcock's novels to Fringe, they remain the signature vehicle of alternative history.
In our actual history, though, they merit little more than a wistful footnote. And yet they remain astonishingly popular in speculative architecture and design. Slower than planes, more expensive than ships and rail, much less promising then copter drones for micro-freight, they have no advantages at all apart from throwback allure.
Blimps are the vinyl records of the skies, apart from the fact that vinyl was successful and dominant for a time. The Minidisc of the skies.
What really punctures the blimp bubble is the helium problem. Accessible helium is in finite and diminishing supply, and we really need the reserves we do have for a number of more vital technologies, such as MRI machines. Using it to bootstrap a new transportation mode on little more than chintzy aesthetic grounds is madness. And once you've dismissed the green arguments for airships – which tend to skate over the helium problem – aesthetics is all that's left.
Fear not! There is very beautiful technology for moving freight cheaply – but slowly – around the world, one that has fascinating potential to reduce fuel consumption while using an abundant and wholly renewable resource. It's called sail, and it's being explored by companies including Rolls Royce. Sell dirigibles, buy clipper ships.
In August 2015, libertarian right-wing thinktank the Adam Smith Institute dropped what must be the hottest hot take in all urbanism: a plea for slums in Britain.
Forcing people to live in homes with windows and non-deadly wiring is, after all, an outrageous restriction of market liberty. If a little nourishing black mould in the baby's lungs is the price to pay for truly affordable housing, who are we to interfere? What are you, some kind of communist?
It's one of the great achievements of the so-called "failed" housing policies of the 1950s and 1960s that many people in the west appear to have forgotten exactly how horrifying slums truly are. The architects and social reformers of the first half of the 20th century were right to consider them the king of blights. They were a nightmare of ill-health and stunted lives – and they remain so in the parts of the world where they persist.
Brazil, for instance. With the Rio Olympics now just seven months away, it would be welcome if designers could think very carefully about projects drawing on the "resourcefulness" and "vibrancy" of Brazil's favelas.
Slums are, of course, not blank areas of dejection and degradation – they are home to as much human ingenuity and ambition as anywhere else. But they are also not cheerful elves' workshops for the rich world. I'm not asking for much, just a little care and nuance.
Here, we reach the most churlish cuvée on this particular whine list. My goodness, some superb architectural books were published in 2015. Elaine Harwood's Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975; Owen Hatherley's Landscapes of Communism; Darran Anderson's Imaginary Cities; James Crawford's Fallen Glory.
These are better than good – they all have equal claim to be classics in the making, not just excellent but essential. And, my goodness, they were all so long. Those four books exceed 2,500 pages in total.
The dedicated architectural reader will leave 2015 considerably more knowledgeable, but also exhausted. Weren't the 2010s supposed to be a golden age of the pamphlet and the long essay? What happened to that? Where are the pithy hundred-pagers?
Douglas Murphy's Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture, due from Verso in January 2016, is a perfectly respectable 240 pages, but looks like a wafer-thin mint by comparison with the preceding feast. I can't wait for it. I only hope that it doesn't prove too much, as it did for Monsieur Creosote.
Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.
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