Opinion: "intellectual vapidity and weasel-minded corporate ambition" are sucking the life out of architectural criticism. But there is still hope, says Catherine Slessor.
We're all familiar with panel debates. Political ones, such as the UK's weekly televisual Question Time, are supposed to be the acme of swashbuckling intensity, but in practice are never especially edifying. The invited snake-oil salesmen invariably end up regurgitating their reliably despicable views with oleaginous enthusiasm. Yet such encounters still serve a function, as politics encompasses issues that genuinely matter to most people.
Architecture, by contrast, does not matter to most people, though given its historic responsibility to society, it should. That architectural debate in all its forms has become increasingly stultified and stunted doesn't help.
Architectural panels are not even reliably despicable. Quite the opposite, in fact, tending to be cerebral, self-absorbed, tepid, dull and decorous. The equivalent of the "And so, have you anything to add, prime minister"-style of deferential interrogation that pertained in the 1950s when people were still cowed by class and social strictures.
Depressingly, across the board, intellectual vapidity and weasel-minded corporate ambition are sucking the life out of criticism and debate. Architectural events settle for comforting torpor (the theme of this year's London Festival of Architecture will be Community, the cerebral equivalent of a cup of Horlicks).
Genuine discourse is rapidly evaporating in an anodyne haze of vanity publishing and dubious online content provision, as panicky publishers grapple with how to address and monetise the tortuously changed landscape of dissemination and consumption. The result is an increasing urge to play safe and dumb down.
This is most brutally epitomised by the fate of formerly titanic architectural magazines, who now keep their teeth in a jar by the door, peddling castrated criticism, wet-blanket debate and ubiquitous, pay-to-enter awards programmes. Print products, with their considered and, at times, subversive relationships between ideas and images, drawings and texts, are destined to be chucked on the scrap heap as architectural publishing is stripped back and telescoped down to the cheap flick of an app.
And while Twitter may be demonically addictive, its methods are unsound: superficial skimming and hot takes marinading in a shallow pool of self-regard. Through this and other digital agencies, the deeply serious business of architecture and design has become atomised and transmogrified into low-rent porn with buildings objectified as clickbait and reprised as a meaningless stream of images endlessly spunked into the ether. Swipe right if you like the look of Chippo's latest, or those Back-to-the-Future self-lacing trainers.
Though no one takes him seriously now, you have to admire Wolf D Prix, founder of Coop Himmelb(l)au, who used to screech "Architektur muss brennen!" (architecture must blaze) as he set fire to installations in the AA courtyard during the early 1980s. Apart from being great spectacle, such radical indignation sounded the death knell for the prissy, pastel posturings of Pomo. It moved things on and got people talking.
Where are the latter day proponents of the Prix's pyromaniac zeal? Step forward Phineas Harper and Maria Smith – guerrilla tacticians who haven't set fire to anything (yet) but have, in cahoots with outgoing Cass dean Robert Mull, energetically rubbed the dusty Lamp of Discourse and brought forth the roistering genie of Turncoats, which has been terrorising and titillating audiences since it sprung into life late last year.
I should declare an interest here as Phineas used to work for me on the Architectural Review until he leapt from its stately hulk into the more agile dinghy of the Architecture Foundation. Maria, formerly of Studio Weave and now running the excitingly trans-disciplinary Interrobang, is also a drinking buddy. But as everyone knows, the London architecture scene is inherently incestuous, lubricated by feverish mutual body-part stroking.
However, even without my encomiums, Turncoats is cultivating a growing fan base and attracting rave reviews for the way it has jabbed a large and much-needed syringe of adrenaline into the comatose body of architectural debate. This is not your usual cosy, consensual evening with the usual suspects and the usual preconceptions. Turncoats is not about pandering and preening, it's about provocation. And everything you know is wrong.
Conceived as a kind of free-wheeling anarchic salon, where drinking and thinking are compulsory, Turncoats is a CPD and lanyard-free zone, where anything can happen. Imagine an impossibly bright sixth-form debating society after overdoing the Snakebite.
It reframes familiar topics – consultation, ornament, vanity publishing, the gender agenda – and then plays relentless devil's advocate, enacted through a format of combative salvos from its cabal of panellists followed by a wider, colourfully moderated discussion. Inhibitions are loosened by vodka shots and mobile phones are verboten, confiscated and placed in sealed envelopes for the duration to encourage everyone to speak more freely.
Beginning its run with the proposition Quit Architecture Now, Turncoats started as it meant to go on, playfully pricking the pomposity of the profession and deliberately stirring things up. It continues its evangelising mission at the end of January with what promises to be an exhilarating foray into the 'crime' of ornament.
Though they are far too young to remember the heady early days of Coop Himmelb(l)au, it's almost as if Harper and Smith are channelling Prix's old call to arms as they hunt for the next corpse to reactivate and dialectic to immolate.
"Architecture must be precipitous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, tender, colourful, obscene, randy, dreamy, en-nearing, distancing, wet, dry and heart-stopping", wrote Prix in 1980. "Dead or alive. If it is cold, it must be cold as a block of ice. If it is hot, then hot as a blazing wing. Architecture must blaze!" Pass the gasoline and let debate be ignited.
Top image shows Coop Himmelb(l)au's Blazing Wing from 1980. Photograph by Gerald Zugmann.
Dezeen is the media partner for Turncoats. Tickets for upcoming debates can be found on the Turncoats website.
Catherine Slessor is an architecture editor, writer and critic. She was most recently editor of UK magazine The Architectural Review, and is currently studying for a MA in Architectural History at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.