words Kester Rattenbury
At his recent RIBA lecture Aaron Betsky identified a key paradox of our architectural age: the desire to be modest and sympathetic to the point of monumental heroism.
Unusually, in this apologetic age, Aaron Betsky is famous for forming his criticism into manifestos. Queer Space, Architecture Must Burn and Building Sex are known for their totalising, confident polemic. He’s currently making an impassioned cry for the great architectural move towards a monument to apology itself. With as sharp an eye for a good, elastic, catchy title as ever, he calls this Landscrapers.
Betsky, expounding this theory at the RIBA last month, noted that so many contemporary projects are buried, low-rise, and covered in grass – which he links with the ubiquitous, fractured roofscape of the tectonic plate, the smooth, sinuous datascape surface, and “the incredible interest in the building that didn’t appear to be there, disguised as trees or shrubs, tucked behind the skyline”. It’s not necessarily an obvious grouping, but he’s got a good point.
“Like all new monuments,” he said, “it’s a reaction against the modernists’ use of the land as a bland, abstract sheet,” noting the disappearance of “the rational heaping of one building on top of another”.
“What the new generation is interested in is ‘about the place’ – not respectfully, but the place itself, rethought. The unfolding of what already existed,” he added.
Deleuze & Guattari (of course) came into this, with their “retroactive smoothing” of the information overload, and so did the history of the interior. Betsky sees this movement as a “critical endeavour”, “reappraising, misusing, deforming; an architecture of things not allowed; an architecture difficult to see”; gathered into new possible social relations, “all these shady, uncouth places – monuments not for the powers that be”.
Yet the notion of the monument is inherently perverse in this new world order. “Landscape architects got there first and did it better,” said Betsky, showing the land art and the ha-ha as the great ideals. And analysing Lebbeus Woods’ (also perversely monumental) proposals as apotheosising the hidden network of sewers and electricity. Or proposing the suburbs with their organic degredations of the grid – the great statement of the non-monumental.
Betsky clearly has a lot of fun, and his manifestos are not overtly self-critical. As such, though, he’s put his finger right on a key paradox of our architectural age: the desire to be modest and sympathetic – to the point of the monumental heroism that we’re pretending to have got over.
Landscrapers: Building with the Land by Aaron Betsky (T&H), £29.95