Hal Foster is a celebrated critic, a Princeton professor and part of a generation of art writers (along with fellow October magazine editors Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Dubois and Benjamin Buchloh) that inspired me when I began writing about architecture about 12 years ago. At the time, there was little truly critical writing in our field, and even less about the masters of the universe who would become today’s “starchitects”. Hal Foster was a journalist, and wove together an academic’s knowledge of critical theory with a style that allowed his work a broader audience. Design and Crime (2002) is, to me, a classic – full of well-aimed barbs at the collapse of high and low culture into marketing in the 1990s.
His latest book, The Art-Architecture Complex, examines territory that he might reasonably feel to be his own: the interplay between 20th-century art and the spaces within which it has existed since the final years of that century. The book is a collection of essays (most of which have previously appeared in journals and magazines) that more or less hangs together. The first half is devoted to individual critiques of architects Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio & Renfro and Herzog & de Meuron. The second half looks at artists Richard Serra, Anthony McCall and Dan Flavin, among others. The architects are chosen because they do a lot of museums and galleries; the artists because their work relates to space – they create pieces that might be described as architectural, but stop short of the “experiential”. (Foster stops only just short of dismissing James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson and Bill Viola as kitsch.)
In terms of its architectural commentary, the book is less than agenda-setting, and I’m sure there are few Icon readers who need convincing about some of the common critiques. Hal says his namesake Norman Foster’s work “delivers an architectural image of a present that wishes to appear advanced”, that Foster’s work is super-neo-modernism, and that he has few ethical scruples when it comes to business. On Zaha Hadid, he opines that the vectors she uses to generate plans like that of MAXXI in Rome are “arbitrary”, and remarks that the buildings she describes as “frozen motion” are more frozen than in motion. His most sophisticated architectural critique is reserved for Renzo Piano – he deftly demolishes the architect’s claims of an “organic” architecture, and nails the “global style” of the Foster/Rogers/Piano axis as “banal cosmopolitanism”: a phrase taken from German sociologist Ulrich Beck.
The problem with the book is not so much that we’ve heard these things before – it’s always good to hear an establishment figure having a go at these powerful, universally celebrated architects. The problem is that in bringing a linear, author-focused attitude to architecture, his critique is stranded in abstract, art history. I didn’t find a single mention of the city, of public life, of the street or of any of the things that surround the buildings he looks at. To Foster, buildings by these architects are isolated artworks, and their meanings are to be found in an analysis of what’s there, played off against authorial intent. For him, the great duality is between architects concerned with “surface”, which he sees as a postmodern phenomenon, and those concerned with “structure”, which is a modern one. For him, all the buildings he looks at have interests on a sliding scale between surface and structure, as if these were two immutable categories. It leads him to a selective reading of the only great architect in his book: Herzog & de Meuron. Foster’s selection of their projects foregrounds their admittedly profound interest in surfaces and facades. But, really, buildings like the Eberswalde Technical School Library (1994-97) in Germany are marginal works in their journey from Rossi-influenced Swiss contextualists to purveyors of cultural liquorice allsorts around the world. There is no place in Foster’s writing for any reflections on the Stone House in Italy, and the other early projects that established Herzog & de Meuron as a practice with more profound interests than its peers. For Foster, the firm’s work derives from a “minimalist-pop dialectic”, but this sells short the influence of the architects’ teacher Aldo Rossi, and their understanding of the city as a collage of archetypes.
It seems pointless to write a book about architecture that does not mention the city once. There is no understanding evinced of what public life might be, and how architecture tries or fails to provide a setting for it. For Foster, walking around must be like experiencing a series of decodable images, with functional spaces behind them. The Art-Architecture Complex gently debunks the reputations of a series of ageing architects who probably don’t give a damn what anybody thinks any more, while offering little to the rest of us.
The Art-Architecture Complex. Hal Foster. Verso Books, £20