A contemporary Aesthetics of Architecture.

Certain developments at the theoretical limits of architectural practice have recently come together. Firstly the wider acceptance of the ideas of Bernard Tschumi, most specifically concerning the reappraisal of an exclusive modernist programmatics, is of primary importance. Tschumi’s investigations into what is widely referred to as ‘cross-programming’, the juxtaposition of otherwise exclusive and antithetical programmes –sky diving in the elevator shaft, roller-skating in the Laundromat[i] provoked not only a reinvigorated interest in programme, per se, but the idea that distinct programmes might be juxtaposed in the same space rather than exclusively preserved in a cellular arrangement. The notion of a broad floor plate, which juxtaposed different programmatic types without separation, now became possible. Speculation concerning an architecture, which might contain this kind of programmatics, has lead to a number of developments that extend the floor slab as a deep plan facility and to its further development in section as a continuous ramped plate unencumbered by fixed vertical circulation.


The interest of practices such as OMA and MRVDV in this approach stems from a coincidence of these issues and has developed into a full blown topological or landscape paradigm in the work of FOA, Jesse Reiser, Stanley Allen and latterly Peter Eisenman and Zaha Hadid. What has driven this shift compositionally is a wish to rid the floor plate of all intervening objects, to make of it a flow space constructed from conditions of intra-programmatic flow rather than a space implied by the navigation of fixed objects or ranked cells. Its derivation owes a great deal to the nature of the Vegas casino/hotel and the development of a full-blown event/programme amalgamation. From this perspective architectural planning is no longer concerned with the division of space into discrete and discontinuous entities like eggs in a basket. Rather this space which we might call field space for the sake of this argument, has a continuous quality subtending flows, thickenings and areas of high density, more like a weather map than a traditional architectural plan.


Additionally field space embraces the homogeneity of globalisation[ii] as globalised extension through the figure of the continuous programmable plate. The Vegas casino is its quintessential paradigm. All probable programmes are simultaneously present in one deep space; a field of ubiquitous programmatic inclusions in which everything is simultaneously available on the same surface. The apparent limitlessness of this space, the lack of internal divisions, the remoteness and invisibility of the perimeter container reduces any opportunity to fashion architectural effects to the floor and the ceiling. While the ceiling remains the plane of major spectacle the floor is coded to exaggerate the total spend. In the contemporary Vegas hotel/casino, retail has been comprehensively introduced to the gaming plate. Navigation within the casino floor is now articulated by set piece retail structures offering not only food and refreshment but also branded goods. Within the gaming plate -organised increasingly on a landscape model- the most desirable branded commodities are distributed as brand islands. 


The architectural organisation of these spatialities has now passed beyond a familiar Modernist picturesque vocabulary. The organisation of the multi-programmed plate can no longer be achieved by neo-plastic or classical compositional devices, which have concentrated traditionally on the organisation of objects within an undifferentiated field of space. The organisation of objects as programmatic containers and dividers is now redundant. What this new architecture requires is the inversion of the traditional object/field relationship[iii]; moving away from an object-based architecture to one now dominated by field. The organisational vocabulary of architecture is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation. A new one is emerging having forsaken the articulation of ‘objects’ in favour of flows, densities, horizons, territories, concentrations, singularities, attractors and so on, a vocabulary which purposively avoids the discontinuities of an objectness and a containing space.


[i]See Tschumi’s ‘Architecture and Disjunction’, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.



[ii]The web has created a dramatic transformation in the nature of commerce, most especially and most importantly for architecture in the area of retail. The nature of urban retail outlets, the way they are organised and the way they present commodities for sale is undergoing a number of dramatic transformations. The appearance of web retail has constituted a reorganisation of traditional divisions within the global marketplace and forced their reorganisation. The most dramatic is the association of the retail and leisure industries. The recent Time, Warner, AOL, EMI concurrent mergers has seen the creation of the first global, retail/entertainment conglomerate which has the facility to provide publishing, cinema and popular music to a huge number of Internet users. At a current market value of $2,000 billion US it has a capitalisation of twice the size of the UK’s current GDP (gross domestic product). The purchasing power of such a capital rich leviathan and its interest in pressing home a global brand image behind its ubiquitous web presence makes large sections of the world’s hyper-cities Paris, London, New York, Tokyo vulnerable to its territorialisation. Not only is it entirely possible for such a commercial phenomenon to territorialise large areas of the central districts of these cities but it is also and already underway. NikeTown is a branded neighbourhood, a kind of forerunner of a comprehensive branded district in which tens of blocks of mid-town Manhattan for example, could be assimilated and dedicated to the retail of a single conglomerate brand.


[iii]The predominant compositional paradigm of twentieth century Modernism depends upon the association of abstract objects or figures displaced against and contrasted with a neutral, non-figured, empty background. It is a play of the presence and absence of graphical objects within the perimeter of the drawing plane or the canvas. a juxtaposition of the configured object constructed in contradistinction to an undifferentiated and receding background; what has come to be known as a figure/ground, or object/field opposition.

OBJECT is defined as a form, or collection of forms that sustains identifiable figuration in contrast to an undifferentiated, formless background. This back-ground, the FIELD, surrounds and delimits distinct objects with a continuous and, most importantly, a non-perspectival space. The difference between object and field is one of relative quality and extension. A field remains a field only insofar as it can be clearly discerned as that which is not the object and vice-versa. But within the limits of the drawing plane- objects and fields maintain a degree of interchangeability, which is both telescopic and hierarchical, connoting primary, secondary and tertiary (&c) strategraphical levels of complexity. Objects, which have significant extensions within a primary field, constitute secondary fields when smaller objects are superimposed upon them. They act as fields to these smaller groupings in the same way as the drawing plane- constitutes an ultimate field within which the most extended objects of the composition are delineated. Clearly this hierarchical interchange is infinitely extendable.


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