Look at Mother Nature on the run,
In the nineteen seventies
– Neil Young, 'After the Gold Rush' (1970)
Neil Young’s folk-rock hit ‘“After the Gold Rush” . . . with its allusions to a state of depletion caused by American post-war consumerism,’ writes Murray Fraser in ‘Europe since 1970’, ‘reminds us that environmentalism and sustainability are not new’, neither as an approach to architectural design nor as a cultural imperative.
Fraser raises an eyebrow at characterisations of sustainability and environmentalism as forms of a modern or even typically Western architectural practice. Invoking Neil Young as a countercultural presence he playfully draws attention to European architects in the 20th Century – such as Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid – and their attempts to respond to, critique or perhaps capitalise on the ‘gold rush’, as Young has it, of Anglo-American neoliberalism and its influence on sustainable architecture.
Introducing his fascinating book The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Douglas Spencer begins with a panorama of so-called ‘New Architecture’ (‘championed, only half-ironically, by Jeff Kipnis in 1993’, says Spencer). This narrative-led scenography describes the sweeping ideals and subjective experience envisioned by neoliberal design principles:
The architecture is fluid . . . There are no signs of labour. Threaded between the buildings and pathways, sometimes woven into the architectural envelope, are the green spaces that signal sustainability, deference to the laws of nature. The trajectory of the virtual camera as elegantly choreographed as that of the environment it records as it spirals around the site, tracking pathways, banking over structures and hovering, momentarily, over details.
As far as green spaces feature in this scenographic reverie, they do so as mere ‘signals’ or signs of sustainability. How embedded they are as design features is left to the imagination. Spencer stops short of describing, for example, what kinds of ‘deference to the laws of nature’ are included as part of the buildings’ elegant choreography. The term ‘green-washing’ is used by Fraser, as an instance of lip service, to refer to the specious application of sustainable veneers, for aesthetic or marketing purposes.
Perhaps neoliberal architecture is ‘fluid’ (i.e. amorphous or perhaps evasive), then, not just visually but in other ways too. Spencer refers to neoliberalism as mercurial and so pervasive in everyday life it almost passes as an ‘ideology of no ideology’, as historian and economist Philip Mirowski put it. (More on this in Spencer’s chapter ‘Necessary Ignorance: The Art of Neoliberal Governmentality’.)
‘Should one imitate the past . . . or should one look towards the future and adapt architectural design to the modern lifestyle’.
– Vartan Hovanessian (1946)
Writing on ‘one of the first and bravest counter-narratives to Europe’s canonical Modern Movement’ in his chapter on the Middle East since 1914, Talinn Grigor highlights Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s design for the village of New Gourna (1948) as providing a revolutionary contribution to global architecture through Regionalist approaches to design in West Asia. This approach developed variously through the region following the oil boom of the 1970s, with a melting pot of styles and experimentation from Critical Regionalism to Kitsch, through to Post-Modernism and beyond.
Discover Fathy’s design of the village of New Gourna, which Grigor argues could well lay claim to single-handedly initiating ‘the downfall of the “International Style” by pointing to its ethical fallacies (housing for all, gender and class equality, universalism) and material and constructional pitfalls (leaking roofs, peeling walls, etc.).’ Note, too, how Fathy’s architectural drawings depart from the strict confines of traditional Western graphic convention.
With the rise of vernacular architecture in the region, the divergent paths Iranian-Armenian architect Vartan Hovanessian envisaged for Iran in Architecte, the first Iranian architectural journal, was in effect a choice between Revivalism of the past and the Modernism of ‘New Iran’. Of the former, we see the revivalist approach writ large on the Archaeological Museum (Muzeh-ye Iran Bastan), Tehran, Iran (1931–39). ‘In reproducing – somewhat literally on the museum’s façade – the grand vault of the last Sasanid kings of Persia at Ctesiphon,’ writes Grigor, ‘the French architect-archaeologist André Godard was deliberately linking the reign of Reza Shah to Iran’s pre-Islamic artistic and political history.’
Western architects like Godard did not build modern Iran, however. Grigor singles out prolific native architects such as Mohsen Foroughi, Keyqobad Zafar and Ali Sadegh, who designed the Mausoleum of Reza Shah (1951) at Ray. ‘[They] transformed the ancient building type of the Zoroastrian fire temple into a Modernist national monument,’ he writes, ‘while Heydar Ghiai’s Senate House of 1959 in Tehran signalled the democratic hopes of the bourgeoisie.’
Images above and on the collection page are courtesy of Getty Images.