goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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CW:  Oh yes! Alarmists. All these are symptoms of this sense of being far removed from creating a situation that they want. And it's true of anybody who feels themselves with their backs against the wall; if not alarmist, it is downright conspiratorial. You see that in the black community as well—coming up with conspiratorial theories because their backs are against the wall. There's no attempt to be able to exercise the power to transform a situation, and therefore the alarmist/hyperbolic rhetoric escalates. And you see that among the right in the cultural battles going on. But, as we know, conservatives have tremendous amounts of power—and here we're talking about the Kramers, not the conspiratorial black theorists from within the black community. They have a tremendous amount of power because for the last twelve years they've had political elites who were quite conservative who took their views quite seriously; who have tried to push back the legacy of the sixties as much as they could, but they were unsuccessful for the most part in most universities and colleges. Even though those universities and colleges are in no way what the progressives want them to look like—though the right wing will tell you that the progressives are running things. But we know it's the liberals who're running things.  

DF:  Speaking of the black community and some of the black ideology that you spoke of both inside and outside of academia, are you sympathetic to those popular adages of "keeping hope alive" and "can't we all just get along?"  

CW:  You know Brother Robert Gooding Williams, you may have seen his book, Reading Rodney King; I think it's one of the best collections of essays done on that Rodney King affair. He starts off in his text saying, "Well, you know, before Rodney King said, "Can we all get along?" he said, "Look, we're all "stuck here together."" And it-s much more that shibboleth I'd want to come to terms with than "Can we get along?" Because we're not going to even begin to seriously answer Brother Rodney's question unless we acknowledge the nature of the way we're stuck here together. Because I think we really are stuck here together, and therefore the sheer facticity of our circumstances must be understood. How did we get stuck in the way we did? Why are we hierarchically stuck so that certain folk have more pain and misery than other folk, even though we're still stuck together? And once we understand the historical dynamics of it, the power dynamics of it, and some of the history of trying to transform the nature of our hierarchically stuck-together state, then we're beginning to move toward an answer to the question "Can we get along?" Now the earlier adage that you mentioned was ... what was that?  

DF:  "Keeping hope alive."  

CW:  "Keeping hope alive." Now with Brother Jesse, I'm a little bit suspicious of it because he often believes that he's the one that's going to keep the hope alive. I like the claim itself, but I don't think you can keep hope alive unless you thoroughly democratize the notion of how one goes about doing it. It can't be done by any charismatic leadership, it can't be done simply by means of a brilliant, sacrificial, hard-working leadership. So I like the basic slogan, but the question is:  How do you unpack it? What do you mean by it in relation to ordinary folk, in relation to their own grassroots organizing,  their own grassroots mobilizing? So in a way, yes, I like that. I think we have to keep the best of the black freedom struggle alive, the best of freedom struggles across the border alive, which includes the intellectual dimension    of those struggles—which means building on those minds that came before and spent the kind of time and energy to think of what was the nature of our hierarchical stuck-togetherness. And then once we've had that kind of vital conversation. . . again, I think Appendx  makes a major contribution in this regard, but so does Reconstruction in its own way, so does Transition—you all read Transition, don't you?  

Previous page The political legitimacy of architecture is linked with an even deeper issue, which is the intellectual crisis in architectural criticism. The half-century predominance of the international styles in architecture left critics with little room to maneuver. Robert Venturi's ground-breaking Complexity and Contradiction of twenty-four years ago, with his empirical relativistic and anti-Platonic approach, created new space, and in fact I have a quote from Harver Morris's essay, one of the few quotable passages in this whole corpus about Robert Venturi. He says, "Venturi turns the spirit of the Modern movement into a quotation and mixes it ironically with other quotations to form garish texts that glow like neon lights." It's a fascinating formulation in various ways, but it's an opening, and it is indeed the case that Mr. Venturi's text created a significant opening. Yet its treatment of the semantic dimension of architecture remains wedded to the Olympian Platonism of the great modernists. That is to say his truncated perspective covered only the conventional styles and extrinsic forces such as poor design. As Alan Colquhoun perceptively notes, Venturi's book does not exclude the possibility that the general principles of the modern movement were sound and might still form the basis of a complex and subtle architecture, and certainly Venturi opened up a Pandora's box in architectural criticism. 

The intellectual crisis in architectural criticism is primarily rooted, I suggest, in the modernist promotion of what Louis Mumford has called "the myth of the machine." This myth is not simply an isolated aesthetic ideology, but rather a pervasive social and cultural phenomenon that promotes expert scientific knowledge and elaborate bureaucratic structure that facilitates his famous five P's: power, productivity, profit, political control, and publicity. Architecture is distinct from other arts in that it associated its own modernistic avant-garde movement, its formalism and newness, with this myth of the machine. Again, Alan Colquhoun notes that modern architecture conflated absolute formalism with the actual productive forces of society. There was in modern architecture an overlap between nineteenth-century instrumentalism and modernist formalism that did not occur in any of the other arts. This is why modernism in architecture enthusiastically embraced technology in an excessive, utopian manner, whereas modernism in literature put a premium on myth over, again, science and technology in a dystopian way. Le Corbusier, with his complex bundle of tensions between architecture as a machine production and architecture as intuitive expression, proclaimed in his epic-making manifesto of 1932,  Towards A New Architecture, the modern age is spread before us sparkling and radiant, whereas a year earlier James Joyce was saying that history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, and Eliot was saying that contemporary history is a panorama of futility and anarchy. 

My point here is not simply that the early Le Corbusier and fellow modernists in architecture were naive and duped, though of course in many ways they were, but that is not my point. More important, the distinctive development of architecture would produce such an idealizing of technology and industry. The subsequent collapse of this utopianism into a sheer productivism with a Platonic formalism that sustains an architectural monumentality as in the genius of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Transplanted from Germany to Chicago, he would set the framework of the present intellectual crisis in architectural criticism. Needless to say, the call for irony and ambiguity that focuses on the symbolic content—not the space or structure in the populism of Venturi or the foreign, historical eclecticism in the postmodernism of Charles Jencks or the plea for communication in the public art of James Wines's "be architecture"—provides inadequate responses to this crisis, primarily because these provocative (in some ways interesting) responses failed to grasp on a deep level the content and character of the larger cultural crisis of our time. 

The recent appropriations of the ironic skepticism of Jacques Derrida as in the work of Peter Eisenman, or the more historically conscious (what we would call genealogical) orientation of Michel Foucault, among younger critics can be viewed as an awakening of architectural criticism to the depths of our cultural crisis. Although deconstructivist architecture is, as Mark Wigley rightly observes, more an extension of and deviation from Russian constructivism than a blanket architectural application of Derrida's thought, it does force architectural critics to put forward their own conception of the current cultural crisis; I think it is very important to note that Corbusier in many ways was struggling with the cultural crisis of his day. People read his fifty books not simply to look at the sketches, but to see a mind at work trying to come to terms with how he could respond to a crisis. Who looks to architectural critics these days for that? Very few, it seems to me, hardly anyone. And yet in the next few years there might be some architectural critics who are struggling with the present-day cultural crisis through their medium, but providing some characterization and description and explanation of it. Instead, so far what we've got is a kind of sloganeering about the end of Western metaphysics, or the omnipresence of the disciplinary order, and of course we can get that from literary critics. It's nothing new. It's a nice slogan if it's enabling to such a degree that it forces you to look more specifically at your discipline and at the crisis. In that sense it is a gate through which architectural critics must pass, but you can't be stuck there. In short, the French invasion of architectural criticism—and I don't say this to be paternalistic; I'm just describing what I see in terms of these cultural practices has injected new energy and excitement in a discipline suffering cultural lag, yet this invasion has led many architectural critics to the most deadly of traps, which is a loss of identity as architectural critics. Next page

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