Self-Hating ArchitectPosted: May 12, 2013
There’s a derogatory expression here in Israel for left-leaning Jews who are critical of the Israeli Zionist “project”. They get called self-hating Jews. (The phrase has also been used to refer to Jewish anti-Semitism more broadly). The gist, then, of this simplistic accusation seems to be that if you are critical of actions taken by a group of people to which you belong, you must hate your people and therefore yourself.
Anyway, being here in Israel, talking and thinking constantly about all the goods and the ills of architecture in this deeply politicised context and feeling really quite critical about some of the architecture I’ve seen, has got me wondering at times whether I could be accused by other architects of becoming something of a self-hating architect?! Indeed someone I interviewed yesterday, who’s not an architect (and would certainly be described by some as a self-hating Jew) told me ‘you can’t be an architect and be against what architects do.’ She meant that you have to be outside of the profession to be truly critical of it, rather than just ‘critique’ it.
And then there are pieces of architecture I might want to dislike, for political or stylistic (ie. rational) reasons, which I then can’t help myself but be impressed by and drawn to. And this gets me all confused! Like when I said the Israel Museum was the best museum I’d been to, I caveated that this was ‘in terms of visitor experience and quality of exhibition space’. I wanted to separate whatever political agenda the museum might or might not have, to legitimise the Zionist agenda or some such, from my impression of it as a museum. In allowing myself to enjoy the museum so much, perhaps I could be accused of falling into the aesthetically-oriented and politically detached trap of which I am critical in my research.
Take the other today, for example. I was in Tel Aviv and decided to visit the Museum of Art in order to check out their 2011 extension by American architects Preston Scott Cohen. And I have to admit I went there with the expectation – the intention, almost – of disliking the building. I’d read about it and seen a photo of its exterior and I wasn’t impressed. Everything was going well as I turned up and took some time to circle the thing (it definitely reads more as a ‘thing’ than a building)…it’s a big beached whale of architectural origami in concrete, which I reckon Maria Kaika (2011) would include among the ‘iconic’ architecture she refers to as autistic, in that it exhibits a “pathological self-absorption and preoccupation with the self to the exclusion of the outside world”. It’s supposed to be an extension to the existing gallery, but it’s more like a parasitic and very-definitely-foreign growth attached only by a glass link.
Things fell apart, though, when I went inside and thoroughly enjoyed the interior, against all my better judgement! The circulation (which admittedly takes up rather a lot of the floorspace) is arranged, largely in ramps, around an organically shaped, undulating ‘light-fall’ in shuttered concrete and white. It makes for really interesting and surreal views to and from the places you’ve been to and those you’ve yet to reach. Needless to say I went to town taking photos – which you’re amazingly allowed to do, even in the gallery spaces.
The exhibition spaces are excellent (in my opinion, others disagree) – rational, flexible and organised in such a way that you don’t have to double back on yourself.
The original building, is a large, brutalist beast with lots more exhibition space containing more art than I could digest in one go, largely by Israeli-born artists.
So I’m left feeling torn – aesthetically and experientially I liked the inside but not the outside of the building. Ethically and theoretically I am opposed to autistic and self-indulgent architecture like that (particularly when its necessity is questionable in the first place, given the size of the existing gallery). But then I enjoyed it, too. Which brings me back to the lady I interviewed and what she said about it not being possible to be an architect and to be truly critical of architecture. As much as I don’t like it (because I want to be able to do both!) I do see her point – I think there’s a little magpie inside every architect that is drawn to shiny, beautiful things, and has the potential to skew their judgement. So for now I’ll just accept that yes, maybe I am a self-hating (and conflicted) architect. “Ooooh, but would you just look at that nice recessed handrail?!”
Kaika M (2011) “Autistic architecture: the fall of the icon and the rise of the serial object of architecture” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(6) 968 – 992