Future Past Tense

Douglas Murphy, The Architecture of Failure

Zero Books, 167pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781780990224

reviewed by Rosa Ainley

The joy of this book lies in the scope of its reference: from the 19th century to the as-yet unbuilt and unviewable. It takes as its first failure Victorian palaces of iron and glass and advances to Google Earth urbanism – renderings of impossible angles and locations which only a satellite can appreciate. The author’s powerful critique of the supposedly radical proponents of architecture is brutal and incisive, a welcome move away from the well-trodden cultural clichés. The Architecture of Failure stands out in the growing contemporary literature on ruins for not communicating merely through the frisson of aesthetic delight and for choosing buildings of the late 19th century as its subject rather than those of the post-World War II period. Even if it were for these reasons alone, it is a useful addition and a corrective.

Given that architecture is never complete, is always deteriorating, never fulfils its intention or its promise or the expectations of users and instigators alike, The Architecture of Failure could be a very long book on the failures of architecture too. Instead it is short and bracing. It’s refreshing to read work by one immune to the general swooning induced by certain figures in the architectural pantheon: Cedric Price, Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, to name a few whose limitations Douglas Murphy exposes. ‘Solutionism’ is his tag for this approach to architecture, less novel or surprising when attached to Foster and Rogers. Criticism is not only reserved for historical figures, however, Murphy is not partisan and is also unimpressed by the requisite genuflecting at the altar of parametricism, practiced by the likes of Patrik Schumacher and Zaha Hadid (in what Schumacher strangely calls the ‘new spaces’ of airports and malls, when they are surely non-spaces and not new typologies). His term for this kind of work of ‘essential flimsiness’ is ‘virtualism.’The third approach to architecture that Murphy identifies is ‘iconism,’ exemplified by Peter Eisenman, whose interpretation and co-option of philosophical ideas Derrida dismisses (in characteristically amusing fashion) as maladroit.

There is much to disagree and agree with here. The whimsy of Archigram, for instance, can be quite, well, irritating, but Archigram can’t be held responsible for the current plague of popup fun, that scourge of organised spontaneity, in the form of shops/happenings/festivals. Murphy pushes this to the horrifying extremity of Bono being ‘watched in a field by 50,000 middle-class people’ and, indeed, scale is key: what might be an engaging idea at a small, localised level changes entirely when made ubiquitous and co-opted by the mainstream and the corporate. As Murphy notes, architecture is reliant on capital, to a greater extent than any other art form; its failures are very expensive, with the monetary being one of the least important of its costs. Nonetheless, he does concede that ‘architects should not be afraid of failure’, more than half way through the book. Do we hate architecture because it can’t deliver (change the world) and love it because it tries? Can we, as it were, blame architecture for trying? And failing. Failure and optimism, though, are not mutually exclusive.

Murphy rightly bemoans the dreary chorus of ‘blame the architect’ for, as he asks (slightly in contradiction to his own thesis perhaps): since when did architects commission themselves? Equally unacceptable, in millennium project days, was the ‘blame the engineer’ stance over London’s wobbly bridge, prefigured by the snobbish protectionism as the glass palaces went up in the 1850s – itself born of fear of de-professionalisation and industrialisation. In another instance of repetition, the book mentions the security concerns about assassination, terrorism, violence, disease, infrastructural collapse: but it refers to the opening of the Great Exhibition, not the 2012 Olympics.

When Murphy states that ‘the problems of architecture and its relationship to culture and technology are still unresolved today’, it might be contended they always will be, because that tension is in large part what architecture is. Again, the statement that the profession is ‘as far away from a revolutionary architecture now as we were at the time the iron & glass buildings emerged’ appears superficially convincing, but is perhaps something of a blanket overstatement. This is a subject perhaps too big and deep to be entirely dealt with in such a slim volume and at points the density and compression of the prose might be doing its author a disservice. If architecture is necessarily situated in the future, and if all futures only exist in the past, what might happen if it were possible to situate architecture in the now? Also deserving of greater consideration is his discussion of how memories can only exist for as long as the space in which they occurred. As soundly rooted in theory as this book might be, it is also something of a call to arms, and one hopes that it is a but a taster for a much larger work to come.
Rosa Ainley is a writer and a PhD candidate at the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art.