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Architecture under Judgement
On display at the RIBA in London are two different schemes for one site: the Mansion House Square by Mies van der Rohe, and Number One Poultry by James Stirling. They show how difficult it is for architecture to be non-political.
Mies van der Rohe died in Chicago on 17 August 1969, five weeks after the death of Walter Gropius, four years after the death of Le Corbusier, and ten years after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright. Another 35 months were to pass before 15:32 pm on 15 July 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe complex by Minoru Yamasaki was demolished by dynamite in St. Louis, Missouri, prompting Charles Jencks to announce the death of modern architecture. The liberation from the giants of modernism, complete when Mies died, opened the road for a new generation.
The Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) of Le Corbusier and Gropius were eclipsed by Team 10’s interest in the street scene, and by the more “facade-driven” postmodernism-as-a-style (see “Strada Novissima”, the first Architecture Biennale held in Venice, 1980). But Mies’s legacy was capable of reuniting adulators from the radical left and the conservative right. So, shortly after his death, a juxtaposition occurred between on one hand the warding off of “the city as an assembly line of social issues” as described by the Italian radicals Archizoom in 1970, and on the other hand the continuous profession of trust in the vocabulary of forms that had given the United States a spatial response to the growing presence of finance and corporations as builders of cities (see the body of work by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago). Mies’s concept of “a tower on a plaza” implied that the only possibility to guarantee the survival of some kind of civic space in increasingly privatised American metropolises was given by manipulating the requirements of urban representation by the large companies of capitalism. It’s how Madison Avenue received Mies’s Seagram Building, Chicago received the Federal Center, and Toronto received the Dominion Center.
On that 17th day of August 1969, Mies departed leaving unfinished the final attempt to install his absolute corporate space in Europe, the continent he had abandoned in 1938 (apart from a few important visits). On the tables of his Chicago office remained the drawings of a new Seagram-cum- underground shopping mall, reduced from 157 to 45.7 metres. It was the proposal of a scheme for the heart of the City of London, a stone’s throw away from the Bank of England by John Soane, or what little was left of it.
This spring, the Royal Institute of British Architects has dusted off those drawings and traced the posthumous phases of the design for Mansion House Square. After a protracted planning process, Mies’s scheme was finally rejected in 1985, under the pressure of rising conservatism, fuelled by the support of the Prince of Wales, who was about to embark on the Poundbury development in Dorset with the architect Leon Krier for the realisation of his anachronistic dream. But the tenacity of an architectural patron and developer from a family of builders, Lord Peter Palumbo, was unflinching, even under the royal rejection. Two months after receiving the news of the refusal of the Planning Application for Mies’s project, which over the course of more than 20 years had ended up as a court case, Palumbo began a dialogue with a successor in order to build a new piece of architecture on that precious swath of land that he had acquired over four decades, piece by piece, freehold after freehold.
Twenty-five years after his trip to Chicago to convince Mies to accept the commission, Palumbo gave the project to James Stirling. The choice was perhaps logistically simpler seeing that Stirling was a Londoner, but it was certainly impressive for the apparent divergence between the two architects asked to design the same site. The two had a few things in common: both were called into the project late in their careers (Mies was 76, Stirling was 59); both had been through at least two career phases – geographical ones for Mies (Europe and the US) and partner-related ones for Stirling (James Gowan and Michael Wilford); and both were victims of the same fate: neither would see his project realised. Sir James Stirling died unexpectedly while in hospital for a routine hernia operation. He was 66. His project is now called Number One Poultry (Street).
The change of name is no surprise; rather it is fundamental to understand the two projects. Despite the timid attempt in RIBA’s introductory text to claim the intents were identical, the two projects are fundamentally different, and not just in terms of style (modern versus postmodern). Number One Poultry is a truncated Flatiron Building conforming to the urban grid, true to the street. Mansion House Square is a Seagram Building (also truncated) confirming the wish to obliterate the grid, to ignore the lines of the past. It is almost a warning for London to not repeat the historically rooted conservatism in its urban planning, dating from when the city rose from its ashes in 1666 on its old footprint. Maybe this is why Mies’s project found supporters in Alison and Peter Smithson, who had succeeded in layering an “area of quietude” over the centre of London with the Economist Building. The Smithsons were joined by other illustrious supporters: the RIBA exhibition takes into consideration John Summerson, Peter Cook, Richard Rogers, Denys Lasdun and Berthold Lubetkin. They were all for building a piece of America in a piece of Europe where it apparently made more sense to implant it. Philip Johnson held a different opinion. Unperturbedly continuing to declare himself the curator of the 20th century, he wrote how it was an error to devalue a Mies project where the American grid was non-existent, where there were only the narrow, irregular streets of an old-country city. Behind this defence of his master, however, there lay the reality of a fundamental moment in the history of late modernism, during which Johnson would make the cover of Time magazine (January 1979) with a model of the AT&T Building in his arms. It was not enough that Mies accepted to disregard his own standard by moving the service wings of the London Seagram from the centre of the plan to the rear, in such a way as to activate a peripheral movement that one decade later (and for the same tenant who originally was supposed to occupy Mansion House Square) was seen crystallised in Richard Rogers’ high-tech manifesto for Lloyds in London.
In such ideological circumstances of the obsolescence of orthodox modernism, and with it, Mies’s corporate style, the Stirling+Wilford effort of the 1980s fit the bill perfectly. In 1985, Palumbo had not succeeded in obtaining a Mies, his true obsession, as shown in the documentary that shows one of the famous photomontages of the first Miesian skyscrapers for Berlin as the only picture hanging on the wall of the reception area at Palumbo’s office with a view of the contested site in the centre of the City of London. In 1997, a Stirling would finally join the Christopher Wren, the George Dance the Younger, the John Soane (the little left of it) and the Edwin Lutyens orbiting around the triangular plot that Mies had planned to raze. Pure tabula rasa? In reality, there was a politically active void. With the square (having an underground shopping mall and an aboveground tower) Mies was not simply grafting a piece of his America onto Europe, but choreographing the power of finance. By eliminating the obstruction at the centre, the various power groups faced one another like on a mediaeval piazza. The difference was that the forms of power had been increasingly reduced to one: finance – the mayor’s residence and the church were surrounded by financial giants, and the market literally buried underground.
The Stirling proposal, on the other hand, did not impose a new abstract order. Yet it too created an insider’s comment on London and the global space that was being defined in the City during the thrust of neoliberalism launched by Thatcherism. Today, Number One Poultry remains as a memorial to the city understood as a space devoted to the commercialisation of every sphere of life, the city as a variation on a theme park (as described by Michael Sorkin in the early 1990s), summed up by Stirling in an Italian-style roof garden and an Egyptian tower that accentuate the historical conservatism of modern London.
So these are two schemes that alternately demonstrate how difficult it is for architecture to be non-political. Or at least this is the main message of the RIBA show, which explicitly diminishes indulgence in the dichotomy of style between the projects. In another video, shown parallel to the architectural defence of Mies by the above-mentioned Cook, Rogers, Summerson, Lasdun and Lubetkin, we see the public walking in the City stopped to answer the question: Are you aware of the debate regarding what is going to be built here? Invariably, the answer is no.
The attempt to rouse a diffuse awareness of the political value of urban space unites the RIBA’s “Circling the Square” to a series of similar recent efforts. To name two: the symposium “Is Architecture Political?” at the Architectural Association, and the “political compass” of contemporary architecture published by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and rapidly circulated on social media. The no’s of the street people seem to confirm that inevitably, architecture is experienced in a state of distraction, as Walter Benjamin famously observed. The RIBA works out a threefold re-staging of the process toward architecture – the reconstruction of the process to Mansion House Square in the 1970s and ‘80s; the one accomplished by Number One Poultry in the 1980s (more en passant); and the “process” organised as a collateral event of the exhibition, where the two architectural parties of Mies and Stirling are compared. One question lingers: Is there real politics to architecture, or only power?