Review of the book Behind the Postmodern Facade, architectural change in late twentieth-century america (Sarfatti Larson, Magali, 1993)
The objective of this review is not only to highlight the relevant points but to be able to make a comparison or adaptation of how they apply today. Demonstrate how some premises of the book continue to be carried out from early modernism to date.
As architects, we sometimes believe that our profession is autonomous and artistic, who better than a sociologist to deny it? In this book, as its name suggests, topics that go beyond facades and styles in architecture are discussed. Especially at the height of the modernist movement (1910 and 1970) and its consequent, and less acclaimed, Postmodernism.
The objective of this review is not only to highlight the relevant points but to be able to make a comparison or adaptation of how they apply today. Demonstrate how some premises of the book continue to be carried out from early modernism to date. Topics such as the "star system", the false independence of the profession and the priority of aesthetics over function or social transcendence continue to be promoted today.
The prologue, written by the American architect Joe Esherick, already anticipates that it is a book “that should be widely read by architects and anyone concerned about the future of society and culture”.
Although more than 30 years have passed since the publication of this book, the Instagram accounts of some fashion architects seem to confirm its validity. The new ideas that are spread through architecture schools, “specialized” social networks and the industry's own magazines, encourage the repetition of a style more than the learning of technique. Wouldn't architecture schools have to teach the fundamentals of construction rather than impose imitation styles? Perhaps that would allow young architects to develop their own creativity. In the words of Serafatti Larson: “Schools provide audiences for new ideas that can quickly become trends, but architecture magazines promote imitation itself. Aesthetic, innovative or sensational designs are repeatedly published on virtually all architecture platforms in the world.
The volume of publications on digital platforms, and the speed with which projects are published today, has made architecture become a visual issue rather than a functional one. This generalizes the discourse of design and throws aesthetic trends that are quickly copied by architects on the rise, without questioning the method of design and the reasons that shape these projects. A few paragraphs with a lukewarm and sensational description, which does not explain the space but abounds in pseudo-poetic adjectives. Of course, with beautiful photos that pay for the visual to reign over the functional.
These same famous architects, with entrenched styles who are not flexible in their methods, do not look for other types of clients with other types of challenges, create or follow style trends; they are considered masters or starchitects. One would have to ask, what makes them consider themselves teachers? Or rather: who? This system of architects rewarding each other makes it more difficult for lesser-known ones to get a job. To be recognized and have a good portfolio of clients, you have to belong to their club.
This profession, in which prestige is granted by other architects, shows a fundamental contradiction. For architecture to continue to be produced and rewarded, as an artistic discipline, it must have built examples. These should not be considered absolute intellectual property of the architect, since they depend on many other people. What clearly reveals architecture as an absolutely heteronomous art: it is made up of everything from the client to the engineers, workers and others.
In architecture, as in many other professions, the discourse still does not include all the actors involved in the creation of projects. On the contrary, it seems that he excludes them on purpose for not having a professional preparation. Clients, engineers, consultants and workers do not receive credit for their creative participation. Ignoring that, without them it would not have been possible to carry them out. Critics, historians and practitioners of architecture claim that only what is done by architects is considered art. The writer translates this erroneous principle as the ideological syllogism of architecture in which:
“Only architects produce architecture. Architecture is an art. Architects are necessary to produce art”.
This review is just a tiny taste of the book's topics, in a much broader and deeper spectrum the author makes us reflect on the priorities in architecture in the last 80 years. A highly recommended book for those who want to understand why today the system of architects works as it works.