Flashback 2005: Injecting the ‘viral internationalism’ theory

Posted on 3 January 2014
10x10_2 cover (detail)

Cryptic cover of 10 x 10_2: 10 Critics, 100 Architects (Phaidon, 2005)

Phaidon, American publishers of prestigious art editions, invited me in 2004 to help them identify and promote the next 100 stars of world architecture. Following outstanding sales of their ‘category killer’ tome 10 x 10: 10 Critics, 100 Architects (2000), they planned a second volume to launch in 2005.

Phaidon’s then architecture editor, Virginia McLeod, annointed me as the sole southern hemisphere commentator, to balance nine distinguished supra-equatorial thought leaders, including Zaha Hadid, Deyan Sudjic and Kurt Forster. We each contributed a brief dissertation about architecture in the new millennium.

Here’s my essay, proposing a new global theory to clarify architecture’s culture for the internet age. It is named ‘viral internationalism’ in contrast to ‘critical regionalism’, Kenneth Frampton’s late Marxist (local resistance to global capitalism) concept, which dominated architectural discourse after the mid-1980s. It also uses the Krondatieff theory of economic long waves (often misspelt from its Russian originator Nikolas Kondratiev) to predict 2008 as a turning point for world financial markets.


Viral Internationalism: Mutation by Infection

From the Paris Archdeacon’s prediction in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame that ‘the book will kill the edifice’ to Architecture Must Burn, Aaron Betsky’s ironically titled manifesto from 2000, thinkers have long despaired to consider – even sought to extinguish – the notion of architecture losing its relevancy through the humiliating stripping of its fundamental potencies.

How much longer architecture can matter is a question that incites apprehensive hand-wringing before and during every Krondatieff wave of technological revolution. Economists say the next fifty-four-ish-year cycle is due to begin around 2008, so it’s no surprise that the issue again is effervescing in contemporary discourse.

Architecture’s fundamentals – art and permanence – transcend the mere notion of expression. They are the inherent qualities that allow a structure to mean more than mere shelter. Architecture arouses the senses and demonstrates humanity’s intelligent superiority over other living creatures. Despite current pressures for more standardisation and the automation of construction systems, the urge to build unique and awesome structures will not be suppressed until humans no longer exist as creative beings.

Architecture remains necessary to civilisations, yet its metaphysics, practice and language are rapidly evolving in response to the digital age. While modernist architecture will remain the dominant mode of design until there is a generational shift in the academies and the techno-gap narrows between CAD virtualities and CAM realities, it is no longer accurate to talk of modernity as an ongoing trajectory of relevance to advanced nations. So many of its truths are now revealed as false, and the entire game of living needs radically different answers now that information has joined the space-time paradigm, now that virtuality and reality are interconnected universes.

Enter Kenneth Frampton, currently girdling the world to ‘revisit’ his twenty=year-old anti-globalisation thesis ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. Frampton still claims that tectonic integrity is the key to authentic architecture but belatedly seems resigned to the discipline’s capture in webs of commodification. Is his thesis tragically out of date now that global oligarchies are trading their world brands everywhere? Is the emphasis on tectonics something of a joke in the new urban realm of flickering screens and structures wrapped with veneers? Certainly some of his concepts need adjustment, and lately he has added new statements to the position.

Frampton did not anticipate the digital revolution and its capacity to create the blobs he now reviles, as well as other kinds of dynamic, irregular structures. But he did recognise the crucial influence of travel for the sustenance of creative inspiration. While it is often claimed, inaccurately, that his term ‘critical regionalism’ supports architecture arising from local vernacular traditions, in fact his essay emphasises the importance of cultural cross-fertilisation. This is Frampton’s key argument of continuing relevance, although it is futile to dismiss either global ‘starchitecture’ or updates of local vernaculars because they, too, can offer legitimate solutions to particular problems of how to conceive appropriate architecture.

It may be more valuable to analyse Frampton’s thesis in terms of science’s general shift towards recognising patterns in the apparently random and chaotic behaviour of all non-static entities. More than critical theory, the concept of viral infection does much to explain how architecture has always developed – in aesthetics and in culture, in every place at every phase of civilised history. Randall Collins, Peter Watson and Theodor Zeldin have done the hard yards (as we say colloquially in Australia) to explain how powerful are meetings of particular humans in particular places at times when circumstances allowed their ideas to flourish.

What else but the particular mental chemistries of individuals, and their impulsive interactions with political allies, can explain why China’s architecture remained traditional and insular – apart from foreign enclaves in Shanghai – until the Communist revolution of 1949, yet has always infected neighbouring Japan and Korea? Why else was the architecture of the Italian Renaissance imitated in late nineteenth-century Russia and neighbouring Finland – and throughout the Western world during the postmodern 1980s? Why are there obvious Japanese and Tibetan qualities to certain temples in India’s southwest coastal province of Kerala that are not seen anywhere else in that country? Why is Chicago’s nineteenth century city so strongly reminiscent of Berlin, and many of its key twentieth century towers designed by German refugees? Understanding how these cross-flows have occurred is one delight of travel for any disciple of architecture.

Closer to my home, why do so many contemporary Sydney architects claim to design for the local climate and place using minimalist principles referenced from Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Britain, Los Angeles and Mexico? Yet Melbourne architects also claim to design for their locality using diverse international concepts: high-tech modernist, Neo-Baroque, Venturian duck strategies, fragmentation and collage, Scarpa-esque sensuality, and digital designs of erratic complexity?

‘Viral internationalism’ seems exactly the right term to explain all the so-far built answers to a difficult Australian architectural conundrum: how to design symbolically appropriate Aboriginal visitor centres, when indigenous communities never built permanent structures. At the same time that white architects have drawn their influences from Indonesian huts, the Hungarian vernacular, and Australian ‘tin shed’ modernism, the country’s first registered Aboriginal architect, Dillon Kombumerri, is building in various contemporary Western styles decided upon after extensive consultation with tribal communities. His agenda is conciliation with today’s multicultural mainstream of Australian society.

A key text for the concept of viral internationalism is Randall Collins’ 1998 history of the social networks of Western and Eastern philosophers, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Collins writes that the world’s knowledge mostly has been advanced by networks of rivals in debate, rather than by lone individuals. Although individuals can think of ideas, there usually needs to be a competitive social context to stimulate their activcation and acceptance. He also writes of interaction rituals in which groups of like-minded intellectuals meet to celebrate the same symbols, pursue the same goals, and share common emotions. Writing this book in the early days of the internet’s popularisation, Collins did not note that intellectual networks now interact increasingly internationally, via email, with less reliance on physical engagement (although some personal engagement is necessary to maintain camaraderie).

In architecture, interaction rituals take the form of lectures, conferences, exhibitions, awards ceremonies, and site visits. In every country, the showing of foreign concepts – via a respected visiting speaker or local practitioner’s travel photographs – is a crucial strategy for individual advancement in what Collins calls ‘coalitions in the mind’ and American writer Tom Wolfe has termed ‘status pyramids’. These rituals also are seen as a way for the networks themselves to advance their bodies of knowledge.

Viral internationalism is not always about criticality, but the unpredictable operations of people and their ever-dynamic interactions around the planet. To illustrate, consider the answer given by Melbourne architect Barrie Marshall at a Sydney planning approval meeting to discuss his design for a harbourside apartment tower involving a vertical slash of yellow. When asked why he chose this colour, he replied: ‘Because I like it.’

He did not acknowledge that he was long ago infected with an invasive and incurable European contagion which has been mutating around the planet for more than eighty years.

—Jackson, Davina. 2005. ‘Viral Internationalism: Mutation by Infection’ in 10 x 10_2: 10 Critics, 100 Architects (ed. Virginia McLeod). New York and London: Phaidon.

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