Conquering the Architecture of Death
Kidist P. Asrat
Just before the stealthy rise of Hitler, there were many signs in German culture which inadvertently anticipated the annihilating environment that Hitler sought.
Expressionist German filmmakers of the 1920s such as Robert Wiene and Friedrich W. Murnau were making symbolic films about their degenerating society and individuals in purely symbolic, rather than realistic, terms. They built this sense of doom through set designs and lighting. Structures were on the verge of collapse, or caving in on their inhabitants; shadows and their subjects were misplaced; hallways and corridors were twisted and claustrophobic. The actual realities of the post World War I inflation, the high unemployment, and the general sting from the losses of the war never figured in the films.
Horror and fantasy became symbolic devices for the filmmakers to make films which ignored the physical realities of their environments, but surreptitiously captured the mood. The German public was highly captivated by the macabre themes of these films.
Our current equivalent of these expressionistic films is not the cinema, but architecture. The last couple of decades has shown a proliferation of architectural “directors” such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, who build these very same types of disorienting structures with jagged, broken, and disjointed forms, not as stage sets, but as actual buildings.
There is always an initial recoil from these buildings by the public and critics. But, they eventually become very popular, with the public attending Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish museum in the millions, the new additions to the Denver Museum of Art boasting attendance higher than for any other year prior to the addition, and the Crystal extension at the Royal Ontario Museum breaking attendance records during the 2007-2008 holiday season. Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim has become a national tourist attraction in Spain.
The critics have yet to explain the public’s enormous interest in these buildings. Yet, the reaction of the modern-day public is no different than how its 1920s counterpart responded to the German expressionist horror films. It is the same dark fascination for death and destruction (Libeskind’s architecture has been called deconstructivist architecture) that draws people in the hundreds of thousands to these close-to-collapsing buildings.
There is a certain thrill in entering the twisted corridors, with unexpected paths: sometime leading no-where, and other times taking one to the next room of collapsing walls. Just like in horror films, the anticipation and excitement for something potentially foreboding is the drawing factor. Yet, none of the public would ever (I would wager a high bet on this) have a home built in that style. Libeskind’s public buildings are just curios one enters to leave soon after.
But architecture, the most public and practical of all the arts, is not something we can escape from. We will still have to face these buildings daily on our streets. And in fact, this deconstructivist architecture is being commissioned for ordinary office buildings and churches, and no longer remains in the realm of the occasional national museum or landmark.
Why do these modern architects build structures that prefigure death and annihilation, and why does the public oblige by accepting them on their streets?
One proposition I would like to make is that they project the dearth of hope for the future. Beauty, permanence, and solidity are the works of people who are confident that whatever they are making and participating in--buildings, art, literature, film--will have a legacy, and will benefit and be appreciated by future generations. A myopic vision of the future translates into buildings that are about to destruct and collapse, film repertoires that are filled with unredeemable monsters, and art that depicts horror, thus condoning violence and death, rather than life and continuity.
The 21st century atmosphere in which deconstructivist architecture thrives is very different from that of expressionist filmmakers of post World War I Germany. We cannot complain of being on the losing side of a great war. Yet, there is another war being waged. A war that has been going on for the good part of a century, and in fact initiated around the very time when the German filmmakers were entertaining their 1920s audiences.
Our war is a war on culture, that we seem to be losing. Our transgression is that we no longer believe in our common sense, and our common heritage, and cannot project our cultural legacy into the future. We opt instead for titillating horrors and mediocre and dangerous structures. The 1920s Germany became more hospitable in the 1930s. But Germans had given up by then. Whatever anxiety and gloom we may feel now is no excuse to succumb to the doomsayers of our time. We really can be the architects of our destinies.