‘The Art-Architecture Complex’ reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

The Art-Architecture Complex

Verso, London and New York, 2013. 320pp., £14.99 / $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781781681046

Reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

About the reviewer

Jeffrey Petts is an independent scholar and guest professor at the Faculty of Arts, Northeastern …


The ‘art-architecture complex’ is Hal Foster’s formulation of one aspect of the ‘commingling’ of economics and culture in our 21st century attention economy, one that prizes ‘experiential intensity’ (ix). That overarching ‘commingling’ (sometimes expressed as one between markets, the media and art too) is thematic in Foster’s other work, and the term itself is repeated in The Art-Architecture Complex and, for example, in his numerous reviews for The London Review of Books. Throughout, the idea is that art and commerce are shaping each other, so that, for example, the artist in a post-Fordist economy is an exemplary creative worker while herself assimilating business attitudes and attributes. But ‘commingling’ is an aspect of a broader ‘capitalist subsumption of the cultural into the economic’ too (xii). The idea is a familiar one and Foster and others in this vein have an obvious intellectual debt to Marxist theories of commodity fetishism, as well to Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Guy Debord, particularly to their emphases on the way things are made and viewed, the idea of a mass culture amalgamated with advertising, and society as a ‘spectacle’. Foster’s particular contribution is characterising an ‘art-architecture complex’ within that broad set of related theories, setting out its recent history and current practice, opposing its fetishisation of real experience, and supporting practices that insist on the ‘sensuous particularity of experience in the here-and-now’ (xii).

Foster means the word ‘complex’ in three ways: first, as the ‘ensembles’ where art occupies typically architectural spaces and vice versa; second, to indicate how these ensembles act as ‘points of attraction and/or display’ for consumer goods; and third, as a ‘blockage’ to real cultural development, disabling real art and architecture (xii). Foster’s account focuses on three ‘image building’ global architects to illustrate the ‘complex’ – Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Enzo Piano. The possibilities of an art and architecture ‘contra image’ – local, site-specific, revelatory of the maker’s work, and demanding more than mere gazing by viewers – are explored largely through the work of the sculptor Richard Serra, and the book ends with a discussion between the author and Serra.

The architectural practices of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Enzo Piano are each understood as representing different ‘global styles’: Rogers’ ‘pop civics’, Foster’s ‘crystal palaces’ and Piano’s ‘light modernity’ are recognisable styles that effectively ignore both buildings’ location and function in the drive to build iconic images. So Rogers’ claims to be a left-supporting architectural practice are dismissed by Foster, and he doubts any supposed civil role: the physical transparency of the dome of the Reichstag Building in Berlin, for example, is nothing more than an ‘imaginative promotion’ of the civic, given that the politics that goes on in the building is unaltered, is no more ‘transparent’ itself (29). We can agree with Foster that in cases like this the ‘complex’ is involved in reinforcing the false belief that we are not merely spectators of public life but openly engaged in politics. As with other buildings – like the Millenium Dome with its ‘grandiose cosmic associations’ – Rogers’ practice is essentially in the image-building business, simply cultivating the idea of rational and anti-iconic making to get certain commissions (31).

Foster is even more damning of Norman Foster, whose buildings dominate skylines across Europe. The buildings represent the most glaring use of ‘architecture as brand’, with many companies using their iconic, Foster-designed HQs as media logos (36). Foster notes that these crystal palaces ‘exude an air of refined efficiency that any government or corporation would want to assume its own’ (38). But there is something sinister about this ‘holistic vision’ too: as a working office, a building’s functional transparency and openness is just for the boss, and is experienced by employees as ‘panoptical and oppressive’ (48). Moreover then, the real values properly associated with buildings as functional things are altered, become ‘emblematic values in their own right’ (48). Architecture is used – by corporations hiring Norman Foster, in this case – to deliver a sense that post-industrial capitalism is modern, thus validating the commercial ethos (49).

Foster also examines Renzo Piano’s ‘light modernity’ global style. Again he notes the extraordinary number of worldwide corporate and institutional projects carried out by this single architect. Piano’s special interest to Foster is his claim to craft workshop credibility (akin to the credibility in their design ethos sought by Rogers through ‘civics’, and by Foster through ‘efficiency and transparency’). And yet (again similarly to other exponents of a global style) Piano’s work is ultimately at the mercy of powerful economic interests, bearing little or no real relation to its professed ‘craft’ motivation: so, for example, Foster refers to Piano’s ‘Shard’ as a ‘scheme fed up with waiting for the go-ahead [on the New York World Trade Centre site] so transplanted from the Hudson to the Thames’ (53).

Foster turns to architecture vis-à-vis art with no less criticism of its move to image-building. He uses Zaha Hadid’s practice as an example of how architectural design merely ‘gestures’ to the critical heritage of modernist art and to ‘completing its project’. So the modernist interest in forms that fitted functions, exemplified by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is lost, culminating in a ‘popular avant-garde’ that becomes useful to right-wing politics by affirming ‘pop’ images taken from commercial sources. As the ‘prime architect of the digital age’, Hadid’s Futurist lines, Suprematist forms, Expressionist shapes and Constructivist assemblages are guided by little more than the possibility of being realised by digital programs and modern engineering rather than by the true values of modernism (86). Foster’s largely art historical narrative squares with the theoretic context set by Debord’s notion of the ‘spectacle’: in Society of the Spectacle social life is argued to have been transformed from ‘being’ to ‘having’ to ‘appearing’, to the point that the ‘spectacle’ of economic life cannot be grasped and changed by men, so separated is it from their working lives.

It is in the context of this negative thesis of contemporary architecture as image-building spectacle – from global styles to faux modernism – that Foster develops a positive thesis in terms of minimalism. Foster examines minimalism in three media: sculpture, film and painting. Minimalism becomes the central focus of the book’s positive thesis because of its historical break with any illusion or pictorial virtuality. And Foster notes its debt to Russian Constructivism and its proposal of a ‘culture of materials’ (198). (Foster notes, however, that minimalism did not deliver by its own standard: ‘half Tatlin, but half Warhol’, as he puts it, in the works of Dan Flavin for example (206)). The most detailed analysis is given to the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. Serra’s attraction for Foster is that his work avoids pictorial associations and emphasises their siting; and works are made to affect their sites by reframing existing structures. There are three principles at work, then – making, phenomenology, and situation: these are said to have guided Serra since his ‘understanding of sculpture as structuring of materials in order to motivate a body and to demarcate a place’ (141). In classical minimalist terms, sculpture is off its pedestal and in a behavioural space. Such principles in practice are significant for Foster’s argument against the art-architecture complex, because they are thought to rebut architectural works like Zahid Hadid’s – in their use of digital techniques divorced from the demands of sites and buildings’ functions – as antisocial (155). Before returning to Serra, it is worth also noting Foster’s support of Anthony McCall’s work in film. It is in the same vein as that of Serra, and sets out the broad parameters of the positive anti-image, anti-spectacle thesis for art and architecture, in describing the work and the viewer: ‘as with Serra, a mobile viewer, who is also perceptually and cognitively alert, stands in counterpoint to the stunned or arrested subject of spectacle’ (181).

The book’s concluding discussion between the author and Serra highlights the main theme of Foster’s analysis of the art-architecture complex, again counterposing capitalistic image-building with works that manifest their making, which are honest in their choice of materials, and are contra image. Foster and Serra seem content to call this ‘minimalism’, although Serra rejects minimalism as a style, wanting to go ‘beyond a literal take, beyond the minimalist language’ (229). He articulates this as wanting to create sculptures that create a sense of place, not of theatre (229). Similarly, Foster has championed the work of Kenneth Frampton: his architecture of ‘critical regionalism’ is against the ‘universal civilization’ envisioned by the starchitects (Rogers et al.) (67).

When Tate Modern’s Tanks opened in 2012 – a space that had been the underground oil tanks of the former power station – visitors were invited to write their answers to two questions as part of the development of a 21st century art museum and stick them on a wall in the Tanks: ‘how can art change society?’ and ‘what is the role of the audience?’ While this was being done, the ‘Tate Modern Project’ design by Herzog and de Meuron was taking shape, another iconic new building next to the old power station/museum of modern art. Foster’s analysis of current architectural practice in particular adds to our understanding of art-architecture ‘ensembles’ such as this, helping expose the sham of many buildings’ pretensions to offer clearer and deeper engagement for their users (in this case as viewers of artworks). For Foster the answer to ‘how can art change society?’ is set out in the ways that artists work (like Serra), that in turn place demands on spectators, so the question about ‘the role of the audience’ is necessarily engaged too. The idea of spectators engaging works as made things rather than as images places Foster’s narrative and alternative to the ‘spectacle’ in dialogue with Jacques Rancière’s idea of the ‘emancipated spectator’. Elsewhere (in reviewing Rancière’s work in 2013, including ideas from The Politics of Aesthetics), Foster concludes that relying on ‘aesthetic acts’ to reconfigure experience and create new forms of political subjectivity (to ‘redistribute the sensible’ in Rancière’s phrase) is wishful thinking. Art simply doesn’t have the means to compete with the ‘spectacle’, is no match for the image and information industries that control and concentrate ‘the sensible’ so comfortably. But if this analysis is true of the ‘emancipated spectator’, isn’t it likewise true of Foster’s claims for minimalist works like Serra’s? We are perhaps reminded of Benjamin’s flaneur wandering around the shopping arcades of Paris, especially when the cover of The Art-Architecture Complex shows Serra’s sculpture Promenade displayed in the Grand Palais. And yet, perhaps both Foster and Rancière (and beyond) agree on a fundamental level that there is something in the way we make, and in our capacity for aesthetic interest in making and viewing, which makes ‘art changing society’ a real possibility. And this is another way of saying that the fetishised economy of appearance and image dissolves only when the economy is controlled by producers with aesthetic interest in their work, in its artistry, design and workmanship.

23 January 2014

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