24 February 2012

burning down the (glass)house: The Architecture of Failure

Just started reading The Architecture of Failure by Douglas Murphy and finding it fascinating so far. I won't attempt to paraphrase it all, I haven't even got to the bits about Derrida yet, but if you like the sound of reading about nineteenth-century structures of iron and glass, eg the Crystal Palace, as inchoate modernism with added meditative discursions on transience, this is the book for you. This passage in particular caught my eye:
of all cultural forms, architecture is the one that requires the largest amounts of capital to produce; not only the huge masses of material that must be assembled, but also the huge amounts of labour that go into the erection of buildings. If we (not unproblematically) think of architecture as an artform, then it is the art form that is still most directly tied to its patrons, with all the ideological problems that entails.
...as it reminds me of a theory I put forward about film, which suggested, pretty crudely, that as it required massive lumps of capital to make a film, film-making could reasonably be alleged to skew towards capital and serve its interests. (With the obvious caveat that there is also money to be made, or at least money in the possession of people willing to spend it, from attacking or threatening capitalism and the established order of things, whether from genuine principle or from a cynical desire to ventilate build-ups of radical pressure).

But it also struck me how thoroughly the spectacle of Die Hard depends on the destruction of a steel & glass C20 descendant of precisely the iron & glass forms discussed by DM. And that the destruction of these architectural great-grandchildren is quite a trope, almost an obsession, within 80s-90-00s action films: Terminator 2, the Transformer films... Is it just coincidence? just the case that in films that rehearse and glory in the destructive sublime, they are naturally going to destroy the urban environment closest to hand? is it that there's something visually captivating about the transformation of a smoothly geometric series of lucid panes into chaotic cloud-bursts, galaxies of dying twinkles? (This must come into it, the physical fragility of the iron & glass structure naturally inviting thoughts of its own potential for spectacular dissolution, and as a visitor to Kew Gardens I've often daydreamed of how its glasshouses could be used as the setting for a Bourne style shoot-out sequence) or practically speaking that blowing up a glass-house is cheaper, easier to fix, easier to rebuild? or a latent hostility to the modernist genealogy these buildings represent? I don't know: I nominate Douglas to research these burning questions and report back with relevant findings.


claus said...

You might be interested in checking out the "distributed film fest" which the BLDGBLOG launched recently: A series of blog posts and discussions about prison break and heist movies where "architecture is the obstacle between you and what you're looking for". "Die Hard" is one of the films to be discussed, others are "Escape From New York", "Panic Room", "Cube", etc. Details here: http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/breaking-out-and-breaking-in.html.

Sam Davies said...

Claus - thanks! I am very interested in that. Will try to 'attend' the DH screening.