13 October 2008
The building industry has always been a cyclical type of business. And it looks as if the marvellous years of a worldwide building spree will be over. Maybe the sun will keep on shining a bit in some oil states in the desert, but the delirious level that architecture has reached of late is likely to be over.
For me, being an early baby boomer living in Europe, material extravagance has always been something of earlier times. The neighbourhoods in my town with huge luxurious family villas were all built in the 20s. During my time, no family could afford to live in such places anymore, so they were all occupied by offices. This situation did not change until about ten years ago - let's say between 70 and 80 years after these houses were constructed. Suddenly, top managers and business owners became rich enough to occupy such buildings again as a family house. Not only the extravagance in living space returned but in practically every other related aspect: bathrooms, showers, bedrooms, cars, events, all became absurdly oversized and bizarrely expensive. The delirium of the roaring twenties had returned completely as if an 'oil crisis' had never happened and the book 'the limits of growth' had never been written. Also the megalomanic size of building projects returned. I remember seeing in museums architectural sketches of gigantic structures made in the 20s that were never built and I always wondered what sort of state of mind was needed for people to consider building these Titanic-like structures. I have learned that it takes no more than ten years to lose collectively a basic sense of reality.
Intoxication enhances the changes of taking unreasonable risks, it will blur a realistic view and it will inevitably end up in a hangover, but it may also give way to new perspectives. That has happened in architectural development in the past 20 years. Building techniques and styles have liberated themselves from rigid traditions with often inspiring and pleasing results. It is as if the arts need periods of embarrassing lavishness in order to progress.
Display of wealth and power leaves most humans in admiration. Even the calvinists are touched. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (originally trained as a journalist) became famous only by writing about architecture in his book 'Delirious New York'. Later, he started a successful architectural practice. His own version of architectural intoxication will soon be completed in Beijing, China. A land mark structure that in order to keep its visual awe (and indeed to prevent it from toppling over) required a concrete foundation of dimensions that dwarf those to keep the Low Lands dry. Our Dutchman realised that things were going out of hand. He stated recently that a architectural 'style bubble' had been created in the profession. Comparable to the bubbles that plague the economy, once qualified by the American central banker Alan Greenspan as stages of 'irrational exuberance'. In this style bubble all architects are trying to build landmark buildings, resulting in a sort of architectural carnival.
Some architects have become like rock stars, the results of their work are visited by groupies as if on pilgrimage to sacred places. Some museums attract visitors from all over the world to see their new building, not the museum collection. Buildings have become brands and architects are merchandised as if they were all Harry Potter characters.
Maybe some day people will look at some of our current architecture and say:' what on earth were they thinking'.
Download Ken Carbone on Museum Architecture
12 October 2008
A plethora of other media has reduced their role into the small margins of visual communication. Nevertheless, posters are still heavily valued by museums, poster designers and poster collectors, but are treated as just a tiny ingredient in the media mix by almost all other media professionals. Poster design has become a bit like a hobby, or some kind of budget art, an item for the designer's portfolio or public presentation. The poster is primarily there to post the poster. For the rest, it is probably as relevant to graphic design as the design of the bow tie is to fashion design. This is not to underestimate the importance of the periphery of any human activity. Not at all, a casual meal may make you feel life worth living and a smile can change the course of your life.
In the meantime, visual artists have already for quite some time been heavily inspired by what used to be the traditional field of graphic design: the emotional impact of typography and the mutual reinforcing combination of text and images. Design, architecture and the visual arts are all considered equally worthy companions for building up museum collections. Scholars have given the official seal of being part of the 'arts' to all, even including graffiti in some cases. Only the market has quite a different view. The money value difference between 'applied' and 'fine' arts has only grown bigger over time. Making a living as a poster designer is not easy to put it friendly. Only affordable for designers who are already well paid design professors. The best client one can hope for is to be found in cultural institutions, now all operating making use of poorly understood and badly regulated market-like design competitions. The top bonus in this line of business is a free plane ticket and a hotel room overseas for the lucky prizewinners. While typography offered as art may pay-off handsomely. Not in all cases of course, but at the top level it is valued immensely higher. Some top artists run extremely profitable art factories. The value ceiling for work offered as fine art is positioned at skyscraper level compared to the graphic arts and that changes the perspective for all.
Some graphic designers, obviously, have understood this mechanism and switched their activity from being supportive to (art) events to being the topic of it. Some are selling successfully typographic paintings. There is a sensible case to be made for designers attracted to poster design to call the result of their work paintings, installations, events, sculptures, happenings, graphic experiences; anything, but not posters.
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