Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Joseph Rykwert, 2001
One of the questions raised following the presentation concerned the difference between the two terms 'style' and 'movement', since Rykwert used both terms when discussing High-Tech architecture. His answer was that the term "style" is a classification applied to past events and achievements - to the events or the works of art of a certain period. It is not generally how someone decides to build or paint - at least this is the way it was until the mid-nineteenth century, when a whole repertory of past 'styles' came to be employed interchangeably. On the other hand, the term "movement" can be used when a group of people intends to do certain things for stated reasons - and it may be a self-conscious desire to work in the manner of a time past. In general, a movement implies a formulated manifesto, or at least some sort of statement of aim, usually with the idea that the approach will replace older ways of doing certain things. A movement is a coherent group with an ideology, whereas a style does not necessarily have an ideology, although it is quite often related to an ideology.
Rykwert added that the reason why he hesitated to choose between 'style' and 'movement' when talking about High-Tech architecture is that 'style' has become a sort of a 'bad word' since the 1930's, and a whole set of other terms have emerged to get round the unfortunate associations. However, it seems to him that High-Tech is more of a style than a movement.
Another questioner inquired as to how architects can take on a socially active role in society and counteract the phenomenon of envisioning building as being a process that was only technologically motivated and therefore devoid of social content. In replying to this question, Rykwert mentioned that some of his colleagues, of a Marxist persuasion, produced an argument that became quite popular. They maintained that in the post-capitalist world, which is a society without politics, no meaning can be attributed to buildings. However, Rykwert thinks that such an argument is insidious. He believes that whenever one looks at a building one is inescapably drawn to interpret it and therefore to attribute some form of meaning to it.
Rykwert added that although theorists of architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, insist that buildings should be suited to their purpose and solidly built, yet they also tell us that the most important task of the architect is to make them harmonious and to make them 'speak' for the clients. However, architects today seem ashamed of such a task, a shame that Rykwert believes they must get rid of.
Such questions are often reduced to a concern with 'aesthetics'. But aesthetics may be what people do when they talk about buildings, but it is certainly not what architects do when they design them. This is why Rykwert thinks architects must understand the way in which buildings are received, something about which they seem to know about or care for very little. It is difficult to find any research projects concerned with this issue. An exception was Kevin Lynch, the American theoretician, academician, and practitioner of city planning, who developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) very important - though unsystematic - models showing how people read the city. (7) Unfortunately, he has not had emulators. In fact, the whole notion of how buildings and people relate to each other and how people see and interpret buildings is hardly ever considered in the designs of architects.
In this context, Rykwert gave the example of what had occurred during the design process for the as yet unbuilt World Financial Center in Shanghai. This 90-story building has a square plan, which begins to taper about a third up its height to a thin diagonal at the summit. In order to solve the problems of wind resistance, the designers cut a fifty meter circular hole at the top of the building. Bearing in mind that the financiers for the building were Japanese, many people in Shanghai viewed the circular hole as a representation of the Japanese rising sun, and consequently a symbol of Japanese dominance. This interpretation caused considerable anxiety, and the architect was made to design a bridge across that circular void, thus providing for a different and more acceptably 'Chinese-style' interpretation of the building.
Another theme that was discussed relates to the connection that Rykwert made in his presentation between Robert Venturi's 'decorated shed' and High-Tech architecture. One of the Diwan members commented on how Rogers and Piano in their Pompidou Center used as a model Venturi's idea of the screen or electronic billboard that he designed for the unbuilt 1967 Football Hall of Fame project in New Brunswick, New Jersey (figure 2). Venturi designed a large screen for this project on which information such as football game scores would be displayed, and which both dwarfed and concealed the actual building behind it. Rogers and Piano hoped to incorporate a large screen in their design, but budgetary restrictions prevented them from doing so.
An attempt was made to connect a number of the ideas that Rykwert presented to the condition of architecture in Jordan. There were comments that if one looks at architecture in Amman, for example, one may say that High-Tech architecture has not really made it in the city. At the same time, Venturi's billboard screen is ubiquitous, and it is common to see enormous signs in Amman that dominate the small buildings on which they are placed. It seems as if the industrial phase has been totally jumped over, and what one is seeing is Venturi's post-industrial prophecy being realized.