April 29th, 2009


Case Study Homes

Watching Voyage Big City Life Tokyo, a French documentary looking at six Tokyo interiors, I couldn't help remembering Robert Venturi's maxim "less is a bore". With the honourable exception of Audrey Fondecave's Nakameguro house, the Tokyo living spaces shown are cold, anal, expensive and depressingly 80s-minimalist, devoid of colour, decoration, flashes of imagination, even signs of habitation. For the most part, they look like pricey, uninspired furniture outlets; upmarket, uptight and bourgeois. "Everything in a line, and simple, I think that's the style of our time," says furniture designer Fumio Takashima.

He's wrong. "Everything in a line, and simple" -- with excessive fear of clutter, decoration, and irregularity -- is not the style of our time. It's Modernism, and it began roughly a hundred years ago and ended about fifty years ago. Venturi, in fact, was one of the first to end the style, hailing the haphazard clutter and irrational cheerfulness of Californian strip signage. His motto about less being a bore became one of the key statements of Postmodernism. If we're now in a new era that dares to re-invent Modernism, we're attracted to its provincial quirks (see yesterday's entry on Vladimir Ossipoff) and a certain peely-queasy historical patina it's acquired.

So what would I champion as "the style of our time", if this French documentary got it so wrong? Well, I think the style of our time -- certainly the thing that catches my eye and inspires me -- is a different form of clutter. Not Venturi's postwar American commercial clutter of donut stalls and cheap motels, but the developing world clutter of shanty towns and street food. These are the new global grassroots of style, and advanced designers like Mike Meiré are right to be taking cues from them, and to be utterly bored with the kind of anal minimalism on display in the french documentary on Tokyo.

A case study? Well, how about Peter Bialobrzeski's series Case Study Homes? Bialobrzeski took the pictures illustrating this entry early last year in the Philippines, at the Baseco compound, a shanty camp located at a shipyard on the Pasig River, near Manila's port. The pictures, taken with a 4x5 format camera and currently on show in an exhibition at L.A. Galerie Lothar Albrecht in Frankfurt, have a double function. They show the conditions of life for approximately 45% of the population of Manila, who live in substandard squat conditions. But they also inspire aesthetically, displaying amazing inventiveness and endless formal variation.

Now, from a certain perspective, to declare a shanty town beautiful, inspiring or "the style of our time" seems amoral, even immoral -- an endorsement of poverty. It's a bit like defending child cotton picking in Uzbekistan or wondering why we can't all live in an "optimal breeding tunnel" designed for cattle. Surely, runs this argument, we ought to be lifting everyone out of poverty, not taking tips from it? At the weekend one disgruntled Anon commented: "Why does Momus refuse to make and spend money? ...I've never quite worked out how cheap = "more noble" or even "left wing". And it sure isn't "trendy". There are as many cliches in the flea market bars as there are in wine bars."

My answer is that "Ferraris for all" just doesn't work in a world where we're already consuming too many resources. At some point we need to take a leaf from the book of the poor. That doesn't mean live in shanty towns, but it does mean live more modestly, and be more resourcefully resource-sparing. Shanty towns are exemplary recyclers, and have extremely modest environmental footprints. Then there are the aesthetic arguments. To me, this stuff looks very interesting, and I'd like to see it become (as Mike Meiré and others are helping it become) the style of our times. I'd also like it to be improved so that it, you know, keeps the rain out. Perhaps some ingenious Japanese architects (Shigeru Ban has been on the case for decades, so have Lacaton and Vassal) have some ideas about how to make better dwellings out of paper, card, beercrates and bamboo? Perhaps -- should this style really be embraced globally -- some of those ideas will trickle down to Manila, and help shanty town dwellers there keep the rain out?

What won't help them, for sure, is the argument that they should all aim to drive Ferraris. If the style of the global poor (which, Bialobrzeski's photos show, is not an impoverished style, aesthetically speaking) becomes the style of our times, a wider embrace of improved versions of these forms and techniques will, I think, end up helping the poor -- and the world -- a lot more than telling them the style of the rich can somehow become their style. I'm as sick of that particular lie as I'm bored with minimalism.