An article in the Guardian on the rise and fall of London’s Millennium Dome sums up much of what ails modern architecture. “20 years on, revisiting a very British fiasco,” by Rowan Moore, describes the pitfalls of treating architecture not as a place but as an idea:
[T]his spectacular container of not very much made an easy emblem of the government’s preference for style over content, its attachment to vacuous statements of modernity, its use of messaging and focus groups to deliver meaningless platitudes, its tokenistic approach to regeneration.
Here is one passage describing the attempt to formulate a spin during the period before the Dome (designed by Sir Richard Rogers) opened on Dec. 31, 1999, supposedly the last day of the old millennium:
From now on, as [critic Simon] Jenkins puts it, [the Dome] would be “a showcase for New Labour, for Cool Britannia.” [Prime Minister Tony] Blair had publicly aligned himself with a vision of Britain as a creative, dynamic country: food and furniture by Terence Conran, buildings by Richard Rogers, art by Damien Hirst, music by Oasis. The dome and its contents would be its expression. Major corporations would sponsor different elements – a process that had started under [former deputy P.M. Michael] Heseltine. This would show, as Jenkins puts it, “that New Labour was friendly to capitalism, that business was part of one big national family.”
I have nothing to say about whether the Dome epitomized the Labour Party or the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair. However you slice it, putting style over substance is to lead with one’s chin. It is certainly apparent that a place must have a function, but if the function is merely to express an idea, it is likely to fail, perhaps a lot faster than did the Millennium Dome.
To be more precise about the millennial “idea” behind the Dome, the new millennium started a year later, on Jan. 1, 2001, not at Greenwich, where the Dome was built but at Caroline Island in the Kiribati chain, just east of the International Dateline, on the other side of the world.
Moore describes the fiasco:
The contents were panned. They were described as underwhelming, compromised, communicating nothing in particular. The long queues to get into the star exhibits made front-page news. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” went a Private Eye speech bubble, coming from a visitor trying to enter an opening in the arm of a giant figure that was in a “zone” based on the human body.
I suppose this article must be placed on my long groaning shelf of analytical pieces by advocates of modern architecture that, in admitting the flaws of one undeniably regrettable work of modern architecture, describe the flaws of all modern architecture. There never has been a modernist building that does not put style over substance. Insofar as the style rarely if ever rises to the level of beauty, the substance must indeed be flawed. All modernism – not just in architecture but in art, in music, in philosophy – is spin. It is not all stupid, but it is all fatuous.
That may be one reason why the world, with all its scientific discoveries, its widespread economic advancement, its endless victories over disease, its profound technological achievements and its relentlessly idiotic architecture, remains such an unhappy place.
Traditional architecture is simple, modest, functional and yet almost effortlessly beautiful. Has the world become such a thoroughgoing idiocracy that nobody can see the necessity of ADVOCATING these values? Even if only in the realm of architecture and the built environment, where they would be so easy to implement? So sad.