For those who are not in the know, here is a personal portrait of a small European country famous for one football player, one centenary filmmaker, one literature Nobel award and one Pritzker Prize…
THREE MEDIA PARABLES
(originally published in “New European Architecture 07/08,” an A10 yearbook edited by Hans Ibelings and Kirsten Hannema, Amsterdam, A10 Media BV, 2007)
In contemporary Western societies, architecture is widely publicized in the mass media, through newspapers, television, radio and the internet. The specialist media have lost ground in defining the discipline or have become less specialized in order to maximize their readership. Having become the main platform for architecture, the non-specialist media are busy manufacturing a new public image of architecture and its value system, a picture that implicitly dismantles the discipline’s own carefully constructed self-image.
Portugal has become a good example of this phenomenon. Three such media parables will help us to analyse some of the wider-reaching and perhaps paradoxical repercussions of the mediatization of architecture nowadays.
Absence and Presence
Despite the growing mediatization of architecture, the existence of an architectural culture is sometimes still paradoxically invisible in media coverage of urban and territorial issues. As recently as 2005, an article by historian and political commentator Pacheco Pereira, entitled ‘A bird’s eye view of Portugal’, painted a harsh picture of the urban chaos spreading throughout the country. In a scathing description of the ‘blemished’ Portuguese landscape, there is not one mention of the aesthetic contribution that architecture could have made – or could yet make – to change this situation.
At a time when architecture enjoys euphoric appreciation, the lack of any mention of the discipline and its social and aesthetic function in an article on development policies, is all the more striking. Pereira does concede that the story is not all bad: ‘there are more schools, more libraries, more cultural facilities, in some cases gigantic and underused, more hospitals, more local and regional services, better mass commerce, more access to certain goods and more cash to acquire them’.
But in his view this is no more than ‘a drop of water in the chaos, on a blemished landscape growing exponentially.’
How is it possible that Pereira could have overlooked the existence of a profession that is more visible nowadays than the medical or engineering professions, a profession, moreover, that could help to avoid or slow the exponential growth of ugliness?
We can hazard two possible interpretations.
One interpretation is that Pereira intends to imply that the visibility of architecture, and with it, its cultural authority, should be used for something other than providing a ‘media background’ and ‘setting’ that does no more than to flatter a collective ego.
Another, more likely, interpretation is that the columnist was sending a subtle message to the discipline of architecture: in view of its growing presence in the mass media, shouldn’t it being thinking about how to fulfil its responsibilities vis à vis society?
The natural response would be that architecture should move from its current state of self-celebration to promoting the participation of its members in every context, rather than simply pushing them towards stardom or emigration. Under the impetus of non-specialist mediatization, architecture must move from being an exceptional event to an everyday event. This would be the best way to resolve the other paradox implicit in this brief portrayal.
A whole country prolongs the ugliness of its territory, while 90% of its recently trained architects, attracted to this area of cultural production by the public visibility of architecture and respect for its authors, feel conditions are not appropriate for them to practise their profession on a regular and adequate basis. What is wrong in this country whose architecture is internationally recognized and acclaimed?
Visibility and Uniformity
In 1998, the Pessoa Award, a prestigious Portuguese cultural prize, was awarded for the first time to the field of architecture and coincidentally to one of the discipline’s rising star – Eduardo Souto Moura.
In a special editorial, the director of the Público newspaper referred to ‘the veneration of architecture’. This award symbolized architecture’s progress in Portuguese society. For architect and architectural historian José Manuel Fernandes, it represented the culmination of a ‘courtship that began with popular fascination for the avant-garde architecture of Expo and that led many Portuguese to look differently at some of its creators’.
From that moment the non-specialist media was ready to welcome architecture and to find in it new heroes and role models.
In this context, awards are the most interesting mechanisms for satisfying the public demand for heroes who fulfil the role of the new idols of consumption. Later on, the visibility and consumption of architecture were guaranteed by other mechanisms. Events organized around architectural culture – exhibitions, conferences, debates, seminars – would ideally continue to influence the internal progress of the discipline while also guaranteeing major media visibility for architecture.
The Portuguese architectural world quickly appreciated the need for media visibility to help drive change in architecture. I myself contributed a series of exhibitions – from Space Invaders and Post-Rotterdam, to the Influx series, to the national representation at the 2004 Venice Biennale and the call-for-concepts Lisbon Car Silos – all held with a view to providing information on new players on the national and international scene, and simultaneously attracting new audiences for architectural culture.
Since these types of events feature a subject and theme easily understood within the system of media cultural consumption, they continue to play an essential role in bringing architecture and its development to the notice of the public. There are of course other factors that lead to increasing the visibility of architecture, such as publicity and institutional promotion.
However, in contrast to these mechanisms of visibility that are still under the control of the discipline, architectural visibility in the mass media increasingly comes from the social and cultural activities of the distinguished representatives of architecture.
In the logic of the media system, fame becomes the main driving force of architectural visibility. The instant recognition of its subjects is intrinsic to media reproduction and this recognition comes, in turn, from identifying the players in articles and stories carried by the media.
When architecture draws close to the mass media, it moves from the traditional mechanisms for publicizing production to fashioning personalized narratives of figures and protagonists relevant to architecture. The emergence of international starchitects is a logical outcome of the mediatization of architecture. Because the mass media needs identifiable personalities who are sufficiently distinguished to acquire fame, architecture has gradually recreated itself for celebrity – a condition readily understood by the widest spectrum of media consumers. Architecture begins to be defined in terms of ‘authors’ and ‘cultural icons’.
Over the years, various personalities have arisen to meet this media-driven demand. In Portugal, Tomás Taveira was the architect who corresponded to the early phase of architecture’s mediatization in the 1980s and, as such, represents the classic case of a figure who rises, lives and falls by the logic of the mass media.
Alvaro Siza Vieira is the architect of the mature phase. His media image corresponds to the revelation and appropriation of veneration for the discipline and the recognition of the so-called heroes of production.
And Souto Moura corresponds to the established phase of the relationship between architecture and the mass media. In this case, the architect serves to maintain visibility and the cycle of media reproduction that guarantee the survival of the theme of architecture and its respective audiences. It then appears as an expression of the growing need for consumer idols. Souto Moura appears as the ideal protagonist for the non-specialist mediatization of architecture.
Whereas previously the promotion of cultural events still required a certain diversity of architectural content and form, the phenomenon of fame more frequently results in a tendency towards uniformity, which is typical of mass media and mass culture.
There is also an increasing probability of architecture being viewed and represented with reference to the logic of the media rather than to the discipline’s own principles. As a result, architecture may start to exhibit the characteristics of mass reproduction. And, as happened in the case of Portugal, this fact may be reinforced by a convergence of media interests and the profession’s interest in maintaining the architectural status quo. The historical coincidence of internal and external, mediatized veneration of architecture becomes one of the key consequences of non-specialist mediatization of architecture. Its effect is to make already famous architects even more famous.
However, contrary to what happens on the international stage, media representation of Portuguese architectural production – specialist or non-specialist – suggests a formal uniformity influenced by the exhaustive reproduction of models of a restricted sub-field that has gradually come to be identified with the whole of Portuguese architecture.
In the space of 15 years, media veneration of a few selected architects has impoverished Portuguese architecture.
Small in scale and market, and dominated by a small number of stronger and more visible players, Portuguese architecture began to reproduce itself exclusively in an architectural language with a guaranteed audience.
The veneration of consumer idols and the reproduction of the recognizable result, apart from a few exceptions, in a uniformity that tends towards the lowest common denominator – in an architecture that is highly consumable and identifiable. Indeed, some people will even regard this mediatized homogeneity as nothing more than a cohesive and desirable identity.
Negative trends usually associated with mediatization, such as superficiality and novelty for the sake of novelty, became instead, in the Portuguese case, a reinforcement of one particular kind of architecture by the same group of makers. Difference disappeared with the (promising!) exception of the work of a few young architects influenced by the wider European context, which, of course, faced difficulties to assert their break with the homogeneity of the prevailing style.
In the midst of all this it is sometimes forgotten that, as in any ecological system, survival depends on a combination of a stable identity and innovative diversity.
Towards Conspicuous Consumption
Architecture in Portugal reached a new, and perhaps final, level of non-specialization when it became the subject of a TV quiz aimed at a general audience. When the programme’s presenter asked one of the contestants to name the designer of one of the stadiums built for Euro 2004, it was clear that architectural culture had finally achieved the status of general culture. Moreover, faced with three possible answers – Tomás Taveira, Manuel Salgado, Siza Vieira – the contestant chose the correct one.
Long gone was the moment in the 1980s when the same television channel introduced the rather quaint, unfamiliar social figure of architect into a nationally produced soap opera.
This close encounter with everyday life and consumerism had already been experienced in the planning for Porto’s year as European Cultural Capital in 2001. In 2004, the presence of international starchitects impacted on the Portuguese daily landscape when televison channels set their news broadcasts against the backdrop of the biggest legacy of Porto 2001, Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música.
Despite all the controversy it had aroused, Koolhaas’ architecture ‘imposed itself on the imagination’. And so in this case, too, architecture became part of general culture and daily life. But even more interesting is the decidedly non-specialist nature of the presence of architecture as a backdrop for media reality. Exceptional architecture becomes commonplace when appropriated for mass consumption.
Of course the building’s impact in itself justified media attention. However, what is now emerging is the intercrossing and amplifying effect of a mediatization of architecture that happens on several fronts. Live TV broadcasting is paralleled by covers and special editions of news magazines, radio interviews and a presence in fashion magazines, publicity spots and the more specialized media. Architecture’s appearance on television, the mass medium par excellence, is just the logical culmination of having architecture as an everyday consumption idolatry, something which had already been made manifest in the cultural press.
The appearance of the British magazine Wallpaper in the mid 1990s, for example, marked the confluence and consolidation of a broader trend in which architecture became an object of consumption associated with the creation of lifestyles and identities. Uniquely for a non-specialist magazine with international reach, Wallpaper places architecture and design on the level of fashion, that is, it gives architecture a leading role as one of the cultural productions that help us arrange ‘the stuff that surrounds us’. As a result, architecture acquires the ephemeral status of a fashion commodity and in the domain of the media is constrained to compete with other cultural productions. This serves to underscore the role of architecture in the construction of a certain hedonism and of a certain idea of ‘quality of life’.
This social and cultural projection of architecture differs from the traditional image of architecture and architects, and gives rise to another type of appropriation. Architecture is consumed as a commodity that can be supported either by the artistic media, or by the political and economic media.
This may at first appear too far from Portuguese reality, but the fact is that this condition will affect deeply the media reception of the modest national architectural production. In fact, the growing visibility of architecture in Portugal is not very different from that in other countries where this form of cultural production has social recognition and key players.
If the growth of international architectural stardom has in the past two decades been dependent on ever greater non-specialist media exposure, then the presence of one member of this elite group in Portugal, Siza Vieira, was sufficient to create a national media microcosm from which fairly general laws can be drawn.
If the 1980s saw the transition of architecture into a wider public sphere, the 1990s were the years in which architecture asserted and consolidated its position in the social and intellectual arena. In Portugal this assertion was also supported by the economic and cultural growth attendant on EU membership. Crucially, it involved self-discovery through international architectural stardom, followed by the gradual convergence of the interests of the media and the values of the confined field of Portuguese architecture.
Not only does the non-specialist mediatization of architecture tend to exaggerate shared values, but the representation of architecture in the mass media also leads to a widening of the architectural field and an increase in the number of practitioners. Non-specialist mediatization creates a positive aura for the profession, which in turn attracts more participants. This increase in the number of participants then leads to the creation of new audiences for architectural culture, either directly or via the respective networks for the social interaction of the new participants, and this provides further encouragement for the mediatization of the subject.
A vicious circle is created which determines that architecture becomes a pleasing subject which grows in popularity and exposure across the media, social and economic spectra and, consequently, becomes a form of cultural consumerism.
The fact that architecture becomes a subject for several media sectors means also that architecture lends itself to different forms of consumption. Architecture is consumed as culture, as an economic asset, as a symbol of identity, as ostentation, as property, as heritage, as a tourist asset, as a sign of social status. With its appeal to an immediate symbolic form of consumption and with the concept of heritage drawing ever closer to the present, the best contemporary Portuguese architecture acquires immediate heritage status, with automatic listing for Siza Vieira’s buildings and, even more surprisingly, with the Souto de Moura Stadium in Braga being declared national heritage less than a year after its inauguration!
In other cases, the media emphasize architecture’s commodity value in tourism, as when the importance of contemporary architecture is propagated in articles about the consumption of exotic or historic destinations. But the new public aspects of architectural consumption do not stop here.
Architecture asserts itself as cultural capital and immediately becomes liable to different types of appropriation, depending on the sectors of society that realize the possibility of converting this capital for their own interests and needs. Whether appropriated by the political or economic sector or by individuals or collectives attempting to construct an identity or a lifestyle, architecture is rapidly moving into the realm of conspicuous consumption where, until a few years ago, the use of the symbolic resources of architecture was reserved for those with significant political or economic power. Now, as a result of non-specialist mediatization, the wider appropriation of architectural culture has suddenly become achievable.
In Portugal, we have widely mediatized projects such as Bom Sucesso, in Óbidos, where the appropriation of the top Portuguese architects led ultimately to one of the biggest and now most common changes ever to the Portuguese landscape – urbanization via luxury tourist accommodation. This is also the best way of ranking national architects, with the most distinguished and famous providing the most expensive homes.
National architecture found here its own nature reserve: a vast golf course isolated from the ugliness of the rest of the Portuguese landscape, where, finally, quality and signature architecture can, as on a safari, be observed and consumed in a state of relative autonomy.
Television and news teams are expected to attend the opening.
Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, 2007