Aside from hardline left-wingers, no one would probably claim wholeheartedly that the failure of the big banks and massive bailouts in 2008 that led to rising unemployment, among other things, was a good thing. Can failure ever be for the good? It’s difficult to come to a conclusion because nobody likes to talk about their failures. The public discourse around architecture is overwhelmingly slanted towards narratives of success because, by and large in our society, vocational failure is stigma.
In the late Eighties, Brett Steele and Mark Wigley – the current director of the Architectural Association and Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, respectively – dreamed up an educational institution where students could enrol for as little or as long as three hours to three years and be taught how to fail. Named the Institute of Failure, it duly failed to launch, having attracted not a single student. However, it was formulated with tongue firmly lodged in cheek: ‘We took the highest fees on the East Coast [of North America] and doubled them. It should cost more to learn to fail,’ says Steele.
In a talk on failure held at the AA late last year, Steele noted: ‘We’re entering a global era of failure. But architecture still finds it uncomfortable to talk about.’ Despite this, Wigley contends that failure ‘might even be an architectural concept’. He says: ‘Architects can publish sketches, books, drawings… but architects have to contend that so little survives. The ratio between complete and proposed projects is simply astonishing, beyond measure. Architecture is pure carnage.’And it’s not only unrealised projects. Even realised ones must undergo countless iterations and modifications, whether from the demands of the planning authority, engineer, building contractor or client. This deforming progress from ideas and drawings on paper to reified building necessarily introduces compromise and therefore a guaranteed failure to realise the architect’s original intention. One project where this drama played out to wide public scrutiny is Daniel Libeskind’s scheme for Ground Zero. As Wigley notes, architecture is ‘the most perfectly formed culture of failure’.
Steele suggests that a major cultural shift happened when the USA entered the Gulf War; failure lost its cultural meaning at a time when ‘failure is not an option’ was being propagated by the then American president George Bush. Another factor that forced the notion to go underground in the past two decades was that architecture was experiencing an unprecedented boom.
In Britain, this peak was not only due to the relative abundance of opportunities to build but also the growth of public and media attention on the profession, which began to grow in the mid-Eighties with the fracas around Prince Charles’s address damning modern architecture. Then, in 1997, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao allowed architecture to be seen as not only glamorous but also as a catalyst for economic growth, the unholy coupling of architecture with urban regeneration falsely fashioning an aura and a mirage of success around the profession.
In the art world too, failure appeared in the Eighties in the form of a touring exhibition in 1984, The Failure of Success, curated by sculptor Joel Fisher. Another such public discourse would have to wait until 1997 when another exhibition of similar scope took place, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Unbuilt Roads: 107 Unrealized Projects. In his 2010 essay Manifestoes for the Future, Swiss Obrist wrote: ‘For every planned project that is carried out, hundreds of other proposals by artists, architects, designers, scientists, and other practitioners around the world stay unrealized and invisible to the public. Unlike unrealized architectural models and projects submitted for competitions, which are frequently published and discussed, public endeavours in the visual arts that are planned but not carried out ordinarily remain unnoticed or little known.’
Because of this, as part of his ongoing interview project, Obrist always asks his interviewee about unrealised projects. Unbuilt Roads was turned into a public archive in 2009. Two years on and Obrist has formalised his undertaking into the Agency of Unrealised Projects (AUP), which sent out an open call for submissions and made a brief showing at Art Basel last year.
But there is a difference between Fisher’s and Obrist’s projects: the former involved realised artwork judged failures by their makers while the latter are unrealised. This difference marks a crucial line in the treatments of failure in architecture. Unrealised projects, which include both evocative Utopian schemes that were never intended to be realised (Archigram’s Walking City, Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon) to those that are perfectly realisable but were not, for reasons ranging from those that did not win in a competition to those that were dropped by the client or when funds run out. Unrealised projects however, can still wield a tremendous amount of influence on the discourse and practise of architecture. We only have to look at Rem Koolhaas’s oeuvre as an example: his Parc de la Villette competition proposal lost out to Bernard Tschumi’s and yet has been equally published, discussed, and taught within the profession.
Koolhaas’s other unrealised projects include the Jussieu Library and Zeebrugge Sea Terminal, both incredibly radical schemes that opened up their respective typologies to be rethought anew. There are, moreover, Zaha Hadid’s The Peak project in Hong Kong and the Cardiff Bay Opera House, all critically lauded and very influential unrealised work, whose value has never been contested. These examples illustrate architecture’s ability to grapple with failure, as the ambiguity of whether a project that failed to be realised constitutes a failed one, is precisely the mechanism that allows architecture to deal with them in a positive way.
It is also inevitable that the discourse on failure should (re)emerge from two architecture schools well known for their experimental character, as failure is rooted within the characteristics of research – the high death toll of ideas in laboratories is a part of its nature. Yet while failure in scientific labs is mostly accepted as part and parcel of the procedure, when 75 per cent of first-year students at a London architecture school failed to pass in their first attempt recently it made headlines in The Sunday Times.
The implication of failure for architecture, as espoused by Steele and Wigley, is in essence to serve as a pedagogical tool. Wigley says: ‘Learn from the death of ideas rather than on their success; concentrating on the moment of death, putting the moment into slow motion to understand what was going on.’ This begs the question: Can there not be more merit to an innovative project that failed to be realised than a run-of-the-mill project that gets built? This is of course linked to notion that the process is as valuable as the final object itself, and why increasingly in education it is the design methodologies as much as the architectural object (ie buildings) that is taught and judged.
Nevertheless, the discussions around unrealised projects are mostly confined within the profession and academia and a proper public dissemination is lacking, in particular for built projects. What we are not so good at is holding public discussions around the failure of buildings. A particular case in point is the American public housing estate Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, designed by the World Trade Centre architect Minoru Yamasaki. The scheme as built had 33 11-storey-high blocks of flats, designed along high modernist principles as espoused by Le Corbusier and CIAM (an international organisation that arranged architectural congresses in which members presented and debated architecture and urban planning principles. It was active and highly influential 1930–60). Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1954 but suffered such a rapid decline that just 15 years later it had become a notorious crime-infested complex and its demolition was authorised. In his 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks stated that ‘Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite’.
As a result of how the architecture and national press focused attention on the project’s design flaws in the aftermath of its demolition (which bought it widespread media attention), the assertion that Pruitt-Igoe was a case study in high modernism’s failure became by the end of the Seventies generally accepted. However, Katherine Bristol has given a different account of Pruitt-Igoe’s failures in her essay, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
Her study of the ill-fated development considers non-architectural factors, such as chronic cost-cutting and reduced amenities, steadily declining occupancy rates due to changing demands in the housing market that further affected the estate’s already poor level of management and maintenance. She found that these socio-economic issues had more impact on the demise of the estate than any particular design flaw (though there were some, such as the skip-stop elevators), and least of all, high modernist design philosophy as a whole. Bristol concluded: ‘By placing the responsibility for the failure of public housing on designers, the myth shifts attention from the institutional or structural sources of public housing problems. Simultaneously it legitimates the architecture profession by implying that deeply embedded social problems are caused, and therefore solved, by architectural design.’
Jencks, who has argued so persuasively that architectural modernism, especially in the form of the ‘international style’, effected a historical amnesia on the profession, here suffered precisely that same pitfall of modernist blindness when he reductively equated the failure of Pruitt-Igoe to be symptomatic of the failure of modernist architecture. Bristol’s account debunks that same heroic and naive belief imbued within the Bilbao effect, that design alone could effect social and economic change.
Design critic and lecturer Peter Hall calls The Pruitt-Igoe Myth an instance of what he coined ‘irreductive criticism’ following the line of thinking in French sociologist Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. In Latour’s book, Aramis, or the Love of Techonology (1993), the sociologist investigates an abandoned scheme of a cutting-edge (and costly) French public transport system through looking at various ‘actors’ involved in the project from engineers, politicians, contractors, to the technology itself. As Hall puts it: ‘There’s no single reason why the project failed, and that’s the point of “actor-network theory”. No grand narratives to explain things away, no reductive summary; just a close analysis of how the precarious network of alliances between actors – the engineers, the politicians, Aramis itself as it emerged as a pilot vehicle – fell apart.’
Hall rightly sees failure as being particularly useful for criticism – certainly it points to contemporary criticism’s own failure. While a key discontentment with architectural modernism and what postmodernism sought to rectify is context, architecture criticism (taking as an example the influential New York Times) seemed to have moved in the opposite direction. The censure levelled at the recently departed critic Nicolai Ouroussoff (and to a certain extent his predecessor Herbert Muschamp), is that architecture is being analysed without relation to its context, in the way that earlier critic Ada Louise Huxtable used to do so well in the Sixties and Seventies, with her indepth knowledge of New York City, its culture and planning regulations. Contemporary architecture criticism (and hence the wider public understanding) appears to be stuck in the ‘humanist’ anthropocentric mode of architecture history that sees architecture as object and architect as author.
Another form in which failure enters public discourse is through ‘anti-prizes’: there’s the Carbuncle Cup as a counter to the Stirling (even the inimitable Koolhaas was once nominated, for his 2006 Serpentine Pavilion), the Golden Raspberry for the Academy Awards, while for contemporary arts the Turner Prize has spawned too many to list. These anti-prizes are of course great for a laugh, but they can also harbour a valuable contribution to a given discipline by critiquing the institutional ideologies embedded in Establishment-sanctioned prizes and bringing out alternative values and practises for debate.
Yet none of these has acquired the same acute (and generous) understanding of failure and trivial achievements as the Ig Nobel Prize, given to dubious discoveries in scientific research. The Ig Nobel is presented each year by genuine Nobel laureates in a gala ceremony hosted at Harvard University to ‘honour achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think’. You may giggle at a professor at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim, who received the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000 for magnetically levitating a live frog, but he was handed the Nobel a decade later for ‘groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene’.
It is not uncommon to find recipients of both award and anti-award to be one and the same (Rachel Whiteread was named 1994 Turner Prize winner on the same day she was awarded the K Foundation award for ‘worst artist of the year’). It shows, as in the case of film and architecture, that actors and architects are but one in a confluence of forces that help to realise a project. More importantly still, it demonstrates that failure is not a final condition, but often a fluctuating state replete with potential and prevalent in any creative process. As such, failure should be seen as a platform from which to open up discussions, critique, and engagement both within the architecture industry and with the public.