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Architecture and the Tao of big bucks

Postmodern architecture, like “postmodern” productions generally, notoriously tries to disorient. I suppose the justification is that we can’t grasp reality, and to be oriented is to presume that we can do so—to be precritical, monocultural, fundamentalist, Cartesian or whatnot. If that’s so, then to disorient us might shake us out of our self-satisfied lethargy and put us more in touch with our real situation (whatever that might mean on a view that rejects “reality” as a useful concept).

The line of thought might be well and good for a Taoist sage living up in the mountains somewhere. It doesn’t explain why business and government put billions of dollars into postmodern projects calculated to disorient people and convince them that their understanding of reality can’t be relied on. The Legalist thinkers of ancient China who invented the totalitarian state found they could apply Taoist attacks on rational thought and celebrations of the incomprehensible to their own ends. That move could be repeated.

Very likely business and government leaders have no idea what the point of postmodernism might be, at least not consciously. On the whole they’re no doubt just doing the admired thing in an area in which they don’t have well-developed views of their own. Still, successful social systems have a wisdom beyond the conscious understandings of their members, and modern bureaucratic and commercial organization has been enormously successful in rising to dominance. So might it not mean something that our leaders evidently don’t find disorientation of the people—a recognized technique in totalitarian political movements and modern commercial architecture—particularly objectionable, but rather seem drawn to it?

To debunk the past is to to eliminate the perspective from which the people might judge those currently in power. With that in mind, what’s the real significance of something like the New Acropolis Museum—an assertively asymmetrical building, all endless straight lines, angles, and glass walls—currently under construction in Athens? The apparent intention or the architect, Bernard Tschumi, is to assert the relentless dominance of present will over the past:

“The argument of the building is that you can address the past while being totally contemporary, totally unsentimental. The way to address a complex problem is with total clarity.”

Why is that something that makes sense in such a setting? And whose total clarity is to be imposed on the Athenian past?

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