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Foreign Office Architects Reject Authorship

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Steve Coster
University of Melbourne | Australia
The dissertation is composed of two essays to be printed side by side as parallel texts to be read simultaneously not one after the other.

Essay 1

Architecture is an essentially conservative pursuit concerned with spatial, material and conceptual organizations that contribute to an age-old discourse. Architecture retains its dependence upon the notion of a genius and famous author amid increased subjectivity. It remains concerned with methods of production, the object and its creator. Architecture worships its Authors.

While architects are seen to be (and often portray themselves as) avante garde artists and a seat of resistance to the cultural status quo, the models of practice by which architects provide services to their patron style clients perpetuates a particularly conservative professional system. Chronologically staged design processes, labour intensive documentation methods, and the agent role of the architect in construction, are generally consistent across the industry and around the world. The structures and hierarchies used to determine the division and coordination of labour in architectural offices are also generally consistent. This condition results in highly competitive markets with little scope for competition on the basis of costs. Competing architects are very similar.

Essay 2

Architecture is a radical cultural pursuit concerned with resisting the status quo in a search for new and challenging discourses. Architecture has moved towards a well-documented postmodern condition of subjectivity. It has become more concerned with its consumption by culture and the subject than the object and its creator. Architecture has killed its Authors.

Resistance against cultural conventions of authorship was initially expressed through the emphasis placed by Walter Benjamin on cultural apprehension or consumption rather than production or creation. Through this resistance, architecture has come to challenge the classical notion of the architect as the unique or genius artist creating complete and individual artworks, instead proposing a postmodern subjectivity in which the subject becomes the authority in deconstructing and reconstructing signified meanings in texts such as architectural projects. This places architecture at the centre of what Barthes and then Foucault have called the “Death of the Author.”

Steve Coster

‘Foreign Office Architects Reinforce Authorship / Foreign Office Architects Reject Authorship’ by Steve Coster

Students enrolled in a advanced architectural theory seminar subject were required to submit two assignments, one a critical review of a published book and the other a review of a published design project or an extant building. Steve Coster focused his assignment work on Foreign Office Architects. For the book review, he examined the book The Yokohama Project which the firm has produced on its recently completed sea passenger terminal. Steve devised the review in two parts, arguing counter positions. In one he suggested that the book was part of the firm’s strategy to locate itself within a particular model of architectural prestige. This is predicated on the principals in the firm – Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi – establishing a claim on architectural authorship and authority, design genius and originality. In the other Steve outlined how the firm simultaneously rejects this model of architectural creativity for something based in a social model of cultural production that denies such claims on authorship. This is most overtly suggested in the firm’s anonymous name. Steve’s two parallel texts are informed by appropriate sources and are astutely balanced. While each essay is quite convincing in its own right, together they demonstrate rather than merely describing a dilemma that confronts the architect who is savvy in theory terms and ambitious in design: how should we critique architecture while operating from within its midst?

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