Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

Franco La Cecla seems to have the weight of the industrialized world on his shoulders. In Against Architecture, his diatribe against the profession that seemingly poisoned society’s well, he’s all too eager to transfer that burden solely to modern architecture. Over 120 rambling-bordering-on-incoherent pages, he launches a scathing attack against the practitioners of modern architecture, placing the blame on them for the disintegration of the vital role cities play in the functioning of society.

The lynchpin of La Cecla’s argument (never stated overtly) is that architects’ collective abdication of their responsibilities to society has resulted in modern cities whose buildings only magnify the breakdown in the manner in which their inhabitants relate to each other. If he is to be believed, their failure to take surrounding historical context into account, their constant acquiescence to whoever is signing their paycheck and their insistence on form over function has led to the decline of modern society as we know it. It’s all fine in theory, but the problem is that architects don’t exist in a vacuum. To pretend that politicians, city planners, corporate investors, community groups, and economic, health and civic institutions don’t exist and have no role in shaping a city’s character is magical thinking.

Unfortunately La Cecla is all too eager to engage in flights of intellectual fantasy. It makes for a maddening read. The first chapter, entitled “Why I Didn’t Become an Architect,” offers nothing in the way of an explanation as to why he did not become an architect. Instead, he outlines a blistering critique of “archistars” (his term, think Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaus, Daniel Libeskind, etc.) and the reasons behind their wayward designs. In the space of 27 pages, the misplaced ethic that has lead to the decline of modern architecture is blamed on magazines, the fashion industry, corporations, personal branding, casino capitalism and shopping. Never one to ignore a tangent, La Cecla also touches on modern architecture as a form of Nazism, the 9/11 truther movement, and a bizarre reference to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen being a major player in the Enron scandal. It is tour de force in paranoia over thought. To decry the loss of civic participation and the increase in social isolation worldwide is one thing, but to lay the decline of world culture at the feet of a few overexposed architects is wildly off base. La Cecla’s intent is admirable but his argument is delusion of the highest order.

At a minimum, after digesting La Cecla’s incorrectly titled opening chapter, you will come away with this chestnut, the first line of the second chapter: “So, I did not become an architect.” I laughed out loud, convinced that after his opening rant, which did nothing to explain his personal choice of profession, he at least had a sense of humor.

The rest of the book lays out small examples of La Cecla’s experience as an anthropologist consulting on different city planning projects and the ways in which he came to the conclusion that architecture is “outdated with respect to the contemporary city.” More incoherence follows.

He frames his argument on the “danger” of suburbs against the 2006 riots in the outskirts of Paris. It’s important to note that what La Cecla deems a suburb isn’t the classic Americanized vision of bedroom community 45 minutes outside a city, but rather the urbanized sprawl on the immediate outskirts of a city. He uses as his case study the aforementioned Parisian suburban riots, sparked after the accidental deaths of two teenage Franco-African immigrants that were being chased by an overzealous police force. The community rioted as a result, burning cars by the thousands and getting themselves arrested by the hundreds. La Cecla’s muddy analysis ties this to the marginal planning of the suburbs (a place merely for immigrant “storage”) and their failure to draw their inhabitants into the community at large. Buried in his argument are two whole sentences detailing the stark economic figures and high unemployment that maybe, just maybe, might have played their role in the discontent of the community. This is the most sensible of his arguments in the later parts of Against Architecture.

An attempt is made to paint the most cosmopolitan and elegant of cities, Barcelona, as having lost its soul as it comes to modern age. It bemoans the fact that it has become a “more technically developed city without a soul,“ a line that made me so upset I was compelled to scrawl in the margins, “If Barcelona has no soul, I am Lord Voldemort.” I certainly can’t speak for the wonder of the Barcelona of old as I never visited then. If it has in fact lost its soul in relation to its past, it must have simply been heaven on earth before it was tainted by the modern “archistars” because circa 2006, it was the most magical of all of the places I’ve had the pleasure of seeing on earth.

And deeper into the abyss La Cecla descends. He paints Columbia University as a racist institution hell-bent on closing its walls inward from Harlem, the Manhattan neighborhood where it’s located. Only the voice of Renzo Piano, the famed architect hired to design the new campus, seems to fight against the university’s “backwards” inclinations in regards to its new campus. It’s worth noting the Piano is the only “archistar” who La Cecla worked with directly, admirably living in Harlem for a spell while consulting with Piano on the project. Gradually, Piano is marginalized from the project, provoking La Cecla to write a slobbering and fawning “Dear Renzo” letter detailing all of the ills that befell Harlem once Piano was taken off the project. Also worth noting here is that Piano is no stranger to the type of architecture La Cecla rails against so maniacally in the first chapter. No stranger to the construction of monuments to his ego, he would feel comfortable alongside the works of Gehry and Koolhaus that La Cecla so detests. This is the man after all that foisted a White Birch forest into the middle of the most native of settings, the New York Times building in mid-town Manhattan, only to be enjoyed by the denizens of its interior privileged enough to gaze on it. Or maybe La Cecla missed Piano’s design for the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Housing the family’s considerable art collection, bought thanks to the serious wealth conferred upon them by old oil money, it’s a building that bears a striking resemblance to a state penitentiary sans barbed wire. It’s not exactly the architecture of the masses.

All of La Cecla’s bizarre arguments are rooted in good intention, but the manner in which he goes about them makes it appear as if he’s a shack in the Montana woods away from mailing out homemade bombs to the practitioners of “evil” modern architecture. After all, Ted Kaczynski may have been correct to worry about the ill effects of technology on society, but his end didn’t exactly justify the means, did it? Placing architecture as profession inside a vacuum and hanging the decline of modern society on it seems misguided. I’m just happy the manifesto didn’t come with a bomb attached.

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