Simplicity™
(1)
Reinier de Graaf
Manifesto for Simplicity™
Serpentine Gallery Manifesto Marathon, , 19 October 2008
The manifesto I would like to present is actually quite old, but it has been reinvigorated by recent events.

Since the fall the Berlin Wall about 20 years ago, for the first time in history, the world has been united as one. Not because one country triumphed or because the dogma of a single ideology triumphed, but rather through the voluntary, collective embrace of a system: a system where economic values take priority over all other values. It is clear this has had a great impact on the way our economy is run, but increasingly it has also made its mark on the domain of politics and culture (1).

Throughout the 1990s we all became familiar with the long queues standing outside museums for exhibition openings testifying to the great success of the museum (2). Clearly this is only one half of the story. The other half of the story is that of a fierce competition in the cultural world in which an increasingly large number of institutions fights over the same pool of visitors and revenues, pushing both architecture and art into positions of increasing extravagance.

Today, we find people of the cultural world featuring in the top 100 of the same lists that ten years ago featured only business people. It is increasingly hard to tell the difference. Jeff Koons wears the tie, Charles Saatchi the bow tie. Who is the artist and who is the businessman? (3)

Even if the status of cultural figures supposedly is on the rise, their actual standing with those who ultimately decide their fate is in terminal decline. This is Donald Trump commenting on Daniel Libeskind's design for the WTC: "It was designed by an egghead architect … I'd rather see nothing than see that pile of junk."

Architects and artists attract large crowds of adoring followers and are increasingly treated like showbiz celebrities. The identities that people in the cultural world can adopt while standing in the spotlight are multiple: guru, diva, icon... Others project a simulated indifference to fame. Meanwhile all continue the same old cause, which is proudly to present one’s own work as unique, one of a kind.

We have a unique recipe to put cities on the map. That recipe is copied by others, but what is more disturbing is the fact that we are increasingly copying ourselves. Repetition of the 'one-of-a-kind' is increasingly turning into the standard formula. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is the same Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, and could be the same Guggenheim anywhere else…

Abu Dhabi has embarked on the largest import of culture in the history of mankind. Here the world’s largest museums and the world's most famous architects are only a stone's throw away from each other (4). Architecture has become the prime tool to market a region and to propel that region forward in the world. This presents architects with opportunities to build larger, more uninhibited and more uncompromised than ever before.

The Dancing Towers™ by Zaha Hadid are planned for an area called 'Business Bay' (5). The Dancing Towers by an unknown follower are also planned for an area called Business Bay (6). The turning torso of Santiago Calatrava also has an anonymous clone in Dubai (7, 8). Daniel Libeskind in Denver has multiple copies in the Gulf.

Whilst this kind of copy behavior may seem erratic, it could also be read as part of a long-term trend that will ultimately push the Western avant-garde into oblivion.

A whole series of architects has emerged that no one has ever heard of, and who never appear in Domus or Casa Bella: DAR Consult (9) and KEO (10) from the UAE, and Atkins (11), slightly better know… These anonymous firms build more in a single year than celebrated Western architects build in their entire career.

If you place the recent production of each of these three firms together, the skyline that emerges is exuberant even though it exists entirely of unoriginal gestures (12). And if you compare this to a skyline of masterpieces produced recently by well-known architects (13), a painful question emerges: Is there really such a difference?

The city has become an accumulation of individual gestures: an icon of excess made up of an excess of icons. The ultimate recipe for an icon appears to be a tautology (14). It's built on well-known images and it's always large. A gate that is large (15); a pyramid that is large (16); an eagle that is large; a snake that is large (17); and the head of a horse – in ultimate tribute to the Sheikh of Dubai – that is again very, very large (18). Equally prevalent is the race for height: where previously the World Trade Center or the Sears Tower competed to be the tallest building in the world, now the race starts by simply doubling that height – tall, taller, tallest (19, 20). The race for height has come to attract the same crowds of adoring followers as the cultural elite.

"One day, all cities will be built like this" is the confident formula that is practiced outside the West at a much larger scale than the West ever practiced it (21). The West derides it as "Disneyland in the desert", but Disney remains a Western invention. Their Disney is our Disney.

But for how much longer?

A month ago the impact of the financial crisis became apparent. It is also apparent that no remedy is near. If the collapse of the stock market was the result of financial greed, maybe this skyline is the exuberant result of cultural greed; the equivalent in culture of the bonus system for risk-taking managers (22).

Maybe the graveyard of iconic, 'one-of-a-kind' architecture could coincide with a laboratory for the rebirth of modern architecture: a more functional architecture, with a social purpose; one of performance and functionality.

What we have tried to launch in the context of an exuberant Dubai is a new formula which we have called 'Generics'. Analogous to generic medicine, where in the absence of patents, in the absence of copyright, in the absence of signature, the inventions of planning and architecture could be shared universally, in a more uninhibited and more beneficial way. Our design for the Dubai Renaissance exemplifies it (23). From one end it reveals a massive presence (24); from another end it reveals an exceptional slenderness (25) only to reveal a massive presence again (26).

If the 20th century was the age of abundance, the 21st has been the age of excess, at least so far. But what is needed is a new beginning, a renaissance of functionality and performance. This manifesto calls for a new type of simplicity: Simplicity™, a trademark not branded with the superlatives that have accompanied so many other brands, but a simplicity that is pure, straight objective, predictable, honest, original and fair (27).