"The Big Thing"
For the ones who remember Frank Underwood’s terrible times with the giant, peach-like sculpture in his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, this will go quite easy. For the ones who are not familiar with the series House of Cards, will have to sustain the intellectual effort of visualizing the image of a 135-foot tall water tower resembling a peach—or genitals, depending on who you ask.
The phallic Peachoid can be embarrassing due to its vertical abundance of steel and concrete, generating a vortex of sub-plots that triggered Underwood’s loss of credibility among the highly conservative, Catholic constituents of South Carolina. The monumental landmark was used against Underwood’s political persona, framing the character’s uncertain morality. Thus the Peachoid, an orange, non architectural scherzo of post-modernity, was legitimized as offensive for the community on the basis of aesthetic principles, awarding the weird object with the responsibility of influencing the public sphere so negatively.
One could argue whether buildings, towers, shopping malls, chairs, or inanimate objects in general could properly behave, disturb, or please social opinion, generate disorder or unity, speak, even think. To naively confer the capacity of influencing public morality to a physical object means acknowledging its social role, thus the behaviour of the social group of people interested in its aesthetic and ethical connotations will be modified through the object. This is weirdly magnificent, consider certain art educations (mine) use this paradigm to trace the line separating sculpture and objects.
Often enough, the buildings endorsed with this magical ability to determine social morality are giant-sized, oversaturated with color, and triumphantly placed on the side of big highways. These buildings are empowered by the very last glimmer of Romanticism: they mimic reality around taking the shape of a hot dog, a picnic basket, an elephant, a Venetian canal. Their architectural configuration has no practical purpose outside of their creators’ enthusiastic desire to refuse any form of authenticity.
The engineered follies that fall under the definition of novelty architecture are grouped by the same characteristic of artificiality, meaning the intentional construction of an architectural object that does not accommodate any human necessity is rather designed to fulfill the necessity of attracting visitors and customers. The construction of megalomaniac assemblages of materials, in bizarre shapes no less, has been a strong trend in unsophisticated advertising from the 1980s. Those buildings are testimonial to the evolution of capitalism. On the other hand, if capitalism dictates the rules of market-oriented strategies, it imposes the necessity of an infinitely reproducible multiplicity of things to fulfill the needs of society. This is why the mimetic nature of novelty architecture is probably the most bizarre feature it possesses. These constructions also exist as copies of a romanticized, ideal architecture that is very far from the canons of the place where these replicas are planted. The obsession with Italian Renaissance architecture, for instance, consists in the strongest emulative tension to which these buildings are subjugated, and tangible examples can be found in the heterogeneous landscapes of cities like Dubai and Las Vegas.
The emulation of an idealized scenario leads to the reproduction of an architectural copy, materialized in the middle of nowhere, mainly for business purposes. Take the example of the ghost mall in Dongguan, China: it features a reproduction of the Arc de Triomphe, an Egyptian sphinx, and some Venetian canals, articulating this mimetic tendency over 9.6 million square feet of floor space. Everything is abandoned now; the mall is empty and deprived of its functionality after the estimated 70,000 daily visitors did not show up to the carnivalesque mise-en-scene.
The representational effort of novelty architecture reaches its acumen when the building adopts a physical shape that imitates what can be found inside. This programmatic creation of such a spirited language produces images and icons of goods, general objects, and food, whose projection completely fulfills the requirements of an obsolete model of capitalism. The romantic utopia of capitalism, with all its elements of exoticism, idealized habits, goods, and giant-sized fantasies, collapsed into its own fetishes, it offered space to a brand new, ultra-sophisticated intrusion of structural power. The relics of the abdication of proto-capitalism are to be found in the buildings that perpetrated it.