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Darkitecture

No More Heroes: The role of the anti-hero in architecture

Extract from essay contributed to Gerrard O’Carroll’s posthumous book, “Darkitecture: Learning Architecture for the 21st Century”, with Claire Jamieson


In the roar of an engine, he lost everything and became a shell of a man, a burnt-out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again…

The Narrator, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, 1981

‘Mad’ Max Rockatanksy, a vivid character lurking in the shadow-lands of the human psyche encapsulates in all his post-apocalyptic glory the essence of the anti-hero. He lost his family, his identity, his name and eventually his humanity in an all-out rejection of the traditional, heroic values of modernism. In the first film, we see the final days of Max before his slip into the abyss of madness and his transformation into Mad Max. His world is a place broken by nuclear holocaust in which law and order have all but collapsed, and where feral scavengers and gangs rule. Steeped in loss and with a directionless future, Mad Max forges a new life of violence and crime – with no mercy and very little patience. The films are a postmodern amalgam of a classic car chase plot and a western, with a post-apocalyptic, catastrophic setting. Ending the trilogy, Mad Max reaches a moment of fulfilment when he saves a band of abandoned children. Reaching an almost mythic state, the final scene depicts his lone figure walking across the landscape while a voiceover recites a bedtime story of the children’s journey and the man who saved them.

The anti-hero trope has pervaded popular culture since its emergence after World War II, when its cynical, conflicted and essentially more human depiction resonated with a society shaken by the horrors of war. The earlier condition of the Great Depression that had led to the emergence of Superman in 1930s America, the classic knight in shining armour, had given way to an altogether more dire situation – one requiring a fictional antidote that acknowledged, rather than conquered, the fatigue caused by the continual onslaught of everyday life. 

By the 1960s and 70s the anti-hero had captured the imagination of the cultural avant-garde – appearing under a range of complex and contradictory guises and pushing the boundaries of moral ambiguity. Since then, the anti-hero has continued to exercise a powerful influence over our collective imagination, serving as avatars or conduits for our fears and anxieties. Through the years, the anti-hero has been used to embody—through metaphor—our social and political realities. Its continuing popularity in popular culture today reflects our preoccupation with the elements of dilemma and human frailty that these characters represent, providing an outlet for modern scepticism and social criticism.

For Gerrard, investigating the world through the eyes of the anti-hero allowed us to test a set of value systems – both social and architectural – that were not necessarily our own. We looked east to Dubai to find our archetypal anti-heroic city, a city whose contradictory, unorthodox and confrontational form echoed that of Las Vegas and the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’. “To study it [Dubai] is to understand that alternative values can drive things in a different direction that challenges our preconceptions”, believed Gerrard. Though Dubai has the hallmarks of the heroic in its glistening mile-high towers, in their shadows lurk dark secrets of questionable morality and selfish excess. 

What made Dubai so fascinating to us was its preoccupation with image making and self-preservation – quite literally casting a mythology before it in a synergy of fable, architecture and press release. The seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel, the Palm, the World, the snow-covered ski slope in the desert, the Atlantis Hotel, the tallest building in the world: all near-instantly “place Dubai in the consciousness of the world”, states one of many promotional videos. Actually completing the projects is secondary (although ultimately necessary to maintain credibility), with the ever-changing maps of Dubai showing without distinction places hoped for and under construction, as well as actually completed. Dubai has had to imagine itself and sell itself before it can exist. “The remarkable is becoming the new reality” goes the sales pitch, but in actuality this state of fragility speaks more of our current condition than the realisation of the dream. 

Using the anti-hero as a frame for our research, Gerrard forced us to rub uncomfortable ideas up against one another to recreate that sense of outrageousness and incongruity we had seen in Dubai. We took the seemingly heroic notions of love, religion and science and challenged them with social, political or environmental speculations. The resulting designs depicted scenarios far closer to the core of the human psyche than the utopian ideals Gerrard encouraged us to leave behind. In doing so we intended to regain social significance. 

Critical as much as propositional, the projects have a value that exceeds the immediate limitations of their architectural design. By seductively framing the social taboos of a society saturated with anti-heroic needs and desires, these cautionary tales become critical tools for debate. By making potential futures appear real and tangible, we are forced to consider our own value systems, and in doing so, become active in shaping the future that we desire.

In so many ways, cities are akin to people – they have their own soul, personality, temperament, idiosyncrasy, and even ego. They may embody a set of ideal human traits, but more often than not they personify much less desirable qualities – they can fail. With Gerrard as our own Mad Max-esque leader, we were able to understand Dubai as an exceptionally ambitious and patently unique enterprise at city making. A city where something is made out of nothing; where laws are flaunted and nature exploited; where crazy ideas meet attentive ears, and where ‘impossible is [truly] nothing’. Not unlike Los Angeles, these anti-heroic qualities that Dubai wears on its sleeve, force us to challenge society’s accepted norms and its perception of the heroic. 

They say people dont believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, were gonna give em back their heroes!

Fifi Macaffee, Mad Max 1979



Published by the Whitechapel Gallery

 
 
© Thomas Greenall