Architecture of Failure, The

Architecture of Failure, The

This book proposes a theory of architectural failure; a radical way to approach memory and history in the city.



Against those who consider architecture to be a wholly optimistic activity, this book shows how the history of modern architecture is inextricably tied to ideas of failure and ruin.

By means of an original reading of the earliest origins of modernism, The Architecture of Failure exposes the ways in which failure has been suppressed, ignored and denied in the way we design our cities. It examines the 19th century fantasy architecture of the iron and glass exhibition palaces, strange, unprecedented, dream-like structures, almost all now lost, existing only as melancholy archive fragments; it traces the cultural legacy of these buildings through the heroics of the early 20th century, post-war radicals and recent developments, discussing related themes in art, literature, politics and philosophy.

Critiquing the capitalist symbolism of the self-styled contemporary avant-garde, the book outlines a new history of contemporary architecture, and attempts to recover a radical approach to understanding what we build. Douglas Murphy blogs at


"The author’s powerful critique of the supposedly radical proponents of architecture is brutal and incisive, a welcome move away from the well-trodden cultural clichés." "The Architecture of Failure stands out in the growing contemporary literature on ruins for not communicating merely through the frisson of aesthetic delight and for choosing buildings of the late 19th century as its subject rather than those of the post-World War II period. Even if it were for these reasons alone, it is a useful addition and a corrective." "As soundly rooted in theory as this book might be, it is also something of a call to arms, and one hopes that it is a but a taster for a much larger work to come." ~ Rosa Ainley, Review 31,

The triumph of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace as a pre-eminent demonstration of a new means of iron and glass construction, and of a resulting new kind of space, is central to the narrative of Modernism. Less well known, save for the fire that consumed it in 1936, is the structure’s bizarre and ultimately degrading after-life at Sydenham. Re-appropriated into the eclectic culture of its time, the reconstructed – and significantly reconfigured – building was transformed into what Douglas Murphy describes as an ‘immersive educational environment’. This was replete with ‘improving’ sculptures, two dozen courts modelled on historic architecture across the world, a chamber music space where many works by leading continental composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were performed in the UK for the first time, and finally, at the end of one transept, a performance space with a capacity for more than 20,000 that became famous for the Triennial Handel Festival, in which choirs of up to 3,000 would perform Messiah. Recent parallels for this ‘multimedia environment’ are not hard to find: the retrofitting of rooms to tame the vast spaces of the Beaubourg and adaptation of the Millennium Dome to form the O2 Arena being the most obvious. Yet Murphy’s argument is more far-reaching and provocative. He sees the ‘heroic’ iron and glass structures of early Modern architecture as paradigms of a condition that pervades recent practice, from the reductive ‘Solutionism’ of Cedric Price and High-Tech – with their roots in the 19th-century idolisation of the engineer – to the ‘iconic’ structures of Frank Gehry; from the trivialisation of ‘theory’ by Peter Eisenman to the digital adventures of Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher. The skewer through the kebab of Murphy’s argument rests on the idea of ‘spectrality’, a term invoked by Jacques Derrida to describe ‘the inconsistent presence of objects and their mediated being’. Although conventionally thought of as solid, stable and long-lasting, all architecture is, in some sense, Murphy argues, ‘spectral’, endlessly fragmented by its partial transmission through different media. The ‘abstract ruins’ of early iron and glass buildings epitomise this condition, physically as well as metaphorically, not least because we know many of the most splendid – such as the Crystal Palace and Dutert’s Galérie des Machines – only through photographs and other descriptions. Similarly spectral was the related ‘lost’ aesthetic of girders and cables of the Festival of Britain – exemplified by Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery and the Skylon – that was to haunt a new generation of architects, including Archigram, Foster and Rogers. A consequence of eulogising this imagery and the reductive ‘Solutionist’ view of architecture it encourages is, Murphy argues, everywhere apparent: ‘The high-tech spaces we walk through now are fit only for the smiling ghosts of computer visualisations, a purgatory of “aspirational but accessible” restaurants and bars, “media walls” and “public art” of unremitting dreariness.’ Murphy’s next targets are the apparent inverses of the ‘abstract ruins’ of iron and glass, the all-too-tangible bespoke sculptural icons of the credit-fuelled boom years that Jonathan Meades has aptly dubbed ‘sight-bites’. He addresses them under the heading ‘Iconism’ and begins with the ‘puerile nihilism’ of Eisenman, with his early efforts to ‘de-centre’ architecture from its humanist traditions and later, risible determination to found a new architecture upon the improbable foundations of the deconstructive theories of Derrida. What opaque intellectualism had done in promoting Eisenman’s reputation within academic and cultural circles, ‘frightfully banal paintings’ did for Hadid, and both were celebrated in the Deconstructivist Architecture show at MOMA alongside the leading master of sight-bite architecture, Frank Gehry. Concluding with thoughts about the ‘Virtualism’ of recent digital architecture Murphy neatly combines the two strands of his argument. Intellectually, we enter the world of flows, fluxes and animistic desire in which the writings of Deleuze and Guattari loom large, while operationally the same parametric software is rendering the unique generic as similar fluid, folding forms pour on to the screens of architects of otherwise very different lineages, generally supported by much the same spurious arguments about ‘emergent complexity’ as a reflection of the age, and ‘fluidity’ as an analogue for natural forms and processes. The fact that biomimicry is yielding extraordinary inventions at the micro-scale, or offering useful models for energy-efficiency, is no reason to suppose it has large-scale formal lessons for architecture. Similarly, it is far from self-evident, as Schumacher of Zaha Hadid’s office claims, that what he terms ‘Parametricism’ is the necessary expression of a ‘post-Fordist network economy, globalisation and… lifestyle diversification’ celebrated, ironically, in more or less the same spatial types as the original iron and glass structures with which Murphy’s book began. This is a neat convergence, but the attempt to shoehorn together two arguments, one born from detailed research into the cultural legacy of the architecture of iron and glass, the other a more sweeping and enjoyably trenchant critique of architecture’s recent past, feels uneasy. Both are provocative, and in places brilliant, and though I don’t find the thread Murphy weaves between them is as continuous as perhaps he would like, The Architecture of Failure can be recommended as a lively piece of critical history and a stimulus to constructing something more durable from the ruins of the present. ~ The Architects' Journal,

In the latest Architecture Today magazine: 'Against those who consider architecture to be a wholly optimistic activity, this book shows how the history of modern architecture is inextricably tied to ideas of failure and ruin.' Douglas Murphy's short, trenchant book comes in two parts. First is a reading of Victorian iron and glass exhibition halls that attempts to draw out their melancholy character - the ways in which socially and materially the buildings embodied a presentiment of their own ruin. Second is an assault on recent movements in architecture - high-tech, deconstruction, 'iconism', parametricism - whose naive faith in novelty and technology, divorced from broader political concerns, has failed to learn the right lessons from the crystal palaces. Murphy's dissections of the heirs to the Vicotrian engineer-genius, of the fashionable adoption of critical theory for formal inspiration rather than critique, and of the empty promises of the prophets of digital architecture, are both acute and entertaining. The link between the failures of today and Victorian ferro-vitreous architecture remains debatable, but Murphy's polemic is both informed and persuasive. ~ Unknown, Architecture Today

Review in RIBA Journal April 2012 edition - 'Editors' selection': "The failure in designing what was once called ‘a better tomorrow’. The mismatch between what architects say and the built work that survives is vast: illustrated by the Victorian obsession with iron and glass structures." ~ Hugh Pearman, RIBA Journal

"This book convincingly addresses architecture’s recurring weakness for the brave new world   This book marks a generational shift. At last, here is someone who can write dispassionately about Buckminster Fuller and Cedric Price and their hilarious assertions about the future because he’s never met them and never been swayed by their charisma. Murphy’s view of them is that they were “solutionists” who carried on the modernist trust in newness and progress so naively, so bereft of political depth, that nothing could possibly come of their ideas. Murphy’s verdict on the future demonstrated by the InterAction Centre: fantastically dreary. It reminds me of when the helicopters left Vietnam in 1973 and the cold war started to shut down and we all started to talk about what buildings looked like again. Except that here it’s the reverse. Now, we all need to talk about politics again. When you get onto the next chapters, Iconism and Virtualism, the dispassion cranks up a notch. Now it is the concern of a philosopher who sees philosophy being treated as deep litter in architecture’s battery farm. All that work put into getting past structure done by Derrida thrown away on the deconstructivists’ smug political disengagement, and all the energetic detail of Deleuze and Guattari’s emergency squandered on parametric banalities. Murphy knows his material well and gives a detailed account of the terms icon and virtual that puts most architectural meanderings in this area to shame. He quotes the philosophers themselves on architects’ clumsy misuse of their concepts, presumably watching with disgust as speculative realism and object oriented ontology take their turn as explanation fodder. But since both philosophy and art have borrowed from science for the last hundred years and science is resolutely materialist even when examining things that are materially impossible, should it be a surprise that things have gone this way? Yes. Music and literature, suggests Murphy, have been able to be modern without architecture’s traumas not because of immateriality but because of their freedom from heavy investment. That’s architecture’s real problem — only capitalists or governments can afford to do it. And that’s why it can’t be apolitical. Which leaves politics wide open. In all Murphy’s talk of the elusiveness of a radical architecture, something sticks. Riots may be made of despair but revolutions are made of hope; the revolutionary impulse is itself stuck in the future. It’s a picture of a new world set down into an empty space, bound to end in tears when the actual future arrives. So what’s the radical alternative to revolution? There could be another chapter here, and one that Murphy could deal with very well. It would be an assessment of those architectures that don’t use borrowed ideas to fill themselves up but remain concerned with architectural matters. The space agents, for example. Contextualists. Primitivists. The question would be: what happens when you try to situate architecture in the present? Are the explanations any less nonsensical? The examination might demonstrate that rhetoric gets in just about everywhere and spoils just about everything. Or, it might show that the world is whole and good and that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the spiels. The best thing about this book is that it steps out of the partisan mudslinging we’re used to. This is not sloganeering, there’s no axe being ground here. Nor is it anti-theory. It contextualises the furore of contemporary architectural debate with a detailed consideration of the great iron and glass buildings of the 19th century. Murphy concludes that their blank, utilitarian technologies lent themselves to an optimism about the future that continues with architects to this day; whose products, like the iron and glass of Victorian times, are but fragments of the drive towards a better world that did not and will not come to pass. That’s the “failure” of the title. The subject is so complicated, so emotional, so ironic and so melancholic altogether that it really does take a writer of some skill to explain. And it gets it with this book." Review is currently on the website but will be published in print this week. Paul Shepheard is a well respected architectural writer ~ Paul Shepheard, Building Design (

Douglas Murphy
Douglas Murphy Douglas Murphy is an architect & a writer living in London. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art. His weblog...
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