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by Sam Jacob

From ancient stone columns that evoked trees to modernism’s machine aesthetic, all architecture pretends to be something it is not.

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With each successive style or movement, redundant forms and technologies are replaced and then re-enacted in the name of progress. Ideologies and fictions become forms. And then there is the stranger world still of actual replicas, such as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, where history is brought to life for didactic purposes. It can’t help it, architecture’s deepest instinct is to repeat, whether it’s columns, ceiling tiles or twin towers. Ours is a landscape of cover versions, copy and paste, rinse and repeat. In this polemical essay, Sam Jacob probes the architectural condition and wonders whether it’s all just an attempt to make what’s not real look real.

About the author

He is a director of London-based architecture practice FAT, where he has been responsible for award-winning projects spanning architecture, design and masterplanning. Sam is a contributing editor at Icon, a columnist for Art Review and a contributor to many other publications.


In constructing this comedic absurdity, Allen has accidently provided us with a fitting description of the way architecture occupies the world. Because architecture, like the Great Roe, is simultaneously mythical and real. Mythical, in the sense that it is the invention of the society that creates it — the ‘will of an epoch made into space’, as Mies put it. Real, in the sense that it is the landscape that we inhabit. The perfect registration between these two states provides architecture with its own supernatural power: its prosaic appearance cloaks its mythic, imaginative origins entirely. To begin to understand architecture’s Great Roe-ish state we must first think of how architecture mythologises and fictionalises itself, and then examine how it transmutes these fictions into reality.

Like a mythical beast, architecture emerges from the psycho-cultural landscape of its social, political and economic circumstances. Its body may be an exquisite corpse of (biologically impossible) architectural limbs, torsos, heads and tails, yet it is animated, active and alive — like Frankenstein’s monster. At any given moment it projects its historical situation — the great teeming mass of narratives that prefigured its existence — into the contemporary world. And in doing so it fundamentally rewrites that history, splicing and sewing the narratives together to make a radical new proposition for the future.

The representation of history is, of course, highly politicised. As Churchill tells us, history is written by the victors. He suggests that history is at least part fiction, and that its writing is a spoil of war. In its own way, architecture is also a spoil of war, arising out of ideological, aesthetic, economic as well as military conflicts. But in contrast to written history, architecture’s victorious narrative manifests itself as reality. It not only represents and illustrates this fictional history but physically embodies it, playing it out through substance, space and programme.

If we trace architecture’s history, we can see that this radical re-enactment is a fundamental mode of its development. We might begin a historical survey of architecture’s re-enactments with the Egyptian column, which was carved from stone to represent a tree trunk or a bundle of reeds. Right here, in a foundational moment, we see re-enactment as the primary architectural idea. The primitive tree-column returns just as it is being technologically superseded. The original gesture of the tree-column is radically altered through its re-enactment in stone, through its revival as a kind of ritualised symbol that celebrates its own origins.