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2005: An Architectural Odyssey

Coleridge claimed the two grains of opium were to alleviate his dysentery

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2006
The future of American architecture was demolished in 2005

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

One of the most famous and apocryphal interruptions in literary history involves junkie Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a man from Porlock. Coleridge, on the nod after a couple of grains of opium, dreamt a stream of psychedelic verse. After scribbling down the start of the poem he heard a knock on the door of the remote farmhouse where he was crashing. The man from Porlock entered and kept Coleridge busy for an hour or so. Afterwards, Coleridge attempted to transcribe the other lines that his opium muses had transmitted during his reverie but the words had dissolved into the West Country air. The opening fragment of 'Kubla Khan' was all that remained.

So what the hell has any of this end-of-the-eighteenth-century dope-fiend marketing myth got to do with a review of architecture in 2005? In a word: Xanadu.

Back in the early 1980s (forget Olivia Newton-John and rollerskates if you can) Bob Masters also had a dream. And architect Roy Mason shared that dream. They wanted to build the home of the future . . . out of polyurethane foam sprayed over giant balloons. The homes would be fully automated, with smart appliances, video walls and a 'party room'. Each house would be run by a bank of Commodore computers. Inspired by Coleridge's poem of a stately pleasure-dome set beside a sacred river meandering in mazy motion, they called their home of the future Xanadu.

Xanadu got built in Kissimmee, Florida (there were a couple more in Tennessee and Wisconsin that didn't last quite as long as the Florida version). In spite of the HAl-style voice that greeted visitors the place was basically outsider art masquerading as experimental architecture. It looked like a low-budget version of something edited out of Woody Allen's Sleeper as not fit to house an Orgasmatron. Located on the urban planning tourist trail not too far from the EPCOT Center it had a brief heyday before the in-built obsolescence of its design features and a misunderstanding of the architectural materiality fucked it over. After a decade of dereliction it became an unofficial shelter for the homeless. In October 2005 Xanadu was demolished.

Meanwhile in the real world, Brad Pitt went to work for Frank Gehry. Zaha Hadid landed her first British commissions, including an aquarium-style opera house underneath the Thames for the 2012 Olympics. And every building of merit seemed to have some linear connection to Rem Koolhaas or Herzog and de Meuron. Philip Johnson's departure to the great glasshouse of the dead garnered, for an architect, an unusual amount of column inches in the obituary pages of the world's press. Johnson's fellow elder statesmen Kenzo Tange and Ralph Erskine were given quieter but far warmer farewells. The great architectural visionary Enric Miralles returned from the dead to Scotland when his design for a new parliament building was finally completed. His widow and architectural partner Benedetta Tagliabue collected the award when the building won the 2005 Stirling Prize. Loathed by the locals, loved by the critics, the vastly over budget building was also voted one of the worst in the UK on a programme called Demolition. The 'concept' of the TV show (for details see Demolition Times) will no doubt be exported worldwide soon. Which reminds me of a dream I had about a remake of Citizen Kane in Outer Space. On a planet called Xanadu . . . hold on, there's someone knocking at the door.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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