Autechre and Hadid: A creative parallel

A five-disc singles collection released by the Manchester electronic duo Autechre has a surprising amount in common with a large coffee-table book about a leading British-Iraqi architect.

Rob Brown, left, and Sean Booth of Autrechre. Courtesy The Windish Agency
Powered by automated translation

Lying open on my desk is a copy of Hadid: Complete Works 1979-2009, a lavishly illustrated retrospective of design work by the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. It is the largest book I have ever possessed: coffee tables groan beneath it. It was sent to me by mistake. When Taschen, the publisher, wrote to ask if The National might be interested in reviewing it, they forget to mention that it came out nearly two years ago. And so now here it is, an enigmatic and slightly dated paper megalith, resting beside my workstation. One hesitates to draw a parallel with Hadid's actual work. Nevertheless, I was put in mind of it when another career retrospective landed with an only slightly smaller thud in my postbox.

A five-disc singles collection, EPs 1991-2002, by the Manchester electronic duo Autechre, covers many of the same years as the Hadid book. It also traces a strikingly similar artistic development. Indeed, inasmuch as this can be said for work in two distinct media, Autechre and Hadid seem to have remarkably similar creative philosophies - the kind of philosophy, in fact, that one might have if one regarded oneself as "a creative". Hadid's design treatments even look a little like Autechre sleeve art: spacious geometrical configurations arranged around dense thickets of abstract complexity, often with a crystalline, geological character.

Yet the resemblance goes deeper than that. Both Autechre and Hadid represent an extreme expression of a technologically determinist strain in art. Both increasingly make work that feels like it was in some sense self-generated, emerging from autonomous, self-regulating mechanisms. Hadid, whose Sheikh Zayed Bridge opened late last year and whose Performing Arts Centre is under construction on Saadiyat Island, is the (disputed) figurehead of an avant-garde school known as Parametricism. This is "the great new style after modernism", according to Patrik Schumacher, the movement's self-appointed spokesman and a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. Hadid herself tends not to say much about her programme.

Parametricism's aesthetic is based on a combination of shattered angularity and what topologists call "continuous deformation". Schumacher exhorts followers to "interarticulate, hybridise, morph", and recommends a method based on letting computer algorithms operate within certain fixed parameters ("use splines, nurbs, generative components, script rather than model", he advises). Hence the later Hadid's famous "fluid spaces", the warped and molten-looking forms of her buildings, where walls twist to become floors or furniture, and distinctions between interior and exterior melt away.

The later Autechre material (post-1997) emerges from similar preoccupations. Autechre are the great survivors of what was obnoxiously called "Intelligent Dance Music", or IDM for short, a movement that flourished on the aptly named Sheffield label Warp. IDM cannibalised sounds and textures from the heroic early days of rave culture, twisting them into rhythmically tricksy, endlessly detailed new patterns. Along with Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and lesser scene figures (Richard Devine, for instance), Autechre developed an idiom of sweetly enveloping synthesiser melodies and pointedly superhuman drum-machine parts. Snare rolls accelerated until they registered less as a beat than as a harsh pitch, swirling around the melody. Beats were skittering, tinny, hyperactively pinging around stereo space. Everything seemed the wrong size, the wrong speed, the wrong way up, connected to the wrong things. Spelt wrong, too: the scene loved nonsense titles, anagrams and sc-ifi portmanteaus: see Aphex Twin's Ruglen Holon or, from the present Autechre collection, Liccflii, Yessland, Netlon Sentinel.

At the time the music had a fearsome reputation, heightened by the body-horror imagery and alienating, hackerish sense of humour that Chris Cunningham developed in his videos for many of the artists. But in fact many of IDM's distinctive qualities, its glitchiness and cold ferocity, were absorbed into mainstream pop and advertising quite rapidly. Autechre themselves, Rob Brown and Sean Booth, rarely discussed the uses their stylistic innovations have been put to. Interviews tended to focus on technological issues, and on bluff protestations of unpretentiousness: "at heart, we're just a pair of DJs", that kind of thing.

Still, whether they were trying to distance themselves from corporate imitators of simply following the dictates of their own hermetic project, they kept pushing deeper into foreign territory. Around 2000, they effectively stopped making dance music: the rhythms on EP7 and their great album Confield were too abstract to dance to. Many of them were generated - recall the Schumacher quotes above - using semi-random algorithms. And yet, however skittish and assaultive they became, they never quite lost that sheen of high-tech efficiency. Listening to abrasive bits of Autechre now, they call to mind those Citroën ads in which a car transforms into a breakdancing robot. It's Vorsprung durch Technik applied to music.

Here again, the comparison with Hadid is irresistible. The standard complaint about Parametricism is that it is an avant-garde for sale: that its very indifference to ideological questions about how people should live make it attractive to big corporate patrons who just want a conversation piece as a head office (for instance, the Hadid-designed BMW building in Leipzig). Parametricism feels bold and modern, but it doesn't say anything.

As a matter of fact, Hadid herself has expressed a certain wistful desire to take on the kind of grand social project that addresses the "architectural building-blocks of life" - schools, hospitals and the like. But it hasn't happened: the market for it isn't there. In any case, according to the architecture critic Owen Hatherley, Hadid's overwhelming computer-generated profusion of impossible forms actually embodies something in the ethos of high-tech high finance.

"Displays of beyond-human formal complexity," he wrote in Mute magazine last year, "drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference - difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism." Perhaps, he suggested, the very energy of her work, "the sense of something ruthlessly and relentlessly crushing all competitors", speaks to the CEO soul.

Not that any of this should be read as a condemnation, either of Hadid or of Autechre. There is a reason why Hadid is the most talked-about architect of her generation, and it isn't just that she has powerful patrons. In the context of her peers, the postmodernists faffing half-heartedly with vernacular forms and structural expressionists settling into their own bland set of allegedly anti-style stylistic conventions, there's something galvanising about Hadid's decisiveness, about the flamboyant violence of her work. Likewise, Autechre have made some of the most adventurous electronic music there is. Even when a later generation of artists - the dubstep producers - started moving in a different direction, it was evident that they were having to traverse a great deal of territory that was already owned by Autechre: the fidgety, clattering percussion and wan synth melodies, the negative space and bottomless bass. Indeed, most of the celebrated releases on the Hyperdub label (Kode9's Black Sun, for instance, reviewed on these pages in May) appear primitive by comparison: all murky productions and facile, folkish structures.

Nevertheless, the way in which later artists reacted to Autechre perhaps offers a clue as to the direction we should look for in Hadid's successor-destroyers. Dubstep and its derivative genres took Autechre-like fragments and, so to speak, made themselves at home in them. They repeated snatches of limping beat and mutating synth, then worked in humanising ingredients: house keyboards, a dub toast, a couple of syllables from an R&B vocal melisma. Autechre's music always appears serenely indifferent to the listener's experience: it was like a side-effect of technology doing something else. Dubstep, with its imagery of urban guerrillas and dark haunted streets, is quintessentially about mood, even to the point of melodrama.

It goes without saying that, because of the cost and time horizons involved in building anything, one shouldn't expect a Hadid countermovement to echo dubstep's emphasis on dissent and dystopia. Those impulses wouldn't make it past the first stage of a tender process, which is probably for the best. Nevertheless, to the extent that dubstep used Autechre-like textures as just one element in a more traditional, but also perhaps more expressive, musical repertoire, one might also expect Hadid's tropes to get reabsorbed by the postmodernists in due course. And it is true that architecture's postmodernists have hardly done better than Hadid when it comes to articulating any sort of redemptive vision in their work. Nevertheless, there remains the hope that a future synthesis will announce something more than pure writhing, glittering power, however gripping that may be when encountered in the pages of a handsome book.

Ed Lake is the deputy editor of The Review.