Late in August 2012 in Venice, I was witness to a late night roundtable discussion on architecture at a bar on the banks of the Grand Canal. It was a peripheral event of the Venice Biennale Vernissage program, but both the panel and the audience were full of well-regarded practitioners and thinkers and the setting was sublime.
I’d missed the beginning and therefore the premise, but slowly realised that the subject had come to fall on architecture’s crisis of relevance, a topic that also served as the unofficial sub-theme of the biennale.
There were women at the table, but they did not speak. Instead men loudly dominated the discussion.
“Architects are becoming poor,” moaned one, prosecco in hand, with Venice’s moonlit Grand Canal gently lapping in the background. After some back and forth in response to this airing of injustice, a different speaker announced that the person to save architecture will be “a black man from Africa”.
Had this highly educated individual really not encountered any postcolonial thinking, or feminism, for that matter? Perhaps it was the idyllic setting, unburdening him from the weight of history and theory, but no matter – not much further into the discussion the owner of the establishment came to one of the seated elect and tapped him on the shoulder. It was late and he wanted to close.
In response, this distinguished gathering of architectural gentlemen threw a group tantrum: booing and heckling the owner, they theatrically gathered the wine bottles, loudly declaring to the crowd that they would reconvene “over there somewhere” before staggering off into the darkness.
In their haze of self-importance they thought the crowd was following them. It wasn’t.
Nevertheless, these men are some of the figures whose books we buy, whose talks we attend in droves and who hold tenure at prestigious universities where our students strive to study. What standing they have has come through the support of many others in the profession and they, in turn, expect to use their influence and position to determine who will be the next generation of architects to sit at that table.
This is sufficient provocation for a much-needed stocktake of the crisis we have all been hearing so much about.
So what exactly is this crisis?
This crisis of relevance plays out in two ways. Predominantly it is seen as a reduction in status for the architect in society. In a recent lecture, Koolhaas characterised the crisis by the loss of a dual certainty, both that “things will be as you want them” (that a building will be built faithfully to its rendering), but also “that you serve a noble purpose” (this purpose being to serve mankind). One has to question, however, against exactly what this loss is benchmarked.
The Modernist period raised the expectation for an architecture that was respected and socially minded. Industrialisation and procurement systems perhaps momentarily made the architect’s dream to overcome material contingencies appear possible. Yet after the public projects and infrastructure of that characteristic time is gone, and the speculative bubbles that followed it burst one by one, ARCHITECTURE™ (the profession of architecture as limited in membership to those who are registered according to established norms and legislation, providing set services) returns simply to doing what it has always done: conceiving structures for the state, churches, associations, corporations, speculators and wealthy individuals. So, could this first aspect of this crisis of relevance not be better described as the lament of a generation of architects slowly realising that the inherited expectation for wider control, relevance and status was an empty promise?
Alongside ARCHITECTURE™ sits ‘capital A’ Architecture, the body of knowledge and wider realm of operation of architecturally trained thinkers and practitioners. As Spiro Kostof put it in The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession in 1977, Architecture, historically, was “not concerned with ‘anonymous architecture’ […] nor with the rare cases where architects act as their own clients and the reverse”. In other words, Architecture is identified and legitimised through ‘naming’, or the making ‘not anonymous’ of their product. This, one might argue, is the hidden function of all the dialogue amongst architects (the seminars, talks, lectures, symposia, exhibitions and publications) that is seemingly integral to the profession, yet so often bemuses or exasperates others.
Beyond Modernism, there has been rich exploration at the fringes of architectural practice and in other disciplines for ‘other’ ways of thinking and doing, extending Architecture’s historical boundaries – architecture without architects, unsolicited architecture, architects as developers, to name but a few. Conceivably, Architecture has also harvested ‘not-architecture’: collecting, processing and exporting the innovations of human and urban creativity, resources that have been depleted in the western city through the regulation and mechanisation of urban development processes. This has extended to a point where Architecture can be ‘named’ merely by the attention of the architectural genius, rather than by what they produce. “In the hands of OMA, simply endeavouring to understand the world seems like a radical proposition…” to quote from Rory Hyde’s recent book, Future Practice. That the normative face of this understanding subject – still determinedly western, mostly male and arguably privileged – remains largely unchallenged and unquestioned, should really be starker cause for concern.
But the certainty of this subjectivity of Architecture may also be facing a turning of the tide – the other moment of architecture’s crisis.
So whose crisis is it anyway?
My epiphany on this issue came after a recent discussion with a male colleague, a lecturer and director of a firm. He was sharing his thoughts about how the rise of vibrant local architectural cultures in other regions, those being re-seeded with systems of architectural education derived in part from experiences in the west, signalled an imminent obsolescence in the influence of western architects globally as they are overtaken by the sheer energy and numbers of their foreign progeny.
Now ARCHITECTURE™ and Architecture are both feeling marginalised by dwindling revenue, increased competition for fewer projects, disappearing invitations to speak, less pampering by Chinese clients…
I said nothing at the time but the conspiratorial tone of his words triggered something in me akin to what I felt in Venice. “Hold on a minute,” I thought later. “We don’t wear the same shoes you and I.” It may be my generation, it may be my gender, but I’m not entirely sure that scenario even nudges my foundations. How empowering to consider that, perhaps after all, this isn’t my crisis.
So it occurs to me now that architecture itself may not really be in crisis; only that the subjectivity and egos of a particular group are feeling challenged. It is just that they are accustomed to the notion that what they are thinking and feeling IS the experience of architecture, because that’s how it has been so far. When Rem Koolhaas says “we” have lost credibility, to whom is he referring? Who exactly is the “we” in architecture?
It doesn’t necessarily include those many other architects – including most female, indigenous and non-western architects – that arguably have remained historically marginalised by both ARCHITECTURE™ and Architecture, even as they are inducted into its language. These are the people who have been told, by those now crying poor, that to get ahead they simply need to toughen up and work harder. Needless to say, most never held any real expectation of acknowledgement or recognition. Yet perhaps for precisely that reason these previously overlooked and marginalised groups are now perfectly poised, with the experiences and tactics required, to move architecture forward in the current circumstances?
Our chauvinist in Venice potentially had a good point, albeit incredibly poorly worded – that a solution to architecture’s crisis may lie with its ‘other’. But, will architecture’s myopic gaze be able to recognise this figure without appropriating or pontificating? Or will it just throw a tantrum when, late in the night, it is quietly asked to leave?
Anna Tweeddale is an architect, urbanist, and artist based between Melbourne and Europe and is co-director of Studio Apparatus.
This article originally appeared in AR 129: The Price of Building.