Sunday, 25 January 2015

Architects should do nothing

Remember the outrage when Zaha declared that workers dieing on her projects in Qatar had nothing to do with her?  Or when her loyal lieutenant Patrik Schumacher took to Facebook with his inane rant: "Architecture is not politics not art not science not engineering. It is the design of communicative spatial form....what we NOT up to the architects"?

In this blog at the time I joined the incredulity.  But I almost feel like an apology to those two, having come across an earlier declaration by Peter Eisenman in an interview by David Basulto on ArchDaily in 2011:
I don’t think that architecture is about solving human problems at all. Psychologists solve human problems, sociologists solve human problems, economists solve human problems. We’re none of those things. We do culturally necessary projects, which have a value for the culture in general. What should the architect do in society? I don’t think the architect should do anything, frankly”.

The quote came to my attention in an innocuous little academic paper by Michael A. Vidalis titled Social Spaces by aSocial Architects?  Vidalis rehearses the by now well-known abandonment of the social project of Modernism.  He distills this as:
"Realizing that they were incapable of addressing social problems, they abandoned the initial enthusiasm of a social agenda and decided to focus as a solely artistic form....a totally subjective, idiosyncratic view of space....humans and their needs are not within the main interests of architects. In short, architects no longer concern themselves with what sociologists or social scientists have to say. As a result, today’s spaces designed by starchitects, imbued with elements of sensationalism, surprise or disorientation, with an emphasis on escaping reality......should come as no surprise."
 In one respect, this kind of analysis observably reflects a state of affairs today. But it is also simplistic, as well as palpably unfair to many members of the architecture profession, who are not 'starchitects'.

It is simplistic because it reflects an unnecessarily crude, dualistic view of the relationship between the built environment and the people who inhabit it.

There is no doubt that the propositions of early 20th-century modern movement in architecture relied heavily on the prospect that architecture would be deterministic of human behaviour, and that such influence would be for the good. Therefore there is no doubt that the failure of iconic projects should undermine those propositions. But while it may have undermined them, it didn't disprove them. Actually it is equally valid to argue that the causality between poorly conceived architecture and undesirable social outcomes was empirically demonstrated.  If so, the remedy should hardly have been the subversion of the introduction of social sciences into architectural curricula, but enthusiastic encouragement.

Meanwhile, since the 1960s' a plethora of alternative modes of practice have been developed by architects, engaged with social issues at a variety of scales, across many building types, and indeed embracing social activism both locally in the developed world, and as capacity building where needed internationally.  What these modes of practice have in common is that rarely do they produce the sensational and disorienting, but wildly photogenic architecture, which commands the visual space of both the Internet and the design lifestyle magazines. Those architects who engage in these alternative modes of practice rarely become rich, have to fight to have their voices heard, and are betrayed by the dominant image of architecture today.
So what of my headline image of the Kitagata Housing project by SANAA Architects?  Well, apart from it being taken from Vidalis' paper, for me it exemplifies a depressing development.  It is where the a-social paradigms of the 'starchitecture' system are masked behind the rhetoric of social responsibility.
I do not pretend to a profound analysis and critique of this particular project. I know, and have studied, the tight, complex planning and section, with its attendant innovations in internal circulation. The justification for such innovation is inevitably that it repudiates some more conventional, market driven assumptions about the organisation of dwellings. And that it represents some sort of more respectful attitude to the likely inhabitants of the buildings. Unfortunately, I look at those big, blank, barely differentiated facades, slashed by those hostile and frivolous external stairs, and conclude: just another excuse for formalism, just another reason why ordinary people are suspicious of architects.

If you have access to, download a copy of Social Spaces by aSocial Architects? Deciphering the Proliferation of Contemporary Heterotopias.  

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