The Crisis of Architecture and the New Imaginary

Architecture is in crisis, but this is nothing new; architects and architectural historians and theoreticians have been proclaiming the crisis of architecture now for over a century.  Essays, books, courses and projects have all focused, in one way or another, on the crisis of architecture, and yet little meaningful work has been done on resolving this crisis.  Perhaps this is because the perpetual crisis of architecture provides its practitioners with the latitude to produce provocative work premised on the crisis itself; the crisis has become the other without which architects can no longer critically assess their production; the acknowledgement of crisis has become the base condition to enact an unending critique, and finding meaningful responses to this crisis would deprive architects of an essential attribute of their practice.

If one is inclined to develop a response to the enervating crisis of architecture, then one must first find the foundation upon which this crisis is premised.  A cursory analysis of the “crisis” of architecture, quickly reveals that we are not dealing with any single critical fissure, but rather with a succession of crises premised on a succession of paradigmatic shifts; in some sense, the crisis is architecture itself, and its relationship to the numerous fields of enquiry to which it has consistently turned for inspiration.  Thus, the crisis of modernist architecture was one of a radically new material culture, radically new systems of production and radically new cultural requirements premised upon the accelerating product cycles of high capitalist consumption and its communist response.  In post-modernity, the crisis was the totalizing, solipsistic tendencies of Modernist architecture; a crisis of meaning and symbol; for deconstructivist/deconstructionist architecture, it was one of incorporating new aesthetic paradigms premised upon the potential of CAD systems.

At each step, however, and beneath each “crisis,” there is the growing cognizance of architecture’s increasing irrelevance; manifest in the ongoing debate surrounding the “crisis” of the monument, which has been redefined in contemporary critical theory as that of the icon, or (following Rem Koolhass), the crisis of “bigness.”  These discrete crises are based on the relatively ineffectual attempt of architects of the early and mid-twentieth century to meaningfully impact the much larger sphere of domestic housing, which has been dominated by the production of builders, working largely with traditional methods and materials and with traditional forms.  Broad-based domestic housing has proven almost impenetrable to the critiques of the architectural community.  For all its speculation on how the process and production of domestic housing could be improved, from Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino, to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, to the Eames House and the Smithsons’ House of the Future, and even to the recent mass-produced housing exhibition held at the MoMA; architectural influence on this foundational aspect of their field has remained minimal, and with the current housing “crisis,” it appears that it will remain so, even when it is most needed.

Deprived of their primordial myths, shut out of the primitive hut, barred from the hearth and swept from the doorstep, like petulant and self-important children, most architects seem to have stamped their feet and renounced the importance of this form of production, as a means of saving face.  This attitude is perhaps most apparent in the field of architectural education – in over four years of architectural study at the graduate level, only once have I been asked to design a house, and even then, not in a way that directly addressed issues of cost or construction.  As a result, many architectural schools have refocused their lenses on innovation, based essentially in highly formalistic design approaches reliant on contemporary computational paradigms.

Thus, the home has been eclipsed by theories of morphogenesis, parametric design, “novel tectonics,” protocell architecture, situated technologies, and a host of other metaphors taken predominantly from the field of computation and from the sciences.  This is nothing new.  Metaphorical borrowing from the sciences in architecture has been around since the Renaissance, and core concepts in contemporary architecture, like “structure” and “circulation,” which derive from the biological sciences, and have proven highly productive principles for thinking about the fundamental organization of space as it pertains both to the inherent stability of buildings and to the movement of people through buildings.  The great contemporary “crisis” of architecture, created, in part by that of the loss of domestic architecture as a meaningful productive field, and the consequent drive for innovative forms and provocative images, is that, for over half a century now, the sciences from which architects tend to borrow have been developing at an accelerating pace, and in the process have become much more highly specialized and increasingly impenetrable to the non-specialist.  Remaining up-to-date as an architectural metaphor maker tends to be about twenty years behind advances in the fields in which these metaphors originate.

This is the inevitable crisis that occurs whenever a very ancient discipline, with a very specific set of conceptual, intellectual and procedural tools, comes into contact with incredibly advanced and alien means and methods of enquiry and production.  As frequently occurs, the first approach to contemporary computational and scientific paradigms is one of awe, and perhaps morbid infatuation, followed by a attempt to incorporate, at whatever level, these new ways of thinking and producing into the familiar matrix of the traditional paradigm.  In this way, the fundamentally formal response of the architectural profession to the emerging principles of the new sciences represents a sincere, if somewhat misguided, attempt to come to terms with a world in which traditional architectural practice is becoming increasingly problematic.  The crisis in contemporary architecture is the nascent understanding of the fundamental conflict between the ancient and the super-modern, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future, combined with an increasing cognizance of the disparity between the intellectual, conceptual and representational tools upon which architects have relied for centuries, and those used in the new sciences.  Perhaps this is why the coda to most architectural discourses on contemporary technologies always seems to be a reiteration of Victor Hugo’s famous statement that, “This will kill that.”

The overwhelming architectural response has been retreat (romantically re-interpreted as a rear-guard action by theoretical luminaries like Peter Eisenman and Mark Wigley, but retreat nonetheless), and more specifically, retreat into the image (a subject that consumes the voluminous oeuvre of Beatriz Colomina, as well as that of many of her Princeton-educated acolytes).  The result has been a resurgence in interest in spectacular speculative projects, like Hadrian’s heterogeneous Villa and Etienne-Louis Boulee’s Cenotaph for Newton, as well as more contemporary work, like that of Archigram and Superstudio.  This infatuation with the image, with the representation of technology as a tool for architecture, can be perhaps most clearly seen in the production of “fourth-generation” instructors and students at the Architectural Association in London, like Greg Lynn.  Yet, as provocative as any image might be, even one that has been constructed, like Renzo Piano’s and Richard Roger’s Centre George Pompidou, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, or Sir Peter Cook’s Kunsthaus Graz, it is still an image pointing elsewhere, pointing to unrealized potentials, and elusive principles (although, a stronger case might be made for the Pompidou than for the other designs, despite the Kunsthaus’s media façade).

This does not imply that these projects are examples of poor architecture, nor that, as models for future production, they lack any inherent merit, rather it is to argue that, in their present incarnation, they remain incomplete – they are symbols or similes, rather than metaphors, and as such, they do not exhibit the fruitful, imaginative synthesis that gives metaphor its potency.  They refer to that which they cannot be, because they are based on representations of principles with which they neither engage, nor embody.  As such, they are images of images, known mostly through the medium of images, in a recursive loop that threatens to turn the practice of architecture into an ancillary of graphic design.  Following this paradigm – the coda; architecture has been killed by its image.

It is thus, that the final crisis shows its true face, ironically embedded within a work of graphic design produced by an architect.  One of Bernard Tschumi’s Advertisements for Architecture from 1978 shows a man being pushed from a window by a woman, with the tagline, “To really appreciated architecture, you may even need to commit murder.”  As a dictum to students of architecture, and ignoring the text at the bottom of the image, the implications of this image are decidedly Oedipal.  To preserve the tradition of architecture, one must first kill it, a ritualistic form of murder enacted throughout its long history, in what appears to be an unending series of architectural patricide, reminiscent of Nietzche’s cycles of eternal recurrence.

Evolution has a forward facing arrow; predicated on the future, it supersedes both past and present.  To maintain traditional trajectories, one must first overcome the inherent inertia of tradition, lest we fall victim to Chronos’s insatiable appetite.  The traditional training of architecture students emphasizes the pre-eminence of form, but what this infatuation with form masks is that the venue of architectural production is that of space, more specifically the production of space, and that, while forms are static, spaces are dynamic, they change and proliferate, they are liminal and noumenal, phenomenal and conceptual.  As such, they are eclectic, migrating between disciplines, between tangential, inter-related conditions, never fixed and formulated, but malleable and adaptable, accepting, not enclosing; transitional, not permanent.  In abandoning tradition, architects must reterritorialize their field, and this reterritorialization should not be superficial, but imagistically as compelling as the principles behind the images, which should not serve surrogate for intellectual lethargy.

The murder of contemporary architecture can only be considered an act of mercy, one that, hopefully, will spawn as many intellectual crises and neuroses as did the birth of the old one, for crisis is the compass by which we locate our current insufficiencies, and the means by which we plot a new course forward, into the uncharted expanse of the emergent imaginary.

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2 Responses to The Crisis of Architecture and the New Imaginary

  1. adibahhlm says:

    Reblogged this on adibahhlm.

  2. Paul Schuyler says:

    Very nice but I think there may be more going on. Here in the US I’m constantly annoyed by stick framing; i.e. the endless parade of buildings that are homogenized in process by virtue of their construction methods. Aesthetically with this material there is plenty of room for flexibility, so there’s no inherent problem there. But there is something interesting about the fact that US homes and Hollywood stage states are nearly identical in construction. The stage sets are only lacking waterproofing and insulation, but have superior lighting. In homes, at the very core of these structures is the lowest common denominator of materials and labor, being driven by the highest possible return for the builder and the least amount of effort being allotted to design. They’re a natural response to the reality here that buildings are temporary financial instruments in an increasingly liquid economy. Homes are valued by governments and banks based on their location, neighborhood, size, age, and condition, but not for their design. Cars are valued at least with the design factored in. A US home may change owners 10 times in its lifetime, and for each transaction the realtor receives essentially the same commission as the architect would have received, had they designed the building. Buildings here are more like commodities. How do your find artistic meaning and permanence in the midst of an open bazaar?

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