Am I Obsolete?
“I seem to understand that interior design does not mean inventing a new form of a certain piece of furniture, but rather putting a common piece of furniture, a vulgar lounge chair, in the right place” – Bruno Munari, for Domus 202, October 1944.
Something has been bordering me for a while: “What is the purpose of architecture? As students, I was taught that architecture has a social role, the architect job is to understand its surroundings, the human needs and find valuable solutions for the present and future, if so, itsnt it logical to conclude that architecture as I know it is kind of…obsolete? Guidance, purpose what is it today? Icons are the distraction not the purpose of architecture…
It is normally quite difficult for me to find anwsers next to my colleages, its one of those questions that architects avoid at all cost, finding endless excuses for their role in life, continuously convincing themselfes how the profession has change, for the best, how architecture has the power to change the world, one building at a time…so poetic! Dont get me wrong I believe there are numerous professionals in this world who do their best every day, lie I have been doing for about 10 years, but the point is the minority doesnt make the rule and, what does that tell me about purpose anyway?
My favorite anwser (not) must be the “existential” one, like I read the other day Mark Thomson for Eye Magazine
Even if he is talking about design, this speach is way too familiar.
“I prefer just to think of design as expression of ideas, and as language. It’s a way of experiencing the world. What I’m interested in is the idea of pleasure, desire, uselessness – of walking through the world with your eyes open. Not cause and effect, but sensation.”
I would say that this definiton has already been taken : its called ART, but apparently creative fields are becoming more and more like siamese twins!
This is where the problem lies to me: growing individualism in a globalized world is a paradox that cant be solved. Notest how Thomson says “I” in is speach. It is his opinion, the same way, architects currently use “WE” when explaining their concepts (we the team, that actually translates into me the star) buildings are the “architects” vision.
We might say it has always been so, but circumstances have changed through time. Before, architecture was a way of legitimizing theory, and that knowledge was passed thru tradition and codes. The architects purpose was to follow that tradition but also evolve, create new solutions in a continuous discourse.
The Industrial Revolution changed the look of cities for ever and in the 1st half of the 20th century, they’re (the architect) purpose was to “clean” the city from all its evils and find new solutions for the new society, the new man – arrogant for sure, but we cant say they had no purpose.
hazards of the industrialized cities | Walter and Alma Gropius with Corbusier, Paris 1923 | The successor of the Treatise: The Manifesto | the purpose: the healthy city – plan Ville Radieuse
After WWI and WWII, the world had changed and popular culture starts standing out – the voice of the masses, and architects made their purpose finding awnsers for this popular culture.
According to Giedion (1) everything was originated in the “Proclamation de la liberté du travail” from 17th March 1791 when all legal restrictions related to the choice of a craft was abolished. From that moment on, artists (architects as well) had to compete with industrial production and (before an unbalanced struggle) many choose to look for refuge in the luxury market. The need to please an audience at any cost, shifted the previous balance and very soon the public and critics were deciding what was art – this explanation definetly fits!
As construction goes into private hands, teory continues an anti-capital approach, in a world where architects have to practice for a capitalist economy…
And in a capitalist society, all that matters is popular taste – meaning branding – and as Cecla explains quite well, the architect becomes a brand!
“We live in the age where innovation is the only path for a better future and this can only come from people who are “hot, hip and happening”, because nowadays an artist has more power than a manager, so the business leaders should be like artists, must look at artists like role models for their personal and professional life’s (…) So the architect is an artist, but more in the sense of a “trend-setter” like Koolhas for Prada (…) In a show biz economy, the artist becomes the key element able to produce the set that the show needs to go on…” (Franco la Cecla, 2008).
R.Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas | my personal addition
What is really disconcerting to me is that by my math, this discourse exists around maybe 50 to 70 years (and this is questionable). By the late 1940s and 1950s, architects in Europe and USA were already questioning their role in the new society. John Habraken (2) and his fellow professionals in the Netherlands used a good expression: “architects look like lost in an inland waving at the boat of progress passing by”. In their conception other actors were gaining control in the construction market and architects were just becoming secondary. In the USA, according to B.Colomina (3), almost immediately after the WWII architects began to realize that to be in the market meant enchanting the housewife and create this image of a perfect world that every family would desire to be a part off. Modern Houses would be displayed in women magazine commercials as a subtle way to reach the common american mind. Marcel Breuer exhibits his house at MOMA exhibition 1949 as a product for the american housewife. So they were aware the world had changed and were trying to fit in, once again with the same solutions: appealing to the audiences with magical images, and not the machine that was becoming the construction business. The end result: Breuer standard house model was never replicated and Levitt &Sons inc. made suburban america.
Marcel Breuer house – MOMA exhibition 1949
Today we read Koolhaas speeches on how every year the generic city grows fead by millions of architects that spent millions of dollars in education as a factual reality. It seems a kind of approach ” if you cant bit them, join them” – and thus the purpose of the architect is to feed popular taste and big corporations – again branding…
My point is, the moment when the architect looses its impartiality as the main protector of public interest and representative of the technical and cultural development of society as Joseph Rykwert (4) defends, what is left?
According to Ole Bouman (6) there is no reason for alarm. “When ciscunstances change and our living conditions require new ideas to resolve existential issues, guides will, once again emerge. Architecture can anwser these changes by guiding the path to a true, sustainable society.”
I dont know if the fact that “Volume” is a publication from the Netherlands has any influence on Bouman’s opinion but the truth is, Central and Nothern Europe cant count when it comes to city planning crisis, can it? Im sure that in the developed countries architects will find new guidance for architecture (just look at Bjarke Ingels inflamed speaches) unfortunatelly Im not so sure about the rest of the world (a much bigger piece if the cake) which according to latest stats, are becoming the new economic forces, countries like India, Bagladesh, China, Brazil, where capital and high social stratification go hand in hand with deep infrastructural urban deficiencies. What should be architects purpose there and how are they suppose to achieve it?
The detachement of theory from practice leaves these professionals alone, without guidance…
Most likely, being in the hands of big corporations and popular taste, the architect ends up being an accessory, a small part of a huge machine that he has no control on, the “decorator of the shelter” (5).
R.Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas
I ask myself if the lack of guidance, is really a reflection of our society or just a reflection of our own inability to understand it, to see beyond the exterior shell, or own shallowness, lost inside our minds unable to work together for a common purpose…
And if so, I am one soul amongst many others working to find a meaning a purpose to my work, while millions of others are a part of a huge branding machine whose task is to deliver “the next big thing” in I AM A MONUMENT style, isnt it reasonable to ask: aint I obsolete?
R.Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas
(1) Gideon, Siegfried: “Space, Time and Architecture”, Harvard University press;
(2) Bosma, Koos; Hoogstraten, Dorien van; Vos, Martijn: ” Housing for the Millions – John Habraken and the SAAR (1960-2000)”, NAI publishers;
(3) Colomina, Beatriz: ” Domesticity at War”, MIT press;
(4) Rykwert, Joseph: “The Seduction of Place”, Vintage;
(5) Venturi, Robert; Scott Brown, Denise; Izenour, Steven: “Learning from Las Vegas”, MIT press;
(6) Bouman, Ole: “Guiding the guide”, article from Volume magazine 22 “The Guide – To beyound or not to be”, published by Stichting Archis.