Why wait for the phone to ring? Architects, society needs your help! Act now! (And hope to get paid later.)
One of the more enduring themes running through Volume magazine is that of unsolicited architecture. This mildly aggressive term describes an alternative model of practice that is directed to social need, and not the whims of a client. The economic crisis has spurred a great deal of reflection upon the viability of a profession that is dependent upon commissions; not only are we financially exposed to the instability of the market economy, we perhaps feel a deeper crisis of relevance in only being able to react to a clients wishes. Despite our skill and experience in manipulating space and material, we are impotently incapable of addressing the needs of society unless we have first been explicitly asked to do so.
As Arjen Oosterman explains in the editorial of the issue devoted to this subject, architects need to “redefine their role, transform themselves from extremely competent executors of assignments into entrepreneurs and producers.” Of course, he outlines, architects used to be far more socially motivated, particularly in the post-war boom of social housing and reconstruction across Europe. However by the end of the 20th century, the discipline had become increasingly marginalised, “[t]he architect as social engineer, as organiser of social relationships, as the one who inspires political decisions, as a professional power player in the game of spatial distribution appears to be a remarkable intermediate phase in architecture’s century-long development.”
Volume 14 also contains a description of a potential ‘Office for Unsolicited Architecture’, produced as part of a studio at MIT led by Ole Bouman in 2007 and edited by Andrea Brennen, John Snavely and Ryan Murphy. In my mind, the most potent explanation of this office is the chart ‘How to Make Unsolicited Architecture.’
Image: How to Make Unsolicited Architecture, Volume 14, 2007, p.33. Click for large.
Establishing the 4 pillars of a traditional architectural commission – client, site, budget and program – the chart declares that unsolicited architecture operates in the absence of at least one of these. Thereby making the project undesirable or even impossible to tackle using the standard tools of the commercial practice. The chart also reinforces the role of reality in the production of an unsolicited project. And here comes my favourite bit: “If you design the object without the financing, you’re an academic; if you design the marketing without the object you’re a politician; if you design the financing without the object, you’re a capitalist.”
This is arguably what separates unsolicited architecture from so-called speculative or paper architecture. While Archigram’s visions of a walking city may have addressed a social need – for free and undetermined public event space – without financing or marketing, it comes across as entertainment. Which is of course, what it was intended to be, to the extent that it was even presented in comic book form. Which is also not to say that entertainment cannot inspire a real project, but that the strength of the unsolicited rests in its very tangible potential to be pursued through to realisation with the right political, financial and public support in place.
Here follows a brief selection of projects that I see as operating in an unsolicited manner, although they may be produced by practices with a traditional organisational and financial structure. Indeed, unsolicited architecture need not be a threat to standard practice, but can operate alongside, and even be produced by practices that otherwise fund their activities through commissions.
No client, budget or political will – PLOT (BIG & JDS) Clover Block, 2007
PLOT (now BIG & JDS) produced this scheme in response to a housing shortage in Copenhagen that was forcing out the lower wage earners crucial to the city’s function. In typical fashion, they introduced 3000 new apartments in a perimeter block wrapping the KlÃ¸vermarken park, thereby inject[ing] public life to the area ”¦ without sacrificing a single football field.”
Their next step was to generate some public discussion by promoting it in the media. This broadcasting and marketing stage is central to the unsolicited process – when you don’t have a client or the political power to execute it alone, getting the public behind your cause can generate the necessary momentum.
However in this case, the tactic seems to have backfired. After much attention and public support, instead of the handing PLOT the commission, the government invited 7 other teams to make proposals for the site. Despite their advanced scheme, PLOT were awarded second place, losing out to another scheme that seems to have just shuffled the new housing blocks into the corners.
Winning KlÃ¸vermarken redevelopment proposal by KLAR arkitekter and others.
The PLOT project demonstrates that although unsolicited architecture is directed to the social need, it is not necessarily a purely altruistic undertaking. Despite offering to provide much-needed new housing, their motives were clearly also driven by the desire to generate a new (very large and potentially lucrative) project for the office. If the outcome is the same, this is fine by me.
No budget, no client – NL Architects ‘Paid Parking’, 1994
(Cheers to Michael at NL for sending through this one from the archive.)
Although probably categorised as ‘speculative’, NL Architects ‘Paid Parking’ project is interesting as it proposes an alternative means of financing. Instead of paying to use a carpark, you are paid by a company (in this case Mazda) for your contribution to the formation of their logo, which is located under the aerial gaze of the Schipol airport flight path. While building yet another carpark hardly addresses what would typically be considered ‘social need’ (although it might), more importantly it represents a potential model for unsolicited projects that lack a traditional client and budget.
No client, no political will – Harmen de Hoop and Recetas Urbanas
Image: Harmen de Hoop, Basketball Court #6, Amsterdam, 1992
Not surprisingly, unsolicited projects flourish at the very small and very ‘community’ end of the spectrum as urban interventions, largely because they can be constructed affordably by the designers themselves.
Rotterdam-based activist/artist Harmen de Hoop (also featured in Volume 14) has amassed an archive of micro-interventions in the city, of which none have been solicited. His series of basketball courts (9 in total) comprise of painting the lines of a court on the ground in a public square without obtaining permission from the council in a subtle comment on the highly regulated nature of public space. If the square is too small, the court is simply cut off. In one instance, his guerrilla intervention was legitimised to an extent by the installation of a basketball hoop, albeit in the wrong place in relation to the court.
Image: Recetas Urbanas ‘Skips. Dumpsters’, 1997
The work of Spanish architecture studio Recetas Urbanas similarly flouts the regulations of public space by exploring bureaucratic loopholes as a starting point for design. The project ‘Skips. Dumpsters’, comprises of specific instructions for negotiating around complex planning and safely requirements in order to install a public see saw, by instead applying to locate a dumpster. The dumpster of course, is not used for rubbish at all, but has a see saw built on top of it.
This list is focussed on decidedly ‘urban’ and ‘developed’ conditions, intentionally overlooking the efforts of aid organisations in reconstruction and disaster relief as in a sense to be unsolicited is standard practice in these circumstances. Instead this lists intends to suggest opportunities for new forms of proceeding with a project that are not dependent on a client, a brief, financing or political will. Far from being an ambulance chaser, practicing unsolicited architecture enables a critical and autonomous view of the city and its issues. The tools of architecture and architectural thinking are only powerful if they can be unshackled from the increasingly marginalised opportunities to react to a given brief. In times like this, the chance of not getting paid for your efforts is perhaps one worth taking, and who knows, you might land the jackpot.Posted: August 21st, 2009
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