This post is a report on the triple book launch of Future Practice, the latest issue of Volume ‘Centers Adrift’, and the catalogue of the New Order exhibit. It featured presentations by Reinier de Graaf (AMO), Wouter Vanstiphout (Crimson) and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady (University of Sydney), and was hosted by Volume magazine and Mediamatic in Amsterdam.
For the full experience, watch the video, embedded below
Last month, Arjen Oosterman of Volume and myself hosted New Futures Adrift, an event with a title compiled from words drawn from each of the three publications we launched: ‘New’ from New Order, ‘Futures’ from Future Practice, and ‘Adrift’ from Centers Adrift.
But beyond that literal definition, the title was meant to convey a sense of contemporary ambiguity in regards to what is new in architecture today. I would say we’re undergoing a period of subtle recalibration, where the once-reliable trajectories of technology-led progress are being overturned by a pervasive pluralism of approaches to what architecture can be.
For example, the recent Venice Biennale curated by David Chipperfield sought to define the ‘common ground’ which architects share, but instead was inevitably infiltrated by as many competing ideas as there were participants. This is not a period of shared ambitions. There are no movements or ideological battles anymore, we live in the era of the ‘like’ button, of uncritical encouragement and dwindling attention.
Within this ambiguous and pluralist context, where do we look for what’s next? How do we decide which conceptual horse to back? How do we look beyond our own limited horizons to discover what’s new?
To help wrestle with these questions, we invited three guests — Sandra Kaji O’Grady, Wouter Vanstiphout and Reinier de Graaf — to present their perspectives on this nebulous idea of the future of architecture. This was followed by a panel discussion where Arjen and myself attempted to bring some of the threads together.
You can watch the video of the presentations and discussions, embedded above, and on Vimeo here, (unfortunately I forgot to start the camera to catch the introductions by Arjen and I).
Sandra Kaji O’Grady
First up was Sandra Kaji O’Grady, Professor of Architecture from the University of Sydney, and, with John de Manincor, is creative director of ‘Material’, the 2013 Australian Institute of Architects national conference, an important platform for shaping the future conversation around architecture in Australia.
Sandra is currently in Europe researching what she describes as “A history of the long present through the relationship of architecture with science.” Her focus is on laboratory buildings, and for this presentation, the obscure architectural fragment of the double helix staircase.
Importantly, this element originates in architecture, “it’s not coming from anywhere else.” Early examples include Bramante’s staircase in the Vatican museum and the staircase of the Chateau Chambord, variously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
But, as Sandra explains, “following Watson and Crick’s discovery of the form of DNA as a double helix, we get a real shift in the way the double helix staircase then operates in architecture.” The double helix, once an architectural device, now becomes an “image of science-ness”, deployed in laboratory buildings to — as one architect explains — “allow scientists to inhabit an oversized DNA spiral while enhancing interaction.”
Sandra’s conclusion, and where this relates to the future, is that we “are now in a situation, viewed in the long history over several centuries, where architecture is no longer at the forefront of inventing and originating form. We are responding, interpreting and translating ideas that are coming from elsewhere.” We are adrift.
Next up was Wouter Vanstiphout, Professor of Design and Politics at TU Delft, and partner of the Rotterdam-based collective of architectural historians Crimson. My interview with Wouter for Future Practice, also published in Architecture Review Australia, can be read online here.
Wouter made it clear from the outset that he’s not an architect, but that his relationship to architecture makes him somewhat of a “stowaway on board of your sinking ship.” A statement which quickly revealed his perspective on the state of ‘our’ profession. The reasons for this sinking were elaborated through three themes: multidisciplinarity, participation, and cities / sustainability.
Wouter began by outlining the various ways architecture has recently aligned itself with the other design disciplines — graphic design, multimedia, product design, etc — to now form part of the ‘creative industries’ within Dutch cultural policy, and elsewhere. Despite the tears shed over this, Wouter argues that it is a move that has been self-imposed, by our constant calls to dissolve the boundaries and expand the discipline of architecture. But rather than a means to become more powerful and more effective, this rush to the multidisciplinarity has become “another type of marginalisation”.
The next target in his sights is participation. Using the example of Indy Johar’s Compendium for the Civic Economy, which presents various examples of community-driven projects that empower neighbourhoods by providing services that are neglected by the government. And while (I would suggest) these projects are laudable, Wouter argues that “on more negative days you could also see it as a kind of progressive left-wing hipster legitimisation of neo-liberal retreat of government from the public sphere.”
In conclusion, Wouter advocates for architects to re-engage with the messy, unglamorous reality of politics — or, to use his memorable phrase, now much elaborated upon by Dan Hill — the ‘dark matter’. Design has become a “beautiful fantastic groupthink on solutions, a kind of permanent orgy for solution-finding”, but by having been “absorbed into this cosy family of designers, we [architects] have drifted away from the cold halls of politics.”
Reinier de Graaf
The final presentation was from Reinier de Graaf, Partner of OMA/AMO, and director of its in-house think-tank AMO. I also interviewed Reinier for Future Practice, along with AMO team member Laura Baird (this one’s not online – buy the book!), which focuses on the recently established architecture school Strelka in Moscow, for which AMO devised the curriculum.
Reinier’s presentation used the preparation for a forthcoming course at Strelka titled ‘Foresight in Hindsight’, a “history of predictions, predictions from the past about the present.” This practice of future predictions, Reinier admits, is “a very dodgy territory”, and one that is littered with spectacular misjudgements. Reinier’s express tour through famous forecasting includes the Mayan apocalypse, Y2K (“some predictions mobilise vast amounts of resources to avert a thing that never happens”), the telephone, the television (“people would get bored”), computers (“there is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home”), stock market crashes, etc.
Of course some predictions turn out to be prescient, such as the ’newspad’ depicted in Kubrick’s 2001, which would become the iPad. Or were Apple influenced by this vision? In this sense, as Reinier explains, “predictions have an interference with the future, and are certainly not passive instruments”. Where all this intersects with architecture is in the anticipated health of our planet. Predictions of climate change, of a collapse of resources, or population crash, have a critical bearing on how we build for the future. This, Reinier concludes, is “where the whole thing touches our profession, and where to some extent our profession has a certain responsibility to look at the future, or is by definition about the future.”
If architecture is “by definition about the future”, the panel discussion would unpack the manifold ways in which this is played out, firstly through its relationship to evidence. Sandra offers a corrective to her portrayal of the architect as merely expressing larger scientific discoveries literally through form, by drawing our attention to the “enormous confidence scientists have in what architects might enable for them in terms of setting up an interdisciplinary platform … without any evidential basis for how space might structure [this].” Compared to science, architecture is an ambiguous art at best, as Reinier states, “architects have a very curious relationship to evidence, because they are invariably condemned to speak in the absence of evidence”, adding that “a history of predictions is probably a nice thing for architecture, because the past is at times the only evidence you have.”
Architecture is necessarily predictive, it is a slow discipline, one that must attempt to anticipate a potential future if it is to address its proper need. Of course, much of these attempts survive around us, but perhaps we only notice the ones that stick out, the result of inaccurate predictions. Wouter refers to “a strange redundancy of concrete, of infrastructure”, created by a era of architects and planners in the ‘60s and ‘70s who were “absolutely sure that in the year 2000 there would be 20 million people living in the Netherlands, as opposed to 15 million,” forming a “physical archaeology of predictions.” The evidence of a more visionary era, unfortunately remembered for its poor judgement.
But are all predictions created equal? I suggest that some predictions are more, well, predictable. Demography can be anticipated with some foresight as the wave of population ripples through the generations, similarly, global trends in transportation or energy use operate on long timespans and are culturally embedded. Should we become braver in our predictions, instead of retiring to the needs of the present? On the contrary, Wouter argues that it is architects’ impatience with their past predictions that may be our undoing, by being “too fast in developing completely new alternatives to the last.” Using the example of the Bijlmermeer — the ‘failed’ high-rise social housing estates in the south of Amsterdam — Wouter claims that it was “killed by the speed at which planners thought of an alternative, being the low-rise alternative of Almere.” Victims of our own success?
Some disciplines are by their very nature geared around predictions. Sandra raises the role of insurance companies, who have “entire departments of people who are calculating your premium based on sea level rise, storm surges, age, etc.” Although we may think of them as inherently conservative and passive, Reinier adds that “in some senses insurance companies do have an effect on the future, perhaps more than architecture, because they dictate the rules, and will only insure people who comply with the rules.”
The big prediction we’re living through at the moment is climate change, with science betting one way, and a very vocal faction of deniers betting the other. The insurance companies have done the numbers, but do we have to make a choice as architects? Reinier argues ‘no’, as this implies a conscience, when we would willingly design a building directly on a soon-to-be inundated beach but include “an installation that works on tidal energy, [because] architects are perfectly capable, vain human beings who will gladly help any political system only to demonstrate their own virtuosity.” This willing complicity with beliefs we may disagree with, or intentional ignorance of the larger forces at work, is, Reinier suggests, “a pretty good argument to expand the discipline, not just by doing something else, but to increase the awareness of what we are being put to use to. Because there is always somebody that puts you to use for something, … and I think that’s a pretty predictable prediction.”
OMA’s exhibition ‘Public Works’ presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
This co-opting of the architect to serve the purposes of others, stands as a strong example of the declining status of our role today. Interestingly, both Reiner and Wouter are currently presenting exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, which each in their own ways engage with the legacy of post-war planning and architecture, and look back to a time when architects were more instrumental in society. Reinier’s exhibit with OMA titled ‘Public Works’ presents 15 projects designed by “anonymous bureaucrats” employed in the public sector. Wouter’s exhibit, with his practice Crimson, titled ‘The Banality of Good’ examines the evolution of urban planning throughout the 20th century by focussing on six ‘new towns’. Both exhibits communicate the decline in public planning, as this role has been taken up by the private sector, and with it a decline in the social function of architecture and urbanism. Not only did the welfare state look after people, it looked after architects too.
Should we be nostalgic for this period? Reiner, in a line that received one of the biggest reactions of the evening, embraced this notion, claiming that “nostalgia is a hugely interesting and positive phenomenon in a context dominated by amnesia.” But what exactly should we be nostalgic for? As Wouter argues, it’s not so much the role the architect used to occupy in society that we ought to covet, but the role of government in society. Referring to London’s massive Southbank Centre, examined in OMA’s exhibit, Wouter argues that “these buildings are from a time when government defined itself by what it added. Today a bureaucrat is somebody who adds — to put it bluntly — slogans about how government is not needed anymore.”
In a statement that was perhaps unnecessarily pessimistic as a conclusion, Reinier summarised that “architecture argues very elaborately for its own abolition at times; government argues very elaborately for its own abolition in favour of society; and society argues very elaborately for its own abolition as well. It’s a kind of collective retreat.”
The giant mandala to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow in Crimson’s ‘The Banality of Good’ exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
What does this mean for architecture? And how might this inform how we recast the discipline? Amongst this tide of retreat outlined by Reiner, the resurgence of architecture (and architects) in the public sphere seems implausible. But surely there is space for a correction away from the limited motivations of the market; away from the co-option of image-making in speculation; away from the marginalising effect of the ‘creative industries’ and back toward a more instrumental role. This may not require a dramatic expansion of the role of the architect, or an opportunistic repositioning, but perhaps just some hard graft. A re-engagement with the slog of bureaucracy and policy, with the possibilities of large-scale planning, and with a more critical application of architectural intelligence.Posted: October 7th, 2012
Tags: architecture, book launch, Future Practice, report
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