While I always felt architecture should surpass the purely functional and aesthetic, this idea became stronger over the years. At this moment in time, I can’t even imagine myself working in a ‘traditional’ (contemporary) architecture office where a lot of the work focuses on the looks of the building. The socio-political component that in my view is an essential part of the set of tasks society could expect architects and urban planners to work on, seems lacking, if not completely absent. Debates within the field are about parametric design, big data, sustainability and self-building, but nobody seems to ask the real questions. The fundamentals are not discussed. And if these are discussed, the fundamentals are understood as the actual fundamental physical components that we work with: floor, door, wall, ceiling et cetera.
On the one hand, this is a clear End of History attitude and as such not limited to architecture. On the other, it’s just sad. But instead of allowing ourselves to become all cynical, I propose to view the current state of the profession as an opportunity. Because, if things are not going the way you want them to go, there is potential for change. Reading an essay by Peer Illner in Real Estates: Life Without Debt provided me with both a background and arguments to what so far has only been a feeling. The essay starts from an brief analysis of both the housing crisis in the 1980s and the current situation of crisis, concluding that architects have seen their social status diminished to that of the proletarian. “Both eras reveal a story of the increasing integration of the architect into the hordes of precarious service works — a ‘proletatianistation’ of the architect that creates the conditions for a political reconsideration of architectural practice (building) as essentially connected to dwelling.” (p.52). So while the people you talk to at a birthday party, public event, or at your local bakery still think you’re that master architect with the perfect job and above average wage, the reality is we’re just ordinary people with underpaid jobs that are forced to work way more than is healthy. “It is now the architect herself who, under constant threat of pauperisation, will most likely qualify for social housing at some point in her career.” (p.53). Funny and sad at the same time.
The important thought here is that this situation of crisis is to be viewed as an opportunity. Because we, the people thinking about buildings and cities, become part of the underpriviliged, it allows us to change our perspective and focus our attention to the things that actually matter. Yes, we want buildings to be beautiful. And yes, we want to use the latest technology in our designs. And indeed, some of us still hope to be famous one day. But all of this should be secondary to the real purpose of spatial thinking: how to shape our physical world to allow for a dignified life. “Today’s architectural labour crisis might sow the seeds for such a collective emancipation precisely where building is taught and takes place, in the profession of architecture itself.” (p.55).
While some working within the field are changing their perspective, in the educational institutions this shift has not happened (yet). For instance, the newly oppointed dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the TUD has a background in the technical numbers based approach to spatial design that I tried to debunk above. “Peter Russell is currently Professor of Computer Supported Planning in Architecture (CAAD) at the RWTH Aachen University. […] His research encompasses Building Information Modelling, Intelligent Buildings and Ambient Assisted Living.” This doesn’t promise much good for the next generation of students graduating in Delft.
The image featured with this post is an historical example (Het Schip by Michel de Klerk, 1914 – 1921, Amsterdam) of a project focused on improving living conditions for the impoverished working class of the early twentieth century. For those who want to read up on examples of a different approach to city-making, this article in Jacobin magazine might be worth a read.