Ends of Architecture

In this issue we are addressing “end” in multiple senses of the term: what are the ends and aims of architecture? Have we reached the end of architecture? There exists an angst within our field that we are in a period without a paradigm—that “Architecture” is over or irrelevant—and that rather than having a driving force with projected aims, ends, or visions of society, it finds itself reduced to providing “services” and “design consultation.” Since the ’60s/’70s there has been a lack, void, or even repression of a certain utopian spirit, from which we may benefit in our current quandary. We ask, “what is the point of architecture at this moment?”

Currently Judged To Be Lost And Reduced To A Mere Service.” This parenthetical line from our protracted title points to a constant anxiety for the discipline, one that speaks to an alienation of the field from the mechanisms which constitute relevance to society at large.¹ If what architects do is purely a service, then it follows we are enacting an agenda distinct from our own. We have given up the wheel. We have surrendered to complacency and retreated to complicity. What and whose agenda do we serve? What is an agenda of our own? These questions imply the two to be in opposition and also that there might exist some projected goal that rends the discipline out of its sleepy, impotent state. Yet, countless practices remain perfectly comfortable rendering services. Perhaps for them the two agendas (architecture’s and this suspicious other one) stand in close alignment. And with each high-end residence, each luxury tower, each world-class district, their competency only grows in capacity to serve, whether it be capital, racism, neo-colonialism.²

Several contributions to this issue have mentioned Ernst Bloch, and to continue that thread, we believe there to be a renewed injunction for the work of dreams. (Indeed Bloch’s magnum opus, The Principle of Hope, was originally to be called Dreams of a Better Life.) In architecture, we may possess the tools for change, but what use are the tools without an inkling for where we are going with them, or what we will do with them?³

To say that dreaming is work is of course not to refer it to capitalist structures of labor exchange, but to stress that committed projects of imagination require critical investigations into current material conditions in order to identify what potentials exist and what requires change. Far from being fanciful, abstract, or reified, strong and grounded alternative visions for our future are needed today more than ever, particularly to face the mounting exigencies posed by the climate crisis.

How might, then, an engagement with a utopian imaginary at this moment invert the conventional dichotomy that posits the utopian as an abstracted, removed “no-place” as opposed to “practical” architecture? It would seem that under the politics of the new climactic regime,⁴ environmental utopias (a slight redundancy as we would claim that all utopian thought today cannot ignore the environmental) instead become that which is grounded, material, and terrestrial. By contrast, to pretend that architecture can continue on its present course with its usual assumptions for practice and design has rather become the outlook that is detached from the reality of the Earth. A “business as usual” attitude becomes instead that which is fanciful, abstract, and willfully ignorant.

Some of the responses included in this issue indicate an enduring scepticism of the utopian project, either because they do not allow for sufficient disciplinary autonomy, or their lofty goals are a distraction from enacting real change through architecture.⁵ Other responses accuse utopian thinking of being downright exclusionary, or mobilized as a tantalizing image for the benefit of the few, at the expense of entire communities.⁶

Where we seem to all be in agreement is the danger of the abstracting, universalizing tendencies present in utopian thought.⁷

Can utopian projections avoid these pitfalls? We, the editors, think yes. Where we see hope in the utopian spirit is in its capacity to imagine alternate futures and value systems, outside of the insidious framework of capitalist utilitarianism.

Emerging from the articles, as well as our interview with Anthony Vidler, is an apparent and fundamental divergence in the definition of “utopia” or “utopian.” Certain contributors have responded to a more established view of architectural utopianism that proposes rigid, universalizing cities and plans. In the spirit of Ernst Bloch and Henri Lefebvre, we view a way out for the potential reclamation and re-formulation of utopian ideas as a dialectical process between our present reality and dreams of a better life.⁸

  1. See Alejandro Duran’s article which ruminates on what an embedded architectural practice might look like.
  2. See Maya Sorabjee’s article on World Class Utopias.
  3. See Rosa McElheny’s article describing Paul Kagan’s photographs of utopian communities under construction.
  4. Here we draw on Bruno Latour’s reformulation of the poles of politics as no longer between Left and Right, but Modern and Terrestrial; see Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity 2018).
  5. See Leonardo Fuchs’ article on architecture’s autonomy.
  6. See Gray Golding’s article on the exclusion of the differently abled from descriptions historical utopias.
  7. See Anthony Vidler’s interview, in which he outlines utopia as literary genre.
  8. See Holly Bushman’s article on Oskar Hansen’s summer home as a realization of Bloch’s ideas of a concrete utopia and Alexandre Honey’s article on the imagined trajectories out of our current capitalist realism.