Agency and Fantasy: A Love Letter to Architecture
How did the architecture student get such a reputation: the tortured, battered soul who dons a black uniform in various manifestations, tirelessly pursuing something they’re willing to give their lives to. Be it the pursuit of topics continually separating us from most social circles, or free time traded in to craft “money shots,” these masochistic rituals continue to generate fledgling beliefs in possibility, novelty, change, and the conviction of an avant garde. Yet, in this intense discipleship, passion still tends to produce artifacts that hardly deviate from the predictable social media palettes each school has made us accustomed to. A quick scroll through any architecture school’s instagram page will give little to orient yourself chronologically other than the spattering of zoom windows and larger technological trends.
We know the tropes of the practicing architect, who traded in their creative license for a stable nine-to-five, reproducing delayed responses to culture. This is, of course, in keeping with promises of efficient client-based solutions to problems centered on increasing needs for housing economic apparatuses and their societal byproducts.1 In this search for legitimacy, the young professional finds themself departing rather quickly from the realm of academic architecture to attain the glorious achievement of built work. We convince ourselves that in order to shape reality, we have to abandon a criticality we spent a decade fostering in exchange for often little more than direct translation of bubble diagrams.
We now find ourselves within this paradigm where we accept architecture as entirely service driven, a reciprocal mechanism for cultural re-production. This version of the discipline offers little to no regard for the possibilities that our training so reveres. We are made to believe that clients and developers have more to contribute to the conception of projects; that ultimately, others determine what will be built despite four to seven semester’s worth of constant reminders that thought can suspend “progress” long enough to supplant the blunt determinant of economic feasibility.2
In reality, we do have the potential to engage the process through varying tools, methods, and stages. Architects are, by nature and training, masters of arranging. We speculate upon the techno-social conditions that we find ourselves in and for that reason we are capable of redesigning our methods and scope of operation in order to pursue an architecture that we have an interest in. That said, evidenced by the built work that surrounds us, we constantly reify the problem at hand. We demand agency and yet do not utilize it. We undersell the nature of architectural production when we withdraw from moments that call for action, telling ourselves there is nothing we can do.
What generates a culture of passive radicality among a discipline that venerates subversion, criticality, and ambition, in it’s pedagogical underpinnings? We should be confident in our abilities to succeed in something that we love doing. Our role in the production of architecture is far greater than the translation of 3D models into construction documents. The spaces we produce generate meaning far beyond their physical manifestations, a claim to which even the mention of Piranesi, Boullée, Superstudio, or Rem Koolhaas would suffice. The embodiment of our engagement and speculation in other mediums contribute to the cognitive register from which we begin our designs. Given definitions of architecture, even in its prized physical form, are determined largely by the selection of possibilities inscribed into the cognitive register via representation.3 We have the ability to invert many of the prevailing global logics that seem to paralyze us and run counterproductively to our disciplinary ambitions, departing from “ideational monotheisms” and “modernist scripts…that ask for successive rather than coexistent thoughts.” 4
Sincerity, however, is often akin to heresy when it begins to cross the bounds of indoctrinated bias among even the most devout of us. Identifying these biases may prove to be the most significant barrier in redefining architectural production to better serve our aims. With regards to ourselves and the greater public, we cannot expect desire to depart from the larger trends of our discipline without injecting evolved notions of ourselves beyond the safety of our bush-hammered walls. Until then, we remain heretics adrift amongst a silent mass, readily accepting the misleading voices that further cap our imagination. As we kneel in our pews before the altar in Hastings, awaiting our judgement in the pit and read our assigned verses week after week, it may be time to stop and think: What are we preparing for? Have we accepted this limited scope as an inevitability? Do we dare step outside the lanes we were confirmed into?
As I write this, I cannot say I have been sold this professional inevitability; I cannot say that this stance is entirely liberated from architectural indoctrination. It may be yet another testament to the prevailing logic of canonical manifestos in our discourse, as much as it is to a growing frustration with the limits we place on ourselves as designers. However, what I will tell the reader who made it this far, is that these four to seven semesters are your chance to try something different, to accept the “unacceptable”, and to see if we can’t rethink what architecture’s future might be.
- AIA, “AIA Document B201-2017 - Standard Form of Architects Services,” AIA Document B201-2017 - Standard Form of Architects Services (n.d.), https://content.aia.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/B201_2017.sample.pdf ↩︎
- Rasmus Wærn and Gert Windgardh, What Is Architecture?: And 100 Other Questions (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2015). 97-98 ↩︎
- “Building and Landscape Types: Types and Styles,” Library Guides, n.d., https://guides.lib.berkeley.edu/building_types/styles. ↩︎
- Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Build the World (London: Verso, 2021). 4 ↩︎