WES HIATT (BASS SCHOLAR IN ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, M.ARCH ’17)
If one can’t already infer from the title Rebuilding Architecture, a not-so-between-the-lines reading of the abstract for this weekend’s symposium will leave one feeling that architects have found themselves in a bit of a pickle. We’re told that certain “basic tenets” exist which “prevent architecture from being socially relevant, politically powerful, financially rewarding, and personally fulfilling.” This crisis scenario Rebuilding sketches out seems to indeed be the case—wages are low, attrition is high, and evidence of architecture’s contribution to current public discourse is nonexistent. As such, these talks will focus broadly on constructing alternative modes of education, practice, and representation within architecture’s “discipline and profession.”
Curious, however, is this emphasis on the architectural discipline (as a branch of knowledge) and the architectural profession (as a remunerated service) while architecture itself (as a cultural artifact) is almost entirely absent. By architecture, I mean the form, organization, and effects of the built environment. In fact, the word “form” appears only once in the symposium abstract, next to “fame” and “social irresponsibility” as baggage architects ought to “move beyond.” The subtext here is a rebuke lodged many times before: that formal and aesthetic concerns are too inaccessible for a discipline lacking an audience, and too indulgent for a profession confronting the myriad problems of capitalism, globalization, infrastructure, inequality, and so on.
Of course, form—unlike now-hip topics like neoliberal speculation or refugee migratory patterns—is one of the few matters that fall fully within the scope of architectural expertise. At present there exist no buildings or cities without a certain shape, organization, or appearance, and virtually every inch of our environment has been considered, described, and given form by an architect. Everything, it turns out, looks like something. Call me old fashioned, but it would seem that any rebuilt conception of architecture, by virtue of its very ontological status, would necessarily include the formal.
But even beyond this rather commonsensical defense, I would argue that architecture cannot exercise its political and social capacity—an apparent interest of this symposium—without taking advantage of form and its effects. A critical vocabulary already exists to consider this. Take for example the term character. Today we may use words like character and style interchangeably. But a closer reading of how character has been used previously would reveal that it has less to do with the historical linguistic mores associated with style (which would certainly have no place in the world of Rebuilding) and more to do with endowing form with a certain ethos and value system. Often, as is the case in writings from Serlio to Blondel to Ruskin, the ethos embedded into architectural form via character is necessarily dependant on specific people-groups with which that architecture is associated. And while this associative quality of character has been used to assert damaging social hierarchies in the past—Serlio’s classed houses for nobility and farmers; Ruskin’s appeals to the Northern Goth—it is significant that architecture has been furnished with such an explicitly political communicative role in the past. This fundamentally societal function of art continues in other arenas of aesthetic production: Afrofuturism, Steampunk, and Vaporwave are just a few examples of subcultures which construct identities around extremely specific aesthetic expressions characteristic of their values, aspirations, and relationships to other people-groups.
This digression is of course not fully formed; I only wish to bring up just one way our inherited history of ideas could be mined to see the issue of architectural form (which isn’t going anywhere) as concomitant with other issues oft-considered to be external to strictly disciplinary knowledge. It is concerning that Rebuilding Architecture counts this out as a possibility. In fact, this assumption that the formal must be separated from the social or political doubles down on a lethal structural assumption of current architectural discourse: that such a division of architectural form from its effects and content is at all possible.