Deus Ex Imitari, Or, A Modest Rebuke of the World in Architecture’s Own Image
_There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt __of in your philosophy. –_William Shakespeare, Hamlet
At some point during the 1970s, in the midst of the OPEC oil crisis and the prolonged diminuendo of the Vietnam War, architects began to look inward, seeking refuge from the calamity of the outside world. In light of a seriously reduced volume of architectural commissions, architects such as Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Peter Eisenman turned to drawing as a means of continuing architecture’s project of disciplinary self-investigation. An anecdotal account by Tigerman notes that around this time, architectural drawings started to become coveted as art objects by the public.¹ “I am convinced,” he writes, “that architects’ thinking about things conceptual was colored by an age that was positively responsive to drawings that were anything but the spare documents produced by the preceding generation of rational-thinking architect-builders. Simultaneously, architectural symposia began occurring at a frightening rate. There seemed to be some solace for architects in convening to discuss the state of the art of architecture…”²
Theorists such as Reinhold Martin might argue that this development, part of the larger arc of Postmodernism, was part of architecture’s trend toward inconsequentiality.³ As early as 1947, Henry-Russell Hitchcock postulated the existence of only two types of firms: that of the “genius” and that of the “bureaucracy;” one producing flamboyant, one-off displays of artistry (he cites Frank Lloyd Wright as an example) and the other mechanically producing corporate plan-space.⁴ Neither seemed to be of much consequence to anyone other than architects and their powerful patrons, rendering Modernist architecture’s erstwhile project of social emancipation a moot point. Following this history of practice, one could argue architecture’s “removal from history”⁵ began even before the onset of Postmodernism’s dissociative language-games.
This self-recusal from history constitutes one of the discipline’s greatest sources of anxiety. An oft-asked question is “how to be relevant?” What is left of architecture’s capacity for utopian wish-making?
Unfortunately for us, the comforting, Hegelian idea of the Zeitgeist—the spirit of our time—“has evaporated.”⁶ Plurality is what characterizes our thinking now. And yet, the architectural impulse is still toward the utopian; toward authored images depicting places better than those existing in our time. Such narratives delimitate, prescribe, authorize, and by that same token, exclude what is beyond their frame. These are literal images, in the case of architecture. Worse still, they only skim the surface the content they investigate; can the lived consequences of an L-Train shutdown (to use last year’s urban studio prompt as a foil) be described and responded to through drawings? Or are the resulting proposals visually attractive speculations on sets of loosely selected problems?
If the desire to crystallize a “spirit of our time” is gone, then what yardsticks measure the future we envision? Where and how will architecture begin to frame a project that is optimistic and of consequence?
Whatever answers exist are anti-utopian, anti-visionary, and indiscreet; they don’t delimitate, prescribe or visualize. They gather from heterogeneous sets, find consensus, and embed themselves in the sources of their content—sometimes in the corners of knowledge that architecture doesn’t find interesting or showy enough to look at. Answers are visible only in hindsight. Drawing and building are meaningfully enmeshed with other techniques of producing and disseminating knowledge.
I sense a frustrating lack of specificity in what I’m saying—I’ll illustrate a version of what this could look like through examples. This list isn’t by any means exhaustive or authoritative. In fact, it frustratingly only highlights three high-profile examples that I am familiar with, and I would encourage you to seek out or include your own examples.
In San Diego, California, Estudio Teddy Cruz+Fonna Forman, is literally embedding the process of producing architecture into processes of community and political engagement. Their partnership with local non-profit Casa Familiar has produced policy proposals and designs for new housing typologies⁷ (e.g. housing for elderly immigrants, and for communal living among families). To my knowledge, this hasn’t resulted in any built architecture yet, but as Teddy once told me, “we forget that as architects we…need to take positions…maybe the first layers towards a building might not be the building itself, but the processes that engage social, economic and political domains.”⁸ Such processes produce vital feedback loops between the extended set of participants and tap networks of knowledge typically unperceived by architecture’s conventional apparatuses.
Halfway across the globe, in London, Karakusevic Carson Architects has recently completed public housing projects recently covered in the New York Times. Highlighted therein is the central role that collaboration played in their execution.⁹ The resulting architecture does not represent, perhaps, the most exciting formal investigation, nor does it successfully rebuke the prevailing conditions of the market economy. But it does strengthen the government’s and the public’s image of architects as professionals committed to a greater good. Through building, it fortifies the idea of public housing as a worthwhile collective enterprise; interpretable as a victory for a discipline that gasps in horror at the market’s socio-spatially destructive tendencies.
For a discipline seeking consequentiality, practices like these can easily be interpreted as good news. They expand architecture’s potential set of stakeholders and put it on the path to resiliency against the market economy. Obviously, these only represent two discrete forms of practice, and there are further questions to be investigated, but their modii operandi exemplify something that can be learned from.
Implicit in the work of the two exemplars I’ve highlighted is a certain willingness to allow novelty and pizzazz to yield their primacy as generators of newness and innovation. To allow sources outside of architecture to inform disciplinary questions. Christopher Hawthorne may have touched on this when he discussed “Boring architecture” in a 2017 Los Angeles Times article. “It is…a wrecking ball…taking down a sensibility, a kind of machismo and self-satisfaction, that desperately needed razing—one that was taking up too much space and blocking too much sunlight, that was giving other kinds of architecture very little chance to grow.”¹⁰ I venture to add, it involves abandoning irony and dissociation in favor of a project built on sincerity and earnestness, while considering positive critique as useful as negative critique. This isn’t meant to admonish formal investigation or to say that architects need to be boring or artless; but a certain realpolitik¹¹ is at hand—our position in society is not one from which to assume a power stance.
In 1948, just one year after Hitchcock published that polar taxonomy of practice, the office Caudill Rowlett Scott was founded in College Station, Texas. Their early work, largely centered around commissions for educational buildings, is characterized by the same techno-optimism that energized the rest of mid-century American society, with a marked adherence to mainstream stylistic Modernism. Within a few years of its founding, the office “revolutionized school design, separated ‘problem-seeking’ from problem-solving, introduced ‘programming’ into the design process, contributed to the development of construction management, spearheaded the use of computers in architecture, and produced and published influential texts on design theory and methods.”¹² In addition to this lengthy list of inventions, the firm also introduced the written brief into architecture—a tool so routinely instrumental in almost any architectural project that it might have otherwise been thought to exist since the days of Brunelleschi. But the “genius” of the firm lay not with its founders or any particular design methodology, as Tombesi notes, “the intellectual kernel of the firm revolved around ‘process’. Under Caudill’s leadership, CRS conceived of architecture as a social-based, rationally manageable enterprise, where architects acted as clarifiers of intent and community needs…”¹³
CRS’s process literally embedded architects within the context they were examining—among other techniques, their office posted designers as ‘squatters’ on-site, allowing the firm to viscerally grasp the problems needing solving. There is much more to be said about the manner in which the firm oriented itself towards its clients through innovative tools of public participation and communication. Sadly, in parallel with American capitalism, the office transformed over the years from a case-study in vital ‘stakeholder’ design to a chimera of shareholder corporatism—literal shareholders after their 1971 IPO.
Along with the first two examples, CRS’s disposition as a practice loosely recalls Tigerman’s “rational-thinking architect-builder”; their methodical approach to realizing their project is informed by situational demands and adaptability of method, as well as the instrumental inclusion of different forms of understanding. In all of these cases, capital “A” architecture (which is a euphemism for architecture’s internal, immaterial discourse) is placed in dialogue with real material conditions. Tigerman’s “rationality” forms part of the basis supporting fresh criticality and speculation in these examples. It also forms the basis for a notion of utopia, of an optimism of consequence, grounded in the material and dispossessed of the prescriptive content present in other architectural utopias.
In closing, it’s worth noting that the era of the “genius” and the “bureaucracy” is ongoing in many respects; but today its precepts are being increasingly questioned. In parallel, the legacies of the twentieth century continue to be challenged, and the world continues its recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. The world continues to grow; but will the future need architects?
At the dawn of the postmodern era, in 1967, Vincent Scully published “America’s Architectural Nightmare,” an essay admonishing the destructive, scarring consequences that Modernist architecture’s utopian, car-driven vision visited on New Haven. Scully’s work as an architectural historian, along with the work of other authors like Jane Jacobs, helped introduce the city, architectural history, and skepticism toward positivist “progress” as viable public discussions in that era—developments almost taken for granted today. I close with a quote by him:
“We cannot possibly win, but we may not lose everything…the most mythic of Mustangs can deliver us no more.”¹⁴
- Stanley Tigerman, “Architecture and Its Trace,” Schlepping Through Ambivalence: Essays on an American Architectural Condition, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 24-28.
- Reinhold Martin, “The Return of the Classical: Some Archaeological Fragments,” Neo-avant-garde and Postmodern Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond, ed. Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman, (New Haven and London: The Yale Center for British Art, Yale University Press, 2010), 301-318.
- Henry-Russell Hitchcock, “The Architecture of Bureaucracy and the Architecture of Genius,” Architectural Review Vol. 101, no. 601 (1947) 3-6.
- Martin, “The Return of the Classical.”
- Magnus Nilsson, “Without Zeitgeist/Within the Archive,” Project No. 3, Spring 2014.
- Alejandro Duran, “Tearing Down Borders, Building Up Hope,” El Sol, Spring 2016, 65-70.
- Michael Kimmelman, “New York Has a Public Housing Problem. Does London Have an Answer?”, New York Times, March 1, 2019, accessed April 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/arts/design/hackney-london-public-housing.html.
- Christopher Hawthorne, “Boring architecture? Yes, Please,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2017, accessed April 12, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-building-type-boring-buildings-20171119-htmlstory.html.
- Read: principles based on practical considerations rather than faith in ideology.
- Paolo Tombesi, “Capital gains and architectural losses: the transformative journey of Caudill Rowlett Scott (1948-1994),” The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 145-168 (2016)
- Vincent Scully, “America’s Architectural NIghtmare,” Zodiac, ed. 17 (1967).