The Architect as Policy Whisperer

In comes the Space Producer

In the 34th minute of Koyaanisqatsi, just before all post-modern hell breaks loose, a prolific sequence of controlled demolitions unfolds. Bridges, towers, cranes, slabs; all succumb willingly and almost elegantly to an enforced sense of gravity. One of the prime detonation victims is the 1954 Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St-Louis, conceived by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki. America’s most infamous public housing project had survived but a mere 18 years until its iconoclastic erasure. Adding to the civic drama architectural theorist Charles Jencks used the event to substantiate his axiomatic pitch for Post Modernism’s kick-start, announcing that “Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts)”¹, the moment of Pruitt-Igoe’s dynamiting. Was Jencks’ imposed celebration of the Modern End just an epitaph for the sake of unproven novelty? And what kind of societal impact should or could architecture generate based upon such an overextended cryptolect?

Some more endings in architecture

During an untitled lecture at the Architectural Association on April 8th 1989 Daniel Libeskind, the then self-proclaimed non-building architect, enunciated an altogether more salient end. Having bombarded the audience with rapid fire semantic intricacies Libeskind almost uneventfully declared: “I certainly feel that we are at the end of architecture, it’s basically over”. The audience smirked, seemingly content at having witnessed such a visionary and arcane cant. What if the gathering had known then that fifteen years later all this soothing rhetoric of the apocalyptic would vapourise into countless outlandish icons, often for false flag politics?

Fast-forward to June 9th 2014. A Dezeen interview given by the 81-year old Peter Eisenman on the occasion of the 14th Venice Architecture Biennial, an edition curated by Rem Koolhaas and AMO. Through his account of the show Eisenman seems more interested in the totemic figure of Koolhaas than the content itself. He states: “… Koolhaas has presented the Biennale as la fine[the end]: ‘The end of my career, the end of my hegemony, the end of my mythology, the end of everything, the end of architecture’.” Eisenman’s as well as Koolhaas’s coquettish dealings with the end of architecture seem – yet again – extremely haphazard and offhand. Their fixation reveals, if anything, the recurrent sclerosis of the 20th century architect at the brink of the 21st century, a generation that has swapped effective societal impact for the bemusing impact of the mythical cultural figure. Eisenman concludes the interview by stating how important it has been to have lived “in the time of Rem”.

Barely a month earlier Frank O. Gehry had received the prestigious Spanish Prince of Asturoias Prize. During the press conference to announce the award an El Mundo journalist asked Gehry what he thought of people who accused him of creating architecture for show. The jetlagged architect squinted, paused bewilderedly, then pontifically raised his middle finger. The ultimate embodiment of the architectural figure’s imperial overstretch.

The good architect, the bad architect

Architecture, as an inherent social and economic by-product, cannot simply be assumed to be “over with”. Especially not by architects. However, what this dallying might conceal is perhaps a more urgent understanding that the very position of the architect within society is on the verge of a fundamental recalibration. Over the past century the discrepancy between the practice of the “cultural architect” – the so-called good architect – and that of the “commercial architect” – the bad one – has grown incrementally. The former burying himself ever deeper into a self-inflicted and often autistic de profundis belief system, the latter offering just enough “architecture” to please the public and just little enough not to upset the financial balance of the building developer. In fine both antagonistic positions have ceased to be productive, if ever they were.

The current societal challenges for the contemporary spatial practitioner bare virtually no comparison with those of fifty or even twenty years ago. A cataclysmic growth in population and the ever widening schism between powerful and vulnerable cultures have rendered the practice of spatial intelligence ever more urgent. Playtime seems well and truly over with. Now is the moment for architecture to re-engage itself with the politics and critical mass of the common good – the public good. How can the architect moult into a spatial professional that can and wishes to engage with social reality and all its adherent strategies of policy making? This question has become ever more pressing in an era when public policy makers seem to have ran out of ideas, baffled by society’s complexity, and have abdicated responsibility in favour of the doctrine of private enterprise.

A servant's prestige

The apparent challenge in architecture is that its societal urgency and credibility have always been derived from the development of technological building principles. The invention of air-conditioning aside, the discovery of iron-reinforced concrete in 1853 was the last major revolution in construction technology. Not only did it give rise to a new societal and spatial imagination, it also opened up a path for architects to re-invent their role and position within society. The career of the architect and entrepreneur Auguste Perret (Brussels, 1874 — Paris, 1954) is an interesting case-in-point. Apart from being a prolific designer, Perret very early on saw the commercial and civic possibilities of reinforced concrete, co-founding the Perret Frères, architectes, constructeurs, béton armé company in 1905. As “constructor-architects” the Perrets managed to surpass the then formalistic limitations and dogma of the architectural trade, offering an all-encompassing technological service, working as architects in their own right while also executing work for designers like Henry Van de Velde. This both/and attitude of an economically driven artisanship – the attitude of the “servant’s prestige” – was somewhat of an exception in the architectural field, where the pursuit of private practice and the personal signature remained the ultimate proof of apparent professional success.

Auguste Perret not only excelled through his constructor’s logic and social poetry. In his testamentary volume Contribution à une théorie de l’architecture (1952) he also expressed a profound understanding of the wide-reaching impact and urgency of architecture in society. The very first page of this pamphlet reads: ‘Mobile ou immobile, tout ce qui occupe l’espace appartient au domaine de l’architecture’. This one sentence perhaps describes the essence of a modern and even contemporary architectural sensibility, promoting architecture as a pro-active trade rather than as a reactive form of expression. Perret implies that all (political) decisions will turn into architecture, so one better come prepared and act preemptively. Through his all-embracing writings and practice Perret managed to establish the idea of the architect as a pivotal civic and political figure – a professional without whom society cannot properly evolve.

Policy whispering as a new architectural nexus

During the 1960s and 1970s strong and omnipresent public works departments were established throughout Western Europe. Many of these departments served the public cause, employing architects as pro-active civil servants. Some of the prime examples of these  were the Greater London Council, the Stadtbaurat in Berlin, the Dutch Rijksgebouwendienst and the Public Works Department of Amsterdam. This short-lived period of public political engagement with architecture proved the enormous potential of deploying spatial strategies and architectures as societal tools for policy making. However, the ever-increasing levels of public debt and macroeconomic dislocation experienced during the 1970s and 1980s pushed policy makers towards the formation of opportunistic public private partnerships (PPP). From the early 1990s onwards this cunning debudgetting strategy has had a dramatic impact on the role of architecture within society, because with it the public client (and the public initiative) has virtually disappeared. To this day the practice of PPP is still rising in popularity, reflected in an ever more impotent and mute public power, as well as an increasingly marginal position for the architect. The contrast with Perret’s central figure – the architect as an enabler – couldn’t be more stark.

“Architecture finds itself in the paradoxical situation of being more popular than ever before while at the same time being exposed to total decline (…). Yet never before have architects had so little influence on the actual work of constructing buildings.”² In addition it could be argued that architects have never had so little influence on the making of society altogether. However, this ascertainment shouldn’t give rise to gratuitous lamenting. On the contrary, it should help the architectural discipline to open up to new ways of practicing. Perhaps it’s finally time to cast off the burdensome shell of the crypto-figure that is the private architect, with his false need to affirm himself personally in the work. Society’s complexity calls for a spatial practice that can act as a catalyst for societal programs, rather than producing and showcasing the one-off spectacle. Perhaps the architect has become too slow, too heavy and too duplicitous to adequately serve society.

The relevant task ahead for the architectural discipline – as a theoretical environment, an educational model and an effective building practice – is to seriously question WHEN architecture could come into play within the process of forming society. Is its role simply to answer a brief, or can it prefigure this brief – or even the client for that matter? How preemptively can architecture actually perform, beyond the mere reflex of troubleshooting and commercial promotion? How unsolicited can architecture act? Not that there’s a need for faint copies of the 1970s and 1980s public works departments, with architects directly working within government. But there is a requirement for architects that wish to engage with policy making, offering their architectural imagination in service of critical areas such as collective housing, health care, energy landscapes and infrastructure. Architects that are able to understand and convey that their profession can be a tool for societal invention, not merely a social construct in itself.

The real question then might be: can contemporary architects become policy whisperers, employing their architectural intelligence to the full by integrating their design skills with the policy intelligence at hand? It might therefore be productive and even refreshing to briefly revisit a particular feature of the earlier public works departments: a corps of rather anonymous yet ambitious architects bound by strong collective aspirations. It couldn’t harm architects to regain some of this anonymity, to become more like enabling authors instead of characters in command of their “personal” visual language. Authors that are able to reassess the ethos and societal value of architectural work all together, building up a truly equitable practice of architecture, a field which up to this day has been largely overlooked and left uncultivated. A field inhabited by bridging figures rather than solipsistic architectural characters; spatial professionals acting as producers rather than ultimate creators; specialists who challenge clients to achieve the maximum societal benefits rather than perform as their private architectural jester. Policy whisperers that are willing to move beyond the antiquated model of the architect, venturing into the meaningful domain of the production of space.

[1] Charles Jencks, The language of Post-Modern architecture, 1977

[2] Swiss Lessons, appendix, EPFL, Harry Gugger et al.