Feb 15, 2010

Discussions on Networked Publics: Thoughts on the Archipocalypse

A panel of youngish architects and writers were invited to Columbia's "Studio X" space in the architecture ghetto at 180 Varick on Tuesday to discuss the current archipocalypse and how new forms of media and communication are changing the landscape of contemporary practice. The premise of "Networked Publics" recapitulates the theory about the Internet and democracy popular in the late 90s. The explosion of independent voices through online media would liberate new forms of democratic participation. In architecture, small inventive practices could gain access to clients aided by free forms of networking, publicity and expression. Newly responsive architecture would be produced through 3D design and automated production. In keeping with Columbia's sometimes effete theoretical tradition, there was a call for new critical theories and models of practice to be developed in response to the past decade's purported shortfalls and current recessionary conditions. One of the panelists noted that the real stakes of their practices was less the production of buildings than of a thought-leading discourse that would have a pervasive intellectual influence, and no one could disagree. It would be good for the panelists, therefore, to get out of the architecture-speak bubble and recognize what's actually happened in the profession in the past decade, as opposed to the way it is being misrepresented by professional critics and would-be thought-leaders.

It is true that large firms continue to dominate the landscape and small inventive practices have benefited from small clients looking for new approaches and economical solutions. There's nothing new in this. The decade-old tools that young architects have access to allow them an incredible capacity for self-initiated activity, original work, high design produced at a reasonable cost. These tools have also been used for the past decade by the much-maligned "starchitects." Corporate firms are using these same tools, and producing work of a much higher quality as a result. This is very important, and seems to have been entirely missed by the thought-leaders and professional critics. The architecture produced in the past decade is light-years ahead of anything produced in the several decades before, both in terms of sustainability and aesthetic quality. The housing bubble, the banking crisis, and the current recession have almost nothing to do with architecture.

This is a pervasive and profound misunderstanding of the past decade and necessarily also of the present moment. It has been swallowed uncritically by the profession. The past decade was not a "boom" era or a period of "excess" in architecture. It was a period of abysmal government, faulty regulation, low interest rates and absurd lending practices that led to a price bubble in real estate. It is perhaps the architects' exaggerated self-importance that is causing them to let architecture to be made the fall guy for corrupt bankers and real estate corporations, ridiculous tract housing developments, and inflated land values that were not produced by architects or architecture. Ask any real estate developer what has been driving the cost of buildings, construction, and housing, in any part of the country. They will certainly not say architecture. They will tell you that in New York it's first of all the cost of the land itself. In much of the country, it's materials and labor. And apart from that it's the market itself. Architects who build lots of buildings know this. If they're good architects they probably spend a lot of their time fighting with developers for that extra five or ten percent of the budget that will allow them to produce the aesthetic and sustainable features of their designs. If they're great architects - Jeanne Gang, Peter Gluck, Stefan Behnisch - they have probably figured out how to make aesthetic, social, and sustainable features so integral to their designs and building processes that they won't even be noticed as such by their clients or by critics. These are the "excesses" that the critics are apparently decrying, and they're precisely what architecture produces that is in the public interest.

The profession is suffering badly now from the economic downturn, and it's wearying to continue to hear  "thought-leaders" blame architecture for things it is not responsible for. Especially when there are so many other things architects can be justly blamed for - vanity, self-importance, sanctimoniousness, duplicity, pomposity, buffoonery - but not housing prices. -STEPHEN ZACKS

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