In the beginning of 2015, there was a great deal of talk about architecture in ‘crisis’, and I found it simultaneously fascinating and ridiculous. Fascinating because it was interesting that mainstream media was talking about it, but ridiculous because the idea that architecture is ‘dead’ or at least dying has been around for a long time, and yet we’re still here making architecture.
The material I’m referring to has been circulating around the web through outlets like Forbes, the New York Times, and by Aaron Betsky at Architecture Magazine. This thinking, coupled with some of the discussions I’ve heard at numerous zoning and community meetings from planners and neighbors help me to draw a more cohesive picture of what I see going on with cities and in architecture, and what the future might be. For me, there is potential trouble, but also hope. I’m encouraged by the recent Sunset Magazine article in which our Bordertown project appears, not because our project appears in it (although that’s nice too) but because it is interesting that mainstream media is taking notice of an alternate urbanism and architecture.
Slow Space: this project was an urban strategy that filled in vacant space around infrastructure with program designed to slow traffic and reduce pollution.
I’ve been hearing about the end of architecture for most of my career, so the statement that architecture is in a crisis today may not be as accurate as the idea that it is inherently in crisis. From the time of Boullee, architecture has perpetually thrown itself into crisis because that is its nature. Often our goals are simply to challenge the status quo, with status quo simply being a matter of perspective. One end of the spectrum says architecture is not radical enough and the other says it is too radical, and not accessible enough. This is basically a liberal / conservative argument, and deals primarily with form, whether it is urban form or the form of a particular building. It is also true that the profession has given up ground in construction and engineering, but this is little surprise as most professions have become more specialized over time. It may limit scope on the one hand, but on the other it allows for more focus on specific issues. With concepts like those that exist behind landscape urbanism for instance, architecture is one of the few fields that, at least academically, presses for continued engagement with other disciplines.
Slow Space: Arial view of the project growing out of a freeway interchange
With regard to the argument of what direction we should take, I certainly tend to think radical is far more interesting and necessary than it is for architecture to be more accessible, which to me translates as more ordinary. Moving backwards never seemed like a great strategy and to me that mode of thought is born of fear. I thought the case was closed once we were finished with Postmodernism. In addition to the calls for conservatism from the media, I’ve heard the arguments from planners that they “cannot allow the exceptional” in their city (yes, those actual words). And I’ve seen neighbors attempt to limit any new development on their block. But I tend to believe that the art that makes us uncomfortable is the work that best serves its purpose of expanding limits on thinking. My hope as a pesky human living in a narrow window on this planet is to learn and grow as much as possible, and I think to do that one needs to be challenged. So as much as technology and money will allow me to build (not just sketch it out or construct it as an ‘exhibit’) then I’ll do it. However, I wouldn’t suggest any extreme in the end, and as I’ve discussed in the past, I agree with Lebius Woods that no single architecture should be made dominant. In this sense, I hope that others disagree with my ideas about architecture, and that our differing approaches will create a rich environment. We can learn a lot from diversity as well.
A new urbanist town plan, including very accessible architectural forms and a layout that is completely expected.
With regard to architecture losing ground to construction, engineering, and other fields, I’m less concerned about those specific issues being in my skill set as a means to make more money. That is to say, if I want to earn a living figuring out how much all the sheet rock in my project will cost, I’ll go be a cost estimator. But if I can ask someone to help me, then they can plug into my work and I can focus on the aspects that are most important to me. As long as I have some general idea of how much things cost and how they stand up, this model will work. With that said, our studio has a great deal of knowledge of how development and construction applies to architecture, and we have been builders and developers ourselves, so this informs and sharpens our architecture. But at a certain point, we leave it to the experts. And this ties into the cross disciplinary emphasis, I can collaborate with other experts who know their subject very well because they have followed their passion.
Everyday tract architecture. Note the distinct lack of ‘any exceptional’ form.
What then would be the result of all of this? What happens if we press for more innovative forms, and allow ourselves to be more focused on what those forms are (and this is what I see as the realm of architecture – the creation of form and space). What happens when architects are allowed to do what they know best? I would hope that the result is better architecture. It might even be argued that by inviting architects to be so broad in their scope, it has invited other disciplines to co-opt architecture, resulting in the dilution of core strengths. There are many architects focusing on sustainability, evidenced based design, value engineering, structural engineering, and anything but architecture, so that the built environment becomes, well, completely boring. And I understand that if everyone was creating spectacle, that would become ordinary, but the problem is really the push to prohibit anything unique. So then, what does architecture look like when we are allowed to create it?
A recently completed project and all the messy difference it entails.
I believe the case studies in Sunset are some examples of where things could head, but only one piece of it. It isn’t an end, but a scratch at a beginning and one of multiple directions. It suggests an openness of minds from the city planners, to the developers, to the occupants. It suggests that there are alternatives to rewarding the ultra expensive shining jewel on the hillside with awards and publications. (Bordertown has received an AIA award, been publish in a major Bay Area paper, and now a magazine that serves the Western half of the country). And while much of our work tries to follow this new model, we are busy in our attempts at new innovations, not just for residential typology, but for all of the architecture we develop, and for some architecture that doesn’t yet have a type. In the long run, it is always our hope to continually innovate.