Evolution in the Age of Crisis

January 15, 2009

by Fernando Donis

“…Are you a modern architect Mr. Kracklite?
No more modern than I should be.
No more modern than Boullée would you say?…”
Peter Greenaway – The Belly of an Architect

Ludwig Wittgenstein questioned the relationship between meaning and the use of language. He highlighted the fact that conceptual confusions surrounding its use is one of the main roots of philosophical problems. Knowing the meaning of a word, he argued, can involve the knowledge of many things. An accurate theory, consequently, can begin by explaining the precise meaning of words.

[From the Greek. krísis meaning decision (to decide,
separate, judge).
A stage in a sequence of events at which
the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse,
is determined; turning point; a condition of instability or
danger, as in social, economic, political, or international
affairs, leading to a decisive change.

It is already widely seen and written that the factual economic downturn has brought crisis to the current architectural production. It is easy to survey that the atrocious condition for the profession is that of recession and mass unemployment, and not for a short period. Following J.M. Keynes and I. Fisher’s tactics, governments awake state interventionism and nationalization, changing the laissez-faire epitomized logic.

If it is true that the economic crisis and its frugality is affecting architecture in its construction, its discursive core has been in a more vital ‘crisis’ for a longer period when following the opposite factor: excess. The market became architecture’s raison d’être: the more incomprehensible and careless the financial strategies, the more excessive architecture became. This dramatic ideological impasse developed and grew within the last decades, vis-à-vis the different cycles of economic crisis. Named in well-known architectural mottos, those years can be summarized as an accelerated process of ‘trial and error’, celebrating the city trapped within the complexity and variability of the global market.

Since the late 1960s, most forms of production –including architecture- have been changed, distorting the system of values where the major industries focused mainly on technology and information. Mass production was replaced by a Post-Fordist flexible specialization, where the production of trends occurs as fast as fashion. Over excitement about the every-Monday morning discovery and disillusion about its almost immediate inapplicability has and dominates the production of ideas and buildings. Architects aimed for kitsch multiplicities, hybridization, ‘hypers’, and whatever was necessary to match the continuous economic ups and downs. With the excuse of ‘multi-cultural pluralism’, architecture strictly followed neoliberalism, becoming increasingly superfluous where the blurrier the confusion the higher the admiration.

Architectural offices shifted several times from theoretical and idealism; to producing successful projects; to bankruptcy out of the impossibility of building those projects; to superficial in order to pay back that insolvency; and finally to masking it all by a new millennium corporate ‘serious’ character. When producing the very architecture though, and opposed to the actual seriousness of the initial dialectical ateliers, the sincerity was very much wrapped by irony, nonsense, and ‘romantic’ eurekas, lacking recognition of any rule or grammar.  Architecture theory has become a recording apparatus, rather than a reflection arena. The result, a critical paradox in which the search of constant newness resulted in architectural languages and types that are outdated, before even being built.

Thinking of the meaning of crisis again, we have made several wrong decisions. The common to all is underlined by the fact that architecture has not offered alternatives ways of relating to economy, but that of chasing its changeability.

In the light of the current events, many questions arise today. What should happen to the urban sprawl? How can sustainability be approached in a serious manner? How can architecture cooperate on the development of a more egalitarian production of the city? What are the urban models that can project the city with an ‘economy of means’? How can we avoid the same mistakes for when the economic recovery come?  How should cities evolve?

[From the Latin ēvolūtiōn meaning an unrolling, opening.
Any process of formation or growth; development, unfolding,
change, progression, metamorphosis.

It is well known that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in ‘The Origin of Species’ (1859) introduced the idea that species evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. Species more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, unfolding the process of natural selection.  This process results in populations changing to adapt to their new environment, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species.

In architecture, swift material adaptations and discourses are already on the way in order to be part of the ‘natural selection’. Assumptions have already been published declaring that we could compare this coming period to the innovative production of Modernism after the Great Depression. This is by some means mistaken as the development of Modernism vis-à-vis crisis -not only economical but within the World Wars- was more complex in its making, and incidentally the ‘heroic’ period of Modernism occurred after the First World War and before 1929.

A similar ready-made series of ‘adaptations to the new architectural environment’ are already being highly proclaimed: a combination of moralization and ‘sustainability.’  New generations of activist semi-puritan designers with an almost outdated anti-icon campaign, are shifting into a superficial change that it does not seem to be well rooted. These premises are already producing undefined buildings that accumulate sophisticated ‘flexible’ boxes, very specific overall functionality and composition with no clarity, on the fear of being iconic (even though disagreeing with the aim of the iconic generation, one could wonder already whether those where less harmful). All of it underlined by more diagrams than plans and a very detailed -post-attached and afterthought- sustainability strategy, must-have façade solar panels, and roofs covered with green; catchy salesman slogans and an identifiable identity aim to complete the offer.

The well-known architects on the other hand, will quickly turn upside down the diagrams of expensive buildings and strategies of yesterday to diagrams of hope and change, and look at the previous years with disdain and irritation yet with eyes of ‘sincerity’ and ‘compassion’. Like a serial killer with no sweat and tremble confessing ‘I did not do it’, they have secretly become the leaders of a ‘guilt’ generation. Whatever the reasons are, the despair to keep the limited power, the hunger for square meters, or maybe simply the need to have gotten used to the ‘lifestyle’, these architects have lost conviction. The aftermath: the reassurance of theories that are simply copies of yesterday’s newspaper and practices that anxiously expect the market changes of tomorrow.

Is the agenda of architecture so weak and vulnerable to become whatever appears tomorrow? Is it possible to negotiate the cultural and economic trends rather than absorbing them without any question? Does architectural history finish at today’s newspaper? Is it possible to bring back any stable conviction for architecture?

It is perhaps important to understand Evolution again by its definition: an unrolling. If it is true that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is one of natural selection, it is also one based on a slow gradual process. Darwin wrote, “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variation; it can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

Architecture should certainly be optimistic about the future and change, but in a cautious and consensual way aiming for a longer-term social and political agenda, unlike being based on a five-minute unsteady demagogies. Hoping that this coming time does not become another reaction to the reaction, the rethinking should aim to the awakening of consciousness, to the acknowledgement of the historical principles of architecture, to locate where we are now, and to determine how to complete another historical stage rather than reduce it to a ten-year mental tabula rasa.

Instead of seeing the coming years as a total recession, it would be vital to push for an actual evolution by rethinking the relationship between economy and architecture, where architects can ultimately engage and consciously project the city, rather than retroactively continue accepting its incomprehensibility. Balance, economy of means and thinking, inventiveness, historical awareness, knowledge, dialogue and consensus, a grammar for the city, can undoubtedly redeem the language of architecture.

As we were handed over to improve the scope of the millennial heritage, architecture significance should be based not only in its ability to become contemporary but modern. It seems that, in our urge and creative obligation to continuously discover new paradigms, we have probably forgotten the difference between these two meanings.

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