Gabriel Esquivel and Nicholas Houser
"First among the intellectual illusions to be done away with is that which, by means of the image alone, tries to anticipate the conditions of an architecture “for a liberated society.” Who proposes such slogan avoids asking himself if, its obvious utopianism aside, this object is perusable without a revolution of architectural language, method, and structure which goes far beyond simple subjective will or the simple adapting of syntax."
Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, 1976.
The Problem of Utopia
By Gabriel Esquivel
According to Manfredo Tafuri, contemporary architectural culture urgently requires a memory therapy that will bring architecture out of its state of collective amnesia—a reflection aimed at turning our gaze to the remote, old, and forgotten architectural orthodoxy. This reflection is not to nostalgically reflect on the past but to reassess old and forgotten architectural persistencies and think about them in terms of the future. Indeed, this issue is as relevant today as it has always been since it consists of the inquiry into the set of invariable laws of architecture, those laws that, by their very condition of immutability, belong not only to the past but to all time.
Tafuri’s historical construction of the contemporary situation is based on the idea that the past is open, providing the present with ever-changing and indeterminate form Tafuri’s notion of the project of crisis is fundamentally important in understanding our present-day architectural condition. It is a continuous struggle played out on critical, theoretical, and ideological levels, as well as through the multiple constraints placed on the practice. Architecture is a field defined and constituted by crisis. Moreover, architecture is described as autonomous, but such definitions have placed architecture in several sometimes conflictive positions that have directly affected the way we think about architecture today. Some of these positions are: Aldo Rossi’s proposal for an autonomous culture of architecture is one in which the autonomy of form produces a critical distance between the legacy of modern functionalist architecture and its critique.
Tafuri, in Architecture and Utopia, considers architecture an instrument of capitalist development used by regimes of power and thinks it useless to propose purely architectural alternatives1 . Tafuri is awfully pessimistic about the prospect of an artistic/architectural avant-garde truly capable of withdrawing from the various processes and power relations that both determine and undermine its subversive intentions. An important aspect of this pessimism—today more than ever—is the serious cultural problem of the loss of utopia and loss of architecture as art. The idea that in architecture (or art) no permanent and universal laws always apply to everyone and to all possible situations is relatively new. It is important to recognize that the idea that architecture is not, or should not be considered, art is extremely recent. Why has architecture lost the grace of being utopian over the course of its history? Tafuri offers a concise reply in the foreword of Architecture and Utopia: “It is capitalist development that has robbed architecture its utopian dimension”.
Nathaniel Coleman, in The Problematic of Architecture and Utopia, notes that the job of recovering or recuperating utopia for architecture is no easy task, considering how deeply entrenched suspicions about utopia are. In the discipline of architecture, as elsewhere, a need exists to understand why utopia has become so estranged from architecture that it requires recuperation. It also requires a paradigm shift, as well as an in-depth re-examining of the political, aesthetic, and cultural forces that have created this resistance. At the same time, there are also several serious issues beyond the problem of history, utopia, and political regimes that need to be considered: What are the roles of artificial intelligence, automation, and virtual money as more than just means of production optimized for obtaining economic performance and how could these modern technologies affect architecture? What could the very concept of human become? Could some of these latent potentialities, such as the abolition of the need to work or the crisis of the essentialist categories of identity, be released within a new postcapitalist paradigm?
This fundamental debate is critical when it comes to exploring new perspectives for social and political regimes. Could architecture as such become obsolete? Today, we face numerous important changes in architecture. The need to consider the future in the era of the global warming catastrophe is of paramount importance. At the same time, we face tremendous and complicated challenges because technology has surpassed our expectations, and we also face difficult political situations all over the world. However, the biggest problem for architecture is the lack of real political and cultural agency highlighted by the lack of an operating utopia. We need to look into our surrounding ecologies and discuss how we can change our current circumstances.
Historically, architects were connected to the political leaders and decision makers, not only when designing buildings and utopias but also when working hands-on in important, large-scale urban interventions—for example, when Bernini joined forces with Pope Urban VIII, who issued a Papal Bull that in part read, “Rome was created for Bernini and Bernini was created for Rome”3 . This quote describes the importance of architects in a city’s development and its utopian vision. Another important example of the symbiotic relationship between architecture and city development is when Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussman to renovate Paris in 1853. In the 20th century, many examples—from Le Corbusier’s Paris plan to Louis Kahn’s traffic studies for the city of Philadelphia—produced all kinds of disciplinary conversations.
Even on a personal level, we have historical examples of architectural relationships based on trust, like the one former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis had with I.M. Pei. Unfortunately, such relationships do not exist today. How can an architect be a serious part of the political conversation, sharing the table with law makers and game changers, in a world of impoverished global economies and the serious problems of global warming and immigration coupled with the necessity of designing a safe world? Architecture’s multiple complexities are difficult to condense into a single formal idea, but it is apparent that a more interrelational set of criteria is needed to develop architecture’s future through collaborative methods.
Consequently, it is clear that we need to start by generating a series of conversations with not only economic leaders but with political leaders interested in an inclusive interdisciplinary discussion. Reinventing the World Through New Regimes Historically, architecture has borrowed directly from philosophy and other disciplines a series of terms and ideas that have produced a very deep argumentative rigor and have created those utopian propositions necessary for the development of the discipline. This process has produced an interesting but difficult dynamic for architecture in terms of research and critical reflection with language, art, aesthetics, abstraction, technology, post-digital culture, politics, economics, and more.
The problem of architecture has been and still is a question of subversion and contradiction, “a way of clearing the space and clearing streets”4 . An obsessive need exists today to create a space of equality by creating a space of mobility with no barriers. The contradiction is that in order to move forward or across, buildings get in the way, so it is necessary for architecture to remove those “barriers.” As Jacques Ranciére remarks, “I was struck by the texts of many architects today and their obsessive use of this catchy concept of porosity”5 . In order for architecture to have porosity, in other words, mobility and equality as a social and political agenda, it seems it has to eliminate itself in order to achieve it.
This incongruity is one of the main problems in contemporary utopias; not only do they function by the relaxed use and exchange of conceptual barriers with physical barriers, they operate in contradiction. Since the current systemic thinking gives us partial versions of reality that can be very complex and problematic, “ultimately critical architecture reveals that there is nothing to reveal”6. Jacques Rancière clearly believes that philosophy allocates an important place to aesthetics that stems from a political and ethical point of view, not as a discipline, but as a regime of the sensible. This position confirms his approach to the importance of aesthetics—redefinition, political dimensions, the problematizing of multiple relationships between culture and aesthetics—and stresses a critical reading of his work with new perspectives that will help us understand why architecture as well as other disciplines should look for an aesthetic turn. Doing so may help resolve the problem of the absence of utopia in architecture.
Folk Politics I have to confess that the idea for this reflection in terms of power and politics came after we invited Nick Srnicek to the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M in the fall of 2017 to give a lecture on his view on accelerationism and discuss the book he cowrote with Alex Williams, Inventing The Future: PostCapitalism in a World Without Work. In the book, he posits that the commodity form has colonized the future. In the overdeveloped world, we can have a shiny new technology, but it is always bound by obsolete social relations. There is a ritualistic aspect in today’s politics wherein resistance becomes a cultural form. Srnicek and Williams call this folk politics. Srnicek and Williams argue it is out of step with what is needed today.
It is a kind of cultural and political regime that deeply affects our cultural and political institutions, including architecture. As they point out, “In terms of spatial immediacy, folk politics privileges the local as the site of authenticity; habitually chooses the small over the large; favors projects that are unscalable beyond a small community and often rejects the project of hegemony valuing withdrawal or exit rather than building a broad counter hegemony” (6). Have we become stuck as architects in a world of folk politics with local unscalable actions? In order to transform our present condition to a new regime, aesthetic or otherwise, we also need to understand the mechanisms of resistance that are impeding those changes.
In the case of architecture, resistance starts at the level of the discipline within the academic world—wherein a conflict between students and faculty or between faculty and faculty begins to produce this disruption— and continues within the architectural practice that every day faces not only cultural, economic, and political difficulties but also resistance and ultimately rejection; in short, architecture faces the critique of utopia. Folk politics is not particularly interested in how to structure or mediate complex ensembles of political forces. It makes a fetish of direct action. It privileges feeling over thinking and the everyday experience over institutional forms.
Folk politics begins and ends with what is local. For Srnicek and Williams, the question is what can be built out of this difficult reality and can architecture help change this damaging paradigm. Though it might sound ridiculous, one might interpret the situation as offering the possibility of building a new world (utopia), a new regime that includes new economic and political agendas that will help us overcome the current neoliberal direction and achieve agency.
Architecture is now in an existential crisis.
The global economic situation and its problems— linked to automation, loss of cultural identity, and climate change—have turned a vocationally liberal, glamorous profession upside down and have created a complex relationship between its connection to culture and technology. Data on the employment situation are worrisome, and architects should know that they have no choice but to reinvent themselves. Architecture has the capacity to search for new professional profiles and forms of political and economic organization, but the question of can we overcome this problem in the future still exists.
In other words, the role of the architect through utopian proposals has been to generate awareness as a form of engaged action. Is this just plain and simple folk politics, local and unscalable? Is this canonical paradigm critically hurting architecture’s mobility? Is this a simple distribution of what Rancière calls the sensible, implying that this way of operating always produces something else other than its proper goal? It is important to start over with new positions and a new professional ethic after a deep criticism of how the practice has operated within the last decades. These criticisms are the first questions we need to respond to, and we need to realize that these inquiries suggest a new constructive process, a regime in which the architect no longer thinks he or she is just the one doing the project; instead, it must become part of the new practice.
We need to create new models in order to transfer the idea of recovery of the trade into a new propelling condition. Can we talk about departing from what has been the era of great icons of architecture and moving into a paradigm shift? Do we have to regret that for the last few years the media world has associated the profession with only a few figures, forgetting that there have always been many great architects at the service of society? This association with the great icons distorts the perception of architecture as a cultural commodity. Time and again, architects have had to contend with the canon of the discipline while at the same time needing to maintain an attentive and alert attitude to change without biases, to the freedom that the discipline provides. Architects for centuries have done nothing but study, interpret, invent, and reinvent the inexhaustible discipline of architecture. Once again, we should aim to create a new architecture culture.
The digital / post-digital obsolescence
By Nicholas Houser
The Phenomena of the architectural project is a result of several canonical drawing types, the plan, Section, Elevation, Axonometric, perspective, on a variety of scales. The methods in which these are represented have been intersected with other disciplines, such as aerospace, geology, biology etc. The careful curation of projects, to fit a mode of representation, that adequately amplifies their own central idea summons Phenomena that create impactful moments. The moments described can be seen in Vitruvius’s conversation of scale and proportions, done by dissecting the relationships of parts to whole of a humanoid to the relationship of plan.
Jump several millennia, Zaha Hadid’s manipulation of perspective to create dramatic dynamic figures and forms, Neil Denari’s intersection of drawing style, commonly seen in schematics for machined parts, is then integrated into an architectural project. Wes jones using a diagrammatic style closely related to Japanese anime comics of the 90’s, such as Akira, but applying it to an already existing 3d model. Then of course Greg Lynn, producing drawings of forms with a highly digital ancestry such as the Embryological house. The point is that the architectural project has always relied on forms of representation that have developed elsewhere.
At the time such drawings were unveiled created an impact because they were in a sense “fresh” to architecture despite existing in other disciplines. Another key component to note is that the ability to access such referential material in order to produce these drawings required independent research or experience in other fields, the connection between architecture and drawing styles had to be made in the architect’s mind. Modes of representation are what spark architectural conversation and the quest for new modes of representation. What began to cause a decrease in the notoriety of the position of a “starchitect” , which primarily came from the exploration of drawing techniques that created the traction to jump into the physical world, is the cotemporary day of the digital, and the complete saturation of the senses via the internet and the constant spread of information.
While this is essentially not negative, it does cause an abnormality of flux in the architectural breakthroughs we see today. The instant sharing of images does not constitute the necessity for a large gathering to take place and discussion to follow. Now everything occurs behind the curtain, out of sight of conversation. Not only does it hinder momentum from being accumulated as quickly, but it also allows seemingly infinite rip-offs of good projects. Accreditation is void in the age of the digital.
The question of who out bested the other has always been a discussion in architecture, Borromi versus Bernini for example, but now the sheer quantity of people who can participate in such actions, diminishes the value of what is being produced and no longer do some digital architectural drawings hold as much weight as they would have 20 years ago. As a result, the competition has changed. The digital age brought on a new issue of outdoing one another. The oversharing of imagery was too easy to duplicate and lacked the impact to gather a following, so the architects have turned to parametricism and scripting, and why is that? Because such expression of form, via coding or complex algorithmic nature, is apparent in a drawing, but the information to create such forms and expressions cannot be transferred through the senses. So, what has occurred is the process that creates the impactful moments can now be safeguarded behind the digital screen.
However even though a new competition has arisen, the desensitization of the architectural project is still occurring as a result of the instantaneous nature of the internet. Not only does is lead to desensitizing of the designer and client, but also misguides the public of what is occurring in the architectural practice and causes ideas like the McMansion to fester In the forefront of the clients ideas causing a complete butchering of styles, proportions and materiality that hold little relevance to what is occurring in present discourse and discipline. The characterization of such a time, as of about 4 years ago, is the entering of the post digital era.
Now the Post-digital is not to be understood as the anti-digital but rather the complete embracement of the digital that accelerates beyond the ability to distinguish the digital as a new concept or different concept from that of paper studios, but because of its prevalence it is the new norm. The Post-digital as a result is beyond digital and in some cases even more digital than the digital. As Mario Carpo calls “the first digital turn” was caused by the apparent uprising of computers and technologies in the 90’s, a time when technology was not in widespread use in the general public like it is today. For this reason, the term Post-digital can be coined. People born in the late 90’s up to the present do not remember a time, nor needed to participate in a time, where task could not be instantly performed by computers and such. The eraser was replaced by Ctrl+Z. The tools needed to draft were replaced by a command bar. Material test and helio-domes were replaced by rendering engines and real time analytical software.
To everyone who was present during the first digital turn, this was viewed as an improvement to their cotemporary day technologies. To everyone who came after, this was viewed as the default. Technology has become habitual. The post-digital holds its aesthetic regime in the complete saturation of the digital. Scaffoldings decorated with images of what the soon to be built structure is one example, 3D printing a prototype minutes after it was designed is another. The access to a digital library of pieces that can then be arranged and placed in a model, sometimes even hyper articulated in the terms of kitbashing, looking at Mark Foster Gage’s Helsinki Guggenheim submission, all demarcate the idea of the post digital. The creators of such Works view this as merely an extension of the digital, and would not classify this as a part of the post digital era, however, if they were truly digital projects, then they would not have relied on assets created externally as part of a larger whole.
This means that in order to create such piece, in terms of kitbashing, that the use of parts to whole would have needed to come from the individual’s creation before the kitbashing occurred. The act of using assets that were delivered through the accessing of digital libraries is what has put this beyond the first digital turn. The Solar Pod, also by Mark Foster Gage, can be used for the same contextual argument of Digital vs. Post-Digital in order to exemplify a digital project.
This project consists of a modeling style embracing the Maya surface or “single surface” project. The project, in essence, was created using digital programs not relying on external assets at a time where technology was not as habitual as today. To summarize the general idea of this is to understand that there is no “fighting” the post digital, because the nature of which it lives is in the temporal nature of moving away from the first digital turn and continuously embracing nova-digital abilities.
The post digital does not need to be taken as a philosophical ideology of ways in which to go about a project but should be understood in the same terms as Epochs. The Post-Digital also needs to not be confused with acts of complete automation, but a key predecessor that will result in the “Second Digital Turn” where digital technology does not create tools for making, but tools for thinking. The Post-Digital is not an architectural style, but holds many architectural styles, primarily found in academia, under its metaphorical roof, Like that of Parametricism, OOO, Speculative realism, GIS, etc.
The nature of the Post-digital contains the catalyst of desensitization spoken about earlier, through the vehicle of social media. A call to action is needed into either combating or conforming to understanding the exact roles in which we play as designers and curators of what the world understands. If it becomes too late, which it will become too late, we will lose our agency to another discipline, either by being subverted or by becoming something new. It is arguable that architects and architecture have always been fluent in a great many realms, and that we as the architect are the staple of these realms, or more or less, the processor, the facilitator, attempting to create a framework between specialized industries to achieve a greater goal.
The internet and interconnectivity are still fresh in the world and at times unregulated. It is our job to make sure our presence is noted in the discussion when such regulations come, and not allow software’s and digital tools to control the monopoly of our discipline when their motives might favor others. The sad truth is that we are becoming the middleman, a consultant between developer and contractor, both of which contain in-house engineers that are at no risk of becoming obsolete.
The architect needs a patron, a patron that has a motive. Our patron, at a time, was someone of great wealth or power, representing a country, an organization, a company. Now we need to understand that our patron has to be a cause. A cause for the betterment of society. A cause that fights social injustice. A cause that fights climate change. A cause that unites us, a path that opens a way to re-educate society on what design is, and how it can be used to help.
How do we do this?
We must revitalize the aspect of Phenomenology that architecture once held, but we must do it as a collective instead of individual celebration. It is a difficult concept in a time of Neo-capitalism, but a concept, nonetheless. We must do this by controlling the tools that will soon control us. Adopting models that promote architectural materialization, like that of competitions that award others than only those who won top prize. Possibly even the further specializing aspects of the architect in academia, rather than just handing them over to another profession.
The engineer can be a nuclear engineer, a petroleum engineer, a structural engineer, industrial engineer, computer engineer, software engineer, automotive engineer, and even and architectural engineer.
So why do we not see such diversity in the architect?
Students in architectural academia are taught a great many skills but lacking focalized substance. It does not create nor curate a specialized architect, not even at the graduate level. Not to say that students should be bottle necked to only learn one thing, but rather add a greater magnification in focus to each realm of the architectural symphony, so that upon being released into the world, the agency of the architect is upheld.
So that in this Post-Digital, Neo-capitalist, hyper-efficient age, we beat architectural obsolescence and revert from handing task to other disciplines, recognizing that unifying our discipline involves creating Engineering Architects, Graphic Architects, Developer Architects, Contractor Architects, Material Architects.
Thus, rejuvenating agency, reuniting what is seemingly spread thin due to the mass sharing of ideas and data across the platforms of the digital, monopolizing expertise in order to avoid the monopolizing that undermines our expertise. Our foundations must be cured before the second digital turn occurs, because they were not ready when the first digital turn wielded its binary appendages.
1. McEwan, Cameron. Notes on the Autonomy of Architecture. Foundation for Architecture and Education. April 2013.
2. Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia. The MIT Press. 1979. Foreword..
3. Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini. Volume 1. From the election of Sixtus V to the death of Urban VIII. The Swedish Institute in Rome. Almqvist & Wiskell International. Stockholm, Sweden.
4. Gage, Mark Foster. Editor. Aesthetics Equals Politics. New Discourse Across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy. The MIT Press. 2019. p. 16.
5. Ibid. p. 18.
6. Srnicek, Nick, Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future. PostCapitalism and a World Without Work. Verso. 2015. p. 11.
Originally published in Antagonismos Architecture Magazine, N7 Digital. Buenos Aires, 2020.