Archis 2009 #1

Architecture of Hope (editorial)

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At the design meeting for Volume 19 we told our people, ‘this issue must express hope!’ ‘That’s a challenge,’ was the somewhat mocking response whereupon it was decided to publish the next issue entirely in black and white. No rainbows, no eye candy, no chaotic, everyday multicolors, no shock and awe with a surprise onslaught of images. Instead, get back to the story. Were we considering an implicit reference to the ecstatic and expectant black and white images from the post-War period? Perhaps. After all, are we not now reevaluating our society and future just as they did then? The construction of the ‘welfare society’ was the principal post-War program for those (Western) societies which had been left in ruins. Now the double collapse of systems (production/consumption and economy) is once again dictating how programs and perspectives are formulated. In its economic, social and political dimensions they were executing an Enlightened and Modern project within the infinity concept (which worked well with spatial infinity in architecture and urban development; space is indivisible, at most temporarily localized and particularized). The challenge now is to operate with the concepts of infinity and boundary without confusing our experience of space with our link with the earth.

The inclination to see the current crisis as merely passing and the tendency to say, ‘take cover, then we can get on with it’ is great. Yet every day makes it less likely that this will be sufficient. Old perspectives and ideas no longer suffice. This is a serious challenge and while the first step must be to formulate anew, we must maintain our lines of communication. Yet how can that be done? What is the expression of hope, for example? Indeed, politics knows what to do with this. The combination of firm measures and consoling stories in contrast to somber reports should convince voters to believe that people are working hard to improve things – that there is a glimmer of hope. In the meantime we’re no longer able to hear (neither does one actually hear) it anymore said, but ‘yes we can’ was extremely effective in motivating a demoralized population. Repressed anger and frustration were effectively used to gain the acceptance of another political agenda and anger was tapped to create a positive, creative energy. That’s potential. No complaining now, no pointing out differences; refrain from putting forward potential objections, stop measuring risks and dangers, just put one’s shoulder to the load and move on. Apart from all the complex and difficult policy rules Americans must now lay down, the political task is clear. Old rags to riches tales or even more mundane ‘to each man his castle on his own land and two to four cars (and a rifle by the hat rack)’ are spent, even destructive. The classic American Dream must be overhauled. Suburbia cannot go on. What must happen is less clear. Something sustainable – but what does that mean? The Europeans advise: concentration. The American answer could well point in the different direction: a further emancipation of individual households, each dwelling to become its own energy plant in combination with electrically powered mobility. The old ‘Go West’ doctrine repackaged in a modernized, middle-class, one-size-fits-all design. It is even possible that America could get away with it, but on a global scale it’s improbable.

Put more strongly, the need to do so is more urgent than ever. The current crisis is generating a reservoir of government investment across the globe and a substantial part of this will be used for construction. Let’s conclude that there is a role for urban planning and architecture, that it still makes sense to develop new models and look at possibilities. Strange as it might seem, whoever is able to get their plans noticed now has a good chance to see them realized. Phantasy skyscraper production will probably experience a serious delay, but whoever is able to offer flexible, integrated urban planning in which living, working and relaxation can be responsibly combined has the wind behind them. Now we can!

Four years ago Volume launched itself as a ‘project to go beyond architecture’. We didn’t know what that meant at the time, but that made it all the more necessary. After a number of probes and excursions, Volume 14 announced our call for Unsolicited Architecture, a research and design practice in which social questions and (im)possibilities are central rather than the specific question of a client. In the interim, the plausibility of this position has only increased not only because falling orders are forcing bureaus to create work for themselves, but also because weariness with architecture as a circus act has created room other kinds of practices. The issues after Volume 14 researched topical, core terms for their meaning and potential such as the anathema (if world-wide) of Social Engineering, for example. We also clarified conceptions of things in order to present architecture as a Content Management System that operates in the context of all kinds of other content management systems; we also addressed the urgent appeal to look past the technical problems of sustainability to its social and qualitative potentials and limitations. And in this issue we seriously reflect upon the relation of design with the theme Identity. In bad times discrepancies fade away, a consequence of the effect of combating a common adversary, but that old devil discord pops his head up as soon as the threat appears to be averted.

As is our practice, this issue too is a collaborative project, this time with the Swiss Design2context, a department of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich University of the Arts). D2C has been busy for years with their ‘Multiplicity & Visual Identities’ program which researches contemporary practices of communication development. The creation of (an) identity is one of their core concerns. Discussions about identity within architecture are probably older, but also of a different character. Robert Venturi’s ‘main street is almost alright’ initiated space for other identities and expressions than those sanctioned by international modernism. The practice of architecture was subsequently seduced into stylistic proliferation and excessive attention to expression, and forgot the substantially thinking through of ‘personal’, ‘collective’ and ‘common’. Venturi cannot be reproached for this, but he interventions effectively barked up the wrong tree. Helping people find focus is reduced to making a difference (recognizability!). Offering flexible urban structures deteriorates into the prescription of theme and identity urban planning.

Communication design wrestles principally with fragmented and intangible target groups (multicultural society) and the reduction of communication strategies to a contest of ‘whose designed the most recognizable logo’. Architecture and urban planning are thereby forced to make troublesome subgroups innocuous, to solve social tensions with construction programs and to reduce the individuality of cities, regions and nations to recognizable solutions (which can also be seen as a form of logoism). Precisely because they must now be so fundamentally renovated and reordered, a clear conception of what identity and difference mean for design is of eminent importance. No less important is that architects and designers accept responsibility for the development of a new relationship between shared and personal ideals. Indeed, it’s a matter of good, old bottom-up and top-down: what we pass on, put out, collectively determine and what we ourselves do.