Two decades ago, an architecture magazine would be swamped with invitations for previews, tours and photo opportunities for projects ‘just finished’. A decade ago more and more press releases on prize winning competition entries would be added as part of the info mix. A little later the special mentions would get circulation; even entering a competition was seen as a publicity opportunity. It seemed only a matter of time before press releases announcing “we’ve started in the office this morning at 8.30 am, another great day in front of us, full of promise and opportunity” would surface. Publicity equaled economy. Maybe it still does, but not in the form where profiling projects, clearly identifiable as ‘someone’s’ work will necessarily result in a direct connection to new assignment. We know it is not like that anymore, not in most western countries, not for a lot of offices. In the late 90s, shrinkage was discovered as an interesting urban phenomenon, a new challenge for the profession; today this theme has reached the profession in the most unexpected way: no clients what so ever.
This is not a global phenomenon. Asia will see a humongous design and construction task for decades to come. Latin America isn’t finished either, though the scope of what lies ahead is incomparable to what Asia confronts. And Africa, yes Africa. If it’s allowed to catch up, or does so on its own, the need and opportunity for design is also substantial. In the western world it is mainly about adapting the existing stock. Or is it? Changes in society suggest that new ways of working and new territories for design come in view.
There is a lot of talk about knowledge and creative industry as the new economy of today. For architecture that is no news. That’s always been a creative industry. The ongoing ‘connection revolution’ might be news, however. Literally everything in the world is getting connected; you, your children, your car, your dog, your fridge… even the trees in the park start talking to each other. Connecting, transmitting, exchanging, responding, reacting, adjusting – being connected is at the core of our lives. And to connect, isn’t that what architecture and urban design claims to do? Could this be a way out of the depression? Does this provide new opportunities to design and create?
Since architecture is and has always been on the border of public and private – rarely is it just one of the two – it cannot escape that seemingly fixed notions are changing. Take ‘surroundings’, take ‘environment’. In times of interactive networks their meaning becomes fluid. No simple boundaries guard their integrity; private and public, spatial and virtual, living and innate, dichotomous thinking won’t help us to describe or understand our current condition. Our minds and bodies are nodes in multi-layered networks, transmitting and receiving information, we are not just discrete autonomous entities as we thought before. So yes, architecture and design have to enter new territories in order to continue pretending to ‘provide the counter form of life’, let alone if architecture is to remain conditional on society.
It would require a big leap of the profession. There is still quite a step from providing physical products that can be touched and admired to designing the way things relate and interact. Let’s call it correlation designing for the moment. Now, fairly recently the stability of architecture was put into question. Basics like program, budget and even location as a starting point for design became less and less fixed from the start. This ‘programmatic instability’ was presented as a new and major challenge for designers. For a profession with ‘function’ at the core of its activity, this was a serious problem. Today, architects have become accustomed to producing designs that are flexible, multi-usable and poly-interpretable. They solved the paradox of how to design a functionally ever more neutral structure with (the demand for) an ever more outspoken presence. It was an impressive demonstration of architecture’s ability to adapt and transform. But it came at a price: social irrelevance. Today the challenge for architectural practice is even bigger: to transform in such a way that architecture regains its social significance when ‘the social’ is less and less connected to a particular place and time. It’s become ‘footloose’ so to say.
There are signs that architectural practice could rely on its age-old knowledge of public and private spatial qualities, in combination with a clear understanding of the new social and interactive networks to give space and place a new presence and role. Not necessarily as the next step in the ever fastening reproduction of capital, or the ongoing accommodation of consumer society, but as a recalibration of the city’s social dimensions. First signs, no more.
To make things even more complicated, there is another trend challenging our understanding of architecture. If designing for merging physical and digital worlds is a major task, then the stability, objectivity and trustworthiness of what surrounds us is another. The EU ‘cookies debate’ (that everyone should be able to say no to cookies) reveals a glimpse of the world we’re entering. Tracking and measuring technologies have become so refined that they can profile and approach you individually. It won’t be long before augmented reality techniques will not only provide all sorts of added information in your visual and sensorial surroundings, but will also be dedicated to you personally. Every individual will be enveloped by an information ‘bubble’ that accompanies her or him on the go. And each will be different to that of your neighbor. Objectivity and even inter-subjectivity will be notions of the past, at least on the level of observation and awareness. The smooth, continuous surface we call the Internet, this endless source of information and comfort, in combination with ubiquitous computing is a maze, a trap and a delusion machine. ‘Reality’ as something shared and stable has had a problematic reputation at least since the advent of deconstructivism, now it’s becoming even more fragmented. Reality is being served to you personally and it is becoming increasingly difficult to know the cook.
But there are other opportunities in the game as well. As some authors in this issue argue, the Internet of Things may provide new opportunities to create coherence, togetherness and democracy on a smaller and local scale. There are opportunities for architecture in all the before mentioned domains. Is it ready and able to grab them?