New York Times Square

Architecture Does Not Lead: It Follows

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” That’s been a reassuring idea for architects, who have long believed that they are capable of defining culture. These last few weeks, however, may prove the opposite. What shapes our culture, shapes what we build, and what we build, in turn, shapes architecture. This order is rarely shuffled. 

The past weeks have seen our world dramatically change. A virus exploded into the global population, in part because the world had shrunk. Over the last century and a half, the world has undergone a series of changes, transformations, and convulsions. The impact of COVID-19 is just the latest extreme break in our cultural evolution, and its impacts are likely to be seismic.

These events could mean that our global culture is at the beginning of a flattening of a much older curve. The last century promoted connection—between countries, cultures, and businesses—and produced an architecture that was intentionally international. The growth of cities and the depopulation of farms made urban living a central feature in the evolution of civilization. That defining feature of contemporary life has been sharply questioned by the pandemic.

This shift to a “smaller” world of instant communication and open trade did not start with design “thought leaders.” It was driven by commerce and technology. The Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the boundaries between cultures spawned a century of World’s Fairs and created the “International School” of architecture. These things occurred because the world had changed, not because architecture had determined an anointed path.

The distances between consumers and producers vanished in the 20th century, and America lost 50% of its manufacturing jobs. The world population doubled in that time. In 1966, there were 500 billion miles of airplane travel by individuals; by 2016,  that distance increased 14-fold to 7 trillion miles of air travel. The number of those flying went from 100 million in 1966 to 1.4 billion in 2018. We connected. The population explosion, the shrinking of boundaries, and the rise of digital technology created a new world order, one focused primarily on unbridled growth

And architecture responded, building airports, hotels, factories, and housing. The field rode these economic and cultural forces. Rather than extend existing vernacular aesthetics, the default style for Architecture (with a capital A) was defined as “modern.” When the collapse of barriers to travel, trade, and culture made transcontinental movement, production, marketing, and commerce effortless, the rationale for an “International Style” was manifest: a global world demanded a global architecture. Design thought leaders rushed to create a universal language of building, an architectural Esperanto that was distinct from any culture save its own.

But there were unintended consequences to the sweeping revision to all that came before it. A century of the Industrial Revolution and racial prejudice made “urban renewal” seem like a good thing, most often with disastrous results. Corporate and political forces created jobs for architects and designers and collateral damage in their blunt execution. Urban renewal and automobile accommodation wrecked neighborhoods and blocked access to waterways. The results were so egregious that historic preservation, New Urbanism, and fierce civic activism welled up in response to it. 

While the “gas crisis” of the 1970s was an economic warning, the ongoing climate emergency is more dire. Increasing carbon emissions, spiking temperatures, rising sea levels—all of these stark realities will fundamentally reshape the way buildings and cities are built. Sustainability and resilience entered the language of architecture, a change that, again, was not created by architects, but in response to larger forces.

Now the tide of lifestyle preference for millennials and their downsizing parents has made many once-abandoned downtowns “walkable.” But authentic urbanism requires density, the Holy Grail of the walkable cities movement. Sadly, density has now proven to have unforeseen consequences. New York City is the model of urban density and walkability—and now, severe pandemic vulnerability. 

But there are more direct realities of COVID-19’s impact on architecture. “Companies are discovering that their employees can work just as efficiently from home,” says Nikos Salingaros, mathematician, urban design theorist, and architectural educator. “This no longer justifies paying rents for offices in glass-and-steel towers. For businesses that depend on information transfer, the economic benefits of teleworking might make skyscrapers obsolete.” 

We’ll see. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, pundits predicted the end of tall buildings. Either way—through skyscrapers or through Zoom—architecture will adapt to what the world gives it, not the other way around (future Venice Biennales notwithstanding).

Still, in the middle of a crisis, humans desperately want to have an impact. As former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel once said, “You should never let a serious crisis go to waste.” There are perhaps lessons our enforced sequestration might reveal. “We finally have clean air after decades of pollution,” Salingaros says. “Maybe people won’t want to revert to unbreathable air tied to extractive global consumerism.” Let’s hope. 

Architecture will have no immediate impact on the pandemic. It is too early to define an aesthetic result, an architectural movement, or even a specific outcome of how architecture is affected. But it’s clear that large-order assumptions about every aspect of our contemporary lives have been called into question. The basic ways we live are likely to change, in unforeseen ways.

And, ultimately, that’s the way architecture will change.

Featured image: Times Square, via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Terabass.


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