Architecture is in Motion, Again

We’re getting used to hearing that the role of architect in the future is unlikely to be anything like the role of the architect in the past. It’s a truism that can be put to any number of uses: a professional organization could use it to encourage membership and its supposed protections in a changing world; a global architecture firm may wish to monetize their apparent foresightedness as they take steps to protect their income streams from the vicissitudes of the economy; an educational institution may simply want to prepare students for whatever comes. (The ability to adapt is always good.)


The Future for Architects was a 2010 survey conducted by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to canvas opinions on what the role of the architect might be in 2025. The cover graphics told us the global population will grow 45% by 2050 and that 70% will live in urban areas. We’re now several years closer to 2050 but architectural activity is no closer to focussing on these issues that are problems even now.


One reason is a general reluctance to accept the future won’t be like the past, even though it never has been. Has nobody noticed people don’t build pyramids anymore? Or palaces? Or grand country villas? There’s not even a reliable market for summer weekend houses. Mass housing and social housing are no longer subjects of architectural interest and, once that goes, there’s not much of a market left for the services of an architect. Temporarily reversing this trend, the half-a-house initiative enlarged the market and bought a bit of time, but after that what? The quarter-house? The eighth? Maybe, but sooner or later, we’ll arrive at a situation where all an architect can do is set up a system for something to happen and buildings may or not be a part of it.


Until buildings disappear completely as viable concern for architecture, we’ll have to pass through a difficult stage where architecture is any building whose budget allows a degree of architectural pretension to be something more than a building. Have you never wondered why all architecture these days seems to be cultural buildings for wealthy cities and apartment buildings for wealthy urbanites? This feels like the last gasps of architecture as we know it.


It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The engineering and construction of buildings is almost certainly best left to others. Besides, architecture and building were never really comfortable with each other. Architects—and not just Philip Johnson and Zaha Hadid—have always maintained that architecture was something distinct from building. Well, once buildings are finally allowed to find their own modern industrial vernacular and completely disappear as subjects for architecture, maybe we’ll get to see what architecture can really do.


Urban planning is about the setting up of systems for things to happen and so are urban design and landscape architecture, although at different scales. These three disciplines are already better prepared to design systems that aren’t buildings. For decades, architects have been involving themselves in these fields but few successes spring to mind. The ones most remembered carry the architect’s branding. People know exactly what we’re referring to if we say Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia or Le Corbusier’s Paris.


It’s unlikely the architecture industry will be able to successfully muscle-in on urban planning, urban design or landscape design for they bring no skills that aren’t already there. They can, however, obtain or team with the right people to successfully complete urban and landscape projects under an architectural umbrella brand. OMA and BIG did this with their respective wins for the Rebuild by Design competition. Gehry seems set to do the same for the LA River revitalization project.


On their own, architects’ unique skills in marketing and branding simply don’t work at the level of city, town or landscape. Attempting to blur the boundaries by calling a high-rise mixed-use building a “vertical city” or a low-rise single-use building a “ground-scraper” shows sensitivity to neither city nor ground. New York by Gehry” may be over-reach but we know what it’s meant to mean. There’s no denying that the combination of architects, branding and buildings has been enormously successful but removing buildings from this trio leaves us with just architects and branding and, amazingly, it seems to be sufficient.


The core skills of architects significantly overlap with the core services of a corporate branding consultancy anyway. Peter Behrens was branding consultant for AEG and his 1910 Turbine Building was but one part of an integrated branding strategy. Even though they would have been in their twenties when they did their work experience with Behrens, their later careers suggest Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier saw the future of architecture then and there.


The history of architecture as branding is much longer than its history serving society. If architecture practices rebrand themselves as branding consultancies then it won’t be anything new but more of a return to the core business as usual. Such a push into whatever immediately accessible market remains underexploited is consistent with how architecture has always followed the money downmarket, casting its net wider in order to catch increasingly smaller fish.


Rebranded architectural consultancies are successfully leveraging their 20th-century expertise at using buildings to brand corporations, cultural institutions and cities, to move into other markets where, for the time being, there are still some big fish to be had. In 2001, OMA/AMO were commissioned to rebrand the EU. It’s an ongoing project, and one not made any easier by BIG being separately commissioned last December to rebrand the Nordic Region countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, the Faroe Islands (which are autonomous yet part of Finland), and the Åland Islands (which are autonomous yet part of Denmark). It’s all very Europe. However, if we still include the UK and say there are 28 countries in the EU and include Iceland, Greenland and Norway that are now accounted for, that still leaves about 160 or 161 unbranded countries out there depending upon how you regard Taiwan. It’s a finite market yet, at this rate, we’ll be exhausted long before it is.


Over time, the Fifth Avenue Apple Store will come to symbolize the end of branding via buildings as the implicit subject of architecture and the beginning of branding as the new and explicit subject of architecture. Market contraction and the shifting of the subject of architecture happens at all levels. In the not-so-distant past, the first job of a young architect or startup practice was a house for a relative; in the recent past, this became a house extension or renovation. But, nowadays, it’s increasingly likely to be a pop-up store or event space as a commercial branding vehicle.


Featured image: Apple Store, Fifth Avenue, New York City


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