Everything Is (Not) Architecture: Environmental Design and Architecture’s Slippery Slope
There’s no shortage of slippery slopes in the architectural lexicon: “architectural” and “architectonic” hover near the top of the list. Problems invariably arise when the modifier supplants the modified. This happens more than you’d think, especially of late. A wholly separate issue arises when owing in part to a linguistic slight of tongue, architecture is understood as something distinct from building, eschewing physical inhabitation.
The genesis of architecture existing distinct from building or absent bodies has several mothers. During his waning years, John Ruskin (1819-1900) argued, in a lecture delivered in Manchester, England, that the sources of architecture were not the walls and columns that held up the roof, nor the roof that kept out the weather, but everything “applied” to a building—everything that was useless, albeit highly functional. For Ruskin, architecture communicated culturally, vis-à-vis its ornament. Perhaps because of Ruskin’s provocation, a generation later, in one of his Inland Architect articles, John Wellborn Root (1850-91), cautioned against conflating structure and ornament, never permitting it to be used structurally.
In postwar American architectural discourse and research, definitions of architecture, and the proper domain of the architect, were bound to utilitarian matters and “problem solving,” echoes from the first CIAM meeting (1928). Its first “Declaration” called for architects to embrace city planning and mass transportation over dense urban centers, the collective over the individual, standardized housing over houses, and the rejection of all pre-existing aesthetics.
In late-20th-century architectural discourse, explicit definitions of architecture were typically considered retrograde, just as distinguishing between building and architecture was unfailingly thought elitist, eschewed along with canonical architectural texts. In contemporary discourse, the enterprise rarely arises, save to demonstrate its futility. Moreover, a recent trend among former architecture programs is exchanging “environmental design” for “architecture,” ostensibly making any further elaboration moot.
This reticence to define the thing itself has left its meaning open, which in certain intellectual settings can be an invigorating and attractive notion. Yet, as nature abhors a vacuum, absent clear boundaries, one can fill-in the blank with virtually anything, leading Hans Hollein to famously claim that “everything is architecture.”
The Austrian-born Hollein published his polemic in Bau, in April 1968, a year that’s long considered a pivotal datum point in postwar (and architecture) culture. More than a decade earlier, Max Bill founded the Ulm School (1953), the ostensible continuation of the Bauhaus and a powerful unifying voice in a divided Germany and beyond. Unlike the Weimar-based Bauhaus however, the Ulm School eschewed anything that couldn’t be quantified. Built upon Cold War Positivism, it offered verifiable and measurable results for real world problems. Today, it’s primarily remembered for its lasting influence on elegant industrial product design solutions (such as the iPhone) and systems thinking.
A recent retrospective in The Architectural Review commented, “Hollein pushed the boat all the way out: illustrated with such diverse objects as lipstick, pill capsules, [and] space suits … [he] labelled … architecture.” Hollein’s polemic was informed by his studies at Berkeley and IIT, formulated a decade after the volatile Team X CIAM Conference in Dubrovnik and Reyner Banham’s accusation of the “Italian Retreat from Modernism.” Like so many of his generation, under the influence of the Ulm School, Hollein was following the contemporaneous trajectory of Archigram, in particular Michael Webb’s Cushicle (1967): one part reclining chair; one part NASA spacesuit; and one part sensory hallucination chamber. Fundamental to both was the presumption that architecture could and must be distinct from building. Hollein further constrained the sartorial limits of Webb’s Cushicle, claiming that an “environment” can be as small as a jet pilot’s helmet or as ineffable as scent. Once one accepts these as equal to “architecture,” everything really can be architecture.
Yet, what if Hollein and Reyner Banham were mistaken? It’s one thing for Ernesto Rogers to argue in his Domus editorial in 1946, that the proper ambit of a postwar architect must extend “from the spoon to the city.” It’s quite another to claim “everything is architecture.” What if Gropius at the GSD, and, later, Hudnut at Berkeley, backed the wrong horse; what if the equation (environment) = (architecture) simply doesn’t hold water? This is not to say that environmental design can’t be its own affair, its own discipline. But where is the categorical imperative that environmental design equals architecture or in some arguments, encompasses architecture? That it’s “architectural” or “architectonic,” no doubt. And therein lies the rub when conflating modifier and modified. Before claiming everything to be architecture, Hollein would have needed a clearer idea of what defined architecture.
Perhaps one of the reasons Hollein’s polemic has enjoyed such a long run is that he doesn’t make a sustained argument to counter; he simply offers up a series of declarations and image-based provocations to which one can ascribe—or not. During the past decade, however, perhaps because of Hollein’s claims are now entrenched, a continuum of asexually reproducing propositions have appeared in schools and across digital platforms, using collections of images far less specific or meaningful than those Hollein incorporated, invariably claiming, not simply to have an architectonic quality, but to being architecture.
Moreover, as the broader culture has become ever more technocratic, acritically embracing digital technologies, schools of architecture (and environmental design) have become more quantitative in their curricula, untethering history from theory, and subsuming the art and inquiry of representation within digital skills acquisition. While most faculty presume that entering students are “digital natives,” a decade-old study published by the ECDL Foundation demonstrates the opposite: that the digital skills of entering first-years often do not extend beyond the use of a smartphone, making matters all the worse. Little has changed since.
Thus we return to the current conundrum of the architectonic equated to architecture among students desperate for quick skills acquisition. Architecture may be unique in this linguistic train wreck that has the power to change the course of so much for so long. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, a physician equating “medicinal” to actual “medicine” or claiming that “everything is medicine.” Nor is it reasonable to imagine a jet pilot conflating the helmet Hollein valorized, with the aircraft he’s flying or the home he’d returned to post-flight. Only in the slapdash world of architectural discourse could a simile be conflated with the object of comparison. But once this slight of words is accepted, there seems to be no limit to the potential claims.
The proposition that “everything is architecture” suffers from several problems, not the least of which is the presumption that architecture = environment. Had Hollein more accurately claimed that “everything is an environment” or “everything is design,” which is really what he seems to have been proposing, one wonders if things may have been different, if the current course might have changed, at least for some. While Hollein’s declaration was meant, ostensibly, to expand both discipline and practice, its unintended consequences still resonate across many schools of architecture, environmental design, and web-based practices, further distancing architectural production from physicality in the lived world.
Faculty of architecture once prided in describing their programs as one of the last refuges of the liberal arts, wherein one learned a broad range of skills and subdisciplines, from physics and calculus to hand drawing and critical thinking. Curricula were designed to help produce thoughtful practitioners to enter our body politic. Architectural education was not centered on job training, but rather preparing one for a way of life—a way of seeing the world or seeing it anew. The shift toward training has been entangled further by the debate over the wisdom of incurring higher-education debt and graduation rates, real concerns. Yet, as a first-generation student whose parents never finished high school (I left my MArch program with 150% more debt than my annual salary), my real debt remains to those who helped this high school student choose an education over training—to find not just a career, but a way of life.
Featured image: Bau, April 1968.