Architecture lost itself in an identity crisis not long ago. The discipline wandered in self-reflection, reexamining how practitioners go about their work, how the built environment should appear, and why. Movements came and went. Promising paths dead-ended. Eventually, the profession gave up looking for ways out of its uncertainty, leaving us where we are today.
In premodern eras, new construction techniques, evolving opinions on art, and shifting societal beliefs drove styles. Advances were slow, but once established, became long-lived norms. The Gothic period lasted four centuries, the Renaissance three. From the nineteenth century on, though, more than a hundred aesthetic and philosophical movements lived quickly and died. As historian Charles Jencks notes, there were “a plurality of live architectural traditions” even during the International Style’s forty-year hegemonic heyday.
The century of robust mini-debates on form and function, meaning and intent, petered out ten years ago. Evidence that contemporary theory and practice are threads of new architectural thought is scarce. Arcade magazine published a survey of architectonic declarations and mapped thirty modern movements from 1900 to 1960, and eighty more between 1960 and 2010. At 2015, they found only two.
For reasons unknown, the formation of new isms dwindled—but certainly, not because architecture has found itself. One possibility could be fear. Taking a public stand against the status quo comes with risks of ridicule and professional harm. In extreme cases, even physical danger. In 1957, Mao Zedong’s appealed to China’s intelligentsia for a constructive philosophical debate. He said, “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” It turned out to be a ploy to flush out dissenters. Many took the bait and were reeled in. The other possibility for the scarcity of new thinking is that architects don’t give a damn. I prefer to think that architects have ideas but don’t know how to toss them into the flows of current (albeit limited) discourse. No matter why, though, the result is that the dominant architectural style today is a nondescript banality underpinned by minimal debate.
There are, of course, exceptions, and it is through them that we find a way out of the woods. I present herewith a means of reinvigorating the profession’s search for self.
When, in 2008, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects penned a treatise proclaiming “Contemporary avant-garde architecture is addressing the demand for an increased level of articulated complexity,” and that “Parametricism is the great new style after modernism,” and further stating, “Postmodernism and Deconstructivism have been transitional episodes,” he was following a well-trod path to artistic innovation: the manifesto. Note the similarity between Schumacher’s rhetoric and Walter Gropius’ 1965 assertion about the International Style:
A breach has been made with the past, which allows us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed.
Schumacher claimed to have found a demand for “articulated complexity” and answered the call to action. He beckoned others to join him. Gropius saw civilization growing more technical, prompting him also to respond. We heeded the wants of our age, each man effectively said, and—Eureka!—found a better way. Both demanded Out with the old and in with the new. Both telegraphed Revolt! by channeling Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles’ 1848 call for a “revolutionary movement against the existing…order of things.” Gropius and Schumacher might well have written, Working architects of all countries, unite!
By definition, the avant-garde is new. Surprise ensues when radical ideas burst on the scene, bringing confusion and questions. In art as in politics, answers are often provided via declarations called manifestos. Unique strategies cannot be judged without context, so pronouncements generally provide a preamble, complaint, and a list of tenets. Reduced to writing, if a premise resonates, it has a chance of becoming a movement à la Neoclassicism, Modernism, Metabolism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism. A Whateverism never codified goes nowhere.
The dearth of contemporary architectural movements indicates the profession is no longer questioning itself—and that’s a problem. The built environment has no end of problems in need of theories on how to respond, paramount being the existential threat of climate change.
Architecture’s first declaration of intent was arguably Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture, written in 27 BC. But the idea of a publishing sets of core beliefs didn’t reach its stride until The Communist Manifesto. That slim pamphlet became the template for numerous public proclamations, many incorporating a version of, “It is high time that [ADHERENTS’ NAME] should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies.” The introductions of Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus owe much to Marx and Engel.
Arcade magazine found more than a hundred architectural manifestos published over the last one hundred years. Some of them reduced their argument to a single page or poster. Others were long-form texts. Among the more notable are Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Art and Craft of the Machine in 1901, Ornament and Crime (Adolf Loos, 1913), Towards a New Architecture (Le Corbusier, 1965), The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jane Jacobs, 1961), Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture (Robert Venturi, 1966), and Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Buckminster Fuller, 1968).
Mies van der Rohe wrote a manifesto. So did Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Paolo Soleri, Christopher Alexander, Rob Krier, Renzo Piano with Richard Rogers, Kisho Kurokawa, Aldo Rossi, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Coop Himmelblau, Steven Holl, and Bjarke Ingels. Reader, if you’re an architect, are you on the list? If not, why not? Conventional wisdom assumes lucid thinking behind the largest and most permanent of humankind’s built works. One would like to believe that architects’ decisions on aesthetics and art, function and form, economy and sustainability are the result of well-considered and defensible rationales. At the least, designs should be based on opinions that can be coherently stated.
Looking around at today’s built environment suggests it ain’t so. I’d venture asking most contemporary architects to name their theory, describe their design philosophy, or recite what principles motivate their work would yield befuddled answers or blank stares. I am not alone in this opinion. Few “in the contemporary profession [are] willing to take a stand, to mount a soapbox and exclaim a polemical notion,” wrote Michael Holt and Marissa Looby in a 2011 Domus magazine op-ed. The take-away is that today’s architects have little to say about what they design and why.
Let’s change that. Let us all write a manifesto. I’ll go first, guided by the wisdom of Dr. Anna Tahinci, a professor and art history chair of the Museum of Fine Art Houston’s Glassell School of Art who teaches a workshop entitled, Write Your Own Manifesto!, based on MFAH’s 2015 exhibition, Violence and Precision: Artists’ Manifestos.
The French poet Tristan Tzara wrote in his 1918 Dadaist manifesto, “To launch a manifesto, you have to want: A, B, & C, and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3.” According to Dr. Tahinci, three steps are taken:
One: Designate an enemy and chronicle a fervent (and somewhat limited) history of persecution leading up the climactic moment of rupture.
For my manifesto, this will be easy. I find no end of problem buildings in Houston (my home town), including contemporary examples designed by God architects of our time. My issue isn’t with their beauty, for many are pretty. Nor is my problem function, for, as far as I know, they work as intended. My criticism is the same I have with many contemporary buildings—they seem arbitrary and capricious, as if no guiding principle rooted them into existence. Even when there is stated rationale, it is often glib, or invisible in the work, or based on a theoretical position that time has invalidated.
Take, for instance, the architecture of Houston’s museum district, populated with well-regarded buildings of brand name design firms. William Ward Watkin designed the Museum of Fine Art Houston’s original Neoclassical building in 1924. Kenneth Franzheim added a small wing in 1952. Mies van der Rohe designed a free-spanning addition in 1958 and another International Style expansion in the late 60s, shortly before his death. Rafael Moneo produced a modernist building in 2000, and Steven Holl completed a new Glassell School of Art in 2018 that replaced a 1979 Brutalist building by Gene Aubry. Down the street from MFAH’s campus is Venturi Scott Brown’s children’s museum, constructed in 1992.
I can’t pick a fight with Watkin, who delivered a classical building at a time when Neoclassicism and museums were joined at the hip. Nor can I argue against Mies’ 1958 example of universal space, given Modernism’s at-the-time honorable promise that form following function would lead to an egalitarian society of light and air. By the time of his death, however, Mies should have known his version of the Industrial Age wasn’t living up to his ideals. Instead of serving the common good, the International Style had sold out to Big Business, the antithesis of what should house a cultural institution.
Rafael Moneo’s big box looks like a department store, so its meaninglessness is worth knocking. Steven Holl borrowed shapes from Isamu Noguchi’s wonderful 1986 sculpture garden, which abuts the new Glassell School. Meaning received. Unfortunately, and despite Holl saying in his Five Minute Manifesto, “More than a mere ingredient in a building’s conception, a SITE is both its Physical and Metaphysical Foundation,” the new Glassell’s plaza does severe damage to Noguchi’s work. What had been a destination, a secluded courtyard, an intimate sanctuary to contemplate art, is now an open passageway to somewhere else. The magic is gone.
Venturi Scott Brown’s Children’s Museum of Houston is the best of the bunch. It’s a playful Postmodern period piece that riffs off Neoclassicism without also ripping it off. Although PoMo was flawed, I don’t have it in my heart to ding the building. VSB was more faithful to the movement’s goal of reconnecting architecture to its history than most Postmodern buildings, and much better than attempts to revive the movement as Neo-PoMo.
I, therefore, declare Pritzker Prize winner Rafael Moneo, and AIA Gold Medal winners Mies van der Rohe and Steven Holl enemies of my state of mind.
Two: List demands and declarations in response to wrongdoings.
For me, there is no more pressing need than for architecture to reassert itself as “the great book of humanity,” as Victor Hugo urged. I call for re-establishing buildings as houses of societal metanarratives. I yearn for architecture as gentle influencers that nudge, shape, and reinforce positive behaviors. I want a Persuasive Architecture, not voiceless aesthetic gestures, inconsiderate form-making, and unintelligible architectural gymnastics. I ask that architects take on the anthropogenic calamities of war, poverty, hunger, preventable disease and death, intolerance, illiteracy, and climate change.
Three: Antagonize a group and pit “us” against “them” in an aggressive call for action.
Marx and Engels wrote, “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” Them were the capitalists (the bourgeoisie); us was the public (the proletariat).
Dr. Tahinci encourages manifesto authors to employ this same we-speak and make us-against-them demands for action. Don’t be shy. Over-the-top isn’t over the top in manifesto writing. Outrage and anger are not out of place, either. Quirky and crazed is not only acceptable; it’s preferable. Shock has value, so make generous use of exclamation points in your writing. Feel free also to scream in ALL CAPS.
Other tricks of the trade include listing your demands, bold typography, the use of storytelling with a dose of drama, even theatrics. Do (almost) anything to get attention and command an audience. One art student reportedly presented his “man”-ifesto in the nude with beliefs and opinions written on his skin. Yes, he received an A for the assignment.
To that I offer a more modest polemic:
Architects of the world, WAKE UP!
Humanity’s greatest problems are anthropogenic, not architectural
CAST OFF THE YOKE OF MEANINGLESSNESS!
As civilization faces a human-made END OF TIME,
Beautiful boxes have become IRRELEVANT.
And form for form’s sake is IRRESPONSIBLE.
They who reproduce Classicism belong to ANOTHER TIME.
They who promulgate the International Style have LOST THEIR WAY.
They who reintroduce Postmodernism will MISS THE POINT.
Buildings are OPPORTUNITIES to CHANGE THE WORLD!
A NEW architecture IS NEEDED—an architecture of CHANGE AGENT.
We REJECT architecture as fashion statements and me-too knockoffs.
We REJECT buildings as illiterate objects.
We REJECT buildings as empty sculptural gestures.
We DEMAND built environments overtly address critical issues.
We DEMAND architecture that positively influences what people do.
RESTORE ARCHITECTURE TO THE GREAT BOOK OF HUMANITY!
That’s it; that’s my soapbox, my criticism of contemporary architecture with suggestions for a new direction. In poster form, my rant looks like this:
Yeah, admittedly, PERSUASIVE-ism needs work—but hey, how’s your manifesto coming along?
Architecture’s historical progression—from a thought to a theory, to a movement, to a manifesto, to an accepted style—has stalled. We can restart evolution, but only if architects put their thinking caps back on, force themselves to decide on what they believe, and publish their thoughts in direct and straightforward terms. There are numerous go-byes to guide us out of the forest.
“We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries!” wrote Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in The Futurist Manifesto (1909). “What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.” Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner declared in the Basic Principles of Constructivism (1920), “We are no longer content with the static elements of form in plastic art. We demand the inclusion of time as a new element and assert that real movement must be employed in plastic art, in order to make possible the use of kinetic rhythms in a way that is not merely illusionistic.”
Dr. Tahinci encourages architects to publish their opinions, motives, intentions, and meaningful and assertive concepts. That’s a superb recipe for food for thought, and since architecture is hungry for ideas, an excellent idea for a competition.
ANNOUNCING THE COMMON EDGE ARCHITECTURAL MANIFESTOS CONTEST!
Write or draw what you feel and email what you think to CEManifesto@gmail.com. Attach a Microsoft Word file of 150 words or less if submitting as prose, or a poster in JPEG format 1,280 pixels wide by 1,656 pixels tall. Common Edge will publish the best manifestos online. You never know, your viewpoint might go viral.
Let a hundred manifesti bloom.
- The Communist Manifesto (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture (1975), by Ulrich Conrads
- Manifesto: A Century of Isms (2001), by Mary Ann Caws
- Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture (2006), by Charles Jencks and Karl Kropf
Featured image: “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix, via Wikipedia Commons. Figure 1: The De Stijl (“The Style”) manifesto, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 2: Persuasive-ism, the poster. Photography by the author.