Presenting Architecture as Progressive, but Practicing Through Exclusion
For a profession that likes to congratulate itself about how well-meaning it is, and sees itself as liberal, diverse, open, and progressive, British architecture has a serious problem with diversity of pretty much every kind. It is dominated by people from well-off backgrounds. It trains a lot of brilliant female architects but doesn’t pay them as much as men, and loses many of them after 30 when they are not supported in balancing work and family life. Its ethnic makeup is very, very white, considering that it’s 2020. A supposed beacon of success is the acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the field, but as with women and those from and religious and ethnic minorities, stories of unprofessional comments, inappropriate jokes, and insidious forms of jovially “innocent” othering and the diminution of identity-specific concerns abound.
And that is not to mention the terror of aesthetic diversity, which seems to be a shared paranoia among architects the world over. Whenever there are more than a couple of variations of a prevailing orthodoxy, one comes across herds of academics, practitioners, and critics ululating about the death of shared meaning and the terrible arbitrary willfulness of the contemporary scene, which—of course—is another way of saying how terrible it is that not everyone builds exactly as they do, or as they would wish. But not to worry—there is a great entropy within the ranks of architecture itself that, like water from everywhere in a valley eventually finding its central river, means that a consistent supermajority of the profession herds together to design buildings that look exactly the same, anyway.
One could find this latter issue funny while finding the former deeply problematic, but for a realm of human production whose primary cultural purpose is to aestheticize values, to reify our culture into built form, to literally stylize our sphere of existence with forms, proportions, details, dispositions, colors, and materials that embody our communal existence in much the way clothing identifies and comports out bodies, these two deficits are profoundly interlinked and insidiously damaging. Even when those from different backgrounds, orientations, and ethnicities do manage to break into the profession, even when they manage to rise up the ranks within practices, they are forced to make a Faustian pact with the Janus-faced (outwardly liberal; inwardly oppressive and exclusionary) world of architecture in which they are ostensibly welcomed, on the implicit understanding that they leave their singularity and uniqueness at the door, that they keep their identity far away from any kind of architectural expression.
The uniform disavowal of “radical” (or really any true) aesthetic and stylistic liberty, the continuous pressure toward conformity, continuity, context, and the shared delusions of architectural fads, means that there is not, and has never been, space in this vast profession for the embodiment of a diversity that might reflect society at large and its now brilliantly varied makeup. Architecture is dominated by straight white cis men, with the inclusion now of more women, and some of other backgrounds, who all need to act and design as if they are straight white cis men, or else face the critical scorn and peer derision afforded those who step out of line. What this entails is an exceptionally narrow range of expression-through-building that is as limited in its horizons as the vanishingly thin academic canon from which young architects are fed sanctioned ideas and precedents during their university years.
The intolerance of true diversity in architecture’s outward expression is a direct outcome of the fundamental lack of acceptance of real diversity within the ranks of the profession…
The intolerance of true diversity in architecture’s outward expression is a direct outcome of the fundamental lack of acceptance of real diversity within the ranks of the profession, whose consequence is that our cities and buildings are the continuously renewed reification and expression of a monolithic and exclusionary culture. In order to participate in the great endeavour of adding buildings to the public sphere, one must agree to supplement and feed this edifice, trading total exclusion from the profession for a form of inclusivity that requires one to actively build monuments to one’s own aesthetic erasure.
Beyond the groupthink of architectural places of education and production, in which a form of ostensibly well-meaning criticism and peer-pressure “helps” those with “out of line” architectural proclivities “find” the “right way” to design, much in the way that a visibly different child in a playground learns how to behave in order to be accepted into communal play, there are two simple and insidious modes of argumentation deployed to exclude all but the most minor forms of architectural difference at the next stage, when they reach the interface between the paper project and the city itself.
On the one hand there are arguments of contextual propriety, which effectively say that one must fit-in with the neighbors, an urbanistic version of the kind of polite xenophobia in which newcomers are accepted only if they blend in to the point where they disappear. Everything new must be identifiably similar to what came before, an architectural version of political nativism. On the other there are arguments relying on precedent-based propriety, in which deviations from the local context are accepted to a degree if they conform to characteristics of the academically praised architectural canon of traditional male orthodoxy. Everything new that doesn’t obviously fit in with its neighbours must be similar to other previous exemplars of past architectural elites, an aesthetic version of economic nepotism.
For those who manage to fight their way through university without discarding their identity, who manage to graduate and to somehow express their difference through the medium of architecture in a hostile profession, these final barriers of irrefutable arguments whose substance is the malice of exclusionary propriety, mean that virtually nothing can be built that is not an extension and further reinforcement of the status quo. The cumulative result of this is that our cities (and this is applicable in a host of countries across the West) reflect a Britain of the past, and are not only profoundly nostalgic and backwards looking, but are actively damaging, as they suffocate the potential spaces of genuine architectural difference within the profession that would foster and attract those of less represented backgrounds, and consequently keep producing cities that symbolically annihilate even the palest hint of plurality or otherness.
Our “progressive” profession keeps churning out the symbolic infrastructure of a nepotistic architectural nativism that is completely at odds with the (duplicitously) friendly, (disingenuously) inclusive, open image it likes to present to itself and to the wider world. These are contentious times of great change, and it is a matter of great importance that architecture steps up and actually embodies through the manifestations of its practice, in the medium of building, through the transformation of our cities, the liberal inclusivity it preaches in the lecture theatre, but acts so strenuously to exclude from expression by its practitioners of difference. May a thousand new styles brought forth by a hundred disaffected groups bloom on the pallid body of contemporary architecture.
This essay was initially published in the catalogue, Brave New World, edited by Marina Engel for the British School at Rome. Featured image: The Liberal Archive, courtesy of the author.