Three Giant Leaps for Mankind, Three Grave Threats to Architecture
Historians will be writing about, and debating, the most significant epistemic changes that occurred during the final two decades of the 20th century for a long time. Following the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the influx of products from China, and the Arab oil embargo, the world economy changed dramatically. Globalization was the term most often used to describe the overturning of the old order in markets, finance, and economic policy. Thomas Friedman published several books that attempted to explain these events in laymen’s terms, but I think it was an impossible task. How was anyone expected to consider the planet while looking for a job, watching family members die in the street, and wondering whether homes would be standing the next morning?
Laying aside the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and the tinderbox in the Middle East, tech mavens noted that people began using personal computers for nearly everything beginning in the early 1980s, as Apple, Microsoft, and IBM changed the nature of information processing and business with astounding speed. I remember receiving my first Macintosh computer in about 1982 while at my first academic job. I was overjoyed. Little did I think that I would use it for anything but writing books and doing research. I kept on buying books and CDs. I kept drawing by hand.
In fact, I was so bamboozled by the technological wizardry that was swirling around me I failed to notice a third Paradigm Shift aimed right at my solar plexus. I had spent the better part of my academic life studying the arts and humanities, believing that the fate of world culture would be decided by those with the education—the literacy—to be able to advance aesthetic achievements in such pursuits and architecture and music, while other aspects of human progress carried on at a similar rate of change. It has taken me decades to recognize how naive I was about the importance of my chosen field of study.
Global over Local. Cyberspace over Personal Space. Wealth over Culture. The three astounding, world-shattering shifts that have made much of what I care about cease to matter after the millennium snuck by under the radar, not only for me but for almost every architect I know. The smartest people I worked with over the past three decades were barely aware of how destructive these forces were, only now recognizing that a crisis has beset our old and esteemed profession, and the civic art we believe we make and curate for the public.
I recognized the outlines of an attack on things that I valued as an artist and cultural historian. They weren’t new. They happened while I was in the middle of my career, right under my nose, much like the attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.
Last week, while participating in a radio call-in with Common Edge’s Martin C. Pedersen, Richard Buday, and Duo Dickinson, it dawned on me that these accomplished, observant men were talking about not only changes in home, work, and the environment, but about the fundamental reorientation of architectural production following the Covid-19 pandemic. When I reflected further on the conversation, I recognized the outlines of an attack on things I valued as an artist and cultural historian. They weren’t new. They happened while I was in the middle of my career, right under my nose, much like the attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.
Globalization, the cyber-information society, and the capitalist substitution of monetary value for culture are facts. In a post-truth society, these facts are not disputed. Books like Thomas Piketty’s two studies of capital in the 21st century unveiled the savage inequities wrought by wealth-seeking elites under the guise of global “open” markets. Dave Eggers put substance on the studies of social critics decrying the rise of surveillance commerce under the cloak of Google emoticons in his novel The Circle. Wired magazine and Fox News boldly proclaimed the irrelevance of cultural discourse amid the tsunamis of Big Data and 24-hour media feeds to all of our devices. The message from all three arenas is clear: Architecture doesn’t matter because the public realm has become virtual, capital chases capital without touching concrete things, and we can’t look at our environments objectively while checking our backsides for viruses, boogeymen, and hackers.
Let me unpack some of that for you, and for myself as well. Architects are still educated, correctly, to believe that what we do benefits everyone in some measure, but especially the people who work and live in spaces we design. I have written recently about how important it is for architects to understand biology and brain science, trusting that my fellow professionals will get the point. They don’t even notice. Many of the leaders in our profession, people we call Starchitects, work under the illusion that the art they create will enter the canon of cultural artifacts (not simply products of a few elite aesthetes supported by patrons) valued by society as a whole. They are mistaken. Architecture critics—the handful who still write for mainstream media—are compelled to write about what capitalist developers, political leaders, and influential designers like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry think are important. That was also the case when print media followed architects and builders prior to 1980, but the decline of media and public interest in the built environment has been steep and largely unexplained by these critics, even by academic researchers. So those who are paid to follow architecture and urban design are left unmoored, searching for a pulse in a cultural milieu that for decades had been exciting. It is hard to get worked up about Hudson Yards, the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station, or the “cutting edge” design for the Los Angeles County Art Museum. (This was true before the pandemic).
Cybercities, the agglomerations of people using the internet for virtually all their social and economic activity, were predicted by tech-savvy architects 30 years ago (William Mitchell was the most prescient, but saw only the upside). What no one predicted was the stranglehold that Google, Amazon, Apple, and other Silicon Valley giants would gain over vital information that allows society to operate in a democratic, openly truthful, manner. Without a truly open system of communication in which the truth can be monitored by those most qualified to do so, democracy is lost. Art is impotent. Architecture does not speak to the public. Many vital things cease to function. We don’t live in a wiki-world.
It is undeniable that three huge shifts in the way labor, industrial production, information, money, and ideas move the world have wreaked havoc on architects and their fellow stewards of the public realm. We have been the losers in this equation.
The broad political, social, and cultural changes molding our global environment are not trivial, not in the least worthy of a bored shrug by journalists, and certainly deadly serious for those who hope to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. Yet it is undeniable that three huge shifts in the way labor, industrial production, information, money, and ideas move the world have wreaked havoc on architects and their fellow stewards of the public realm. We have been the losers in this equation.
As laborers, a role now scrutinized by groups like the Architecture Lobby, designers can no longer depend upon a reliable business model for the exchange of services for “deliverable” content. As distributors of information, we compete with other service providers, thought leaders, and producers of assemblies that inhabit our territories. And we’re losing the battle for any influence on how such information is disseminated, critically assessed, and marketed. As artists, leaders in global culture, we long ago relinquished that authority to other innovators in the visual and plastic arts. We seem less creative than the conceptual artists that dominate their respective arenas—such as Damien Hirst, Maria Abramovic, and Jeff Koons, to name three. Finally, our expertise in technology, the economics of building, human factors in the environment, and even tastemaking for the design community, have been pirated by other professionals, including engineers, social psychologists, and interior designers.
None of this will change if we do not understand our role in the ongoing saga of environmental degradation that resulted from these shifts. Worse still, if our accrediting institutions do not change the educational content students receive, young designers will be lost when they enter the workplace. There is no evidence that the NAAB or the ACSA, our watchdogs in academia, have noticed anything wrong over the past decades, despite admonitions from many different corners.
It is easy to blame our trade associations and educational institutions for the overall decline in professional status that we (along with lawyers, doctors and other service professionals) have suffered over the past half-century. But we cannot fail to recognize the tides of technological, scientific, and economic transformation that have driven the globe to this critical nexus in history. Such progress has perhaps benefited humanity as a whole, but at a cost still unrecognized by the most intelligent observers of global capitalism.
Nothing within our power as professionals would have affected the course of events leading to this crossroads. Architects and planners nevertheless are still charged with maintaining the quality of our built environment. We cannot avoid our responsibility for nurturing our planet—just as the Little Prince predicted nearly a century ago. It is now our duty to recognize our predicament and address the challenges we must overcome in order to create a humane, sustainable, and healthy environment for our children and grandchildren. Admitting our powerlessness will be the first step in regaining the wherewithal to change the way we do business, address political leaders, and create our unique art.
Featured image by Mark Allan Hewitt Architects.