The Crisis of the Crisis
September 01, 2017
Architecture Is All Over
1800 words
Abstract

The introduction to Architecture Is All Over, written by Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter.

The Crisis of the Crisis

If we can begin a book meant to function as a projectile lobbed into an undetermined future, for the sake of that future, by taking stock of the present as it is already becoming the past, we might be able to state that architecture is indeed all over. A terminal callousness in the discipline was exposed, for instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, amid the ill-concealed delight of a profession discovering that the phantasmagoric opportunities of the “third world” exist within the range of a domestic flight. Or take our enthusiastic and largely unquestioning participation in fabricating the mirage of “sustainable development” with artificial islands on wetlands and air-conditioned towers in deserts while ignoring genuinely sustained global slums. More than a decade after terrorists’ demolition of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the bathos of the Freedom Tower’s design and design process exposes the extent of architecture’s imaginative exhaustion and its codependency on the most troubling, most ruthless aspects of a wounded yet still very much operational financial war machine. In the West—and this is, to state our limits right up front, a book about architecture from a largely Western perspective—some architects participate in art biennials; most interface with the increasingly complex technology that specifies the routines of architectural production more than any architect can pretend to specify them. What most architects actually do is attempt to align the modicum of novelty in every project with the increasingly stringent requirements of modern construction systems and rigorously predefined programs. Yet, students continue to submit to the privations of a design education promising a future that may no longer exist. The still-unfolding economic collapse of the late aughts has rendered the crisis within architectural patronage more apparent, but one has only to reread criticism written before 2008 to remember that the deeper crisis of any architectural strategy beyond that of tongue-in-cheek “customer service” stretches well back into the bad good old days.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. When, in its entire modern development from the Renaissance to the present, has architecture not been in crisis? Certainly not in the 1980s, when the seemingly secure syntax of postmodernism thinned to self-referential hieroglyphics, nor in the 70s, as is clear from Manfredo Tafuri’s account of architecture’s inability to critically engage with capitalism.1 Architecture is always at the cusp of obsolescence; as a slow and weighty activity, it is contingent upon the ephemeralizing processes of capitalism. And architects have always constructed end games in response to this condition, ranging from Mies van der Rohe’s emphasis on indefatigable programmatic flexibility to Archigram’s “throwaway architecture.”2

Yet, at the same time, architecture is also continually annexing new territories: in other words, we can also understand architecture’s being “all over” in the sense of Clement Greenberg’s characterization of “decentralized” and “polyphonic” techniques of painting.3 When Yves Klein declared his desire for an architecture of air in 1959, he imagined his immaterial architecture would comprise the basic elements of the earth and thus unite the subject with a cosmos unburdened by culture, economics and politics.4 By extension, if architecture were bound to neither the traditional codes of building nor its materials, it could be everywhere and everything. Such was the maxim of Hans Hollein’s “Alles Ist Architektur” manifesto (1968), which eschewed the didactic impediments of disciplinary conventions to propose that architecture could take the form of atomized sprays, furniture and ingested pharmaceuticals.5 An important precedent for Hollein’s undifferentiated architecture is the Independent Group, a collective of architects, artists and critics based in London in the 1950s, who shared a fascination with everyday visual culture and advocated for understanding architecture as an imagistic practice.6 Near the end of the 1960s, Robert Venturi would proclaim that Main Street is “almost all right” and, with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, would celebrate the vernacular charm of the banal and the quotidian.7

Yet, the quotidian has an all-overishness of its own; it creates massive architectures that aggregate the realities of the world as we create it daily, out of habit. Our present-day interest in “informal settlements” parallels Bernard Rudofsky’s catalogue of “architecture without architects” in the mid-60s: the becoming-architectural of all kinds of materials, climates and cultures at the hands of all kinds of people, without the fustiness of professional “pedigree.”8 Today, Rudofsky’s anthropological appropriation of such preprofessional or extradisciplinary artifacts in a moment of significant uncertainty within modernist architecture provides a possible precedent for contemporary trends. For instance, perhaps today’s architectural enthusiasm for landform building and ecological urbanism is merely a touristic expedition. Likewise, it could be that our disciplinary appetite for the urban evinces an invasive intent to imbue architecture into all scales of life and thought. The problem with such campaigns is that architecture risks dilution to the point where expertise becomes amateur acquiescence. If everything can be architecture, or, conversely, if architecture can be everything, then architecture runs the risk of being nothing much—certainly nothing much more than a map of everything as it exists.9

Hence the critical point of this project: if architecture is always both all over and all over, then its constitutive dimensions include both extinction and emergence, both crisis and conquest, and both evanescence and ubiquity. When we see architecture as a series of crises—that is, as a series of inadequate and collapsing paradigms—we convince ourselves that we are dealing with emergency tactics and provisional measures instead of recognizing these procedures as the normal operations of architecture as such. Moreover, architecture as an endeavor, rather than a condition, could use more rigorous attention. When we elevate architecture to the fictional status of an independently expanding domain, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for the maneuvers we accomplish under its rubric. After all, architecture is a creative act that is capable of generating possibilities that did not exist before. Yet, while the specific mechanisms of its creativity may vary over time, these practices do not emerge independent of human innovation. Accordingly, the contributions in this volume are organized as an unfolding spectrum of think pieces, conversations, graphic provocations and design proposals that speculatively engage a particular facet of architecture to project alternative modes of theory and praxis. Or, to animate two ignored and reviled aspects of this discipline, we might say the pieces in this book begin to collectively reimagine the ethical and entrepreneurial dimensions of architecture.

On ethics, it is perhaps helpful to think of the Aristotelian mandate that “methodology must match its subject matter.”10 Whereas architecture in crisis is content to borrow protocols from other disciplines, architecture that understands the crisis-making potential that it brings to the status quo could recognize that its practice demands certain considerations that its neighbors lack. For instance, an assessment of its material and contextual interdependence in certain conditions might occasionally mandate architectural abstention or demolition. Every piece in this book articulates a dimension of what such architectural ethics might be like. Similarly, perhaps we have too quickly jettisoned entrepreneurialism as an architectural concept even though it remains fundamentally tied up with disciplinary motives. Today, entrepreneurship is synonymous with marketability and capitalist exploits; but to be an entrepreneur is simply to discover the potential in risky opportunities, to undertake action with the pretense to innovate. We might remember that the modern distinction between discovery and invention did not exist prior to the eighteenth century; the finding of opportunity was the same as the creation of it.11 The idea that one must simply either accept or reject what is, in order to even present the possibility of what is not, is a recent limitation on our thinking. Instead, architecture is by definition always inventing the very possibilities that it rediscovers later as constraints: it is the quintessence of entrepreneurship, and as such, it produces new terrain in need of new ethical models. Recognizing this fact allows us to move from the regime of emergencies to the fostering of emergence.

Ethics and entrepreneurship are process-based rather than product-based. If we think about architecture as an entrepreneurial activity instead of a subset of the results of this activity, our criterion for assessing its performance changes from the critique of its products to the conduct of its business. This conduct includes how architecture is taught, how it is designed, how it interfaces with commissioning systems, and how it is evaluated within the discipline. It requires us to ask new questions in response to the disciplinary pathologies revealed by contemporary symptoms. For instance, how can we conceive of an architectural response to natural disaster that avoids fetishizing the erasing power of catastrophes? What kind of architectural maneuvers would help us create a culture that truly sustains the nature we depend upon? How could architecture intervene to facilitate more robust self-organization in rapidly urbanizing areas? What potential for symbolic meaning remains for architecture after rhetoric? How do we educate students to critically evaluate existing systems and propose different disciplinary ethics? If we could design a new relationship between architecture and commissioning institutions, what would it look like? Can we imagine an architecture that is neither instrumentalized nor instrumentalizing?

A sustained examination of the challenges and contradictions inherent in the discipline’s indeterminate identity offers an opportunity for crafting architecture as it could become. How might we formulate critical and interpretive vantages capable of reimagining the monstrous vectors we release into the world as possibilities rather than pathogens? This book attempts to address this question.

  1. See Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976).

  2. See Daniel M. Abramson, “Obsolescence: Notes towards a History,” Praxis: Journal of Writing and Building 5 (2003): 110–11.

  3. Clement Greenberg, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture”(1948), in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 155.

  4. Yves Klein, “The Evolution of Art towards the Immaterial,” in Yves Klein: Air Architecture, edited by Peter Noever and Francois Perrin (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 44–45. See also Yves Klein with Werner Ruhnau, “Project of an Air Architecture,” in Yves Klein: Air Architecture, 77.

  5. Hans Hollein, “Alles Ist Architektur,” Bau: Schrift für Architektur und Städtebau 23, no. 1/2 (1968).

  6. See Alex Kitnick, “Introduction,” October 136 (Spring 2011): 3–6.

  7. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 102. See also Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

  8. See Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects: An Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964).

  9. See our first volume, Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else, edited by Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter (Cambridge: Work Books, Inc./MIT Press), 2010.

  10. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics,” accessed April 9, 2012, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/.

  11. Lorraine Daston, introduction to The Coming into Being of Scientific Objects, edited by Lorraine Daston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 4.