Archive for June, 1998

Inside and outside architecture

Archis editorial
1998 #6

Who still talks about the autonomy of architecture? Who still confesses love for that lovely, quiet notion that implies the existence of an inviolable core of architecture, of architecture’s own immanence and tradition, its own momentum? It would seem that concentration on the craft, the discipline and the profession has all but been blown away in the typhoon of spatial upscaling, economic globalization and the countless technical, organizational and bureaucratic complications of the building process.

This you might at least conclude from the words of those who are involved with architecture.
Just consider. When presenting new architecture, designers increasingly refer to all kinds of social process. In criticism, the recontextualization of architecture within a broader cultural framework is the flavour of the month. When formulating the brief, clients and consultants issue a list of determining factors which go far beyond the competence of the old discipline of architecture. The individual building plays only a marginal role nowadays in the social debate on the use of urban and rural space, having made way for a variety of political and economic considerations. Policymakers write architectural memoranda in which architecture is equated with space in general and the world in particular. Many an architect makes a name for himself with sweeping theories on the metropolis, suburbanization, ecology, digitalization and similar technological quantum leaps. Statistics, and hence vast numbers, have become hugely popular. Architecture is capable of absorbing anything, and hence tends to dissolve into everything. There are all the same signs of development taking place in architecture, both as an art form and as a profession. Firstly, the familiar pattern of alternation of styles remains in undiminished force. Every few years a new form of expression comes into vogue. A lively discourse about new design and building techniques is going on, moreover, ranging from research into interesting design and presentation software to a revolution in the use of new materials. Typological research is also undergoing a renaissance. What about all the work in the area of high density living, the intelligent office, the reconstruction of airports as roofed-over urban developments and so on? Even in this supermodern era, there exists a version of the Vitruvian venustas, firmitas and utilitas. And of course there is interest enough in the rare, sublime exception, the top architect who takes care of concinnitas.
Does it make sense to stress the boundary between these approaches, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ architecture, to accentuate the difference between them? Not infrequently the dichotomy boils down to a question of mentality. The animosity that it engenders is then played out by each camp behaving as though the other did not exist, or by each declaring the other heretic. This is a downright shame, for it neutralizes the unprecedented energy available on both sides. Instead of thinking exclusively in terms of inside and outside, a complementary approach could be considered; an approach characterized by designing in teams, by transdisciplinary education and by integral criticism.
Naturally, there will still always be special courses of training for architects and there will always be professional jargon; the specialized magazines are still with us. Sufficient reason exists, in short, for preserving the status of a world apart. From a distance, the outsider still sees a specialist caste of architects, who are moreover often treated with a customary suspicion in the mass media. This is not wholly without justification. Quite a few of the existing institutions are here simply because they were here yesterday and they do not feel obliged to spend all that much energy on formulating more positive reason for existence. But, at the same time, tremendous efforts are being made in the new fields of activity and on the new forms of architecture. Perhaps that whole autonomy business was a needlessly contrived problem of definition. Conversely, further new definitions of architecture should make it possible to continue calling the discipline autonomous till kingdom come. Any takers?