In the last few years, architecture programs have started offering more courses that address current problems. I’m referring specifically to sustainability classes and social housing studios. This may be partly because of a general move in education to accommodate a growing market and student demand for green practice. Although this is great news, and there is still work to be done, I’d like to take this opportunity to issue some warnings on the subject.
The moment the concept of sustainability became not only acceptable, but (finally!) desirable, it also became a target of manipulation. There are several practices and studios around that have the appearance of greenness, with little of the substance. We only have to look at the oxymoron that is the “green skyscraper”. To clarify: no matter how advanced your daylighting system is, and how many plants you show in your renderings, no skyscraper can be ‘truly’ green: there is too much energy required to carry air, water, people to the last floors, and the excessive accumulation of people in one point (not the same as density!) usually implies a system of towers in a green park that fosters long commutes from the suburbs. There is a fascination for high tech ‘instant’ solutions which automatically acquit the user from any green guilt, and more importantly, advertise their fabulous greenness to eager consumers. I understand it is less profitable to tell your client that a series of 6-floor buildings filling in empty lots in the city, or perhaps making a new mixed-use area in the suburbs, will increase density and reduce commuting, helping out city centers by using retail at the bottom. Or, even more [irony]exciting[/irony], how about re-using some abandoned buildings for a change? Which is, of course, very sustainable, but does not LOOK sustainable.
The increased amount of courses focused on third world city growth and its problematics should come as no surprise to anyone that has been following archinect blogger Quilian Riano (also check out his thesis blog, Fruitful Contradictions, and his recent Nicaragua Studio with Teddy Cruz). But along with excellent examples like Teddy Cruz and Alejandro Aravena, there are also more problematic experiments that focus excessively on the problem as an isolated unit (an abstraction that may be more palatable for studios that wish to focus on formal aspects) or studios that go to the other extreme, forgetting the formal tools of architecture and involving themselves with highly commendable community work that is devoid of the contributions our discipline has to offer. In their specialization, these efforts tend to separate the worlds of theory and practice. As a result, the scope of the discipline is reduced.
We should be discussing housing projects in theory classes and using community restraints to condition abstract, beautiful algorithmic creations. I understand these are studios with huge time limitations, but can’t we have both sides? Isn’t that the point of our discipline? This is NOT to say that problems of social need, sustainability, or urban density should be required study in academia, making it part of a canon or moral obligation that may limit creativity (of form development for example), but rather as a challenge, as part of the problem solving that architects can engage in through the formal tools that are internal to the discipline. I would speculate that one of the reasons for a limited number of social housing studios is that they often privilege factors outside the discipline and are not seen as good places to develop form-making tools. On the other side, form making studios often delight in self-gratifying exercises that never realize their potential in solving real problems. The obsession of these studios with towers and skin systems is exemplary of such unconcerned architecture – they focus on isolating themselves from any ‘messy’ problems to privilege the exercise, but lose opportunities in the process. The balance of material need and formal invention is not an easy equation to solve, but it is one of the basic questions of our discipline (and digital fabrication such as these examples might be a place to start, by the way). Isolating these problems has its merits in skill learning, but lately isolation seems to dominate the field, turning architects into exterior decorators. There needs to be more space in the education of an architect for exercises that reconcile both.
Some of these incongruences were visible in the last MoMa show. I would agree with Quilian’s last op-ed, in that I found the work inside the MoMA –the work from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s- to be much more radical and inspiring that the work outside –the six contemporary proposals, which have shifted the focus towards the unit, and therefore do not address issues of density vs. sprawl. See also dual workshop for fellow archinecter architphil’s review focused on the houses. For example, I didn’t see a proposal for how these units might assemble themselves at an urban scale or even just fit into a neighborhood. I understand that was not the aim of the exhibit, but that is precisely the point: why wasn’t it? If the visionary architects of the 60’s and 70’s were thinking about it, why not ask today’s representatives to give it a go? This key issue of urban density (which intersects issues of housing and sustainability) is often left behind as the focus stays on newer technologies as fast solutions for both sustainability and housing.
While it has been gratifying to see academia addressing these problems, it is important to remember that only in academia do we have the luxury of approaching them through a critical, experimental lens. In other words, we are not accountable, and we can push for the radical experimentation that we had in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, while addressing these very urgent, real problems. I remain convinced that, in order to maintain its relevance, architecture needs to be involved in the processes of production. Or else, as Tafuri warned us, it is condemned to remain in the boudoir of irrelevance. It needs to address these issues that cannot be postponed. But in doing so, the danger is that the scope of the discipline is reduced, following the demands of science and capital. The fascination with high tech solutions often leads to looking outside the discipline for solutions, while architecture remains uncommitted, without using the tools at our disposal to help out with these problems. With the current economic situation, both energy conservation and housing solutions are no longer just a third world issue, and are becoming relevant to all. It might be useful to look at people that have been dealing with these problems for a while. Going back to Alejandro Aravena (link in Spanish), there are questions within these issues that only architecture can solve, using specifically architectural tools such as the strategic use of form, to solve non-specific problems outside the discipline, such as social housing and sustainable solutions. Academia is a good place to resolve these questions, because it provides an environment where we can test different solutions to these non-specific problems while honing the tools of our trade.
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