Architectural traditions and development

by David Week on 07 August 2010


Traditions shape you

Some years ago I did some work with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Australia. We ran a participatory process to help them in the design of their new workspace. During this process, there was a tea break, and I ended up alone in the meeting room with WWF’s chief scientist.

He described three traditions that informed contemporary environmentalism:

  • the scientific tradition, which came out of the European Enlightenment, and saw environmentalism in terms of ecology, habitat, species diversity, and other scientific conceptions of Nature
  • the Romantic tradition, which came out of the Romantic valuing of Nature as beautiful, and had to be preserved in its own right, for reasons related to emotion and feeling, rather than logic
  • the socialist tradition, which considered the natural environment as something that had to be protected against the ravages and excess of capitalism.

Now, whenever I read an environmental argument, or see an environmental ad, I see one or more of these traditions at work. It might be appealing to me to preserve Nature because its the human habitat (scientific), or because its beautiful and part of our heritage (Romantic), or because its awful if it should be cut down and desecrated by some rapacious industry or other (socialist.)

Architecture too has its traditions. As a development professional, it’s important to be aware of own’s own traditions and cultural history, because they inform the way you think: and in some contexts, that way of thinking might not be helpful.

Don’t worry about their culture: worry about yours

Architects are taught to think of the word “tradition” as referring to some pre-industrial way of life, like the “traditional” architecture documented by Paul Oliver and Bernard Rudofsky. Tradition in this sense stands against Modernism. But in the philosophical and anthropological uses of the word, “tradition” means something much broader. It means a cultural movement that “hangs together” over time. It’s culture considered historically.

Many people, when they hear the word “culture” in a development context, think of the culture of the place in which the development program is taking place: the culture of Lesotho, or East Timor, or Vanuatu. Much more important, I think, is our own culture, and understanding how our culture leads us to behave in certain ways in such places. And this applies not just to the culture of a nation, but the culture of a profession.

How has the culture of the profession that you have been inducted into shaped the way that you think? And how is that way of thinking affecting what you do in a development context?

Broadly, I think there are two traditions in architecture, based upon the fact that architects work for clients, and that fact shapes what architecture does.

Architecture as art

Historically, those clients have been the rich. When you go to architectural school, you are given many historical examples, and all of them tend to be examples of buildings built by the rich:

  • palaces
  • large homes
  • corporate headquarters
  • churches (back when churches were rich)
  • commercial emporia

Out of such work for rich folk came:

  • the idea of architecture as an art (and clients as patrons)
  • the (awful) idea that “A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” (How environmentally ethical is that?!)

In other words: architecture is not for the plebs.

Architecture for the people

As I read it, it’s only in the 20th Century that we started to see a real backlash to this kind of thinking, as the Enlightenment ideals of equality and democracy pushed ever further into different aspects of contemporary life. The inciting incident was World War I, which showed the European elites in such a horrible light that there was a mass reaction against them. Out of the reaction came architectural Modernism, which—whatever its many weaknesses—was the first real attempt by architects to serve the public, instead of the elite.

Unfortunately, that movement was interrupted by another war: World War II. World War II forced the Bauhaus architects out of Europe and to the United States, where they were picked up by a new set of patrons: the large corporation. The minimalist aesthetics and industrial thinking of the early Modernist proved suitable to building palaces of corporate prestige.

And in post-War era, where pent-up demand was unleashed in the form of a huge building boom, Modernist industrial thinking also proved useful to developers, to build at a pace unseen before.

Modernists was basically bought out by the rich.

**Note and confession: by global standards, I am rich, by virtue of the very fact that I am a highly educated professional living in Melbourne. So I’m not here militating against the rich. It’s just that you have to be suspicious, as a professional, of of habits and standards inculcated through working for the rich, if you’re going to set about working for the poor.

The second wave

With the first wave of “architecture for the people” neatly co-opted by the rich and powerful, the 1960s and 1970s saw a new wave of thinking about architecture for the common folk, the poor, ordinary people. The names that come to mind in this second wave include:

  • Jane Jacobs
  • Chris Alexander
  • Bernard Rudofksy
  • Paul Oliver
  • Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalogue
  • E. F. Schumacher and the idea of intermediate technology
  • John F. C. Turner
  • Clare Cooper Marcus
  • John Habraken
  • Hasan Fathy
  • The UN Conference on Human Settlements

Much of this second wave turned away from looking at the architecture of large, expensive buildings, and asked people to look instead at the ordinary buildings built by “ordinary” people, and see how extraordinarily smart they were, and how much to be learned there.

This second wave of architects and critics, with books like Housing As If People Mattered, Housing By People, and Architecture Without Architects, was not—by and large—co-opted. Rather, they were drowned out by another wave: Post-Modernism, or PoMo.

Post-Modernism suggested that one could pursue a dual agenda, called “dual coding”. Informed by Saussurian semiotics, PoMo gave architects the option of putting a popular veneer on the outside of the buildings, to message the plebs that the building was friendly and in their interests, while continuing to pursue an elitist agenda among themselves and with their clients. The critic and journalist Diane Ghirardo wrote of PoMo:

Buildings are regularly treated as three-dimensional paintings, as objects of silent contemplation and as the product of those brave little form-makers, the architects. Builders and developers could not in their wildest dreams have designed a strategy of such academic and intellectual status that it would successfully direct analysis toward trivial matters of surface and away from much more vexing matters of substance.

In the 1980s, nascent and potentially interesting movements like the New Urbanism and community architecture are coopted by the Disney corporation and reactionary British royalty. Nowadays, architects are schooled to admire professionals like Rem Koolhaus, who appears to have no social awareness or consciousness, and is more than happy to sell himself into the service of some of the more oppressive governments on Earth if they allow him to build mega-buildings: the more mega, the better.

But I still see many students who are interested in serving a greater public and a greater interest than is represented by large corporates or rich householders.

Professional schizophrenia

Do you see a pattern here? It goes like this:

  • Some professionals, and many students, want to find meaning in their practice by serving the public or the poor, rather than the rich and powerful.
  • A movement grows up around this impulse.
  • The movement is co-opted or displaced.
  • Another develops in its place.

**Note: I’ve inverted the normal positions of rich (high) and poor (low)… in purpose.

Now, it’s kind of tempting to see this as an epic struggle between white hats and black hats, but I think it just reflects a fact: you can’t make a living from the poor. Maybe a few can, but most can’t, even if they think such a profession would be more personally satisfying.

Here are my own professional answers, to date:

  • Ignore my income: do what I love. Worked for seven years in Papua New Guinea, before I had heard the words “marriage”, “children”, “mortgage”.
  • Work for rich institutions that are charged with helping the poor: bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, local governments, mining companies with community service obligations, the Australian Government investing in Indigenous communities.

I think the first option is limited to a small window in your career. The second works well for me, but can only absorb so many architects (not many.)

The third model, which I am figuring out now, is:

  • Instead of depending on large inputs into large projects, figure out a way of selling very small architectural inputs on a mass scale… like Unilever soap powder in India.

Not yet worked out… but stay tuned.

Critique what you’ve been taught

We have two traditions within architecture. The older tradition, of producing art for the rich. Then there is a new, egalitarian, democratic tradition, that says that architects, like GPs, should serve a more common humanity. Until we get the new model right, we’re likely to suffer from ongoing professional schizophrenia: outbursts of good intentions, followed by a fallback into old patterns of going where the money is.

In addition to developing a stable, sustainable new model of practice, we need to critique what the old model has led us to believe. Obvious targets:

  • good architecture photographs well
  • good architecture has an your name affixed to it
  • an architect is a creative genius, rather than a player in a team, with team in mind
  • you succeed by being different, rather than by providing for the common good

We have to be suspicious of:

  • architectural awards for houses that cost $5,000 a square metre
  • the “superstar” model of architectural practice (compare what public health has done for people: but who are the superstars of public health?)
  • an “us and them” mentality towards engineers, suburbanites, building officials, builders, and the 95% of the buildings which are not designed by architects.

More in future posts on how becoming a development professional involves deconstructing at least some of what you’ve been taught. Why? Because working for the rich means caring about what they care about.

And about most of those things, the poor don’t care.

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