Karl Sharro







Whatever happened to visionary architecture?


 In a fit of discontent Manfredo Tafuri declared architectural utopias dead in the 70’s and whether we agree or not with his neo-Marxist position, we have to admit that visionary architecture has been in decline since its heydays in the mid part of the twentieth century. Partially through what was perceived as the failures of the large-scale architectural experiments in the post-war period, and partially through the alignment of architecture with the market logic, architecture today, even at its most innovative, seems to lack a visionary quality.

Several objections will be raised against the last statement. Haven’t we been witnessing a resurgence of architecture in the last few years that seems to have the power to infuse a sense of place and character into areas that lacked them before and draw in larger crowds? Doesn’t that count for some sort of re-emergence of the power of good architecture to excite people? Haven’t some of these buildings been able to regenerate previously declining areas chiefly because of the qualities of their architecture?

On the surface, this seems to be the case. However, on a closer observation a certain strand seems to emerge as a unifying characteristic that rather than making for good architecture seem to point to a shift in the nature of architecture itself, in some cases exhibiting the syndromes of the loss of architectural integrity that was always a contested space between art, architecture and the twin influences of the dominant economic and political operators and their attempt to shape architecture after their own image. In particular, attractive architecture is becoming so because of its over-reliance on sculptural qualities and abandoning its spatial qualities.

To elaborate, the new breed of architectural objects that are being constructed all around the world seem to have one dominant quality in common: formal messiness. Aided by the developments in CAD and construction technologies, architects are able to realize formal arrangements that have been until the recent past rather difficult to achieve. The Sydney Opera House had to be changed substantially in order for it to be built, something that rarely occurs today unless there are budget constraints. As exciting as this formal messiness seems to make architecture appear, I will argue that there is a sense of defeat that characterises this tendency, a certain reluctance on the part of architects to impose order on the built environment. As Nan Ellin puts it, this architecture says that “…the world is a mess, and that to design honestly, we should express that.”

This transformation of architecture from an agent of utopia into a vehicle of detached ‘commentary’ is not a step towards re-infusing architecture with a sense of mission. Like art before it, by taking the path of ironic commentary, architecture is withdrawing from an achievable social purpose, admittedly open to interpretation by itself, and taking on responsibilities that are not suited to it. In order for architecture to continue with these commentaries, it will have become louder and louder.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison that we can make in order to highlight this shift in the nature of architecture is with contemporary film making and the role CGI in this. While film makers are relying more and more on CGI rather story or character development, architecture is turning to technology to resolve its crisis: by becoming more flashy and more visually complicated it is attempting to compensate for its lack of architectural consistency or architecture finding its own way.

To return to this question of architectural integrity, we have to inspect the state of space in architecture. Although the term space is quite fashionable at the moment, spatial considerations are actually being either neglected or debased in architecture. What I mean by neglect, is the transformation of the understanding of space in architecture from an integral part of the architectonic relationships that produces clearly intended spatial relationships through the manipulation of these tectonics into a set of haphazard arrangements that are by-products of volumetric compositions that are impossible to engage with beyond a sense of awe in face of the an overpowering spectacle.

In parallel, and reflecting a general relativist tendency to deny universal meaning to any human artefact, that abstract quality of space is being challenged and fragmented: hence space becomes gendered, culturally-specific, and most of all a site of power relationships that is never ‘innocent.’ Thus, it becomes legitimate for space to be claustrophobic and disorienting, in accordance with the general trend of highlighting all that is defective and lacking in human beings, but it can never pretend to have any sense of meaning that is a function of its abstract architectural qualities. The key moment in ushering this transformation was of course, Daniel Libiskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, in which trauma and vulnerability were, fittingly for the occasion, reproduced architecturally. However, when the same language kept coming up in the work of the same architect, most notably in a rather inappropriate setting in North London, it was obvious that this set of spatial arrangements was not so much a reflection on the Holocaust in as much as it was a statement about how the architect sees the world.

So, if architecture is debasing its own integrity in order to engage, one has to conclude that the crisis in architectural thought continues. To reinforce this point, let’s take a look at our measures of social contributions today, or how society evaluates our efforts as architects. Sure we can produce spark and dazzle, we can disorient, but that’s hardly enough to infuse architecture with a sense of purpose today. In recent years, architecture is being qualified along the narrowest of instrumental terms, and what’s surprising is that architects are taking on board these banal considerations and are trying to live up to them. It has become quite normal to hear phrases like ‘designing out crime’, handing architects the responsibility to deal with broad social problems with the little means that it has. So why are architects playing along?

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it is hard not to make the analogy with the pop stars that are turning to saving the world. It is hardly considered heroic to design an office building or suburban housing, and architects, in these rather cynical times in which every business gesture is considered somehow morally questionable, are unable to present their products as genuine contributions to society on purely architectural terms. Why should we wonder, when footballers are required to only to kick a ball well on a playing field, but be good role models, is it too much to ask architects to be socially responsible?

The short unqualified response to that is yes it is too much to ask. But before I go into that, I need to address a bigger question that looms behind considerations of quality today: we have lost, or nearly lost, the ability to produce collective judgments of quality. If something cannot be quantified it will be almost impossible to assess. For a variety of historic reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, social consensus has become more and more difficult to come by. And the attempts to ‘quantify’ architectural production are closely related to this phenomenon. How can we judge if anything is valuable to us in the absence of any ‘hard data’?

Architects today, not alone it must be stressed, seem to have chosen to respond to that by subjecting architecture to a set of socially quantifiable considerations that are in fact subjecting the autonomy of architecture to variables that it has very little power to impact. Thus schools are assessed by how they contribute to the reduction of bullying and prisons by how much they will cut down repeat offence rates, to name but two of the most obvious examples. Whereas it would have seemed architecturally honest in the past to resist the pressures of both the market and the state in pursuit of architectural innovation, we are witnessing a rather bizarre situation in which architects rather than seeking to free themselves from outside pressures, are actually helping write these pressures into codes of practice and laws. While architects choose to think of this as being socially responsible, it is in fact a declaration of bankruptcy in lack of belief in their ability to contribute to anything meaningful to society.

This attitude was not born out of a historical void naturally, but came partially as a result of very loud declarations of the failure of modern architecture, and modernism itself, to deliver its promise. Nowhere is this clearer than in mass housing, where architects en masse were made to carry the blame for the poor quality of the post-war housing. Yet, it seems that nobody bothered to examine the particular circumstances that surrounded that particular chapter of modern architecture. More specifically, in order to make any meaningful assessment of that experiment, one needs to separate the architectural considerations that drove the development of housing typologies such as the tower block from the other considerations that were imposed both by the state and the market. Most notably, one needs to address to what extent did the construction logic affect the final architectural products, and what the compromises where. And lastly, one has to re-examine the social engineering dimension that accompanied the whole enterprise.

The aim is not to determine who was blame, in as much as it to arrive at an understanding of the role of external influences on architecture ought to be resisted or accommodated in architecture. The fact that architects are today more than willing to accommodate these narrow instrumental considerations and abide by them suggests that they are drawing the wrong conclusion from history. Let me venture by saying that this attitude is on par with self-censorship in literature, art and journalism: an act of intellectual cowardice.

So how will visionary architecture be revived then? The most obvious answer to most architects today seems to be in facing up to the environmental challenges that we are facing today. The doctrine of ‘sustainable architecture’ has been formulated as a response to these challenges, allowing architects to contribute to the worldwide effort to meet those challenges. Considering that we are told that we facing annihilation, surely this is a commendable endeavour that architects need to be congratulated on?

Before we answer that question, let’s examine what sustainable architecture means, not in terms of the practical considerations that vary in their impact, but at the broader philosophical and conceptual levels. The moment at which the concept of sustainability was unleashed on the world was the publication of the Bruntdland report Our Common Future in 1987, from the United Nations, an organization hitherto more known for its bureaucratic banality rather than its bold vision. This time, however, the UN struck gold, as it tapped into the growing unease with the pace of technological development that many in the world had been unable to cope with. Furthermore, we were living the final years of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was around the corner and we are all humming with sting, believe me when I say to you, I hope the Russians love their children to.

This time the UN was not ignored, what with the stakes involved. Sustainability has since been rapidly gaining adherents and has become the buzzword of the day. In the absence of any dominant systems of thought, it has rapidly expanded to fill the ideological void left by the collapse of communism and the subsequent ideological downsizing of capitalism at the hands of its advocates even more than its critics. It is safe to say that the doctrine of sustainability goes largely unchallenged today, with whatever minor objections being articulated along technical grounds.

Yet, we must, somewhat arrogantly, attempt this challenge. Let me begin by saying that many of the aspects that are associated with sustainability architecture are good things in themselves. Using natural ventilation for example, or orienting houses optimally in relationship to the sun, or energy and materials efficiency are all part of successful design. However, environmental considerations, while they have always been important in architecture, are not the only considerations. It is up to each architect’s own judgement to decide how best to weigh these considerations against the other architectural variables. So far, there is nothing necessarily damaging to architecture, so why should we resist it?

The broadest definition of sustainable development is one  “that it meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable statement, after all who wants to deprive future generations of their chance to have a decent existence? However, this statement is in fact a coded way of articulating the concern that we have actually started compromising the needs of future generations through our irresponsible lifestyles and aggressive economic expansion. Nothing is more illustrative of this position than the concept of “ecological footprint,” the measure by which the ‘renewable biocapacity’ of the earth compares to the actual active use of those resources by humans.

For the ecological footprint to become meaningful beyond economic measures of scarcity, additional factors need to be taken into consideration that go beyond classical resource management and those are mainly articulated along ‘moral’ terms. For example, the ecological footprint takes account of “to what extent humans dominate the biosphere at the expense of wild species.” This is the single distinguishing aspect of sustainability and its paradigm from classical approaches to development and resource use: the shift from the anthropomorphic measure to one that promotes ‘species-equality.’ Without this novel way of assessing resource use, concepts like sustainability and ecological footprint have no relevance beyond classical indicators of scarcity that are by now well covered by economic analyses.

Bearing in mind that we are concerned not with a general critique of sustainability but with the implications of ‘sustainable architecture’ on re-attaching significance to architecture, I will turn to what the impact of these ‘moral’ considerations is on architecture. Architecture has been thus far mankind’s implement of reshaping the natural world to fulfil not only its basic needs but more intricate and complex set of desires that posses value in excess of the apparent utilitarian uses. This value could be symbolic, spiritual or rather frivolous, but it was always placed within a social context that attaches value to these architectural products. This distinguishes architecture radically from the other fields in which humans interfere in the natural world, such as agriculture. Whereas agricultural products are more or less “nutritionally” determined, architecture relies more on qualitative value judgements that go far beyond minimum shelter requirements.

This is ultimately what makes architecture possible as a social practice. To put it differently, architecture, quite distinctly from the question of shelter, responds to a civilized mode of existence and accommodates that spatially. The question of shelter, it can be argued, can be fully satisfied with a very minimal use of resources, whereas the intricacy and complexity of architecture has value only in social terms (and associated economic valuations). The fallacy of ‘sustainable architecture’ is that it places a central contradiction at the heart of what architecture has so far meant throughout our civilized existence. In order for architecture to be “sustainable” it needs to exercise conscious restraint and redefine the parameters of what is acceptable. I will stress the phrase ‘conscious restraint’ for this is the immediate implication of sustainable architecture. It does not respond to actual scarcities, which it cannot ignore in any case, but to ‘artificial scarcities’ that only exist because of a system of moral accounting that redefines the position of humanity in the world.

So sustainable architecture necessitates the redefinition of the possibility of architecture. Defined along those lines, the architectural quality itself that distinguishes architecture from shelter appears to be indulgent and as a consequence morally suspect. This is quite independent from what happens in practice. We will definitely continue building beyond what is absolutely necessary, at least for the foreseeable future. However, it is the distance between act and meaning that will be compromised as a consequence and ultimately it will become almost impossible to defend architecture as an autonomous social practice within this emerging paradigm. Once subsumed within the logic of sustainability, the visionary dimension that requires boundaries to be expanded and constraints to be challenged will be eliminated by the set of scaling-down operations necessary to this logic.


Karl Sharro 2005