Sense Recession: What Comes Next? was a lecture series inquiring and exploring architectural practices as they emerged or were formulated out of the financial crash (not crisis) of 2008.
Xavi Sempere – Culdesac, Spain; José Luis Vallejo & Belinda Tato, Ecosistema Urbano, Spain; Giancarlo Mazzanti – Colombia; Carmina Sánchez del Valle, Hampton University, USA; Sabine Müller – SMAQ, Germany; Mitch McEwen – SUPERFRONT, USA.
Lecture Series Director, School of Architecture, Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, 2009-2010.
(Complete lecture series text below)
We are reaching the end of the 21st century’s first decade and it would seem that architecture has been trying to achieve what it could not in the last decade of the 20th: anything at all. The discipline, the practice, and its pedagogy struggle to breathe within a sea of uncertainties fed by an entropic past that threatens to drown them at the turn of the century. The resulting confusion could be embodied in a series of questions: What are architects doing today? What do they worry about? What are their commitments, and what is the sense of their architectural production? Has architecture as building been displaced by architecture as event?
Architects are still doing architecture – in capital or lowercase letters, whatever is preferred – but even the postmodern “everything goes” attitude that burst a bubble of projects unimaginable just fifteen or twenty years ago has lost today its capacity to surprise the public. The incessant repetition of architectural projects that seem to have been conceived in the same womb is just further proof of the inertia that guides many of today’s architectural practices, which simply replicate or emulate images born from an uncertain –although shared– imaginary, with little space for the acknowledgement of possible (and unavoidable) shifts.
Much like the invention of perspective dramatically changed architectural meaning and representation during the Renaissance, today’s mediatized infrastructure of visualization has replaced architectural work as an end in itself, promoting instead the autonomy of its ephemeral reading. Contemporary architecture has left us, then, with a repertory of virtual realities that are closer in nature to Hollywood’s cinematography of escapism than to the particularities of a cultural practice, which presupposes a universe of spectacle out of phase with the vicissitudes of its historical moment.
The hard realities derived from the financial crisis, the permanent state of environmental emergency, the insurmountable conflicts between nations, the insufficiencies of social justice, the breakdown of the neoliberal economic model, the overpopulation of cities, among others subjects, mark an epoch of media coverage that highlights, as it also questions, the relevance of the trafficking of fantastic images within the discipline. Without a doubt, the current imaginary of intentions, references and abjections that once nourished the practice is approaching a state of crisis due to its sudden lack of pertinence. In this context of uncertainty, it behooves us to discuss architecture’s future venues and agendas as the new century progresses.
As has occurred in many other disciplines that are subject to the ups and downs of markets and capital, the worldwide economic recession or depression has altered the way we think about the architectural project, in what could become a radical change of direction that may be significant enough to be included in the annals of architectural history. Architecture has never been –nor does it appear to be– marginalized from the ideologies that feed the world’s financial engines, yet these ideologies have now desisted from promoting architecture without certain fear. It is worth to approach, consequently, the new macroeconomic shifts from a more critical and less opportunistic perspective, taking advantage from this sudden lack of interest.
The end of history was announced decades ago, and some have already put an end to capitalism as we know it. In Chilean writer Jorge Edward’s own words: “Casino capitalism, venturous and full of frantic speculation, has failed, and now we’re faced with the no less important important task of re-founding a more reasonable and human capitalism. No serious person, as far as I know, has ever thought that the answer may lie in going back to the past century’s real socialisms.” Therefore, if contemporary societies are looking for new paradigms that range from a non-self-regulating neoliberal economy to a post-socialist model of social justice, architecture cannot afford to prolong its alienating stance of defending technological nirvana as the panacea for the evils faced during the (20th) 21st century.
Finding the multiple relevancies of our discipline goes far beyond innovating its mechanisms of production or merely nourishing a dazzling visual and formal spectrum. It is through the conscious and sensible problematization of the commission and the implementation of mechanisms of management and execution, adequate to the specificities of a given place, that architecture has achieved –in recent times– better results. Conceiving and recognizing public space as dynamic and inclusive, reconsidering existing structures instead of promoting brand new projects, exploring materials in a conscious, intelligent way, reconciling our social and natural environments, inserting critical discourse instead of merely showing off formal bravura in publications (in spite of the non-critical trend of forgoing criticism), giving opportunities to emerging thinkers, diversifying the discipline, and reconsidering housing prototypes as key components of the city, are some of the issues that appear to claim relevance in the reformulation of the architectural product for a contemporary practice. Today, the opportunities for inclusion and open experimentation offered by the multiple realities that condition the architectural project transcend the opposition between local and global as an illness inherited from the last century, pointing instead to hybridized models and risk-taking experiments.
Debates on practice and education should focus on the tumbling relevance of architectural work, both as articulated on paper, with letters and drawings, and as built with more or less permanent materials. While not meant to be used as redemptive devices, the anxieties and impulses that bind architecture to art and speculative thinking should otherwise remain outside of our objections. They assure the development of the discipline hand in hand with the vestiges of a humanist tradition that will continue to be instrumental for the pedagogy and the production of what will be called architecture during the following years of the century that has just begun.