I remember February 27, 2013 because that was the day Aaron Betsky asked a good question on his Beyond Buildings blog at Architect Magazine. Not that he doesn’t ask good questions on other days…because he does…but this particular day presented architecture with the provocative title, “Architecture Beyond Work: Will Architecture and Work Disappear?”
Mr. Betsky is talking about a couple of things. One, as he puts it, that “the idea that architecture is the act of producing functional machines that ideally have some evidence of how they were made might be outdated.” Extending from this is the idea that architecture doesn’t have to do this anymore because that was a modernist thing anyway and we have evolved beyond all that because of technological, social, and economic shifts. Moreover, architecture that communicates its “work” or “workings” is a concept based on what Mr. Betsky calls “old-fashioned means of production.”
Have we really moved beyond all this? While I am convinced that modernism was more or less an aesthetic choice—the intention to express the evidence of making, function, and efficiency (sometimes)—as much as it was the economical expression of “work”, I am less convinced that work will disappear altogether from architecture.
Additionally, there is the notion that work as we know it is disappearing and therefore the landscape no longer supports smokestacks, corporate campuses, or even iconic start-up spaces for that matter. Work itself is disappearing. Mr. Betsky cites a New York Times Op-Ed by Ross Douthat, entitled, “A World Without Work”.
For Mr. Betsky, this evokes images of Archigram and Constant’s New Babylon as the wallpaper for supposed utopian spaces without work. Mr. Douthat’s article, however, pulls us into the darker spaces of post-employment anti-utopias, a kind of purgatory where hungry ghosts in search of work and meaning roam about aimless and hopeless. Mr. Betsky turns this lament on its head, looking for something more redeeming and liberating that might be a source of inspiration for post-recession architecture. In actuality, if the post-employed were to land in New Babylon they would be forced to work for the total system. In Constant’s vision total freedom gives way to total enslavement in a total environment.
But this may all matter very little as this has less to do with any disappearance of work, or obsolescence of expressing work in architecture, and more to do with the movement, redistribution, and reshuffling of different sorts of work landscapes out of one view and into another—from one history to others. Work is not disappearing. It is moving.
Industry, all that dirty actual work of actually making and putting things together, increasingly goes offshore and takes with it all its expressive steel and concrete sheds. The work doesn’t disappear. It just moves somewhere else and appears for those people over there. Now they have to look at it, but they may also be employed by it. The old smokestacks get new logos when they are converted into museums.
Conversely, however, there is the repatriation of industry. We may be at the beginning of a new era of on-shoring, or bringing industry back, albeit in altered forms and different scales with robots playing roles and so forth. Will we then begin to see the reappearance of work in the next few decades?
Next week, On Disappearance, Part 2