Merete Ahnfeldt-Mollerup is associate Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This article originally appeared on GRASP.
This is where one has to quote William Gibson:”The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Within architecture (and design and planning), there are always several simultaneous realities. One very pragmatic reason is that architecture is a very slow form of communication: it may take several decades from the moment a concept arises somewhere to the point where it becomes mainstream knowledge within the industry, and then even more time before it reaches the general public.
Take the “Modern Movement” in architecture. Basically, its theories and formal language were fully developed from 1919 through 1924. And when we read the history books, we get this distorted version that the great modernist pioneers were only stopped by the evil dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Germany. This is as far from the reality of the era as it can possibly be.
Keep reading Ahnfeldt-Mollerup's crash course to architecture, after the break...
I once had this wonderful old issue of National Geographic (feb 1932), where the Town Hall Square of Copenhagen was described as “modern and modernistic” - this was the general public’s perception of modernity at that time, not Mies van der Rohe villas.
Nobody even noticed the Barcelona pavilion, which today is seen as one of the icons of the movement. And the real public breakthrough of modern architecture came in the outskirts of the cultured world as it was seen then, in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the Czechoslovakia, and remote parts of Spain and Italy. It was not in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, even though these were the cities where the ideas were hatched, and not in New York or London, which were the centers of 20th century modernity in terms of economy and industry.
So what we have now is a situation, where, in some places, the notion of the “starchitect” and architecture as a glamourous object, is still at the front and centre. While at other places, there is an interest in a more knowledge-driven architecture. In between that, we have some big name studios that are in a sense navigating between those two positions, and they are able to be glamourous when that is needed and cerebral when the client or other aspects of the situation ask for it.
However, at the end of the day, a consumption-driven society will always long for something new, and right now, the new is what Naoto Fusakawa and Jasper Morrison call “Super Normal“. Architecture and design that steps back and leaves room for the people using it.
Above, I used the phrase, “knowledge-driven architecture”, and maybe this seems a little strange, since per definition, architecture is always about combining a lot of knowledge. Knowledge of technology, knowledge of economy, knowledge of aesthetics and of social issues. Still, when architecture is very focused on the outer shape of the architectural object, and less on the other dimensions, there will eventually be a perceived loss of value for the end-user. Simple things like material qualities – bad flooring or dysfunctional heating, or more complex things like uncomfortable living spaces, public spaces that invite crime or, public buildings that go far over budget and fail to fulfill their stated purpose.
This does not necessarily make it bad architecture. It just means that some things are built with other purposes than usefulness and long term sustainability. And those purposes might not be known by or agreed upon by the end-user.
From 1997 and onwards, “the Bilbao effect” was a popular catchphrase among politicians, developers and architects alike. The idea was that by placing a huge dramatic object in the harbor of Bilbao, Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Foundation made that city attractive for the so-called knowledge industry, as well as for tourists. The basic premise is wrong – Bilbao got the museum because they had already initiated an impressive urban renewal strategy, which was working – but all over the world, cities and even small communities focused on statement architecture as an element of city-branding, often directly against the needs and desires of its citizens. And the architectural community conformed. Shape-making became the core of design work, with amazing rendering skills to go with it. Offices like Frank Gehry’s, Zaha Hadid’s and Herzog & de Meuron’s also developed a strong understanding of the possibilities of digital construction design, but in many cases architects let go of the actual construction process and left that to engineers and contractors, with sad results. What is probably worse is that there was no interest in the user experience, apart from the initial shock of the “new”.
After the economic crash, this all changed. The idea that a city could sustain itself only on creativity, with no production and a limited infrastructure, died a sudden death. It was not only about the crash though. The Beijing Olympic planners took disregard of the population to new heights, and in my experience, even the people, who admired the statement architecture, expressed a feeling of unease. All in all, there was a growing understanding among politicians that one statement (or several) cannot carry a whole city – there must be a planning effort to go with it, and oftentimes, this planning effort can get the business done all by itself. The rise to prominence of Gehl Architects is a clear indicator of this. Their work for New York City has changed the the city’s image profoundly, even as it has a multitude of statement architecture new and old.
Speaking of N.Y.C., the “High Line” park is a good example of the current ideal of architecture. In architectural terms, it is almost invisible. Where is the design there? The railroads were already there, and the gardening takes its point of departure in what was self-sown. Still, there are a multitude of subtle design-decisions throughout, creating both access and sustainability. It is an architecture for connaisseurs, but paradoxically also one for the broadest imaginable public. The architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro have been part of the avantgarde elite for decades, and have only recently become known to the mainstream, even within architecture. But their work is consistently interesting for the general public as well as the elite.
Merete Ahnfeldt-Mollerup is associate Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.