Way back in 1755 an Op-Ed appeared in, of all places, Domus, concerning the relevance of the architectural manifesto. Speaking of relevance, the authors waxed on about some movement known as Occupy Wall Street—remember them? They claim—though I’m not certain it’s entirely true—that Occupy proliferated without the aid of any manifesto and thus serves as an example of how the manifesto has become a thing of the ancient past. Well, there you go. Manifestos are more or less dead these days. They have been supplanted by tweets and something called pragmatism. Seems like this whole pragmatism in architecture thing has been taken around the block a few times before, hasn’t it?
The point of the Op-Ed, a nice little salvo across the bow of intellectual architectism, was to showcase a little symposium hosted by none other than Columbia University's GSAPP. The symposium—is this part over yet?—was titled—kill me now—What Happened to the Architectural Manifesto? What happened, indeed. Who cares, really? And that would be the point, right? Nothing really happens with most of them. They are like those paperback books you pick up in supermarkets right after you’ve selected your favorite brand of tampon or micro-brew designer beer. They are cheap, glossy, and disposable. More for distraction than for actually getting your literature on. But wait. There are some that are like signed, hard-back first editions. The ones that are perhaps truly relevant and stand the test of time are political in nature.
Thus we arrive at the “crisis” of the current moment where architecture is bereft of manifestos by which it may be measured, guided, and ultimately judged in political or social terms. One of the conclusions of the symposium—not necessarily an original one—was that manifestos are more evidence for actual failure than realized goals. Of course, since this symposium took place in 1755 we all know this is old news. As a substitute we have the postmortems of architectural criticism in all its forms, long, short, tweeted, pithy, irreverent, and usually negative—usually deserved. That was another symposium. What Happened to Architectural Criticism? Let’s run away from here quickly.
Another reason for the demise of manifestos—aside from the real reason that most people just don’t give a shit because they are too damn busy trying to deal with the anxiety and instability produced by financial and political meltdowns—is, according to the authors of this ancient treatise, because architects are unwilling to take a stand for what they believe in. Or, perhaps architects are taking stands for what they believe in but what they believe in just isn’t politically relevant. That might be true were it not for movements within architecture for sustainable practices, buildings that don’t kill people with toxic materials, projects that serve vulnerable populations, and foundation-based humanitarian work. These, like the great manifestos of the past, are intrinsically political.
So here is another alternative: architects take stands through their work. Let the work be the manifesto, the political statement.
Thus, the crisis is not that manifestos are dying in some godforsaken intellectual or cultural famine in some refugee camp for manifestoes where they are covered with flies and waiting for some airlift to drop supplies and medicine. The real crisis is that there are no good reasons to write them or read them in the first place—unless you are part of architectural academe. In the face of economic crisis architecture has started sleeping around with pragmatism again. Pragmatism is easy, after all. It’s architecture’s primeval default. But not all architecture has been doing this.
What does this have to do with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights? I was reminded of this in a recent post by Sherin Wing. Drafted in 1947, this is, quite possibly, the manifesto of manifestoes. It is a good reminder of how a manifesto can be relevant. As that 1755 symposium demonstrated, manifestos are most relevant when they address humanity directly—that’s my interpretation, anyway.
Though architecture may feel powerless to influence such broad issues related to environmental justice and political spatial practice, there are articles in the Declaration that directly pertain to architecture and how it is deployed. Architecture has not always shrunk from political agendas—more on this in another post. But the economic pressures placed on architects to align with the interests of rich and powerful clients make it almost impossible for architecture to modify or inflect the dominant, well-financed agenda. This is why so many manifestos are empty promises or intellectual exercises rather than built realities.
The Declaration serves as a reminder of the potential for architecture to seek a greater good.