First off, I would like to thank Patrik Schumacher for taking to Facebook on March 17 at 9:45pm to let off steam -- thus starting a meaningful discussion on the role of the architect in society and culture. We could deconstruct it line by line, but I don’t think that will yield much in the way of enlightenment. What I take from it is that architecture creates form and should be free to do so without being restricted by ethical or moral imperatives to be social or political. But, as Benjamin Bratton remarked in reply to Schumacher, “To set the political to one side and at the same time make grandiose claims for how architectural form can in fact ‘remake civilization’, is a self-defeating program.”
Perceptions on the role of architecture in society can easily fall along class, race, and national lines. Coming from a place of privilege, it is easy to assume an apolitical, form-making agenda for the profession. The argument that architecture has nothing to do with the social domain, or the “content” as Schumacher calls it, is an argument for political conservatism, a hands-off, sink or swim argument for social Darwinism, that limits the range and impact of high architecture. Why can’t the best and most challenging forms of architecture penetrate through all social strata? Why shouldn’t it serve the poor? And why shouldn’t this be one criteria among others for judging the value of architecture?
I asked Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and former head of Architecture for Humanity, what he thought about it. He doesn’t see this as an either-or proposition of politics or no politics, social justice or no social justice. Architecture is “a huge sandpit to play in and designers can spend their creative focus on form-making, community building, or experimenting with materials and technology.” It’s regrettable that humanitarian or public interest architecture has emerged as something distinct from the high-design realm Schumacher inhabits.
Sinclair continues, “Unfortunately we also constructed a system based on competition and recognition and of late the rise of public interest architecture has led to open disdain and ridicule from those who serve the aesthetic end of the profession. This leads us to ask, what makes a great building? Hint. There is no easy answer and that is what makes it interesting.” Read Sinclair’s full response here.
Another great response to Schumacher’s rant was from Cruz Garcia, co-founder of WAI Architecture Think Tank, again from Facebook:
"Let's give prizes to architects that make horribly crafted buildings in China for technology's sake! Lets congratulate the architects that criticize political correctness to work for tyrants and build headquarters for mass murderers. Let's ignore any kind of political agenda and use technology to build beautiful, flashy, eye-catching, spirit lifting concentration camps!!! Hooray for the architects that want to build for whoever hires them! Hooray for the yes men (and seldom women) that can't turn a project down because architecture is an island disconnected from any social connotation by a sea of computer aided design!!!! Long Live the Dictators and Despots of the World!!! Long Live the Architects as their uncritical tools!!! Long live the Iofans and the Speers!!! Long Live architecture without people!!!!"
And, of course, let’s congratulate Shigeru Ban, whose work includes churches and emergency relief shelters, on winning the 2014 Pritzker Prize. Architecture is too important to be a neutral, meaningless vessel, simply about the drama of forms and technology. It is at heart a social project and a system of signs communicating and emplacing what people value, what they cherish. As Cameron Sinclair wrote, “With the unending ability to push how we build, we should also continue to push the boundaries of who we build for.”
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring "The Indicator", he is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.