ArchDaily is pleased to announce our partnership with the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award. The following is an essay from Constructing Europe by Pedro Gadanho, member of the 2013 Prize jury.
When one wants to consider the future of any form of activity, one is tempted to extrapolate trends from current conditions. One translates signs from the present onto the shape of things to come. The conditions of a given moment, however, may be too circumstantial, and one should be particularly aware of their transient nature. This is the dilemma one obviously faces when considering ‘the future of European architecture’.
At the time the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award commemorates its 25th anniversary, the European project from which this Prize emanates – and to which it owes its symbolic meaning and promoting purpose – is itself at a crossroads.
In between austerity measures, the South and North divide, growing unemployment, a feeling of impoverishment and insecurity, and the apparent unsustainability of the Welfare State model, which had given the region prosperity after World War II, Europe itself seems to be facing a pivotal, if transient moment.
In a way, this seems like the very brief moment in history in which Europe must choose between a decisive cohesion – and again unearths the cultural, economical and political strategies to become competitive and relevant within a changing world – or again the atomisation into a myriad of proud and diverse nations that, given the ongoing global geopolitical rearrangements, have apparently become too small to survive the global ‘market’.
Considering that the method of ‘scenario thinking’, as invented by Hollywood-inspired military intelligence, is still the best way to think about the future, the options that Europe is facing at the present moment would already give us two important scenarios on which to consider ‘the future of European architecture’.
The first option, ultimately that of the United States of Europe, is undoubtedly the optimistic scenario. This is the scenario in which most Europeans of younger generations potentially believe, even if they bluntly fail to express their views, in the midst of a melange of hopelessness, anomie and predictable escapism. Within this scenario, if a strong leadership would rise to the challenge, the problems of the European Union would eventually be overcome by the sheer financial wealth, cultural capital, technical capacity and general creativity of the circa 730 million residents of the continent, as defined in its traditional geographical boundaries.
Beyond Olympic gold medals accounting – which puts Europe far ahead of any other comparable world region – one could hypothesise that, in such a context, the production of high quality architecture is indeed a good index of Europe’s potential for the future.
The specific way in which Europe educates and produces architects, the way it welcomes innovative and socially responsible architecture, the way it takes care of its cities and public spaces, how it manages to export the professional and creative knowledge that arises from the field of architecture, could potentially offer an example for how Europe can overcome its current problems in a sustainable way.
Looking into these possibilities in non-scientific fashion, my first idea was to ask the editor of ArchDaily how did European architecture fare in the pages of the most viewed architecture website in the world during the year of all crises. The answer came swift, and it confirmed my intuition. Out of 4,909 architectural projects published in ArchDaily during 2012, 2,330 were produced within European countries. Even if, at its 740 million inhabitants, the European continent represents only about 11% of the world’s population, European architects accomplished at least 47% of the published architecture on a reliable global index of architectural production. And this excludes all the projects that were produced by European architects in other continents – a number that I was not provided but that, given the European ‘crisis’, I suspect would also be pretty high.
These numbers suggest that, given its prioritisation of democratic access to education and culture, and even amidst its crises, Europe has been pretty successful in producing – and exporting – a valued cultural and economic asset such as that of architecture. Of course, this value was directly associated to a construction market that would itself prove to be a mirage and an unrealistic measure of Europe’s capacity for growth. But, on the other hand, it also offered an indication of a capacity to innovate and generate models ready to be emulated by many beyond its frontiers. Beyond solid export values, the abundant and qualified production of European architecture has consistently attested the potential of Europe’s core values. If only the investment in these values would remain in place – rather than being replaced by the savage disinvestment on education, culture, and the very employment of a whole generation that benefited from those same high standards – perhaps Europe could endure through the economical storms ahead.
Nonetheless, the mere possibility of continuing such an investment is itself only a part of the optimistic scenario in which Europe reunites around a common political project and manages to overcome its current problems through a continued reinvention – and effective use – of its population’s cultural, scientific and entrepreneuring capacities. In the other scenario – the scenario in which Europe drops its common goals and ambitions, and fells prey to overspread Balkanisation – this investment would be left to individual nations. And here we may start dwelling into darker predictions. Left on their own, European nations may enter a survival mode determined by the dwindling dimension of their own consumer markets and the new difficulties of trading internationally. As it is already happening in the context of a still lingering European Union, they would surely be even less able to invest in the aforementioned values of education, as in those of cultural and scientific production – like that of high-quality architecture. Beyond any ideological choice, the possibility of maintaining such investments was largely a surplus product of a prosperity typically related to the mirage of consumption and the growth of aspiring middle-classes after World War II. When, instead, nations see themselves propelled by economical forces to destroy those same middle-classes, they loose both the potential of prosperity and reinvention that seems to be the characteristic of that social group. In the scenario of national atomisation that follows, also European architecture would be quickly led to go ‘back to basics’. Inevitably reduced to the most constrained and meagre aspects of ‘providingshelter’, it would tend to loose its competitive edge as an export asset.
Considering that, in the possibility of a regression to such a scenario, the current crisis of Southern European countries can be deemed a true avant-garde, it may be useful to look at the nation that has hosted the Prize for the last twenty-five years. Returning to the ArchDaily data I’ve quoted earlier, during 2012 architects from Spain have published 391 projects intended for, or actually built, in their own country. This accounts for about 17% of the total publications by European architects in ArchDaily, which is not bad for a country that in terms of population represents about 6% of Europe’s total. If we admit that the publication of architectural projects correlates to some degree of perceived quality by peers, it is also interesting to mention that this number represents a potentially high quality architectural production of 8.2 projects per million inhabitants, when the same ratio was of 1.7 for Germany, 2.8 for the United States, or, most blatantly, 0.2 for China.
We can concede that, from an economical point of view, Spain benefited enormously from its integration in Europe. We can also admit that its architectural boom was correlated to a dangerous bubble in the country’s construction sector. Once that bubble burst, its architectural production came tumbling down to almost zero, suggesting that its high level of architecture publications around 2012 was, in itself, a swan’s song of an unsustainable progression. What we however also have to take into consideration is that Spain’s architectural wealth is still there. Even if temporarily dormant or undergoing convulsions, its architects still represent an enormous potential in terms of the export of design intelligence.
The appreciation of this potential is then twofold, and again encroaches with the two scenarios described earlier. If we anticipate a common European strategy for its own cultural and economical development, this design intelligence will find a way to redistribute itself through a wider network of demand, both inside and beyond Europe’s frontiers. If, on the other hand, we see Europe atomising back to the level of its individual States and individual initiative, a great part of that design intelligence will stagnate – as, in the midst of the crisis, it is already the case – and eventually asphyxiate. In a fierce Darwinist twist, only the fittest – not necessarily the biggest, or the average – will survive and the great majority of Spain’s untapped architectural potential will disappear without a trace. Which seems a rather pitiable perspective after so much has been invested in the materialisation of the specific cultural value that is today embodied in European architecture.
Nevertheless, the two scenarios briefly described here – as some of the possible effects they can have in the future of European architecture – are still missing the impact of some relevant aspects of the current European crisis, which obviously tend to aggravate and complicate the issues involved in this rather intuitive analysis.
In considering the future of architectural practice in Europe we must bring other contextual elements into the equation, namely some questions that hit the front pages of newspapers a little less frequently. Europe is ageing. Its population is gradually shrinking. Younger generations are forced to flee elsewhere with their cultural capital and economical potential. If Europe’s middle classes are to be slowly crushed by unemployment and decreasing resources, inequality will grow. The welfare state and its promise of prosperity will crumble. While other regions become economically more attractive, an impoverished Europe will loose its appeal to immigrant populations. In historical terms, this could represent the inevitable moment of the continent’s decline. A decline that would only be faster in the case of Europe’s inability to construct a common project, with its consequent downward slide into atomisation.
Beyond the scenarios depicted here, though, how can we see these particular aspects translating into the future of European architecture? Naturally, and while Europe’s political leaders remain undecided on what choices they must make for its future, architects, as other social groups, have already started to internalise the impact of these broader changes. As professional agents – and also as informed citizens of this abstract, unconcluded project – architects, as their clients and commissioners, have already started to unconsciously accommodate and enact the possibilities and conditionalities of these historical modifications.
Architectural programmes are already being fine-tuned for the needs of an older or unoccupied population. While the remainders of the real-estate boom persist uninhabited, new construction is already being substituted by reconstruction, rehabilitation and renovation. And as energetic and material resources diminish, new building technologies are to be developed so as to guarantee alternative solutions to an hyper-regulated, and much too expensive construction industry. In addition to all this, other changes in the nature of architectural practice also reveal how European architects may well prove to be extremely adaptive, particularly when they are in possession of a highly prized cultural and creative capital. On a different note, a strongly educated generation of young architects offers the signs that the profession is reviewing its priorities – and its way of practicing and defining the limits of the architectural discipline – as a subtle reaction to the gloomiest aspects of the worst-case scenarios suggested here.
Where the State looses its capacity to deliver assistance, collaborative and networked practices provide for new inspiration and support, and the architect becomes an orchestrator of bottom-up community aspirations, rather than a go-between of top-down impositions. Collectives of architects offer a substitute for individual authorship and the previous predominance of the called starchitect as a symbol of a period of ultra-liberal growth. Other takes on architecture’s creative potential delve into artistic and fictional possibilities, simply offering critical insights of society’s malaises, thus becoming part of persisting cultural circuits that are quintessential to European identity.
These and other emergent developments reflect very intrinsically the impasses of the current European situation – a situation that, as some put, is the result of a crisis of values, rather than one of financial assets. Moreover, however, they also offer a different, more optimist glimpse of the future of European architecture. They reveal that, independently of the political scenarios Europe will come to choose, and beyond the misconceptions of a much-cherished economical sustainability, European architecture may have already accumulated just enough cultural capital to become endurably resilient.
Pedro Gadanho is the Curator of Contemporary Architecture in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art MoMA, New York and was a jury member for the 2013 Prize.
For complete coverage of the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award visit our dedicated landing page, where you can find past nominated projects and announcements pertaining to the 2015 Award. Learn more about the prize here.