Architecture's "Political Compass": A Taxonomy of Emerging Architecture in One Diagram

The full political compass diagram (Version 0.1) produced by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Guillermo Fernandez Abascal. Image © Alejandro Zaera-Polo & Guillermo Fernandez Abascal

Observing the architectural landscape today it’s clear that the type of work which is currently ascendant, particularly among young practices, is very different to what came before the financial crisis of 2008. But what, exactly, does that architectural landscape look like? In an essay titled “Well into the 21st Century” in the latest issue of El Croquis, Alejandro Zaera-Polo outlined a 21st-century taxonomy of architecture, attempting to define and categorize the various new forms of practice that have grown in popularity in the years since—and as a political response to—the economic crisis.

The categories defined by Zaera-Polo encompass seven broad political positions: The “Activists,” who reject architecture’s dependence on market forces by operating largely outside the market, with a focus on community building projects, direct engagement with construction, and non-conventional funding strategies; then there are the “Populists,” whose work is calibrated to reconnect with the populace thanks to a media-friendly, diagrammatic approach to architectural form; next are the “New Historicists,” whose riposte to the “end of history” hailed by neoliberalism is an embrace of historically-informed design; the “Skeptics,” whose existential response to the collapse of the system is in part a return to postmodern critical discourse and in part an exploration of contingency and playfulness through an architecture of artificial materials and bright colors; the “Material Fundamentalists,” who returned to a tactile and virtuoso use of materials in response to the visual spectacle of pre-crash architecture; practitioners of “Austerity Chic,” a kind of architectural “normcore” (to borrow a term from fashion) which focuses primarily on the production process, and resulting performance, of architecture; and finally the “Techno-Critical,” a group of practices largely producing speculative architecture, whose work builds upon but also remains critical of the data-driven parametricism of their predecessors.

As a follow-up to that essay, Zaera-Polo and Guillermo Fernandez-Abascal set out to apply the newly-defined categories to the emerging practices of today with a nuanced “political compass” diagram. They invited practices to respond to their categorization in order to unveil the complex interdependencies and self-image of these political stances. For the first time, here ArchDaily publishes the results of that exercise.

The work of Marc Fornes represents a "Techno-Critical" attitude, utilizing parametrics but in a very different way to his pre-crash predecessors. Image © MARC FORNES & THEVERYMANY

During the last decade, there has been a growing interest within the architectural debate about the possibility of a political re-engagement of the discipline, a subject which had been remarkably absent from the disciplinary debate since the 1970s, but which seems to be back in the spotlight.

Based on the political categories outlined in the text “Well into the 21st Century,” published in El Croquis 187, and deeply inspired by the infamous diagram from Charles Jencks in Architecture 2000, we set out to make a synchronic map of contemporary emerging architectural practices.

We have selected 181 world-wide emerging practices, which we have located on a dial where the political categories were laid out, trying to set their adjacencies with some sense of continuity. Starting from the Techno-critical, we move clockwise to the Technocratic, then to the Cosmopolitical, then to the Austerity-chic, Activists and then to the Material Fundamentalists, Constitutionalists, Historicists, Revisionists, Skeptics and finally to the Populists.

H Arquitectes' work could be categorized as "Cosmopolitical," a close relative of "Austerity Chic". Image © Adrià Goula


We mapped the emerging architectural practices following their estimated political inclinations inside a circular field comprised in the dial. While there was an interesting adjacency between the different political categories, and we could place them nicely around the circular field, some of them had to be placed in less evident adjacencies.

The difficulties of locating the practices are evident: some of the practices were often bridging non-adjacent categories, so they were difficult to locate. Practices are not homogeneous and sometimes shift positions between projects and sometimes, between partners. We nevertheless tried to place every one of the emerging practices that we thought were significant on the map, to the best of our judgment, which is obviously limited. This is Version 0.1, so we will hopefully do later iterations where a different mapping technique could be used, further categories added or more precise information about the practices can be included.

Assemble take an "Activist" stance in their work. This is reflected not only through the production method which focuses on communities and self-building, but also in the aesthetic, which uses traditional forms and soft, pastel colors. Image Courtesy of Assemble

Then we asked all practices for a self-assessment, so we could see the deviation between our estimated location and their desired one. We sent the practices a list of the political categories and the empty compass, deleting the names of the practices that we had located, so they could position themselves without being affected by the proximity of other practices, or by our own hypothesis about their location.

We asked them to position themselves on the map: the closer they locate to the outer border of the compass, the more orthodox they consider themselves in respect to the neighboring category; the closer they go to the center of the circle, the more hybridized they would consider themselves.

Focusing on craft and the authenticity of natural materials, Studio Mumbai is a clear example of a "Material Fundamentalist". Image © Hélène Binet

Analysis of Data

  1. 101 practices entered into the self-assessment (56%).
  2. 50% of the practices placed themselves graphically. The other half seemed to be more comfortable with a verbal description of their position in respect to the categories.
  3. 15% matched almost exactly our hypothetic location.
  4. 20% located themselves close to our hypothetical location, mostly tending toward the center or toward neighboring categories.
  5. 20% placed themselves in a different location, with a general tendency toward a more central, hybridized location, many of them pointing towards the “Cosmopolitical” category.
  6. 10% set themselves in an opposite area.
  7. 5% said that they do not fit into any of the categories, and proposed alternative categories for their own practice. “Utopian” and “Pragmatic” are some of the requested political grounds which were not available.
  8. 5% wanted to be into two categories or in overlaps which were currently unavailable in the map.
  9. <5% suggested different positions for each of the partners.
  10. 5% asked for a change of their political location after seeing our full compass hypothesis.
  11. <5% distributed their projects over the map saying every project has a different political stance and there is no overarching political stance in their practice, as it is related to the specific situation of the project.
  12. <5% were happy with any location we gave them.
  13. <5% described their practice according how they approach each category.
  14. <5% provided specific coordinates of their location or suggested that a more precise geometrical diagram could simplify their answer.
  15. 5% expressed interest but did not send any answer.
  16. 5% showed gratitude for including them but refused to participate because of being extremely busy or because they considered the experiment inadequate to capture the profession, irrelevant, or they thought the categories were subjective, imprecise and disputed.

Reintroducing formal references from historic architecture, Barozzi Veiga are an example of the "New Historicists". Image © Simon Menges


There is a logical reluctance in the practices to accept our categorization. Given the current resurgence in politics in architecture, we expected emerging practices to have a more ideological stance to practice than the previous generation. Instead, we noticed a general refusal to take a clear stance. Perhaps our categories were not sufficiently varied. Some practices requested the category “Utopian” which was missing from the reference text, and the categories on offer. This was particularly true of those in the categories of the Activists and the Populists. We had excluded Utopianism simply because we do not believe any of the practices included can be considered truly utopian. We do believe there may be Utopian practices in architecture today but rarely within the selection of practicing architects which we have adopted for our analysis.

There were several requests for a “Pragmatic” label, as if Realpolitik was still alive and well within the emerging generation, despite the general claim for a more “engaged” architectural practice. We had deliberately avoided Pragmatism as a political option, as it was one of the most common claims of the previous generation of “neo-liberal” practices, and it appears to imply a lack of a strong ideological conviction as a driver of the practice. However, several practices appear to reclaim pragmatism as a political stance, even referring to authorities such as Latour, Marres, etc. Perhaps a difference should be made between ideological and tactical politics in further iterations of this experiment. Many of the practices tended to express a wish to move toward the center of the chart, to remain in a more ambiguous position, including those positions which claimed that every project develops its own political stance. Some of them even claimed that every partner has a different political stance, which is both probably true and interesting.

With its bright plastic exterior, SelgasCano's 2015 Serpentine Pavilion is an excellent example of the playful yet contingent architecture of the "Skeptics" category. Image © Iwan Baan

Other than the tendency toward the center, Activism and Cosmopolitical are some of the most coveted locations for emerging practices. Those located in the Populist area did not agree with their location and tended to complain of oversimplification of their position. This may very well be true, as populism is more of a style of delivery and we ourselves believe that, while it may be predominant in some practices, we can probably have populists among the Cosmopoliticals, the Activists or the Material Fundamentalists.

Those practices that we have located in the Material Fundamentalism or the Cosmopolitical tended not to respond to the experiment by a large margin. The same is true for the people we located within the Activist and Austerity proponents. That seems to be consistent with their political stance of prioritizing the actual building itself, the cosmos or the engagement with the community...

BIG is perhaps the ultimate example of the "Populist" category, using diagrammatic forms and easily comprehensible explanations for their projects. Image © Iwan Baan

The Global compass was not as global as we had wanted: we did not manage to engage a sufficient number of Asian practices, despite their disproportionate weight in the global construction output by comparison with other regions in the world. The scarce engagement of Asian practices in the study may be an index of a general disbelief in architectural politics, or perhaps the reluctance to engage with a possibly too-Western political perspective.

80% of the contributors expressed a positive attitude towards the classification. Even some of the ones who refused to take part in the quest qualified the experiment as “nice,” “intriguing,” “amazing,” “maniac,” “genial,” “funny,” “great,” “very cool,” “super interesting,” or “fascinating,” and they appeared to like the fact that a magazine best known for monographs of established architects was willing to open this debate. To all those who engaged in the experiment, in whatever form, our deepest gratitude. We hope to continue the debate that was initiated here with all of them, to produce more sophisticated versions of this map.

About this author
Cite: Alejandro Zaera-Polo & Guillermo Fernandez Abascal. "Architecture's "Political Compass": A Taxonomy of Emerging Architecture in One Diagram" 16 Dec 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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