These are interesting times. There is in the English language a curse, purported to have been translated from the Chinese, but most likely of British origin: “May you live in interesting times.” The meaning, of course, is that it is better to live in uninteresting times of peace and stability than to experience the curse of living in “interesting” times of conflict and flux. Such a fate would only be wished on one’s enemies. So, yes, it might indeed seem that we have had the misfortune to live in very interesting times. We are confronted with multiple, intertwined crises of great complexity: climate change, political instability, mass migrations, hunger, and social polarization, just to name a few.
There are no easy solutions to these complex problems, but there are many energetic, talented, and intelligent people trying to address them, from a range of academic backgrounds. Architects, however, have largely been excluded from the conversation, or have, in fact, chosen to exclude themselves. The general public cannot be expected to turn to architects for solutions to today’s complex problems if we, ourselves, do not insert ourselves into the conversation. Following the examples of heroic figures in architecture, both past and present, we often understand the legitimate path of the architect to be a narrow one, limited to the built environment. After all, one might reason, that is what we’ve been trained to do. Isn’t it?
No. That most certainly is not it. At least that’s not all. The work of Pritzker Prize winning architects like Shigeru Ban or Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, suggests that architects can in fact play a vital role in addressing the challenges we confront. Ban is an extremely skilled architect and has produced work in what one might call “conventional architecture,” with ordinary clients, budgets, and programmatic requirements. Yet Ban has also worked closely with the UNHCR, developing new approaches to building with paper, cardboard, and local materials to help address refugee crises and provide shelter after natural catastrophes. Ban has used his architectural skills to solve complex problems that transcend architecture and help provide dignified, economical, and quickly assembled shelter in emergency conditions. Aravena has, as well, addressed the issue of social housing from a novel perspective. His work engages local communities and clients, allowing owners to not merely occupy a social housing unit but to make it theirs, to become part of the design and construction process.
This is not to say that the design of a single building, or even of many buildings, can alone resolve complex global issues. Even the socially-engaged work of Ban and Aravena can be located within the somewhat narrow boundaries of the built environment. Might more be possible? Perhaps the unique skills that the architect possesses may be useful in addressing today’s crises, whether or not these skills are applied to the design of buildings. What are these skills? How can they be applied?
The vision of the lone architect genius has given way to a more collaborative model, in which the architect leads a team of experts in a wide variety of associated disciplines; mechanical and structural engineers, landscape architects, urban designers, specialty consultants, sociologists, artists, and graphic designers may all work together on a given project. The architect knows he or she doesn’t know everything. That’s ok. Architects conduct the symphony, they draw out the best of each expert to produce a rich, complex response to complex situations. Most other fields work in teams, of course. That, in itself, is not novel. But the architect’s ability to converse intelligently (we hope!) with experts in a variety of related fields may be an important asset. It is often said that the architect knows a little bit about a lot. When working in diverse teams of experts, this generalist approach may make the architect a useful team leader, capable of pursuing a collective goal by searching out experts and synthesizing their voices into a concrete proposal.
2. Interactive Thinking
Architects assume there are many good answers to a question. But these answers don’t emerge quickly or automatically. That’s why architects tinker, experiment, try and try again. For many architects, an iterative process is an important way of working, a way in which multiple acceptable options are developed in parallel. The resulting battle of ideas and approaches strengthens the final result. When faced with complexity, the architect sees many possible ways forward.
3. Synthesis and Seduction
The architect often is forced to distill complex ideas into a single project image or slogan. In doing so, architects make the abstract concrete and can make a direct appeal to the senses or to emotions. Many of the crises we face today seem abstract or distant. Architects’ ability to visualize and make visible may help a broader population understand the true scale of these challenges. And when it’s time to propose a response, architects have the technical and creative skills to make seductive, clear, and direct explanations and images of what’s being proposed. The current media environment is saturated in images. It can be difficult to break through the "noise" and make a single clear visual statement. Yet architects have long been using graphic tools to make an argument, to convince, to propose. This disciplinary skill is today more relevant than at any other time. We can synthesize, communicate, and seduce through images. When problems are complex, these may be important skills needed to interest and mobilize a populace seemingly glued to their black screens.
4. Project-Based Logic
Architects approach their work as projects: distinct, although occasionally related, episodes with a beginning, middle, and an end. If we hope to address the problem of climate change, for example, the task may seem impossibly remote and complex. Unending. An architectural way of working may help break down this complex challenge into distinct, actionable phases, and to respond to a systemic problem through coordinated but true and tried actions. Architects can help.
To be sure, the traditional model of architecture and the traditional role of the architect will continue to be valid and useful: humane and innovative shelter is also an important part of our collective future. But I would suggest that architects themselves may not have fully embraced how we can also play a role in solving a broad range of issues, and that once we begin to distinguish the tools of the architect from the traditional work of the architect, then we can apply them to some of the most pressing problems we face, working alongside others with the same goals.
As the director of an architecture program, I am lucky to work every day with young, idealistic, and ambitious students of architecture. Many tell me that they have always wanted to be an architect, that they never considered any other path. Others have had a more circuitous path to architecture school, and even now are not entirely sure that they wish to practice architecture, in the conventional sense. Yet the current generation, no matter how wedded they might be to the architectural profession, no matter how clear or cloudy their professional plans, seem in many cases to be more advanced than the professors in that they do not necessarily see a clear line between what is architecture and what is not. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to get these students to make a building, as their interests are often sociopolitical, and not always related to buildings.
This presents its own challenges, I admit, but I do believe that the students may, in fact, be showing us a way forward. Many of these architecture students find the image of the heroic, superstar architect to be somewhat outmoded, perhaps even a bit silly. Instead, some of these students see the architect as a creative problem solver, a coordinator of teams, and someone who can inspire. And while the results are not always perfect, the students’ ambition, creativity, and concern with the state of the world is itself inspiring to me every day.
Architecture may, therefore, provide more than just shelter in these turbulent times, and the architect may contribute more than we may have known possible. The challenges we face are significant but are by no means insurmountable. Architects can help. The students seem to know this, intuitively. A growing number of architects, as well. When we architects try to join the conversation, and when our voices are brought into the conversation, perhaps we might move one step closer to addressing our complex challenges. We may come to see that it has been a challenge and a privilege to have lived in times that are, indeed, very interesting.
David Goodman is Director of the Bachelor in Architecture at IE School of Architecture and Design