Hashim Sarkis: “I Do Not Think We Have Ever Witnessed a Moment Where We Have Relied as Much on Architecture”

Hashim Sarkis: “I Do Not Think We Have Ever Witnessed a Moment Where We Have Relied as Much on Architecture”

In the second part of his interview with Archdaily, Hashim Sarkis reflects on the future of architecture as he tackles the timeless question of the 2021 Venice Biennale. The curator of the Biennale, which proposes the question of “How Will We Live Together?”, discusses the role of the profession in the midst of all these new paradigms, stating that “Architects do change the world […] by creating […] wish images for what the world could be”.

In this feature, the curator of the anticipated biennale and dean of MIT School of Architecture and Planning presents his views on the evolution of Architecture, and the new directions the academic world should take, to reflect “the complexity of the urban problems of today”. Sarkis also brings up Beirut, discussing reconstruction approaches, civil society, and the exasperating notion of resilience.

Read on for the 2nd part of the interview, to discover Hashim Sarkis’ perception of the future of the profession and his thoughts on Beirut.


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Hashim Sarkis on “How will we live together?”: Exploring the Question of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale

TOPOTEK1. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
TOPOTEK1. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

About the Role of Architecture

ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): As the problems of the world get more complicated, what is the role of architecture? Can architects really change the world?

Architects do change the world. They do so mostly by creating alternative worlds, wish images for what the world could be.

Hashim Sarkis: The confinement has made us much more aware of what it takes to construct a world and how important architecture is in this process. I would like to think of every Zoom grid not as the death of architecture, but at its proliferation into different spaces that are trying hard to recreate, at the microscale of the individual grid square, a world made possible by the architecture that it exposes: a glimpse of a bedroom here, a garden there, a living room, a bookshelf. The absence of architecture is equally ostensible when for example, an image of the landscape is projected behind the person on the screen. We yearn for the presence of architecture even in a fake background in order to transport us, through the architectural imaginary, to other worlds.

I do not think we have ever witnessed a moment where we have relied as much on architecture in order to capture our individual identities and project them out for others to see.

Courtesy of Yona Friedman
Courtesy of Yona Friedman

About the Future of Architecture

AD: Do you think these times will have a significant impact on the profession? Do you see it as the start of a new era, or do you perceive it more as a passing phase?

Moreover, how do you think architecture will evolve, especially with the rise of accessible games, apps, and AI, where anyone can develop their own vision of space? Do you think this will alter the profession in any way?

Archdaily has done a great job open-sourcing this question. I hope you continue to enrich the debate about the future of architecture by continuing to ask it for future architects and to generate critical debates among them.

HS: Since the second part of the question is about technology, let me put on my Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hat, to say “with certainty” that the new technologies will guide the profession into new prospects! Ours is not the only profession to be transformed by big data, autonomy, automation, machine learning, and open-sourcing. But architecture and design have also become prevalent terms in this new technology. As Nicholas de Monchaux, the Head of the Department of Architecture at MIT, observes, “if we need evidence of the fundamental relevance of architectural thinking to the convergence of technology, space, and society, we need only look to the appropriation of the idea of ‘architecture,’ and even ‘architect’ as a verb, to contemporary technological discourse.”

We are clearly seeing changes happen in the methods of design, production, and assembly of buildings. We are also seeing the new technologies turn some of the principles of the discipline around.

© JERRYANG [Flickr], under CC BY-ND 2.0 license
© JERRYANG [Flickr], under CC BY-ND 2.0 license

A scalar turn has been widely acknowledged at the advent of computation. Design has always operated across scales as a unifying force in the clutter of the industrial world from the design of products to cities. In universities, design has also been tasked with weaving a unifying thread across fields. However, our design professions and disciplines have been distinguished from each other by the scale of their output. Computational processes have allowed us to take tools from one scale of design and apply them to another more readily, smoothening the transitions and shifts of scale. The range of scales has now expanded, even more, taking us from the nano to the planetary. So has the exchange of tools.

In the past urban planners planned cities to solve the problems of cities. Now they can write an app! The impact that this will have on the spaces we design is yet to be played out, but it will take more than just smoothly zooming in and out to get there.

For one, it will take an ability to experientially and systemically connect these scales to make us aware that what we do at one scale will impact the other scales and to make us aware, in our experience of the world, of this connectivity. At MIT, and through several joint initiatives with engineering, we are working to facilitate the discussion between the designers of systems and designers of objects and between the designers of nano-technologies, architects, urban planners, and geo-engineers.

Reforma do Mason Bros Warehouse / Warren and Mahoney. Image © Simon Devitt
Reforma do Mason Bros Warehouse / Warren and Mahoney. Image © Simon Devitt

Another important turn is related to the values by which we design. Technology has greatly enabled open-sourcing, the open sourcing of production, and increasing the ability of end-users in architecture to design, produce, and assemble themselves their own spaces and furnishings. The position of the designer is therefore changing, from being the proprietor of talent and the source of values at the beginning of the production cycle to having to diffuse them across the different stages of production and to share the values and judgments about what is good design and what is bad design with the manufacturers, the producers, and most notably the end-users. This promises to radically change the role of the designer and the valuation of design in the long term. At MIT, and in response to this turn, we are looking at these questions with the help of cultural historians but also with the help of faculty in design and systems management from the Sloan School of Management.

Milan Design Week- Echo by Pezo von Ellrichshausen- 2019. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
Milan Design Week- Echo by Pezo von Ellrichshausen- 2019. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Perhaps the most challenging turn concerns the parameters of design. In order to be in control of the process, according to the prevalent approach, the designer has to allow certain parameters of the project to the design table and to exclude others or postpone them. Over the years, we have come to consider form, composition, and (sometimes) program as essential. They make it to the studio syllabus, table, and review topics. However, we have come to leave out structural and environmental issues and performance and to treat them as externalities or compromises that we have to deal with later on. For too long, this selection of parameters has shaped the education and the profession. The computational process allows these ‘externalities’ to slip back into the design process. We are now able to assimilate all the parameters early on in the design process. If design is a form of synthesis among these different skills and intelligence that inform building, then the new technologies are allowing us to expand the intelligence that informs the design and to reconsider the hierarchy between parameters.

We are beginning to imagine a design process without externalities. These are some of the promised outcomes of BIM and simulation. The increasing pressure on architects to prove performance, especially on the environmental and economic side, will only be helped by these methods.

The more challenging aspect of your question will be about how the spaces we inhabit will change. If for example, the city’s main spaces, street hierarchies, and monuments have played a very important role in helping citizens orient themselves, would these qualities change now that we rely more on navigation apps than on spatial features and landmarks for our orientation? If right now, our human intelligence interacts with the intelligence of a room by opening and closing the windows, and changing the layout of the furniture to maximize the spatial dimensions, what will be the nature of our interaction when the room’s Artificial Intelligence will take care of its shading and maximize its layout.

The impact of technology on our eyes and our behavior will probably spawn a stronger impact on architecture and cities, but it will change our interaction with space. I say, “Bring it on!” We will always find rich outlets for our intelligence and imagination. We will be able to include Artificial Intelligence around the table of intelligence that we convene.

Cidade do México, México. Image © Johnny Miller Photography
Cidade do México, México. Image © Johnny Miller Photography

About Future Design Directions

AD: Do you think the design world is shifting towards more social and communal models? What is the role of education in pushing forward these ideas?

HS: One of the pernicious problems we face in academia is that we tend to teach our students old tricks to deal with new challenges. In other words, we tend to perpetuate structures of disciplinary knowledge that had been shaped around earlier problems but that no longer correspond to the problems at hand. The fields that constitute urban studies today for example, (social and economic development, urban design, community planning, and environmental policies) do not effectively reflect the complexity of the urban problems of today. Neither do those that constitute architecture (design, representation, building technology, and history and cultural studies).

Problems such as racial segregation in cities, gender inequalities, coastal flooding, social mobility, and material scarcity straddle across scales and disciplines and demand new tools, new approaches, even new epistemologies.

The richest education is the one that helps articulate and strengthens the students’ values and that brings these values to bear on the very knowledge that is being transmitted to them through debate and demonstration. This generation of students has bravely advanced societal and communal models based on the values of sustainability and equity that they hold up so strongly. Racial justice, gender justice, climate justice, social equity, and the need to mobilize all resources towards achieving them are being pursued in every syllabus, and under every stone. Our role as educators is to engage with the students in how best to advance their values through their future professions as designers, architects, planners, and new ones yet to be invented. We can do that best if we abandon the long-held, but false, the distinction between professionalism and social engagement, if we work with our students to position their views sharply but respectfully in relation to those of others, and if we convey to them that they need to be better than us and to create the space for the values of the next generations to change their own.

Paseo de la Reforma, México City. Image © Santiago Arau
Paseo de la Reforma, México City. Image © Santiago Arau

About Beirut

AD: Let’s talk about Beirut and the recent calamity. After the blast, 40% of the city has been severely damaged according to recent reports. Beirut was hit in the core of its urban fabric; and the debate of reconstruction is already on the table. What kind of approach would you take in rebuilding Beirut? And what are the priorities?

Finally, given the political situation, do you think urban governance can be handled by the people? In other words, can people rebuild their city on their own? Could this be the birth of a new system of governance?

HS: About fifteen years ago, Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella invited me to write a chapter about Beirut in a book called The Resilient City. That book was really a forerunner. It was the first attempt at articulating the notion of resilience in architecture and in cities, illustrating it through case studies from around the world that have overcome disasters and wars. At that time, Beirut’s recovery plans emerging from fifteen years of civil war seemed to exemplify resilience at its best. The recent explosion, unfortunately, destroyed a big part of the city that has been rebuilt since then and other inner-city residential neighborhoods.

Significantly, the anger that spread after the explosion was projected at the corruption and neglect that led to this explosion, but it was also about associating Beirut with resilience.

“Enough resilience,” people were screaming, defeatedly acknowledging that they have reached their limit of tacitly tolerating over the years all the injustices and corruption that have led to wars and explosions of this sort. Beirut has to be rebuilt from this position. When citizens collectively scream “enough,” it is one of the most congealing moments of civil society.

Beirut After the Blast- 2020. Image © Rami Rizk
Beirut After the Blast- 2020. Image © Rami Rizk

Josiah Ober has described the beginnings of the Athenian Revolution as the moment when Athenians, despite their political differences, collectively said “no.” I believe that Beirut has reached this moment. It has reached its limit of resiliency because it has been rebuilt during the 1990s without civic foundations. We rebuilt the physical infrastructure ahead of the social infrastructure. We thought that this would come later. It did not. We built highways but not public transport, private facades but not public spaces, new hospitals but not a public health system. Civil society draws its resilience in times of disaster from its institutions: its schools, its hospitals, its public spaces. These are as many institutions and as they are architecture.

What is heartening is the way that civil society is rising to take care of the relief and hopefully of the reconstruction. In the absence of the state, the biggest challenge of the relief and reconstruction efforts today is to find a way to join these grassroots efforts together and into a bold vision for the city, and not to fragment and privatize these efforts. At MIT, and with the support of Dar al Handasah and in collaboration with the American University of Beirut and other organizations, we are embarking on a joint project to propose a civic infrastructure for the city out of the collective and coordinated visions of its civil society.

Flooding at St.Mark's Square- Vencie 2019. Image via Shutterstock/ By Giuseppe Guarneri
Flooding at St.Mark's Square- Vencie 2019. Image via Shutterstock/ By Giuseppe Guarneri

The threat that Beirut is facing and the threat that Venice is facing exemplify what is to come when states fail and when ecologies collapse.

The outcome of injustice and neglect is so glaringly catastrophic that we cannot but foresee the future of the planet through these localized and intense disaster sites. However, these cities have been spawning so much compassion and support from around the world in a way that their previous misfortunes have not. Theirs have come to be recognized as world problems. I see this as a sign of hope.

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Cite: Christele Harrouk. "Hashim Sarkis: “I Do Not Think We Have Ever Witnessed a Moment Where We Have Relied as Much on Architecture”" 14 Oct 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/949523/hashim-sarkis-i-do-not-think-we-have-ever-witnessed-a-moment-where-we-have-relied-as-much-on-architecture> ISSN 0719-8884
Hashim Sarkis. Image © Bryce Vickmark

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