Little by little this new spirit is forming. The greatest crisis of the present day stems from the conflict between our new situation and our way of thinking which is retarded by adherence to traditional practices and beliefs.
Le Corbusier, Mass Production Housing, 1919
In Jaques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime, Monsieur Hulot and a group of American tourists struggle to navigate contemporary Paris. The city is comprised of modernist skyscrapers, straight lines, and an ultra-hygienic urban landscape. Early in the movie, Monsieur Hulot searches for an American official and becomes lost in a grid of offices through which workers mechanically move in and out. The muffled sounds of people and movement and the bustle of business blend into a drone of sounds that communicate no meaning. For Tati, these represent the obstructions to daily life and an interference to natural human interaction.
The fictional Playtime gives a unique early insight into the myth of modernized convenience. Nearly a half-century later, the contemporary city again presents itself as an increasingly complex machine. As architects, we are tasked with designing healthy structures and spaces in this unsettling age. But how does an architect do so for an increasingly mobile and often unhealthy public? How has the architect’s role changed? And how does the profession keep up?
Exploring the Public Realm
Many indicators reinforce the suggestion that we are increasingly reshaping the context by which our needs are evaluated. Lifespan continues to increase; global poverty rates are plummeting; and infant mortality is at an all-time low. Arguments have even been made (despite perceptions easily taken from 24/7 news and opinion streams) that the current era is the most peaceful in all of human existence. (See references 1 through 4 below.)
Not all trends, however, are so positive. The cost of these advances and what we consume each day (both physically and virtually) impacts our cultural and natural environments. These impacts are not always immediate, close in proximity, or even fully realized. The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and shifting educational values are but a few examples. (See reference 5 below.)
One trend is obesity. Labeled a disease in 2013 by the American Medical Association, it is at an all-time high of 35.7% in the United States and 29.2% here in Texas. Obesity rates parallel the rise in diabetes, knee replacements, and heart disease―all this while gyms and workout facilities pop up on street corners each day.
The production of automobiles, too, has long-standing effects on our culture and on what we build. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that each of America’s 107 million households owns an average of 1.9 cars, trucks, or sport utility vehicles. “This is the final realization of the entire American ethos,” commented Robert Lang, director of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, in a USA Today article.
What is green about producing more automobiles (green or not) if the energy crisis remains valid? It seems that where efficiency and time succeed, natural health and distance are compromised; this is even more apparent in the virtual dimension.
Televisions, cellphones, tablets, computers, and the like reflect much about who we are as Americans. As social media, news broadcasts, and entertainment flourish in the virtual marketplace, we depend on electronics to feed us information that informs our perceptions, ideas, and designs. Information impacts knowledge which in turn influences our decisions.
Architects Adapt to a Changing World
This past winter, I met with Wilfried Wang, professor at the University of Texas-Austin and partner at Berlin-based Hoidn/Wang. We sat down to talk a bit about the practice of architecture in today’s cultural context, and what it means to keep a critical framework in the practice of architecture. Here are a few of his poignant perceptions:
“We have seen a rate of over development in the last 50 years across the world. … You have to think: What does that mean in terms of mobility? Infrastructure? From public transport or even private transport, to the provision of schools, hospitals, shopping facilities. … If you do archaeology of that development, there has been a kind of naturalization of the system of corporate economy. … We have a centralized system of distribution where the individual manufacturer, the small scale farmer, the butcher, the family run business disappears.
“We are all dependent on these very large systems by which you get ridiculous situations: sows grown in Argentina and then shipped to the U.S. where the cattle are. Spinach is grown in California, packed in the Midwest, and then finds itself in New Jersey.
“If you think about the world of architectural practice, it’s worked the same way. … It’s set up a certain expectation among young architects that they have to be working internationally; there is a pressure on being able to show up all over the place. I think, this is a problem, frankly.”
Changing Cultures in Architectural Practice
It might seem counter-intuitive for an architecture practice to have focuses besides new construction, but with state-of-the-art computer software claiming a large stake in the profession, applied research and analysis has become a part of the architect’s daily responsibilities. As a high standard of example, offices like KieranTimberlake regularly conduct site-specific construction and material research, including performance measurement and analysis. While this rigorous process perhaps didn’t immediately generate income for the Philadelphia-based firm, it has proven a valuable tool in nurturing a culture of inquiry and assessment. As one example, in 2013, KieranTimberlake and its research team released Tally, a BIM software plug-in that analyzes lifecycle costs and material maintenance in real-time.
OMA/AMO, the New York/Rotterdam-based practice, has also pioneered research-based design. As seen in its recent entry for the Dallas City Design Challenge, OMA/AMO employs a site-specific cultural analysis to establish high-performance solutions at varied scales. Buildings such as the Seattle Public Library are nothing more than a commonsensical response to the complex conditions surrounding the building site and program requirements: an organization of programs wrapped up for the city to indulge. This, “stupid, but smart” approach is not conventional, however, and such projects often come with unconventional price tags.
Taking Care of Business
Until we take seriously the cookie-cutter projects that make up much of our architectural practice, architects have little chance of influencing the direction of our industry in the 21st century. We should be clear with our clients, and clear with what our goals are for each project. We must educate each other on alternatives to new construction and be critical of the dated methods that pervade our industry. As unique crises arise from modernized America, we must task ourselves with inviting new techniques and challenges into our practices. In doing so, we serve as leaders in reason and restraint. We ask ourselves to step outside the eye of the looking glass and require from each person in our practice an objective evaluation of the self and the impact that self has throughout our current political, social, and economic arenas. We must also look for a positive shift in values, family, community, and love for that which surrounds us. In order to design honest and healthy buildings, we need an honest and healthy public, not for our sake alone, but for the good of all of this country.