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The invisible in architecture


10 July 2006

The invisible in architecture

“Why have practical men not acquired credit? For the reason that architecture is born in discourse. Why not Men of Letters? For the reason that architecture is born of construction. To be an architect, one must seek discourse and construction together.”

Architecture and engagement is a profoundly tedious subject. Especially when it is presented as something new. Unless of course a new legitimacy were really to be advanced, a new mission for a discipline that has for years bemoaned its loss of social relevance and its marginalization on the building site. Yes, in that case there really would be something worth talking about. It would mean that a profession which can be regarded as the embodiment of fifty centuries of civilization could continue to shoulder that role. That someone capable of giving architecture a reason for existing for a further span of time had come along. Someone of the calibre of Vitruvius, Abbot Suger, Alberti, Palladio, Durand, Le Corbusier. See elsewhere in this book?

As yet, things look rather less threatening for the status quo. What, after all, is so new about all this? Architecture has always had a social task, hasn’t it? No architect has ever been able to be ‘disengaged’, either in the distant past or more latterly, surely? In recent years, too, Dutch architects have been actively involved in major social projects like the Vinex urban expansion scheme, in ‘mainports’ and infrastructure, or in explicitly ‘engaged’ research projects like Rotterdam 2045. The present writer heads a magazine that has never, in all its 75-year history, stopped raising the issue of the social significance of architecture. But in this it is by no means unique. Day in, day out, there have always been some architects preoccupied with subjects that transcend their profession. On the other hand, it must also be said that among those presently flirting with engagement are many who only a little while ago firmly rejected any attempt to quiz them about the social motivation of their professional practice. Now that there has been a change in fashion, the motives are changing too. But whether that will also change the social significance of architecture is exceedingly doubtful.

Day in, day out, there have always been some architects preoccupied with subjects that transcend their profession.

As such, the question of architecture and engagement is as superfluous as it is inevitable. Superfluous because a professional discipline or an art that is so costly, that demands so much time of so many people in achieving its purpose, that is at the heart of society and visible to everyone, can never exist in and for itself alone. But inevitable, too, because no professional discipline or art form is so in need of an external justification, a reason, a motive, a task and a mission, as architecture.

Architecture has never succeeded in emptying itself of functional significance. It has a programme and a debate about the nature of that programme is only to be expected. But while these two variants of the same question belong together in the same way as the art of building and the craft of building, the remarkable thing about architecture is that the two appear to alternate in a historical succession, each in turn claiming hegemony in the debate on what architecture is really all about. And so, every now and then it becomes necessary to state the obvious, that architecture stands for something greater than itself. Only the next moment, I guarantee you now, having to stress once again that there is an autonomous moment in architecture that constitutes the discipline’s core; a body of knowledge, something unique, a distinctive dynamic of action and reaction in an independent métier.

But not just yet. The issue now is how architecture, after years of postmodernist dis-engagement, of philosophical deconstruction and of digital experiments with form, can recover some measure of social significance. Become involved. Contribute something to the public cause. And even though there won’t be any rush to establish a dogma for architecture as happened repeatedly in the past, there is nonetheless a strong need for a clearly defined task, a mandate that lends architecture its social relevance. In an overexposed culture in which it sometimes seems as if architecture has been reduced to the preserve of a very select group of celebrities who compete with one another for the few dozen prestigious projects that are available worldwide every year, there comes a moment when people want to return to the question of the invisible in architecture.

The question of why. The question of why is always of a different order from the questions of who, what and how. Anyone who is even moderately acquainted with architectural criticism and journalism knows that the last three questions are constantly being raised. There are newspapers and journals that concentrate on presenting new work (what). There are magazines devoted exclusively to the trials and tribulations of the superstars (who).

And there are magazines about the methodical and technical elaboration of architecture (how). But there is no market for the why. Indeed, the question of why is always an implicit threat to the status quo and for that reason, in architecture as everywhere else, it is raised as little as possible and then usually in passing. Those who persist in raising it can expect difficulties which is why the present popularity of the notion of engagement should be regarded with suspicion. Is it truly a token of doubt and reappraisal, and thus of risk, or is it simply another timely careerlaunching gimmick? Is it a form of sticking one’s neck out, or a form of the right marketing technique at the right social moment? The best test of whether engagement is about arriving at a better world rather than enhancing individual status and market value, is the extent to which that engagement can be generalized. Gothic architecture was pretty engaged when you think that the numerous workmen were willing to spend their whole life building one cathedral. In the twentieth century there were countless socialist building corporations and public housing advocates who worked hard for minimum housing standards for the masses in the interests of the emancipation of the proletariat. The architecture was in both cases an embodiment of an immaterial goal, a window on a better world. Its legitimacy was immeasurably greater than the significance of a single building or the genius of an exalted designer. It reached large sections of the population because it was intended for those large sections. In that sense, the current retro-architecture can also be said to be engaged because it is intended to satisfy the client. However odd it may sound to an outsider, the creation of satisfaction is no mean architectural achievement. And it is indeed an effect that relates to the collective. What this architecture lacks, however, is vision, the utopian moment, the prospect of something better. Which immediately begs the question: can there be engagement without promise? Is populism engaged? Does building for the consumer furnish architecture with a new legitimacy? Is consumer interest a public interest?

What this architecture lacks, however, is vision, the utopian moment, the prospect of something better. Which immediately begs the question: can there be engagement without promise? Is populism engaged?

It is by now a threadbare truism to say that there are no promises anymore. There are not even any universally accepted values on the strength of which we might intervene in existing situations that call for it. In an age of far-reaching
individualization, collective action and action on behalf of the collective are virtually unfeasible. What and who are to be mobilized? As such, one may well wonder whether the current call for engagement is merely a question of marketing technique.

Does the architecture that is concerned with the large scale of the landscape and infrastructure point to social involvement or a search for new customers? Is the architecture that relies on superbly presented statistical research, an honest attempt to embrace various social forces, or is it simply catering cleverly to the short-termism of contemporary politicians and most public commissioning bodies who are only interested in a good story, not in solving problems that take years to provethemselves. Has there really been a shift from engagement originating in inner need to an engagement prompted by the criterion of cultural entrepreneurship which states that architects should pay more attention to what the market requires of them?

It is obvious that when developments are so described, cynicism lurks. Engagement that on closer analysis turns out to be no more than subservience to the market, is not true engagement, for it is most certainly not about taking a risk. And it studiously avoids asking why. It is not about society as it should be, but as it is. In this guise, engagement is nothing but a subtle form of opportunism.

But there is another, more daring interpretation possible. The repeated recurrence of the call for engagement is proof that architecture will never be reconciled to the historical loss of its relevance. There exists in architecture a never fully explained resilience which ensures that it always manages to attract the reflective talent that concerns itself with how a disadvantage can be turned into a new advantage.

Probably precisely because architecture is specialized in space and space happens to be one of the dimensions of human existence, there is always a task for architecture, in every the historical circumstance. Is the architect slowly but surely being sidelined in the rationalized building process? Then a situation arises in which new tasks are so forcefully presented that the rationalized building process is unable to come up with an adequate response. Renewed reflection is what is called for. And ingenious design. Architecture, in other words. It is something Vitruvius discovered, and today’s committed architect discovers it too.

Architecture as it fulfils ephemeral requirements with regard to accommodation, real estate and square metres, will never be able to develop the necessary vision for the challenges that are even now in the making. A society with new polarizations, for example. Or cities with a majority of foreign-born residents. Or a population that retires en masse. Or human relations that no longer depend on physical proximity. Or a mobility that no longer takes place between A and B, but is A and B simultaneously.

The question of space will always be architecture’s salvation. But architecture ensures that space will never be just a question of space, but will forever remain a question of vision.

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"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)