Architects: protagonists or challengers of the status quo?
What agency, architecture?
Americans of the twentieth century witnessed a profound expansion of the built environment. Factories, houses, utility and transportation infrastructures, etc. were constructed (and discarded) at a rate unprecedented in the history of civilization. American culture and values in the last century shaped and in turn were shaped by the spaces people occupied for work and leisure. Unquestionably, the relentless drive for fiscal profit to be gained by leveraging the nation’s abundance of natural and human resources fueled a dynamic of expansion ultimately undeterred despite economic depressions and world wars. Up until the time of the financial system’s near-meltdown last year, the superiority of the private-sector-driven American economic model was unquestioned, certainly within the prevailing capitalist sphere of thought, Keynesian warnings to the contrary notwithstanding.
The techno-scientific side of the economy accelerated its ascendancy in the last two decades, its growth driven by paradigm-shifting productivity gains from Information Age inventions and discoveries. Even as enterprises new and old rode the crest of a mounting wave of globalization facilitated by faster and easier electronic means of information exchange, there were concerns raised in popular discourse over the effect the “techno” mentality was having on the evolution of the day-to-day well-being of the individual in this country. In the construction sector, had market-driven incentives for realizing efficiencies of habitation, labor and transportation led to genuine improvement of daily existence? To what extent do the forms given to the communities we inhabit, and to the buildings in which we live and work act to underpin productivity improvements for the economic system under which we labor rather than seek to mitigate for us the hardships of existence? Should we not expect –no, demand- that our efforts spent in creating the built environment do both?
Broadly speaking, the planners and designers of our surroundings can potentially act as agents for life-affirming change at any given time, within any society. In practice, an architect does not plan environments of his/her own sole volition. The process of architecture entails an assembly of relevant data and critical pursuit of alternative scenarios testing solutions within and outside of accepted conventions. Architects, distinct from other creative talent, cannot function without patrons (clients), because the act of architectural design is an inherently interactive one. It requires a statement of need/wants by a party other than the designer for him/her to then analyze prior to synthesis of the solution. Architecture, the process, must render both purposive-rational action (labor) and communicative action (social interaction) if it is to realize its potential as an activity for bettering the human condition.
At contrast to the fantastically novel output of information technology designers, too much of current bricks-and-mortar architecture manifests tired attributes evocative of tried and true expectations, largely reiterating current conventions such that the overall effect is only incrementally progressive at best, reactionary at its un-challenged worst. But, why? Why should a profession comprised of persons capable of and passionate about envisioning the what-might-be find itself a protagonist of the status quo? By definition, design is a strategic action: means-end oriented, bound by consensual norms, inter-subjective in its pursuit of alternative perspectives, and promotive of the individual interests (vision) of the designer. At the same time, the practice of architecture is also a social-interactive activity that relies on the arrival of consensus between architect and client (society?). And yet, dialogue between Architect and Society is not to be found in general public discourse; not at present, nor in the past. Instead, an architect is now and has almost always been an agent for giving form to the ideas and ideals of a society’s dominant class. At present, this means facilitating the on-going fusion of science, technology, industry and administration– progress of the late twentieth century into the twenty-first that has many people -including many architects- questioning the efficacy, or even the intent, of technology advancements relative to any advances in the state of liberty for the individual. If architecture is ever to be an agent for mitigating the deficiencies and inequities of a social order, whatever its economic system, architects must consistently assume the role of challenger to societal conventions that assert control over the design of its buildings.
The uneven distribution of wealth in the United States has remained without serious challenge in the two-plus centuries since the nation’s founding. Indeed the catalyst of Need coupled with an expectation of Equality has prompted many an American to seek, find, and create a new way, a new product or a new service that increases his personal wealth. Even in the midst of today’s serious economic downturn, the relative prosperity of those with their jobs and dreams intact acts to dampen criticism of the disparities between economic classes. Yet, the middle-class ideal of an individual fulfilling his wants through his own efforts is soured by the reality of the enslavement he necessarily brings upon himself in doing so within the predominant economic order. Consider that most personal of architectural endeavors, the home, and all its accoutrements. Dominance of the suburban model of housing development acts to promote the interests of the construction industry, the home furnishings industry and the automobile industry (and oil companies’ gasoline production). The “bigger is better” / “new is better” mentality serves to guarantee that people will continue in their acquisition of more things, thereby chaining their self-interests securely to an economic system that benefits by their consumerism. The American Dream of ever-expanding ownership (home, car, satellite TV dish) acts to contradict an equally-fundamental American goal of individual independence. Though only a few of us may admire Thoreau enough to live out our own Walden Pond, the rest would do well to consider the implications of a lean efficiency derived of less, not more.
In workplace buildings, employers seek a spareness of construction- one that minimizes first-costs, predicated upon a disposability mindset that eschews the lasting in favor of the momentary. Too often during a building’s design, opportunities at improvement to quality of life aspects of the environment are deemed secondary goals to those of the bottom-line economics. Workplace locations are selected with scant consideration given to the commute time for employees, or the convenience to amenities needed for the pursuit of life outside of work. More attention is paid routinely by management to the emerging technologies of its inanimate equipment than to the suppressed ideologies of its workforce.
Architects must come to terms with the role they have in the subservience of individual happiness to the drivers of technological advancement. Because of their training in the humanities as well as the sciences, architects possess the credibility to advocate a humanistic response to marketplace influences. Architects must convince the society at large about the importance of environmentally-sustainable designs, people-friendly cities, about managing “sprawl”, and about including the merits of good design in the nation’s most important public dialogues. To inject human-centered values into a technologically-accelerating economy on a trajectory oblivious to its effect on those values, architects must creatively leverage the potential of the built environment to promote ideals that place people first. If not now, when?