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What is an architect in society today?
Patrik Schumacher 2002
Survey appearing in: Hunch Magazine, No.5, The Netherlands
1) What is an architect in society today?
The avant garde architect is a radical innovator in the field of spatial organization.
This rather small and particular segment of avant garde production is nevertheless taken to define the essential character of the discipline and it’s practitioners define the role model of “the architect”. The distinction between avant-garde and mainstream or the high art of architecture vs commercial architecture remains a constitutive undercurrent for the self-image of the architect. This logic can not be overcome by fiat: the Dutch attempt to embrace banality from within the avant-garde discourse can not collapse this distinction. We do not regret this. We think this division of labor makes sense with respect to the promotion of the spatial aspects of the socio-economic development.
2) How do you define an innovative architect?
Innovation is the constitutive moment and defining task of architecture as discipline ever since its conscious inception in the renaissance. Ever since all great architects have been radical innovators – that’s the stuff that architectural history is made of. And architecture observes itself historically. What is recognised as architecture is marked by radical innovation and theoretical argument. Mere building (i.e. the vernacular, the mainstream, commercial architecturte) relies on the repetition of well proven solutions taken for granted. Innovation questions the way things are done and requires an argument which transcends the mere concerns and competencies of building. Innovation requires theory. This ultimately involves conceptions of the good life and the good society. Great architecture and ambitious architectural theory relates architectural progress with social progress. The status quo does not require theory. Theory offers an implicit utopia.
However, utopian speculation is rather dubious today. In recent years the very notion of progress and the ambition to project a different future has come to be regarded as suspect. Architecture as a discipline and discourse is faced with a large number of shifting variables and conflicting interests. The complexity of the situation precludes straightforward goal orientation. A playing field for experimentation is required to explore possible problems/solutions. This is the raison d’etre of architecture’s relative autonomy. Experimentation requires a certain distancing from immediate performative pressures and the demand of best practise delivery.
3) How does one practise the profession ?
Again this is specific to the wether one is concerned with avant-garde or mainstream practise.
For innovative production a playing field for formal research and spatial invention is required where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the commercial sector. However, research is not institutionalised within architecture – neither as publicy funded university research nor in the form of research departments within the big architectural firms. Instead the discipline relies on two substitutes for proper research : architecture schools and avant garde architects. The commissions of avant garde architects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market - the segment of high profile cultural buildings.
From the architect’s perspective such cultural icon buildings demands a certain type of design office and a mode of working that is not easily adapted to the mundane projects that are locally around the corner. It requires a world market of cultural project opportunities to feed a 50 people strong crew specialized in creative work. Thus also from the supply side the partition of the profession is reinforced.
Art centers and other “cultural” buildings usually have only loosely defined briefs that allow for interpretation and experimentation. Architecture as a discipline and discourse revolves around such buildings. The public character and media attention attached to these experiments make them into vehicles of experimental engagement with a wide array of audiences. This offers an opportunity to gather feed-back and use such buildings as focal points for participatory innovative processes. The burden of argument and proof is – to this extent - lifted of the shoulders of the individual architect even if written statements that try to make sense of strange, experimental designs are an essential part of the professional practise in the avant garde/research segment of the profession. Unfortunately the next step - the translation of new spatial and formal repertoires into the mainstream - is a matter that largely takes place outside the critical attention of the discipline or else is deningrated. This evaluation of the mainstream in terms of a lack of originality, or a compromise of tectonic/aesthetic principles misses the point – the raison d’etre of the division of labour within the profession.
4.) What are the responsibilities of an architect ?
The responsibilty of architecture is split according to the division of labour between high art and mainstream. The sole responsibility of the avant garde architect is to innovate. His/her work is a manifesto, it’s value transcends the immediate task of the building at hand. The responsibility of the mainstream architect is to adopt what can be adopted according to circumstance.
However the exchanges between the two fields are no one-way street. We subscribe to Koolhaas’ method of the retro-active manifesto. Innovations are more than just new and different. Not everything goes. Alternatives have to link up with realities. Also :Innovation might be hidden in the « ugly » deviations of commercial development. Taking clues from aspects of mainstream/commercial developments that are not traces of high architecture but rather enforced deviations is a useful technique of seeking out phenomena to extrapolate from.
Tendencies might also be mutated. The question is how much alterity can be digested at once. The burden of responsibility for success can no longer be shouldered by the architect alone. This would choke the development.
5) What is your definition of the laboratory ?
Laboratory research in distinction to avant-garde practise can not be conducted on the basis of chance commissions. In the absence of properly instituted research post graduate teaching offers the closest approximation. Schools become laboratories in two distinct but equally important ways :
1. One task is to scan society to find architectural problems and define briefs even if no client is articulating them. This updates the agenda of architecture.
2. A second task is to explore new design media and modelling techniques. This is closely related to the proliferation of new formal repertoires. Initially such research should be independent of any stringent brief or strict criteria of instrumentalisation. The task is to untap potentials that might inspire the search of problems on the basis of discovered « solutions ». This reversal of the usual means to ends logic is impossible within professional practise – and highly constrained within avant garde practise. The freedom to post-rationalise is greatest where no specific problem is posed from the outside – the only requirement being that a form – function relationship is established at the end.
The function of this academic laboratory research is to criticise, irritate and inspire avant garde and then mainstream professional practise. The idea that academia itself could establish models of best practise is utterly misguided.
6) If you would educate the students at the Berlage laboratory what would you educate them ?
The Berlage has been strongest in the field of urban research and critical brief writing, i.e. the expansion of architecture’s programmatic agenda and it’s possible domain of intervention. This was assisted by the assimilation of contemporary sociological theory and cultural criticism. We assume that a respective ethos has taken root within the student body. It is inevitable that any future work will build upon this ethos. However, against this backdrop we would want to emphasise the independent validity of formal research and the exploration of new design media. The Berlage - on many occasions - has been producing innovative formal solutions - however without making formal problems/possibilities the explicit issue of debate and research.
Once this distinction between two domains of architectural innovation - programmatic vs formal innovation - has been posited the call for synthesis seem irresitable : the pursuit of new agendas by means of new media and new forms. Indeed such a synthesis is crucial. However - neither new agendas nor new forms are readily available and their mutual « fit » rarely obvious. Both ingredients of architectural research require an independent life before synthesis can be attemted. The appropriate technique of coping with this is oscillation - either within a project or between projects.
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