Is Architecture Finished? Depends on How You Define It

The editors of "Architecture Is All Over" discuss their polemical new book and the discipline's limits (and opportunities) in the digital era.

The book comprises interviews and historical and theoretical essays, all of which put forward speculative architectural projects, such as Jonathan Tate’s plan for a public beach and boardwalk in New Orleans. The proposal—an instance of what Tate calls “feral urbanism”—appropriates underused urban spaces and infrastructure to create new public amenities. Courtesy Jonathan Tate

Architecture, you may have noticed, has been having an identity crisis of late. Historians Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter have gone so far as to claim that “architecture is all over.” The title of their jointly edited book (out soon on Columbia Books on Architecture and the City), it’s a clever double entendre that reconciles the necessarily slow endeavor of making buildings and the more diffuse and immediate roles architecture can assume today. Metropolis editor Samuel Medina spoke with the duo on architecture’s “all-overness,” the power of architectural speculation, and why architects should be more entrepreneurial in the age of Trump.

SM: Architecture is all over? Explain yourselves!

Marrikka Trotter: [Laughs] It’s a polemical project! We always felt strongly that the title needed to be polemical as well. It’s polemical because it can be read two ways at the same time, but in neither case is it entirely true. It was a way for us to set up how we wanted people to start engaging with architectural discourse.

Esther Choi: It started off with the premise of “all-overness.” We had finished our first book, Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else [2010]. We were interested in the paradoxical expansion of architecture, where everyone seemed to be co-opting the term “architecture.” There were historians of science and art who were writing about architecture. But then also the massive expansiveness of building on the developer end of things. It was a very particular moment that we wanted to look at theoretically and historically. Was this “all-overness” condition actually always germane to the discipline? Or is it something that is very specific to this kind of post-internet moment we’re in?

SM: Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the project?

EC: We organized a conference—this was almost seven years ago—that set off this whole book. We put out a call for papers with a basic set of rules that we had our contributors agree to. We called it the “rules of the game,” which said that every contributor needed to propose a project. We weren’t interested in just promoting a certain kind of critique that didn’t actually posit a speculation or projective proposal. If you read through the book, the projective proposal is consistent throughout every single piece. In some cases we had to really push people out of their comfort zone because it’s a very different type of thinking. We are all very accustomed and trained to being critical thinkers in an academic sense, but to be inventive or entrepreneurial, to actually posit ways we could move forward, is a totally different type of thought experiment.

MT: For us it’s always been very important that the creative aspect of architecture is treated as part of the discourse as well. It’s never just thinking or writing architecture—it’s always acting architecture, proposing architecture, designing architecture as well. There is something speculative and postulatory about architecture. Those are things architects need to reclaim. What is happening now is that architects are giving that [responsibility] over to other people [outside the discipline].

SM: The ambiguity in the title has something to do with terminology, with definitions. Were you trying to work out a new definition of “architecture” for today?

MT: We tried hard to make sure our contributors were being timely, but that’s not the same thing as trying to define the contemporary moment, which neither of us has any interest in whatsoever. We’re not trying to maintain or reinstitute anything as much as acknowledging the fact that there is a disciplinary body of expertise and discourse and that these appear to be almost in crisis, challenged from outside the discipline. It seems that today you can think of everything as an architectural problem, and certainly we’ve seen a lot of people taking that on. But over the course of the project it became apparent to us that this “crisis” is actually an essential characteristic of architecture. It’s not specific to this moment in time; it’s specific to the discipline.

SM: Right. You can’t have interdisciplinarity—which was really pervasive around the period you’re talking about and still is—without disciplinarity. In your introduction you illustrate how this crisis manifested itself in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, through the propositions of Archigram, Hans Hollein, et al. How far back do you trace this perennial crisis?

MT: Well, we say the Renaissance. But if you go back to the rise of engineering at the beginning of the 18th century in France, that was a moment of extreme crisis for architecture. What had been the production of objects that architecture was always comfortable with was transferred over into a much more dynamic and much more compelling model of flows and forces, which accompanied the rise of physiocracy [a model of economics based on agriculture] and of landscape. It was a much more “networked” kind of thinking, as we would say nowadays. With the rise of engineering you literally saw the crisis of the architectural object in the sense that might seem very familiar to us now, happening in a completely different context, in a completely different country far back in architecture’s history.

The work of architect Philippe Rahm uses ephemeral materials to create new and even “historical” spaces. Rahm’s method could be interpreted as preservation, two of the book’s contributors suggest. Courtesy Philippe Rahm architectes

SM: Speaking of history, this book has had quite a long gestation period. Did you feel the need to “update” the content in any way?

EC: It’s funny. The other day someone brought up [art historian] George Kubler’s Shape of Time. He has this really lovely, kind of spatial motto where he talks about how you can be both inside and outside the contours of history. That’s another way of saying that you certainly require a certain amount of distance in order to be able to reflect on recent events, let’s say. To go back to the beginning of the project, it was very difficult for us at that particular moment to be able to really adequately theorize without some distance from the observations we were making then. Now, it feels a little bit like the world’s caught up to the book. It’s like suddenly these pieces are even more necessary, more urgent.

SM: Which pieces, would you say?

EC: There is [Washington University, St. Louis, professor] Patty Heyda’s piece [about Kinloch, a Missouri town near Ferguson that was decimated by local, state, and federal legislation in the 1990s aimed at clearing large swaths of land for the expansion of St. Louis Lambert International Airport]. She posits “erasure” as a potentially productive element of thinking about dispersion. But she also really looks at legislation as an arena for architects to intervene and to apply critical thinking. It seems so relevant now given the recent kind of developments in the U.S.

MT: [Architect and artist] Sandi Hilal’s piece [a play in four acts set in the Fawwar refugee camp in the West Bank] also lays out a kind of architectural practice that has been insufficiently acknowledged in a condition where architecture doesn’t seem to be possible. Yet it is possible, and it is happening. On the one hand, there is a kind of attention to the deleterious way in which architecture could get bound up with surrounding political or economic factors. But we also are very hopeful about and committed to finding ways in which architecture is currently working in a positive sense.

SM: You spell this out clearly in your introduction through the use of two terms…

MT: They’re quite loaded terms—“ethics” and “entrepreneurship.” We wrote it before the Trump era, but now more than ever it feels appropriate to bring them back into the conversation. These are very poisonous words in architectural discourse, and we’d like to find a way to make them useful to us again.

EC: Another word that doesn’t come up as much in our introduction but which I’ve become increasingly mindful of is the sense of “economy”—an economy of means. A lot of the projects that we feature are not particularly demanding in terms of resources, but they’re incredibly insightful in terms of their resourcefulness. By that I mean that resources are latent. They’re everywhere. It’s just about encouraging a certain kind of critical eye and being able to make a set of observations that would allow one to leverage them. That’s certainly a kind of thinking that we’re interested also in promoting.

Esther Choi (left) and Marrikka Trotter, both architectural historians, previously collaborated on the 2010 title Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else (MIT Press).

SM: You’re right that there’s a slightly unsettling aspect to the term “entrepreneurship” partly because it suggests a relentless individualism that is at odds with the collective-minded approach that will be needed to reform the discipline in the ways the pieces in the book advocate for. So why did you insist on using the word?

MT: It’s about recognizing that architecture is an undertaking. That’s where the word “entrepreneurship” comes from. I practiced architecture for a long time  and so I’m very interested in questions on how architects could be more entrepreneurial. Take the bad connotations of the word and just put them to the side for a second—architects have traditionally taken a very acquiescent stance toward their own value and the value of their work, and I am interested in challenging that. I am interested in us figuring out how to revalue architecture even in just a purely financial sense.

You can take the example of the evolution of specs. When architecture first professionalized, really as late as the 19th century, specifications were one of two sheets of paper. Specifications now for even a relatively small project will be stacked binders two, three, four feet high. There’s something about this overloading of specs that speaks to the pooling of
risk in the professional corner of architecture in a very unsustainable way. Part of entrepreneurship is how one takes risk and transforms it into opportunity, whether it’s on a personal level or a practice—a collective in terms of practice, or whether it’s on a collective level on the scale of the profession. The standards, practices, rubrics, and the ordinary routine of practice all need to be challenged, and they need to be redesigned.

SM: To go back to your mandate of projective proposals—what is the nature of some of these? I ask because they are not so future-oriented as to be utopian. So how would you characterize them?

EC: You know, I’m curious. I’m wondering in our index, if the word “utopia” actually appears in our book. Or “utopian.” But you have to ask, “Is there an outside to the neoliberal condition?” This is the perennial debate in critical discourse, right? Is it even worthwhile to imagine an outside, or is it better or more productive to basically resign yourself to the fact that you’re always going to be on the inside, stuck at a certain kind of scale of intervention, and yet still work toward more equitable aims?

SM: An interesting comparison, perhaps, to “entrepreneurial” is “unsolicited,” which had its day nine or ten years ago—the idea being that architects would be proactive and go out and find work, commissions that may not even have existed until they sniffed them out.

EC: But to what end and in service of what values, right? Just to be clear, we would never talk about entrepreneurialism without ethics. That’s the key juncture in our essay. For example, you have the developer-architect model. Well, what about [London-based architecture collective] Assemble? As very recent graduates from Cambridge University,  they got arts council funding and made a project for a cultural center under an underpass that was built by volunteers. That’s entrepreneurial. Clearly the values of the project and the kind of organization around it—even the materials that whole project was constructed out of—are all kind of continuous with a certain set of logic that promotes a certain kind of more “egalitarian” way of engaging in the world.

MT: It’s an ethical stance. That doesn’t mean that it’s unproblematic, but it is an ethical stance and it’s being taken on as such. It’s not being done by default.

Architecture Is All Over is published by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City.

Categories: Architecture, Ideas