Year in Review 2018: The Myth of Age in Architectural Practice

Our contributors comment on an event or a moment from the last year that demanded more of how we should practice, frame, and respond to design.
year review 2018 age architecture

architecten de vylder vinck taillieu receives the Silver Lion at the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Courtesy Andrea Avezzù


For me the most memorable and clarifying part of FREESPACE, this year’s frustratingly unremarkable Venice Biennale overseen by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, was the awarding of the Silver Lion for a “promising young participant” to architecten de vylder vinck taillieu. The thing is, the Belgian firm is neither promising—its substantial body of built work proves otherwise— nor young. Partners Jan De Vylder, Inge Vinck, and Jo Taillieu were born, respectively, in 1968, 1973, and 1971.

A glacial maturation process is a defining myth of the architectural profession. One’s best work emerges only late in life, when peers in other fields are retiring, we are told by bosses and professors and other fragile egos, usually with a contrasting anecdote about historical wunderkinds like Mozart. Whether or not the narrative had any truth in the past—Corbusier may not have realized Ronchamp until he was 67, but the 40 years prior weren’t inconsequential— it now feels nefarious. By reinforcing an image of the profession as permanently embattled and rigidly hierarchical, it starves younger generations in their 20s and 30s, and even 40s, at crucial stages of their career. The Venice Biennale, which takes a risk on architects with no experience organizing large-scale exhibitions yet almost always appoints commissioners in their 50s and 60s, epitomizes how a guild mentality supposedly concerned with preserving quality is a bulwark for the powerful.

year review 2018 age architecture

The architect I.M. Pei turned 101 this year. His longevity is often remarked upon, even though he retired from independent practice in 2012, two decades after he withdrew from work at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Photo by Victor Orlewicz, courtesy Pei Cobb Freed Partners


The problem, though, isn’t with age so much as the broader culture that sustains this myth. One glaring by-product of this culture is events like the Biennale that are more commemorative than speculative— invested in shoring up the status quo rather than critically examining it. Another is big-name competition short lists, those festive pageants in which the past masquerades as the future. Killing the father only to submit to a fresh-faced patriarchy won’t make us better off. What we need, architects and affiliated practitioners of all ages, is other ways of coexisting that are mutually supportive. And some retirements would help too.

David Huber is a writer and editor living in Central Illinois.

You may also enjoy “Against Pluralism, Again: Two Books Rethink Theory and Criticism’s Role in Architecture.”

Categories: Architecture