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The Architect's Dilemma: The Architecture of Excess vs. an Architecture of Relevance

There has been a split forming in the profession for quite sometime. While some pushed the boundaries of how to build, a new younger group of professionals began to question why we build and who to build for.
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For the past twenty years the voice of the architecture profession has mainly been drowned out by the computer generated sky-piercing towers of luxury. Year after year some of the biggest names in architecture tried to out do each other in what is technically feasible with oddly named styles of 'deconstruction', 'blobitecture' and 'ribbon architecture'. This constant craving to create jewels of desire in the urban fabric left the general public wondering what on earth we do. Now, with the global economy in tailspin, these exercises in object making have come to a crashing halt. For many of us, we couldn't be more thankful.

An architecture of excess vs. an architecture of relevance

In December 2008 New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff began his weekly column exclaiming 'Who knew a year ago that we were nearing the end of one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history?' For the vast majority of design and construction professionals this era ended long ago. It's as though the New York Times were the last to offer a eulogy at a funeral that long since took place.

The fact is, there has been a split forming in the profession for quite sometime. While some in the industry pushed the boundaries of how to build, a new younger group of professionals began to question why we build and who to build for. This week Architecture for Humanity turned ten and we were stunned to realize we had over 40,000 professionals as part of our network over that time - most of whom are part of this later group. We've hit a point where the architecture of excess and the architecture of relevance are set to collide. Given the global crises around us, I know which side I'm rooting for.

Why? Let's take a step back. On a global level 1:7 people live in unplanned settlements, favelas, refugee camps or internally displaced camps. Close to 5 billion people live in inadequate living conditions and have little access to education, health care and adequate sanitation. Almost none of these communities utilize the services of design professionals. For those of us that work in this arena we are being swamped with requests for help from the camps in the eastern Congo to the hoovervilles in southern California. The desire for well built, sustainable structures is immense and young professionals seeking meaning are finding themselves drawn to providing their expertise to these communities. There is immense opportunity for architects to work in the service of humanity rather awkwardly trying to define it or worse impose a solution on it.

This evening I was set to debate Zaha Hadid on ethics in architecture at the Barbican in London. I had flown in specially and in the run-up to tonights' debate I imagined it to be a sort of Ali vs. Foreman fight over the role of the architect within the built environment and how we, as a profession, can act and react to the current economic downtown.

In the circles of the cultural elite I know I'm stepping on very thin ice. Given that she is the first female Pritzker Prize winner I've been told more than once that 'one cannot criticize her'. While Ms. Hadid has certainly made a lasting impact in the architectural discourse, the physical structures created have been on occasion environmentally unsound, exclusive in nature and at times ethically dubious. They fight for attention, piercing the fabric of the city instead of weaving it into a stronger and more interconnected environment.

As for our debate tonight sure enough, as is her reputation, she pulled out and sent an understudy. So much like the scenario that played out in the Ali/Foreman duel, our one on one debate is currently postponed.

Update: The debate itself was not as focused as it could be, mainly as the panel questioned what is 'good design', what is 'ethics', what does 'change the world' mean. Not that this was a bad thing. It was clear that we were along way off from agreeing the framework of the debate but it lead to five different viewpoints all of which were valid. I was surprised to see how many presentations did not have people in the images or even completed structures.

What was apparent is that most of the panel was more concerned about personal ethics (even morality) rather than as a collective. It was more how I see myself in the situation not how I see the profession and its' ability to adapt to current changes in our environment, our politics, our economy or our culture. I felt the constant self referencing to morals and morality was more of a red herring but interesting to debate. As this level we are all personally challenged on a daily basis, especially those who have to decide between taking a less than desirable job in order to keep the firm afloat.

I'm sure if anything gets written about this panel it would be our ability to agree to disagree, that having no conclusion is a good thing and the couple of interesting comments said in the heat of the moment. I did think some of the audience questions was as insightful as many of our answers.

Also there is a nice followup by Francis Anderton who suggests this debate is irrelevant. However the idea that this is a black and white matter is simply not the case. Certainly, as she clearly points out, many 'big name' architects have done socially responsible work - although far less than the sort of requirements laid out in the medical or legal profession. The debate is not about replacing one ism with another, it is about investigating what happens in the vacuum left with a global downturn in the economy. Will architects retrench to just super-rich clients or become more theoretical while we ride out the recession OR is there a role to play for the expanding the profession into realms that are more relevant to the current climate.

The argument was never about starachitect vs. non-starachitect but how we adapt and change as a group of professionals that is dedicated to improving the physical environments that we call life. There is no 'architecture with a big A' there is only architecture and how we practice it matters not just for the state of the world but the survival of the practice.

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