There are words and terms that once had currency in architecture but have become, in effect, dead. This short, annotated list contains a few, but I’m sure there are more, and I invite readers to submit their own in the comments section. The point here is not merely academic, but rather to note the shifts in thinking that impact the nature of our field’s development. The words we use—and don’t use—are important.
This term used to refer to paradigm shifts and other important changes in thinking and practice that contributed to human progress [see below]. But today, it is associated with ‘extreme.’ In the era of terrorism and the so-called ‘war on terrorism,’ radicals are seen as the enemies of the currently hunkered-down system of social order—in short, as terrorists. They are to be shunned, especially in the application of the penultimate instrument of social order, architecture. It is certainly acceptable to propose extreme forms, now and then, but only in the service of already known and familiar programs of use, and therefore as a reaffirmation of the status quo. Proposing radical forms that implement radical programs is unacceptable. Indeed, radical programs of use are more unacceptable than they ever have been.
Advertising and media hype have used this word to death. But that, in itself, is not the reason for its demise. The application of the word—and concept—to many things that are not really new has effectively destroyed its credibility. The rapidity of change has made everything seem new, even if it is not. The ‘new’ model of car, the ‘new’ skyscraper concept are of the same ilk: new forms of what we already know and have. We embrace the contradiction, so we can have the illusion of newness, while clinging to the old.
In the present time of appropriation in art, as well as the mass-merchandizing of brand name products, including those of famous architects, the idea of originality is not only of minimal interest, but, being a form of the radical [see above], rather dangerous. Of far greater interest is the recycling of ideas, products, and modes. Appropriation acquired legitimacy in the post-Modernism of the 70s and 80s, when the recycling of historical styles—including Modernism—was in vogue. Today, it continues in the guise of architectural populism and social realism, where low art, such as squatter architecture, is elevated to high, and presented as avant-garde.
Today, everything is about technique. ‘How’ a building is conceived and made is of great interest, but not the ‘why.’ Principles are concerned with the ‘why.’ Principles are philosophical—they define basic, inflexible reasons to do a particular thing and not just anything. Today, principles only get in the way of architects who want to do as they are told by their clients, or be free to adopt new styles and modes.
Considered a hopelessly old-fashioned idea, progress means that things get better, that they somehow advance, reach a higher level. Developments in technology, political thinking, and architecture were once thought to be instruments of progress, that is, change for the better in the human condition. Today, it’s difficult to say in any general way what ‘better’ is—in the cacaphony of the marketplace, there are so many different voices, options, demands. Hence, we surmise that things pretty much stay the same, changing in form, not in content. Architecture valorizes wealth and power and the egos of architects, as it always has. Architecture is for an elite who can afford to commission expensive buildings, and the architects willing to design them.
While this word is bandied about in architecture, its meaning is all but dead. There is little architecture, or design, that truly experiments, that is, plays with the unknown. The single defining characteristic of an experiment is that no one knows at the outset how it will turn out. The experimenter is looking for something, has a hypothesis to prove, but has no idea if the experiment will verify the hypothesis, or prove it wrong, or result in something entirely unexpected. Experiments are risky. Architecture is today, and generally has been, averse to this kind of risk.
This word has two meanings for architecture, both of which have to do with time. There are critical moments in architecture, when profound ideas are at stake, and the outcome of debates and discourse about them will impact the future [see below] of architectural ideals and practices. At present, there are no great debates on which the course of architectural thinking seems to hinge. And no ideals. The second meaning of the term is found in the idea of criticism. Criticism was once thought to be essential to high-stakes debates about architectural principles [see above], but, lacking those, has today become, at best, a matter of personal opinion, and, at worst, the stuff of careerist maneuverings.
This word refers to large-scale developments, usually sponsored by governments, that provide living units massed into large building groups. These mass-dwelling projects were the products of ‘socialistic’ thinking, that is, governance committed to the fair redistribution of a community’s wealth and resources. Today, socialism in all its forms is dead, having been soundly defeated by globalized capitalism. Further, the idea of class has been flattened out to a quotidian middle by credit-cards, retail franchises, tourism—in short, consumerism. The middle class does not live in housing, but in houses and condos.
Like the word ‘new,’ genius appears to have lost its meaning. If everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, then everyone will be a genius for about the same period of time. However, the main reason the word no longer applies is that it is too blatantly elitist. Today, the rich wear blue-jeans, not top hats. In the age of consumerism triumphant, everyone is supposed to be, or at least to look, the same—somewhere in a ‘middle’ class. The words ‘celebrity’ and ‘starchitect’ are as derogatory as they are flattering or honoring. But also, maybe the age of geniuses, of people who discover or invent great new principles [see above] about nature, science, or art—and architecture—has, for the present, passed.
Once upon a time, the future was where wondrous and terrible things were going to happen, where the present would be transformed, for better or worse, and in a sense reach fruition. The idea of the future has all but vanished from architectural conversation and discussion. Perhaps because the present is one of self-satisfaction—there is nothing to ripen and mature—and no great chances being taken that can succeed, or fail. Perhaps the future has become just another place we already know, or hope we know.
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- September 18, 2008 / 3:02 pm
- Lebbeus Woods