Architecture Is All Over

Architecture is everywhere. And architecture is, as we know it, dead.

These are the dual, competing claims of Architecture Is All Over (2017), a lively collection of essays, manifestos, case studies, design proposals, and even a play, in four acts. The editors, Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter, observe in their introduction that architecture is in a state of crisis. For its “terminal callousness” in the face of humanitarian disasters, its “imaginative exhaustion and its codependency on the most troubling, most ruthless aspects of a wounded yet still very much operational financial war machine,” among other things, the profession is in a bad way.

Yet the editors also observe that architecture has never not been in a state of crisis. At least since the Renaissance, the field has experienced its crises like clockwork, tortured about its reasons for being and its ways of being in the world, in political, technical, and aesthetic terms. To see these struggles as the rule rather than the exception, the editors argue, would be an act of radical self-awareness for the profession, which could no longer excuse its actions as emergency measures, and would instead need to take honest stock of its conduct.

The contributors to the volume—who are artists, designers, theorists, and often all three—reimagine what architecture might be. Many of them recast the role of the architect from that of builder, operating within the narrow constraints of the project and the imperatives of growth and profit, to that of public intellectual, organizer, and savvy stakeholder in political, legal, and economic discussions at the level of the building, the city, the region. Several of the authors emphasize the ethical responsibilities and agency of the architect as a way of throwing a lifeline to the profession.

Exemplary for the volume is an essay by Keith Bresnahan that reacts against the fashionable notion of the architect as mere mediator, a figure who has abdicated responsibility for outcomes and only plays within a limited, pseudo-pragmatic field of existing “realities.” Bresnahan sees a particular Dutchness in this tendency, embodied and articulated—but not theorized; it is a pragmatic disposition—by the likes of Rem Koolhaas, the firm MVRDV, and others, who accept projects and almost fetishize the imposition of constraints. (The author finds a striking parallel to this architectural tendency in the “default” style of contemporaneous Dutch graphic design, which is likewise indebted to rather hermetic systems thinking, and executed with a heavy dose of Dutch deadpan.)

Bresnahan invokes the theological idea of “kenosis,” or the self-emptying of Christ, by analogy to architects’ anti-authorial self-abnegation. This wording is not the first instance of serious jargon in the volume: the preceding essay/manifesto, which is clear and compact, is subtitled “The Morphology/Ideology Homology.” Still, Bresnahan’s term is admirably non-native to architecture, and the payoff in explanatory power is great. For architecture, this self-emptying is not in favor of love or the good of mankind, but of an accepted set of givens known as “reality.” Such an uncritical and unimaginative approach, he argues, tends only to affirm the status quo and make deviations from it seem more and more fanciful. Bresnahan quotes Reinhold Martin on the “elementary mistake of assuming that reality is entirely real—that is, pre-existent, fixed, and therefore exempt from critical reimagination.”

A persistent idea in the volume is of subtraction and abstention, and the valorization of something opposite to rapacious growth and density along the well-worn lines of the urban grid. That aforementioned essay preceding Bresnahan’s, written by Matthew Allen and Cyrus Pe–arroyo and titled “Subtractive Urbanism,” champions negative spaces in the city, proposing and graphically illustrating different typologies of surgical excision with the gusto of a Futurist manifesto (the patient being operated on is the island of Manhattan). These elements of non-architecture, of public squares and urban axes, remind us that architecture can be political also by clearing the spaces in which politics happen—spaces of sociality, assembly, or protest.

At the regional level, subtraction resurfaces in Marta Guerra Pastrián and Pablo Pérez Ramos’ case study of the Valle de Valverde region in Spain, which proposes new schemes by which this cluster of villages could—as demographics predict—depopulate gracefully. Elsewhere in the book we learn that depopulation can be deployed strategically, and perniciously, by means of policy and as an instrument of erasure. In a fascinating case study of Kinloch, the first African American community to become a municipality in Missouri, Patty Heyda shows the for-profit land grab that worked to eviscerate a community. Are architects competent to combat these kinds of violence? Proposing an update of Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” model, Heyda shows how a different kind of architect, alive to the levers of law, policy, and economics, can effect change outside the archetype of the “builder.”

Related to these ideas is the possibility of architecture operating in the city’s interstices, designing connective tissue for existing neighborhoods and learning from them. Taking up the iconic “shrinking city” of Detroit in their chapter, “Sponge Urbanism,” Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh propose various types of interventions that connect and serve a lower-density neighborhood. Inventive design here entails a reorientation of values: voids can become fields, and fields can be integral to the fabric of a neighborhood. The text is brief; the weight of the ideas is conveyed through diagrams, renderings, and photographs. In a similar vein, Jonathan Tate’s contribution is a case study based on a bird: the monk parakeet of New Orleans, a “feral urbanist” whose nests in the city’s “inbetween spaces” could be an inspiration to architects. To illustrate the possibilities, Tate takes a pen to photographs of various sites in NOLA, his dense scribbles suggestive of the nests built by these noisy but industrious birds, who do not wait for cleared sites or invitations to go to work.

The book’s elegant design, by Neil Donnelly and Ben Fehrman-Lee, contributes to its legibility in these and other essays by using a DayGlo orange to pick out details in diagrams, whether additions to or subtractions from a status quo. The double-facedness of the book’s titular premise is expressed by a custom font for titles that reverses the counters, or negative spaces, in certain letterforms, as well as a convention by which images bleed through in orange onto the verso of each page, creating a dynamic, layered effect that makes sense only in the codex format of the book.

Architecture Is All Over also includes incisive theoretical essays, such as Adrian Blackwell’s recuperation of “the virtual” in architecture as having little to do with computers and everything to do with politics. Likewise, Andrew Witt’s cultural history of the triangulated mesh, the spatial latticework used to represent curved surfaces in much design computation, limns the ideology of a technical concept. Such lapidary thinking and deep awareness of technical conventions provide an antidote to what Witt describes as designers’ “cycle of technical dilettantism through historical ignorance,” productive only of “a collection of fragmentary technical archipelagoes” that are divorced from an awareness of the culture that produces them or that they in turn produce.

What is striking about the crises identified and responded to in this volume is that new ones, as promised, are already here. As the editors note in their acknowledgments, this book emerged from a symposium held in 2010, when a slightly different set of concerns was in the foreground. From the vantage of 2017, one is tempted to ask: are all crises really created equal? Is not the present one—brought to life by the inauguration of America’s 45th president, feared by some to be the country’s last—threatening not just for the architectural profession, but for culture at large, and for democracy as such? As the editors of the Avery Review wrote in January of this year, the election of a “developer president” has “triggered in many an unease verging on existential dread,” while also presenting unique questions for the architect in light of 45’s status as a self-styled builder—and his promised future architectures of detainment and exclusion. Such projects would surely enrich opportunistic members of the profession, who will no doubt justify their actions within the “crisis mode” of the present and hew closely to the technical and logistical constraints of the project: this much concrete, this much drainage, this many armed guard towers.

Now, the editors argue, is a time for architecture to (again) take stock of its complicities. “Because here’s the thing,” they remind us: “architecture is always complicit, Trump or no Trump. It always has been. Architecture coordinates colossal expenditures (of material, of energy); it scripts forms of labor (in its construction, in its operation, and in the programs it houses); it is both a repository and generator of capital.” In this vein, they prescribe critical essays which “insist that we slow down to think, read, and write so that we may act quickly when needed, to reflect uncompromisingly about our effects on the world.” It is the slowness, then, of Architecture Is All Over that is also its strength. Architecture Is All Over is packed with ideas, some of them operating at a smaller level than the field’s utopian visions have sometimes prescribed, and indeed the only level at which most citizens can operate under the present regime. It shows how architects can seize agency to build, or not to build, whether as a form of refusal, or because there are more intelligent modes of action. (The editors of the Avery Review, a project of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, have also just published a volume of essaystitled And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency (Essays on the Occasion of Trump’s Inauguration), under the same imprint as the book reviewed here.)

Architecture may be on the precipice, again, for its venal complicity and lack of ideas. And it is all over, in the second sense of the title, for itsprofessional dilution—architects are now managers of everything—and its cultural modishness. The president made a global brand by licensing his name to be applied to the facades of as many gleaming phallic symbols as possible. And the first daughter’s favorite neologism is “architecting”—something seemingly more concrete and constructive than the fashionable “curating,” but Ayn Rand-ier in its individualism than any kind of broad-based, collaborative effort. “Architecting” implies a sad, anti-radical return of Hans Hollein’s 1968 claim, cited by the authors in their introduction, that “Everything is architecture.” Hollein’s less quoted next sentence—”All are architects”—may prompt the question of what “architect” means, not least for anyone professionally accredited in the field, but it also implies a bottom-up agency. For designers who are (again) thrown into crisis, Architecture Is All Over is a powerful guidebook.