Tag Archives: critique

Architecture for Humanity

As I was browsing through this year Architecture for Humanity’s very considerable output, I was wondering if there isn’t still something missing in this kind of architectural action, at least for it to be relevant not only to humanity, but also for the architectural field itself.

Why should I ask such apparently irrelevant question? Because I know only too well that any architectural movement that forgets to produce advancement in the architectural field will tend to be marginalized by the field itself. And, at this moment in time, maybe this is an indulgence we can’t afford.

Of course, all the “architectures for humanity” out there are relevant by simply bringing architectural service where this is most needed. But maybe the problem is, ultimately, that architecture should not be simply considered a service.

As I was recently musing, we should rather consider architecture as a form of creative intelligence – not to enter the old discussion of it being a form of art or not – and ask ourselves how and to what purpose should this intelligence be deployed besides its banal contribution to middlebrow culture.

The thing is: as constrained as it is by economic and logistical difficulties the output of Architecture for Humanity is highly respectable, and yet fails to trigger the imagination or any craving for architecture’s creative potential, as somehow their own publication “Design like you give a damn” or, for instance, the work of Rural Studio have done in the recent past.

And in order for a work like that of Architecture for Humanity to grow into even more significance –and thus replicate throughout the world of architecture– it has to attract and offer sheer intelligence. Not more or less traditional solutions, not more or less lame architecture, but definitely more radical answers.

As painful as it may be for many different reasons, try and imagine BjarkeYes Is MoreIngels employing his amazing energy and optimism onto devising solutions for African feral cities, rather than for providing jewels for the ascending, nouveau-riche crowns, and you will know what I mean.

In the strange world of architecture’s semi-autonomy there are two ways in which one may be a successful achiever: by aspiring to economical wealth or by juggling in symbolic power. As it usually happens in the “reversed economic world” of culture and art – as Bourdieu has put it – symbolic power is the one that is more difficult to obtain and maintain.

The current, declining star-system attained its status by achieving symbolical power, as it is the rule. One still remembers OMA or Nouvel going bankrupt or selling their companies because of the level of research that permeated the logic of these offices. When, on the other hand, one feels such practices have “sold-out” on another level their symbolic status immediately plunges.

When, in the spirit of an inescapable Hopenhagen, one now says that design and architecture intelligence must be applied elsewhere rather than where it has been applied for the last decade, one is also saying that the game of symbolical power must also shift around what architecture is recognized for.

Although prizes and rewards are already being readdressed to shift this balance of symbolic power, organizations like Architecture for Humanity must be made more relevant not by feebly fighting the status quo, but by addressing not only what humanity needs, but also what architecture needs.

And this is to be done by employing the architectural creativity that is being laid to waste by the “crisis”, or more precisely by the unemployment or underemployment of young architects who, ultimately, just want to follow on BIG’s footsteps but haven’t yet quite worked out the right strategy for it.

This is to be done not by simply clinging to traditional architectural thinking, not by blindly obliging to the user’s needs in terms of a very delimited sense of taste, but essentially by thinking outside the box and by constantly readdressing architecture’s sense of autonomy – that is, architecture’s inner need to progress as a field of knowledge and practice.

In this sense, like others, the world of architecture itself would certainly gain something from considering Hal Foster’s concept of semi-autonomy in art and design as an oscillating movement between art’s critical need to remain autonomous from external forces and, on the other hand, its inevitable reconnections to reality so as to reestablish priorities and issues to address.

Faced with the absurdity of maintaining the fiction of architecture’s aesthetic autonomy, but also faced with the error of demising oneself from architecture’s inner symbolic drives, one has to meet somewhere halfway so as to make architecture intelligence more relevant to as many people as possible.

At the risk of sounding cynical – and since ethical arguments are useless with a professional class that is permanently ego-tripping – I would conclude that architecture for real need has to become really trendy.


Middlebrow (Other Little Magazines #06)

Like the expansion of middle class was the social synonym of modernity, the rise of middlebrow is the sure epitome of the current digital turn.

Beyond authorship legitimated within the strict circle of highbrow culture, now now everybody can finally be an artist. Pick up the right digital tools and the right taste handbook and you too can be an artist recognized by about 223 people around the world.

Or you can also be a successful middlebrow architect, as thousands of rather decent published buildings come to prove over the last 5 years, by happily entering the 15 minute hall of fame of daily internet blog platforms aiming to reveal yet another potential claim to stardom.

(The only wrong thing with this being that there are people out there that actually think this should be stopped, regulated, or somehow controlled, as I’ve heard last week in the BIArch symposium from none other than the bloggers themselves!)

Proving that the phenomenon of middlebrow is true, and relevant, and escapes gatekeepers, and is to be studied as a phenomenon that redefines the previously well-kept frontiers of creative disciplines, the truth is that new magazines seem to pop up by the month only to cover the diverse and immense sea of visual and material middlebrow production in which we are now fully immersed.

When one would think it is an insane moment to start print media, only the production of middlebrow seems to justify that new print objects do show up.

Marc Valli, the editor of Elephant (and also the owner of the exquisite Magma magazine shop), defends the new publication as serving to cover the “vast and vital space in the middle”, the production that neither doesn’t quite fit into the strict legitimating mechanisms of the “art world” nor is it overtly “commercial” (although, let’s face it, mostly the middlebrow work is only precisely that: a fair and proper means to a living).

Another example of the current funny play with one’s own brows (or the lack of them) is the also new Nobrow magazine, a publication that bears no text whatsoever as its most brilliant feature.

Somehow resounding of the lowbrow art movement, and not as outrageous as the Lowbrow Project, Nobrow is ultimately a magazine that also deals with one of those activities –illustration– that has always been pushed to the minor or middle arts’ corner and now wants to enjoy its own cult status on a worldly scale.

As Raymond Williams once suggested, one may also correctly state that highbrow culture had to be rescued from deadly ennui by letting itself plunge onto the wide hypnotic embrace of an endless popular culture. As for the world of architecture print –and while we reminisce for immersing architecture in popular culture or await for Icon’s other take on pulp fiction– it may be said that not many publications address middlebrow.

The new Scandinavian magazine Conditions does, however, address middlebrow when it both repudiates the commercial tendency of most technical architectural magazines around it, and, at the same time, does not really carry any intellectual pretensions to define the borders of an architectural highbrow culture.

With a first issue on Strategy for Evolution, Conditions defined the interdisciplinary as its horizon of ambition –and perhaps the interdisciplinary is indeed the new middlebrow. But it is only within its second issue on Copy and Interpretation that the magazine really shifts onto the ambiguous and interesting middle ground in which most current architecture must today be interrogated.

While the highbrow magazines of the past insist in plunging into obscurity by dwelling into ever boring disciplinary obsessions –and while there’s also basically nothing wrong with the fact that the architectural blogzines that surround us are carrying middlebrow architecture to new heights of a-critical visibility– there is still a huge lack of reflection on what is really going on in other than the starchitects’ heads at this point in history.

Shrinking City

After a fairly long absence on paternity leave, last weekend I went back to Porto. This is Portugal’s second city and metropolitan area, although no longer it’s second larger municipality in terms of population – a position now taken by suburb cities like Gaia and Amadora. They call it invincible or invicta.

PortoThis is a city where I lived for considerable parts of my life, and a city to which I usually commute to teach every week.

This is also the proud home of a World Heritage city center and a few prestigious institutions: Port wine; a football team, the oldest filmmaker alive who is still in activity, Manoel de Oliveira; an architect that ranks in between the world’s finest and its connected architecture school, Siza Vieira and the Oporto School; the Serralves Contemporary Museum; Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música…

Porto is a small city –like the Talking Heads ironically sung of London– and, on top of it, it is also a shrinking city.  Misquoting Paul Virilio, one could even say it is a city on the brink of disappearance – if not dangerously sinking into long-term cultural and economical insignificance.

What was once the symbolic center of the so-called economical motor of the country now appears as the shy capital of one of Portugal’s two poorest regions. As I’ve learned in shock this weekend, half of Porto’s population receives the Guaranteed Minimum Income, a social welfare measure for those who live below the line of poverty.

Indeed, my personal view is that Porto’s cultural and economical contraction is to be attributed not only to its mediocre political leadership over the last few years, but also to its blatant social inequality.

In what seems to be a sort of unspoken taboo, Porto’s society, like that of any Thirld Word country, is neatly divided in two: a rich bourgeoisie that inbreeds in the posh Western area of town and cruises the urban landscape only inside their black Mercedes, Audis and BMWs; and, on the other side, a poor population that still resembles that of a 19th century half-industrial, half-rural city.

While there are always exceptions, the elites themselves lack vision and civic spirit. And, contrary to Lisbon’s steadily rising middle classes, Porto’s lower middle class minorities totally lack expectations and opportunities.

As geographer and friend Álvaro Domingues was telling me, this is a centrifugal city. Although it has a renowned university, it doesn’t have the economical drive to keep the people it educates. And this also strongly reflects in the culture and identity of the city.

CasaMúsicaCasa da Música in context, via Plataforma Arquitectura

Samewise, cultural institutions in Porto are also almost neatly divided in two strata: the highbrow state-supported institutions, like Serralves and Casa da Música, and the radically alternative art, music and design scene, which, although vibrant and inspiring, faces the eternal dilemma of catering forever for the same small audience or simply give up. Given that there is no real funding for middle size local initiatives, there is also no bright future to look upon.

SerralvesThe art museum squats the inner city emptied-out buildings…

This is probably the main reason why, like so many before and after me, at a certain point –and more precisely after 2001, when the European Capital of Culture represented the city’s swan song rather than creating an expected cultural boom–  I have decided to live elsewhere.

Ultimately, Porto’s strong scenery and historical tradition seems to offer a place more interesting to (re)visit, than to create something in. Until the city comes to its senses again, people there permanently run the risk to emulate the incredible shrinking man’s coming out of the fog into an ever-smaller destiny.