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February 2012, 1380. Volume CCXXXII

Catherine Slessor

Radical new understandings in science, energy and the economy must be embraced by architects. Read this issue here

How does architecture connect with the larger realities of essential humanity? Human civilisation is in a constant state of flux, and from medieval cathedrals to the Villa Savoye, architecture has reflected the prevailing spirit of the age. But as Peter Buchanan argues in the second part of the AR’s Big Rethink, the technocratic certainty of modernity, with its emphasis on linear progress, disconnection from place and the subduing of nature, is now regarded as fundamentally discredited (despite its technological legacy), not least because of a perilously unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels.

Now a new epoch is emerging, based on radical scientific discoveries that challenge and reconceptualise former assumptions. Newton’s vision of a mechanistic universe is being superceded by the idea of a living, organic universe, a complex, evolving and elusive organism that is still not fully understood and indeed may never be. But the repercussions of such a paradigm shift are already evident, as leading scientist rupert Sheldrake demonstrates in Broader View.

The socio-cultural structures and certainties of the Industrial and Information Ages are giving way to the more nebulous Conceptual Age, with its emphasis on creativity and empathy. And the Third Industrial revolution presages new approaches to energy use, communications and the power of corporatism. This epochal change prompts speculation about architecture’s changing relationship with humanity and the planet.

Rather than the current culture of globalisation, with its emphasis on consumption, planned obsolescence and nomadism, there is a need to rediscover notions of common endeavour, long-term stewardship and genuine sustainability (as opposed to publicity-seeking greenwash).

How can architects respond to this shifting landscape? As Patrik Schumacher observes, though architecture has its own discourse and unique societal responsibility, it evolves in tandem with other subsystems, such as the economy, politics, the mass media and science. Within this co-evolution, innovative architecture can be as much a catalyst for progress as these other economic and cultural forces.

Drilling down further, some sense of how this change might be manifested can be gleaned in the critiques and analyses of schools that feature in the issue. In particular, Typology examines the development of schools, and how built form has articulated the social ambitions of different historical epochs. The stern edifices of Victorian schools spoke of rigour, religion and discipline, fitting their charges for the Machine age, while the schools of the Modern Movement prepared pupils for life in the growing services sector.

Now, a new generation of buildings cultivate a sense of informality and connectivity, creating the potential for encounter and the challenges of the knowledge economy. even at this scale, the mechanistic is giving way to the fluid; the school as universe, the cosmos in microcosm.

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