Irony, allegory and dystopia − Patrik Schumacher sees no future for the type of hopelessly unrealistic education lauded by the British architectural establishment
The submissions to the current RIBA President’s Medals demonstrate once more that architectural education in Britain is operating in a parallel universe. The (best?) students of the current generation as well as their teachers seem to think that the ordinary life processes of contemporary society are too boring to merit the avant-garde’s attention. Instead we witness the invention of scenarios that are supposedly more interesting than the challenges actually posed by contemporary reality. The points of departure for the majority of projects are improbable narratives with intended symbolic message or poetic import.
Accordingly, the resultant works are statements or allegories rather than designs. This is evidenced by the emphasis on evocative, atmospheric imagery, with little or no demonstration of how the visualised spaces organise and articulate social life processes and institutions. For instance, the Bronze Medal (first prize in the Part 1 category) proposes to place ‘an acoustic lyrical mechanism’ into a quarry in Bangalore. ‘The building is played by the wind, acoustically transforming the abrasive sounds of quarrying.’ The Silver Medal (first prize in the Part 2 category) presents itself in the form of a dystopian science fiction movie in which Brixton is transformed into ‘a degenerated and disregarded area inhabited by a robot workforce’. The robots are supposed to symbolise immigrant labourers; they are meant to represent racist exploitation.
One of the runner-up projects presents itself with sarcasm as a ‘genetically engineered “nature factory” for luxury goods, masquerading as a revamped “eco-industry”’. Like the Robots of Brixton this ‘nature factory’ is not a design but an ironic allegory intended as critical commentary.
The other projects in this category that have been selected and highlighted by the RIBA Journal (by publishing them with a project description) ‘engage’ the following ‘topics’: an algae monitoring facility, a retreat for Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a storage building based on the fictional narrative that all citizens would deposit personal things into safety boxes throughout their lives in order to be later confronted by their past.
Basmah Kaki’s RIBA Part I project is discussed in AR Folio
Although there is rather less explanation about the other entries, the project titles (eg, Pyrolytic Power Plant, Tsunami Alert Community, Hydrodynamic Landscape, Mushroom Farm, Guild of Tanners and Butchers) as well as the dominance of atmospheric (mostly dark, cloudy, poetic and dystopian) imagery suggests a similarly idiosyncratic, unreal understanding of what constitutes a worthy design brief. The last two years were also similar: the 2010 winner was a ‘shipwrecking yard’ and the 2009 winner proposed ‘motorised coastal defence towers acting as a warning device to mankind with respect to climate change’. Again, these are not designs of spaces intended to frame social life, these are narratives and messages pushed by evocative imagery.
There is no doubt that creative imagination and skills are in evidence here. However, it is difficult to see what such works achieve and contribute to the advancement of the discipline of architecture. The RIBA’s director of education, David Gloster, seems to endorse what I criticise here: ‘The ability of the best work to create its own world while still reflecting everything that has been going on around its authors was captivating.’ Gloster also welcomes what he considers to be ‘a pronounced political edge’ and he takes this as an indication that ‘students haven’t given up on architecture as catalyst for change’.
I believe that architecture co-evolves with other subsystems of society like the economy, politics, the mass media, science etc. In this co-evolution innovative architecture can be as much a catalyst for progress as innovations in science, the mass media, or in the political system. However, I doubt if the invention of other worlds as arenas for imaginative design is the way to achieve this. I also doubt that architecture could be a site of radical political activism. I believe that architecture is a sui generis discipline (discourse and practice) with its own, unique societal responsibility and competency. As such it should be sharply demarcated against other competencies like art, science/engineering and politics.
Christopher Christophi’s Venice project was featured in January’s edition of AR and is discussed in AR Folio
Architects are called upon to develop urban and architectural forms that are congenial to contemporary economic and political life. They are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ (as David Gloster suggests). ‘Critical architecture’ commits the fallacy of trying to substitute itself for the political process proper. The result might be a provocation at best, but often ends up as nothing but naive (if not pompous) posturing. Success in the world is not to be expected from such pursuits.
The demonstration of creative imagination and virtuoso visualisation skills is not enough to merit an award. Should we not expect the best students and teachers at the best architecture schools to make a serious contribution to the innovative upgrading of the discipline’s capacity to take on the challenges it might actually face via its future clients and commissions?
I consider the best schools to be a crucial part of the avant-garde segment of the discipline charged with the permanent innovation of the built environment. It is here that systematic research and serious design experiments can be conducted in ways that are more principled and more forward looking than would be possible within professional practice on the basis of real commissions. Academic design research allows designers to select and focus on specific aspects of the built environment, and abstract from other aspects.
Academic design research − and a Part 2 project could play this role − is not a full simulation of a real project with all its concerns. Thus neither the design brief, nor the design solution of an academic thesis project, have to be pragmatic in a straightforward way. The realism I mean is of a more subtle order. It calls for an optimistic probing of our contemporary world with respect to the opportunities it offers and considers the vogue of otherworldly narratives as counterproductive.
Kibwe Tavares’ RIBA Silver medal winning film of a dystopian future London. Featured in AR Folio