Emerging practices led by millennials risk commodification at the hands of a culture unwilling to reward the very youth it fetishises
When the romantic notion of the architect as auteur, a high priest in the cult of culture, is married to the virginal myth of untainted youth, a potent marketable commodity is brewed: the ‘Young Architect’. All but invisible when the AR launched its Emerging Architecture prize at the end of the 20th century, this breed is now celebrated in numerous awards, exhibitions and published collections. But beware the cult of youth − there is a broad landscape of risks as well as opportunities facing designers who choose this identity willingly or have it thrust upon them.
Out of the Ordinary, an exhibition at the Cass in London, is currently displaying the work of nine such ‘Young Architects’. The projects display a local sensitivity, while equally familiar material tropes and recycled spartan hipster memes, justified by guerrilla rhetoric, bear witness that this loose-fit DIY phenomenon is global, its appeal has currency across borders where similarly ad-hoc career prospects face emerging designers in Seoul as in London.
Curated by 2014 Venice Biennale Golden Lion winner, Hyungmin Pai, the show makes an argument that today’s cohort of young architects have an agenda that charges their practice in opposition to the current social and economic consensus. They revel in the freedoms that the privilege of youth affords, engaging in prophetic acts of socially high-risk, financially low-return, intensive design and building, in the context of rapid change with scarce resources.
The resulting works are beguiling responses to a diversity of human needs but it is strange to celebrate such work by implying that the projects’ qualities of being fringe, self-started, improvised or temporary contain remedies to the vast, global financial mess writ large in infographics on the gallery walls. This is patently untrue.
Being young once is unavoidable, and retaining a child-like sense of wonder is important, but the veneration in this way risks legitimising a limited social ambition of extended architectural adolescence and perpetuating divisive demographic antagonism: the young vs the old.
‘Brand ‘Young Architecture’ is perilously close to becoming shorthand for a privileged clique purveying minor and pop-up buildings, instantly and uncritically published in a sycophantic hype driven by individualism, consumerism’
‘Young Architecture’ as a discrete catagory reflects the atrophied aspirations of our cultural moment, in which, among a generation poorer than our parents, a growing majority will be unable to graduate to architecture, freedom, home-ownership or traditional debt-free marks of vocational maturity − a subtle but de facto form of slavery is creeping up on us.
Meanwhile the healthy ecologies formed of intermediate-scale architectural practice coupled with critical journalism and socially minded procurement have decayed through a process of polarisation − towards the very large and the very small, Establishment and emerging. In this context of power vs exploitation, the term ‘Young Architecture’ offers a vehicle for a compromised partnership between a cosy architectural press, morally bankrupt late-capitalist development and a disenfranchised generation of graduates with limited options.
‘Young Architecture’: a tainted brand
Brand ‘Young Architecture’ is perilously close to becoming shorthand for a privileged clique purveying minor and pop-up buildings, instantly and uncritically published in a sycophantic hype driven by individualism, consumerism and an obsession with youth, in a way that increasingly apes the fashion industry. While the works themselves are consistently imaginative and delightful, demonstrating the skill of their authors, it is the term of ‘Young Architecture’ and the values it is coming to imply that must be interrogated.
‘Young Architecture’ makes a virtue of an injustice. The ageist mantle demands a level of knowing self-parody from emerging designers who it smothers as it belittles, imposing low expectations as default. In segregating architects into binary camps, the term smuggles through tacit approval for the Establishment while cementing the position of knowingly under-remunerated outsiders: the young.
Time will tell whether celebrating ‘Young Architects’ is simply grooming the next decade’s Establishment architects. In Pai’s exhibition, UTAA’s Sugar Lump House is one example of development at a more civic scale, suggesting a possible, but troubling, trajectory for the emerging cohort. The visual similarity to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, or Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, is instructive − the Metabolists of the 1970s derived an organic, informal visual language conjuring a romantic vision of rustic and democratic production but Kurokawa’s rebellious early career laid the foundations for a bloated dynastic later reign very much wedded to the Establishment.
As the means to celebrate ‘Young Architecture’, recognition by award schemes, exhibitions and media exposure is considerably overvalued. Studio Weave director Je Ahn succinctly described the practice’s Young Architect of the Year shortlisting: ‘It’s great, but you can’t eat it.’ If awards are understood as a substitute for financial reward or concrete commissions to engage ambitiously scaled social projects, then architecture, like other internship-based industries, will increasingly tend towards the irrelevance of being the domain of a trust-funded recreational class.
The reactive definition of an adolescent stage in career development places inflated emphasis on conspicuous displays of ‘authenticity’. Vulnerable, self-initiated projects necessarily embody a humane frugality. However, communicating this ethic in a visual language that is Tumblr-friendly constrains much of the work to a style measured in the thin rustic novelty of pop-up DIY-like production: chipboard, shipping containers, bare bricks, spontaneous installation and time-limited demountability.
Architecture has finally become fast enough to simulate the frivolity of throw-away fashion. But before it congratulates itself for this renaissance of dynamic participation and urban vitality, sedulous emerging designers should question the direct social consequences of the burgeoning pop-up industry which courts them and the widespread co-option of this architectural froth as a game of distraction. The permission for and sponsorship of such installations ties these energetic works to a broader political question around who owns the city for whom.
Consider The Artworks Elephant, a pop-up shopping centre and library currently rehashing the consumerist circus of sourdough bread and craft beer on a corner of the former Heygate Estate, a site in south-east London containing 1,260 council homes recently sold to developer Lend Lease for demolition. Visually and economically the built device of a shipping container mall serves as a civilian shield, screening off the cadaver of the welfare state being clankingly dismembered behind the hoardings.
This species of pop-up is candyfloss urbanism, the ersatz public sector is a mere palliative for social ills by comparison with substantial investment in long-term social architecture. Individually, pop-up installations have many redeeming features; however, to justify such comissions as rare opportunitiesfor ‘Young Architecture’ to win work and flourish is to ignore the underlying problem of cuts in provision for the acutely disadvantaged.
Youth is not wasted on the young
Talented architects in the last century often found themselves with both work and youth. Peter and Alison Smithson were 26 and 21 respectively on taking up the commission for the now-listed Hunstanton School in Norfolk. Likewise Patrick Hodgkinson’s work on the ambitiously social Brunswick Centre mixed-use scheme in central London was begun at 28 and that was a result of the London County Council chief architect Leslie Martin’s commitment to nurturing emerging architects through commissions.
More recently, Flanders has led a path in architectural procurement at a substantial urban scale that is avowedly not risk averse. Under Vlaams Bouwmeester, a state architect tasked with distributing public commissions for buildings, the Belgian region has gathered a reputation for supporting emerging practices, and developing an architectural culture of excellence.
‘Our aim should be to allow architectural commissioning to see beyond age, and to inculcate a culture of provocative nurturing.’
These examples show an unselfconscious approach to youth in which inexperience and courage are embraced as generators of innovation but crucially not allowed to become tradeable commodities nor diminish the long-term ambitions of the buildings conceived. Our aim as a profession should be to encourage architectural commissioning to see beyond age, and to support a culture of proactive nurturing.
Categorising ‘Young Architecture’ as something distinct from architecture at large focuses on a quantitative distinction: the designer’s age. However, it would be more rewarding to make a qualitative reading of such work. If we could articulate the values of youth − as a set of attitudes or approaches available to designers of any age − we might see the fruit of an architectural production that never grows old.
Phil Pawlett Jackson is a London-based architectural designer and writer
Phineas Harper is Assistant Editor of The Architectural Review and author of The Architecture Sketchbook published by Magma