And it’s always interesting, I think, to see how the future, or rather the forward-looking form of any discipline, always carries within it the seeds of its own triteness.
— William Gibson 1
Among the participants in the first ANY (Architecture New York) conference, organized by Peter Eisenman and Cynthia Davidson in 1991, was the novelist William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. Published in 1984, Neuromancer captured the anxieties of a dystopian world in which technology has penetrated all aspects of everyday life. In Gibson’s early novels, unprecedented physical mobility and the fluidity of personal identity enabled by digital technologies reshape individual subjectivity and the physical space of the city alike — which is perhaps why the author found himself in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s speaking to the group of architects, philosophers, literary critics and architectural theorists assembled by Eisenman and Davidson. Like the film Blade Runner two years earlier, Neuromancer had become an early touchstone for imaginative speculation on the urban and architectural consequences of digital culture.
More recently, Gibson’s keen cultural antennae have detected another shift. In three novels published since the beginning of the 21st century, Gibson has continued to explore similar themes, but now in novels set not in the future but in the present. 2 Fashion, underground marketing, industrial espionage, hacker culture and the shadowy workings of international capital are the subjects of these recent novels. Locations continually shift, from global cities such as London, New York and Vancouver to post-Soviet Russia or the high-octane capitalism of 21st-century Asia. It is possible to say without too much exaggeration that we now inhabit a version of the future Gibson first described 25 years ago. No replicants or time travel, but rather an accumulation of smaller changes, the consequences of which are subtle and all-pervasive as technology has increasingly lodged in unanticipated aspects of our lives. As Gibson has observed, the actual future is often more nuanced and unexpected than the imagined future.
The rapid technological and social changes of the past two decades present complex challenges to architectural practice and education. The 1990s in particular were characterized in part by the rejection of history and the announcement of massive, technology-driven change; these claims need to be examined and placed in context. The introduction of the computer has indeed made the design studio a very different place than it was in 1990s. A new generation of teachers and practitioners has emerged, schooled in the creative use of these advanced technologies, but also marked by the theoretical debates of the 1980s and ’90s. The speed of information exchange, accelerated by digital technology, has made a discipline already international in its scope fully global. The schools and the profession reacted in complex ways to the events of September 11, 2001, reigniting debates about memory, place, politics and the agency of design. Questions provoked by global urbanization, economic instability and increasing awareness of the environmental crisis have spurred a rethinking of design methodologies and the potential of cross-disciplinary work. Architectural historians are reexamining the utopian and speculative projects of the 1960s and ’70s, and in architecture and industrial design a hands-on, activist culture has arisen, often working with a pragmatic mix of simple technology and global distribution networks to enact change in the developing world. The environmentalism of the 1960s has also been revived, now seen through the lens of landscape, ecology and building performance.
In short, the field continues to adapt and change. As a way to clarify a past that is still too close for complete historical objectivity, this essay will focus on three areas: the impact of digital technologies, the theory/practice debates, and the emergence of new interdisciplinary approaches to urbanism and the environment. As one who was both a participant and observer in these developments, I bring an informed, even insider’s perspective; but there are undoubtedly important developments left out of my account. 3 At a time of ongoing change, my aim is to identify consequential change and cut through the persistent rhetoric of “the new.”
Any chronological time frame is to some extent arbitrary, but 1990 turns out to have been a significant year, or at least a logical marker for a series of changes that took place from the late 1980s through the early years of the next decade. 4 Although the 1990s were a period of relative prosperity, the decade began in an atmosphere of uncertainty and transition. The sobering effect of the 1987 stock market crash was still evident. Midway through the presidency of the first George Bush, American troops were fighting in Iraq. In Britain Margaret Thatcher stepped down to be replaced by John Major, and in Germany the process of reunification begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall was completed. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years. Thomas Pynchon published Vineland in 1990, his first book since Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, and in Cincinnati obscenity charges were filed in response to an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act were signed in 1990, both of which would have a profound impact on architecture, cities and the environment.
The year 1990 is also significant for the development and implementation of digital technology. The underlying architecture of the World Wide Web was proposed in 1989, tested in 1990-91, and released to the public in 1992. The first digital cellular phone call was made in 1990, and the introduction of the 2G system that same year made possible the development of the small, user-friendly devices that are so ubiquitous today. However, actual Internet and cell-phone use were minimal in those early years. Only a fraction of a percent of the population had access to these technologies, and all of the social and cultural effects of “being digital” were still in formation. 5 In 1990, the fax machine, Sony Walkman and telephone answering machine were icons of advanced technology. Kodak still made projectors, and 35-millimeter slides were the norm in architecture lectures. The Mac Classic, hailed as one of the first widely affordable, easy-to-use desktop computers, was released in October 1990. Its 40-megabyte hard drive is dwarfed by contemporary smart phones with as much as 80 times the memory capacity and countless functions unimaginable in 1990. And Google, the search engine that allowed me to assemble all of these facts without leaving my desk (and has profoundly changed what it means for students to do “research”), was still seven years away.
In architectural practice the territory was divided between the large corporate offices, still responsible for the majority of commercial work, and a smaller number of high-design practices, such as Richard Meier & Partners, working in the cultural sector. The possibilities to break into commercial or institutional practice before the age of 50 were minimal. Young architects and teachers looked to the small, academically prestigious, but still somewhat marginalized experimental design practices, such as those of Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Diller/Scofidio, and Morphosis, or internationally to the examples of Daniel Libeskind or Rem Koolhaas/OMA. All this was played out against the backdrop of ongoing production of work by important figures of the later postwar generation who have since died: James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, and John Hejduk were all still active. 6 Rossi won the Pritzker Prize in 1990, although his influence in schools at that time was waning. Colin Rowe was actively teaching and writing, and Philip Johnson remained visible and powerful. …
Urban design was still seen as a somewhat specialized area of practice. The success of Battery Park City, designed by Cooper/Eckstut loosely on New Urbanist principles, was held up as a model for the integration of new neighborhoods into the existing city fabric. The Congress for New Urbanism was founded in 1993, with its epicenter around Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s graduate program in suburbs and town design at the University of Miami. Over the next decade they would begin to see their principles partly implemented as city officials and developers looked for new models to counter suburban sprawl and the depopulation of city centers. It was still rare for an ambitious, high-design architect to complete a major public building outside of the campus context. Frank Gehry began design work on the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1991 and the building was completed in 1997. What came to be called the “Bilbao effect” — the marketing, branding, touristic and consequent economic effects of a spectacular and highly recognizable building designed by an internationally known architect — had not entered the lexicon of planners and city officials. Indeed, it was only the success of Bilbao that made it possible for Gehry to realize the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (initially designed in 1987) in 2003.
Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library, for example, completed in 2004, no doubt benefited from this new consciousness among city planning officials. But in 1990 he too had built relatively little, and maintained a profile more academic and cultural than professional. His first major buildings — the Rotterdam Kunsthal and the Grand Palais in Lille — were completed in 1992 and 1994. Perhaps more than any other figure in this period, Koolhaas defined the model for a practice focused on competitions and a parallel body of exhibitions, publications, and speculative urban research, leading over time to major institutional commissions. …
The Consequences of Theory
A pair of conferences, both later published as books, may stand for the state of American architectural theory and discourse in 1990. In 1988, John Whiteman and Jeffrey Kipnis convened a conference at the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism, a newly formed entity supported by the SOM Foundation. The proceedings were published in 1992 as Strategies in Architectural Thinking. 7 Whiteman, the Institute’s director, described the ambition of the publication as follows:
Each paper included here has the virtue, perhaps the burden, of tracing a line of thought between issues primarily regarded as architectural … and issues thought to be more cultural and therefore extrinsic and somehow irrelevant to architecture, such as gender, the structure of philosophical thought, or the textual strategy of a piece of literature. 8
Not only the subject matter but also the academic profile of the contributors represented this questioning of the limits of architectural thinking. Alongside the familiar contributors to theory debates such as K. Michael Hays, Jennifer Bloomer and Mark Wigley were authors like Ann Bergren, trained as a classicist, and Catherine Ingraham, who had a background in comparative literature.
The tendency for architecture theory at the end of 1980s to open itself to other disciplines was also evident in a second example, the “Fetish” conference that took place at Princeton University, also in 1988, and which was organized by Greg Lynn, Ed Mitchell and Sarah Whiting, all students at the time; the conference proceedings were published in 1992 as an issue of The Princeton Architectural Journal. 9 In this case, the explicit appeal to a concept from Freudian psychoanalysis — or, alternatively, a reference to Karl Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism — was a marker of the intellectual ambitions of architectural theory at the end of the 1980s. It would be easy to cite other examples. In issues of Assemblage published in 1990, philosopher and literary theorist Jacques Derrida and religion scholar Mark Taylor appeared alongside Kipnis, Eisenman and Libeskind. And at the first ANY conference, besides novelist William Gibson, participants included the philosophers John Rajchman and Kojin Karatani, the literary critic Fredric Jameson, and the legal scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger, as well as Derrida.
What is significant about all this is not simply the appeal to other disciplines per se, but the general scope and direction of the references. Architecture was not alone in looking to cultural studies and literary criticism for its theoretical models; other humanities disciplines had earlier embraced a cultural studies outlook, to the point that in 1979 the philosopher Richard Rorty would remark: “In England and America philosophy has already been displaced by literary criticism in its principal cultural function.” 10 But in order for architecture to take its place among the other humanities disciplines, it had to be reconceived as a kind of discursive, text-based practice itself. …
Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s the divide between theory and practice grew. Critical practice aligned itself with film, new media and installation art. And in turning to literary criticism, philosophy and cultural studies for its theoretical models, architecture minimized its operative, technical capacity. Architecture was instead understood as a cultural practice that could find appropriate expression in journals, gallery installations or hypothetical projects as much as in buildings. The 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, while exhibiting for the most part buildable projects by practicing architects, promoted an interpretation of architecture that, in addition to commenting on the utopia of Russian Constructivism, was based on metaphors of instability and concepts borrowed from literary theory. The effect on schools of architecture was a proliferation of theory courses, and a widely accepted view that knowledge of structural linguistics and poststructuralist philosophy was fundamental to an architectural education. 11 By 1990 the schools could claim to be highly expert in questions of meaning, discourse and interpretation, while questions of technique and practice were ceded to the working professionals.
In retrospect, the proliferation of cross-disciplinary theoretical exchange around 1990 may be seen as representing the conclusion of a phenomenon that began in the 1970s. While it had proven to be productive for theorists and historians, for architects it increasingly presented an impasse and, as such, could only provoke a reassessment. The latter had at its basis two critiques of the received theoretical account. The first was a growing awareness of the limits of language and metaphor. Eisenman, Libeskind and the other architects in the Deconstructivism show did not make buildings that were actually collapsing; they only looked that way. To younger architects at the time this dependence on metaphors of instability seemed increasingly ineffective, even trivial.
The other critique stemmed from a suspicion of the Deconstructivist “politics” of disjunction. At a time when the contemporary city, popular culture and society itself seemed to be producing ever more violent disjunctions, architects had to propose ever more extreme and violent discontinuities in their work for it to function as an effective critical instrument. Yet if the production of an alienated architecture as the mirror of an alienated society could be seen as a means of increasing critical awareness, it was unlikely actually to change the underlying conditions that led to the alienation in the first place. By the early 1990s, there was an emerging sense among younger architects and educators that architecture’s own history as a discipline, and its own agency as a material practice at work in the world, might provide a more effective model for transformation than literary metaphors or philosophical references. 12
The Computer in the Design Studio
The atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty that characterized the early 1990s was not really surprising; one of the stated aims of the theoretical work of the previous decade had been to destabilize the certainties of received knowledge. In that regard, the theory of the ’80s served its purpose, preparing the ground for new inquiries and new directions. Yet the greater momentum for change came in response to technological developments. Once young practitioner-teachers got access to computers and started thinking creatively about the new possibilities of digital design work, advanced design culture coalesced around a specific project. The new design work and associated theory benefited from, and actively incorporated, aspects of the theoretical discourse of the previous decades while at the same time reacting against the linguistic basis and literary metaphors of that same intellectual framework.
In 1990 computers were largely unknown in the design studio in most architecture schools, relegated instead to basement computer labs. Computer-aided design programs were widely used in offices by this time and there was awareness in the educational community that computer skills needed to be taught. But machines were slow and cumbersome, output was unreliable, and there was little consensus about the computer’s viability as a design tool, as opposed to an aid to efficient production of working drawings in the professional setting. Drawing in schools was still almost exclusively by hand.
The earliest impetus for the creative integration of the computer as a design tool came from practitioners and theorists like Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn and Bernard Cache. Schools such as Columbia, MIT, SCI-Arc, UCLA and others were among the first to retool their technological infrastructure and teaching methods. Young designers followed closely behind, and by the mid ’90s a new virtuosity emerged as architects borrowed software and digital techniques from the film and aviation industries. The computer made the generation of complex form easy, and designers were fascinated by the new plasticity enabled by fluid modeling. In these early stages, the effect of digital technology was primarily formal, and characterized by an interest in continuous surfaces and complex biomorphic forms.
These new design techniques spread quickly through the schools, which were the primary laboratory for this early speculative work, and what was once a radical experiment became mainstream as other schools followed the lead of the early adopters. Young faculty who could teach computer skills found themselves in demand, and training in the use of digital technology soon became an integral part of education. Without a doubt, the design studio looks very different from the way it did 20 years ago; this has created a sense of self-satisfaction and claims that a new paradigm shift has occurred. But the formal expressions and work routines of digital design are no longer novel today. The computer has become a familiar fixture in the design studio, and at a time when all buildings are designed on the computer, making digital design protocols explicit no longer seems an urgent task. …
So the early formal experimentation soon gave way to a new set of questions. Was it possible actually to build the complex forms that the computer could so readily generate? Innovative work by industry partners such as Gehry Technologies, broader access to equipment in schools, and the seductive possibility of bypassing conventional working drawings gave an impetus to new questions of digital fabrication. But while these questions represented an important shift of emphasis, the formal language of the early digital experiments did not change substantially. If the first phase of digital design work in the ’80s was primarily metaphorical, and if the second phase in the ’90s was largely experimental, establishing the current protocols of form-making and fabrication, then architecture arguably is now entering a third phase in its relationship to digital technology.
In schools today there are two complementary directions with regard to digital work. First, as the widespread availability of inexpensive, easy-to-learn digital technology has made the computer’s impact more tangible and immediate, digital design’s cultlike status — which had divided architecture into believers and nonbelievers and, like all cults, had its secret language and private rituals — has become largely a thing of the past. A new generation of architects who have been educated entirely within the digital regime no longer need to think about how to use an unfamiliar tool; they can now focus on what to do with that tool. As schools have increasingly dismantled their basement computer labs and distributed equipment throughout the studios, the computer has ceased to be a technology to be either celebrated or resisted; it is simply a fact of life. Its logic has been fully absorbed into contemporary work routines and habits of thought.
As a result, designers are now turning their attention to the computer’s strategic and operative potential. The forms of practice that digital technology enables are as important as the formal languages it makes possible. Current implementation strategies go beyond the architect’s traditional relationships with clients and builders, making possible newly pragmatic, inventive and hands-on approaches. Digital design expertise is now understood as only one among many available sets of architectural skills. Other effects have less to do with the logics of design process or visualization, involving the incorporation of digital technologies directly into buildings, for example as interactive skins or sensing devices.
The second direction emerging today is an emphasis on sophisticated applied research in computation. Scripting, robotics and parametric design are the focus of this new research and are beginning to find a place in schools, especially at the doctoral level. Whereas the first generation of digital designers repurposed available software to generate novel formal effects, contemporary designers are going beyond the interface. Writing code is now mandatory for advanced academic work. While this appears to counter the trend to democratization and naturalization described above, it is, in fact, a complementary phenomenon. The thrust of this research is practical and result-oriented, and much of it is widely available, distributed on the internet as open-source material. Intimately engaged with construction logistics and material performance, it draws as much from engineering culture as from architecture. …
The Projective Turn
If the state of architectural discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s was defined by publications such as Fetish and Strategies in Architectural Thinking, an issue of the journal Praxis may serve as a cross-section of the concerns of a younger generation of educators and practitioners. Journals are important markers of a discipline’s priorities, and the editorial focus of Praxis is emblematic of the shift away from critical theory to building culture. 13 Issue 11/12, published in the summer of 2010, presents design work by and conversations with eleven architects born between 1967 and 1974 — that is to say, educated almost entirely within the time frame of this essay, in an atmosphere marked by the theoretical debates and technological changes discussed above. All the architects represented in the issue have active practices dedicated to built work. …
In the opening interview, Michael Meredith, who proposed the issue’s concept, states, “The way I frame our generation is around the idea of practice and an engagement in the real world, usually through fabrication, construction, performance or program.” 14 This statement clearly seems to signal a move away from academic theory and an emphasis on architecture’s instrumentality and ability to confront actual problems. It would be an oversimplification, however, to conclude that such an idea of practice has entirely displaced theoretical reflection; the models of practice visible in the work presented in the journal owe a great deal to the previous generation, from the installation art practices of the 1980s to the Dutch model of pragmatic practice, which includes research, exhibition, and publication as practice-building strategies. …
Landscape, Ecology, and Global Urbanism
One of the questions distributed to the participants in the same issue of Praxis read: “Does architectural ‘research’ constitute a new form of practice? What is the relationship between your research, writing (if applicable) and your design work?” In his 1985 Walter Gropius Lecture at Harvard, Henry Cobb, then chair of architecture at the GSD, described the incompatible cultures of academic research and creative practice as follows: “ … on the one hand, the academic setting would seem to separate architecture from its vital sources of nourishment in the ‘real world’ of practice, while on the other hand its entrepreneurial, practice-oriented character would seem to devalue architecture as a discipline, crippling its capacity to establish a fruitful discourse with other less ‘contaminated’ disciplines within the university.” 15 Cobb pinpointed a real dilemma, one further exemplified by the recent expansion of PhD programs in architecture. It appeared, at the time, that the closer academics have approached the protocols of university research, the more they have distanced themselves from the real concerns of active, creative practitioners. Until recently, the dominant model for research in most design schools was the humanities: that is to say, theoretical and art-historical research, sometimes openly critical of normative practice, carried out by individual scholars and leading to publications, conferences or exhibitions.
But the past two decades have seen a shift toward collaborative, practice-based research. The impetus for this change has come in part from clients in both the public and private sectors, who have asked architects to participate more fully in programming and development decisions that require a broad understanding of social, economic and cultural variables. Buildings today are expected to perform to higher environmental and energy standards. Materials and technologies change quickly, and architectural expertise has had to keep up. Among the practices embracing research are large firms such as SOM, which recently inaugurated a technology research arm, and Arup, with its Advanced Geometry Unit in London, to name only two of the many initiatives that, like the Bentley Smart Geometry Group, blur the boundaries between academic knowledge production and professional expertise. An active research presence has also given smaller firms the capability to leverage their limited resources to become more entrepreneurial.
Within academia, PhD programs have increasingly followed suit. In 1990, PhD studies in architecture for the most part either conformed to the art-historical model or retained close connections to planning departments. Over the past two decades new programs have been initiated at Harvard, Columbia and Yale, and existing programs retooled to emphasize collaborative, project-based research, exhibitions and publications. …
In particular, a growing sense of urgency has arisen around questions of global urbanism. A consensus has emerged that the contemporary city is an ideal object of study and research subject. At the beginning of the 20th century, approximately ten percent of the world’s population lived in cities; today, more than half lives in urbanized areas. It is in cities that questions of environment, social justice, infrastructure and the impact of technology come into sharp focus, embedded in a spatial matrix that architects are uniquely qualified to understand and map. It is impossible to give an adequate description of the city today without taking into account economics, public policy, sociology, art, civil engineering, history, literature, politics and religion; yet each of these disciplines by itself only tells part of the story. Architecture is well positioned to offer such a synthetic overview.
One prototype for this kind of academic design research was the late 1960s Yale studio taught by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (with Steven Izenour) that led to Learning from Las Vegas; this studio was followed a few years later by “Learning from Levittown.” The Venturis directed their expertise and academic resources toward an unfamiliar urban environment to gather data, draw maps and diagrams, and investigate new analytical frameworks; their findings lent themselves to being published in book form and became a resource for future generations. At the end of the ’90s, the Project on the City at Harvard, led by Koolhaas, reclaimed this model, resulting first in a book on shopping, then one on the urbanization of the Pearl River Delta in China. Koolhaas’s studio also investigated a third site, the African city of Lagos. As he explained, the Project on the City was “founded upon the realization of a double crisis. The first is the academic and professional bewilderment with urban conditions that seem to defy traditional description…. The second crisis is the failure of the design professions to adequately cope with these changes.” 16 More recently Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation set out to address similar issues, creating Studio-X, a “global network of advanced research laboratories for exploring the future of cities.” These initiatives constituted an acknowledgment that exposure to global urbanism was, by the turn of the 21st century, an essential part of a complete architecture education. Students today come from all over the world to study in North America, and will likely practice in diverse and perhaps unanticipated locations. Who would have predicted 20 years ago that American architects would be building in Kazakhstan?
If these research-based initiatives have maintained an academic focus, then landscape urbanism, which emerged in the schools in the late 1990s, has aimed to revitalize urban design practice. It has also provided an interesting test case of the potential of interdisciplinary work. The term landscape urbanism first appeared in 1996 and its development has been well documented. 17 Today there exist degree programs in landscape urbanism at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Toronto, and the Architectural Association in London. In a relatively short period, this fully fledged subdiscipline has emerged with a well-articulated theory, an extensive published literature and a developing set of practices.
In its earliest form landscape urbanism was a reaction to the marginalization of landscape architecture. Landscape architects were (and often still are) called in after the major design decisions have been made and asked to make an existing design more attractive by adding planting. James Corner, then teaching at the Penn, was among those landscape architects who refused to accept this secondary role. Capitalizing on the discipline’s traditional connection to ecology and environment, and focusing on the decay and abandonment of the postindustrial city (which had opened up large swaths of land for potential development), he proposed to reposition landscape architecture to synthesize expertise from the various fields whose inputs were needed to work effectively on these large-scale, distressed sites: architecture, infrastructure, urbanism, ecology, hydrology, horticulture and civil engineering. From Ian McHarg, his predecessor at Penn, Corner learned to think of landscapes as living entities; from Koolhaas, he borrowed the notion of “irrigating the site with potential” as a strategy to manage large-scale sites where it was necessary to negotiate the complexities of regulation, political and economic interests, and competing agencies. He recognized that the growth of the city can never be precisely controlled: “urban infrastructure sows the seeds of future possibility, staging the ground for both uncertainty and promise.… It is more strategic, emphasizing means over ends, and operational logic over compositional design.” 18
Landscape urbanism thus proposed a new set of tools with which to address the void spaces between buildings, roadways and infrastructures. Over the course of the last decade its adherents have put forward an extended notion of landscape that goes well beyond gardens and parks. Particularly well suited to the dispersed, horizontal condition of the American city, its ambitions are large-scale and synthetic, often directed at marginal zones. It is time-based and process-oriented, operating of necessity on a long-term horizon of implementation. Finally, it is highly collaborative and directed almost exclusively to the public realm. Schools of architecture have increasingly affirmed these landscape-urbanist objectives. Today collaborative work, while still resisted, is becoming more common, and issues of landscape, ecology and large-scale urbanism are addressed in interdisciplinary design studios. Finally, it is interesting to emphasize in this context that landscape urbanism began in the schools. First formulated by architects and landscape architects who were teaching at the time, it was debated and discussed in academic conferences and formulated in published essays long before there were any built examples to point to as references. In this case, theory preceded practice, and a productive interplay was established between real-world concerns and academic debates.
2010 and Beyond
A 20-year interval encompasses a generational change, and a generation of architects educated in the 1980s — and marked by the debates described here — have now assumed leadership positions at schools across North America. But the shift is not only generational. Women, although still underrepresented in the profession, have made gains in the academy, and some schools are now led by female deans. Architecture’s ongoing engagement with interdisciplinary theoretical work, and the increased emphasis on doctoral programs, is visible in the number of scholars and historians heading up schools and departments. Finally, the global outlook of education today is confirmed by the appointment of foreign architects to leading positions at North American schools. 19
Architecture schools have reacted in various ways to the current economic recession and the changing political climate. The rapid expansion of opportunities for young practitioners that coincided with the prosperity of the Clinton administration and the second Bush presidency has been followed by a period of reflection and reassessment following a global financial crisis and the political unrest of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama’s renewed focus on cities and infrastructure has been curtailed by the financial crisis, and, lacking public support, architects and schools have been looking for other ways to contribute; one example is the recent exhibition,
Foreclosed: Re-housing the American Dream, co-organized by the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University’s Buell Center.
The landscape of practice has changed too; its primary points of reference are not only younger, but more intellectually agile, international and diverse. Rossi’s 1990 Pritzker Prize could be bracketed by the 2010 winners, Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. … To write about practice in 1990 was to write about SOM, KPF, Richard Meier and Edward Larrabee Barnes, a largely male establishment with connections back to the legacy of high modernism and little interest in teaching. Today it is impossible to talk about practice without taking into account firms like OMA, MVRDV, FOA, Zaha Hadid, SANAA, Morphosis, Steven Holl and DS+R. The success of a younger firm like SHoP would have been impossible 20 years ago. These firms are design-driven, technologically adept and agile, capable of making rapid adjustments as the project or the market requires it. They use new technologies and strategic collaborations to leverage their expertise to respond to larger and more complex commissions. In other words, the habits of mind and ways of working once associated with experimental practice or the academy have been recontextualized in this new climate of practice. …
A new model of alternative practice has also emerged and is being reinforced in the schools. Based not so much on critical commentary as on activism, it involves highly pragmatic, hands-on architectural and product designs that can be quickly implemented in places like developing countries and disaster areas. Deployable shelters, solar water purifiers, adjustable eyeglasses, safer baby bottles, Braille-based building blocks for blind children, sugarcane charcoal, DIY soccer balls, cargo-carrying bicycles, and low-cost prosthetics for land-mine victims are some of the many projects and products directed at addressing “the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalized.” 20
These designers no longer accept the assumption that activist design means bad design; for them, the stakes are high and design expertise means close attention to the pragmatics of use, manufacturing and distribution as well as creativity and design innovation on its own terms. In many cases, new technologies are employed, and in others, the design principles are basic and straightforward while the innovation is located in the means of manufacturing or distribution, taking advantage of global interconnectivity. The idea of designing “for the other 90%” has gained momentum through exhibitions at the Cooper-Hewitt museum, including the 2010 National Design Triennial, Why Design Now?, and the exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, at MoMA in New York. Other initiatives have been more bottom-up, such as Emily Pilloton’s Project H, which is a design collective and educational initiative with a mission to use “the power of the design process to catalyze communities and public education from within.” 21
The most effective of these current efforts work with product design and community activism more than architecture, suggesting yet another realignment of architectural expertise. Many of these initiatives may be traced back to the Rural Studio, founded in 1993 by Dennis K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee at Auburn University. Rural Studio has as its objective both improving the living conditions of the rural poor in western Alabama and imparting practical experience to architecture students. Following this example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and subsequently the 2010 earthquake in Haiti), many schools of architecture devoted studios to the study of low-cost disaster-relief housing or to landscape and urban design studios, often with the participation of students from New Orleans who had been displaced by the storm and temporarily relocated to other schools. This activist design work has drawn freely on both low and high technologies and, in the best instances, has undertaken to redesign not only the products themselves but also the networks and institutions that distribute them. Much of this work has also had a strong environmental emphasis, suggesting that local initiatives are more effective in dealing with questions of water, waste recycling, and energy use in developing countries. Further strategic repositioning of architecture and design will be required as these activist designers look to empower individuals and local authorities rather than governments or international bureaucracies.
When we look back over the past 20 years of architecture education, three overriding tendencies stand out. The first is the shifting relationship between the profession and the schools. In many cases, passionate academic debates have brought to light a deeper anxiety about the changing role of the architect in society. Architects, as Rem Koolhaas has pointed out, are at once immensely arrogant and massively powerless. That is to say, they are no longer effective in many areas traditionally seen as the domain of the architect, but potentially powerful in other, perhaps unanticipated arenas. One task of schools today is to identify these new arenas and capacities.
This is a task made more difficult by a climate of increasing pluralism. Clearly no single design direction dominates today, and while it is possible to map shifting intellectual agendas, the situation is not so much that one agenda supplants another as it is that one is layered over another, multiplying the possibilities and points of view. This can be confusing to a student, who is often thrown back on his or her own resources. Young architects need to cultivate intellectual independence, but students need stable landmarks as well.
Complicating the climate of pluralism is the leveling effect of new technologies and the tensions between the global and the local. Not only are there more choices out there; the differences among them are ever smaller. As information proliferates and the speed of access accelerates, it is more difficult to identify specific local design cultures. Architects today work in distant locations, and students are highly mobile. The student enrolling in a school in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Chicago or London is drawn to that city less for its local design culture than by a desire to plug into the global network. Students today look at the same journals, work with same software, and listen to the same architects who travel the international lecture circuit.
What is required to comprehend globalism today are not tired generalizations, but close study of specific places, cities and cultures. It is worth remembering that architecture remains rooted to place, even in an age celebrated for global culture; what circulates are images, ideas, expertise and architects themselves. Political philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has written about the need to cultivate a cosmopolitan attitude in the face of global culture today, neither artificially preserving “authentic” local traditions, nor giving in mindlessly to the forces of globalism. 22 Instead, he advocates paying close attention to the necessary hybridity of a contemporary culture that works with elements of history and tradition just as it takes full advantage of new technologies and the opportunities of global exchange. Something similar will be required in architecture and education to take account of the issues discussed here as well as others impossible to anticipate.