Straightforward architecture: an unfinished manifesto

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We want to make architecture. We don’t want to make illusions.

Architecture is the art of building, not the art of disguising buildings.

We do not deny that there can be, probably has to be, a certain amount of intuitive, aesthetic judgement when drawing up plans. Practical evaluations always rest on assumptions, and in these assumptions there is always a margin of uncertainty which needs to be resolved intuitively.

However, we are tired of the post-modernist idea that the visual effect of the building can exist independently of its material content.

We are tired of the idea of making simple buildings look complex or vice versa.

We are tired the idea of making heavy buildings look light or vice versa.

We are tired of the idea of making closed buildings look open or vice versa.

We want to make architecture that is not ashamed of its materiality, functionality and technology.

A city is not a matter of theatre, but actual life and death.

Architecture should not be a matter of attending to the whims of the privileged, but to the needs of the vulnerable.

In a capitalist society, it is an unavoidable fact that buildings are built first for profit, and only tangentially for people. This applies not only to private sector, but to an increasing part of public projects as well. We are tired of providing a smokescreen for the operation of this system with our renderings and diagrams.

We want to make architecture that is of our age: of an age of stagnation, dystopic futures, global desperation and destruction, of only faint flickers of hope of a future for humanity. We want an architecture that speaks for clear-headed decency in its massing and details, despite all the ominous clouds on the horizon. An architecture that avoids grandiose gestures and visual motifs while cultivating an attention to humble details, like the best buildings of the 20s, 40s and 70s. An architecture that does not care about looking good in photos and renderings.

This plea for restraint doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy creating grandiose visions for the future. We just think we should communicate clearly the fact that these visions can only be realized under the present economic system in a stunted, unfunctional form, as empty gestures. In other words, they remain in the realm of fiction. And constructing showy buildings to express a fiction is the paradigm of decadent excess, like that of Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, and any number of Russian czars and modern-day dictators. It is definitely not becoming of a democratic society as long as we remain unable to provide for basic needs for everyone as defined, for example, in the Declaration of Human Rights.

Some architects advocate an “ethical practice”: doing pro bono work either as a charity side line paid for by profitable main jobs, or as an academic excercise financed by grants. This way of working, however, is an exception, only available to a select few. Highlighting it serves to obscure the fact that most architects (just like other professions within the building industry) still have no option but to accept the paying jobs they can get. We applaud the charity, but we still need to think about how we handle the vast majority of commissions, which are done for profit.

Which brings us to the difficult part.

When the client, or the authorities, or both, require us to add some flourishes, “quality”, “architectural interest”, or “variation”… what does an architect committed to a humble, straightforward honesty do? You can’t just reject these things, however much you loathe them, or you will soon be out of the job.

I think the lesson of Robert Venturi on complexity and contradiction is valuable here: you can comply with these requirements while at the same time making clear you do not agree with them. In other words, make those gestures, but in an ironic, self-contradictory way.

But irony is a difficult thing that must be used with extreme care. You say a thing that contradicts your actual ideas once, that’s irony. But keep doing it, and it’s less clear what the actual idea is, the one you purport to hold or the one you keep mentioning? We’ve seen this shift happening with dudebros and nazi hipsters, for example.

To this dilemma, as yet, I have no answer.

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