Disrupt architecture now!

So proclaims Pittsburgh architect Anne Chen in “Let’s Change the Language of Buildings for the Future,” in Architect magazine. Huh? I thought that’s what architects have been doing for the last century. Here is her thesis:

As a nation, we have grown accustomed to old, prejudicial systems that center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology. It is past time to imagine our world through a different lens.

What is she talking about? Should we leap to the conclusion that the old, prejudicial systems she refers to are the architectural traditions of the past? And yet perhaps we should be more careful and recognize that a “white, patriarchal, privileged” architecture could as easily mean the modernism that’s dominated the past hundred years.

Maybe she tips her hand in her opening passage:

Much of the built world that we have inherited reflects obsolete values. The vocabulary of the past is embedded with the symbols and imagery of a system that places dominance and power in the hands of the few. The nostalgic recreation of past styles, endorsed in the name of contextuality, legislated as historic design guidelines, and executed through culturally shaped perceptions of visual harmony and profit-driven planning and development, perpetuates a homogeneity that encourages communities to value visual sameness over the richness of diversity.

Surely she must mean classical and traditional architecture. But think about the language she uses. We are accustomed to the demonization of classical and traditional architecture in such terms, but the same language can apply equally to modern architecture.

What could be more obsolete from the point of view of sustainability than a glass-and-steel tower? What could be more nostalgic than the recent crazes among glossy archmag readers (if not among most people) for Brutalism or Mid-Century Modernism? What could be more in the hands of the few than the global development process that freezes out the architectural language most folks prefer? What better than modernism perpetuates a homogeneity of style that values visual sameness over the richness of diversity?

I’m sure you get my point. But in fact I do believe that Chen is pointing her finger at traditional architecture, not modernism. To do otherwise would be to risk being canceled or deplatformed. Chen herself may not even realize that each of the words in her opening paragraph could apply to both classicism and modernism.

How would Chen change the language of buildings for the future? Obviously, the syncopation of fenestration, the sterility of materials, the angularity of form and the defiance of gravity of most primary building features, not to mention the absence of ornament that has characterized elite architecture for the past several decades, can hardly be what she would like to see in the future, assuming she takes the word “change” to mean what it traditionally means. (I hope we can assume that!)

So if architects must imagine a future architecture “through a different lens,” does that mean not only that traditional architecture must be omitted but also those styles equally of the past such as the International Style, Miesian glass towers, Brutalism, postmodernism, neo-modernism, etc., etc.? They, no less than traditional architecture, “center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology.” And if they are all beyond the pale, then what other lens should architects be looking through?

Chen does not offer any architectural suggestions. Her essay, once beyond its initial thesis, urges architects to embrace what might be called Critical Architecture Theory, a twist on Critical Legal Theory, Critical Literary Theory and other brands of neo-Marxist academic thinking by now common in the professions, lately joined by Critical Race Theory. In fact, architecture was probably the first field to dive deeply into this claptrap, and has done more than any other field to solidify a hold on its professional establishment – without, of course, calling attention to it by name. But if it is so old, can it really qualify as the “different lens” architects must now don? How different must it be in order to be free of the taint of the previous lens or lenses?

Admittedly, it is difficult to describe the future until it has become part of the past. So it may be unfair to task Chen with precise answers to these questions. Most architects are entirely unacquainted with any of this critical theory stuff. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to describe exactly what Chen is getting at in order to suggest that architects cannot embrace her thinking without, by implication, embracing its underlying theme, which is that society as it is must be ended before society as it should be is built.

Chen wants a revolution in architecture that she is unable to describe. Her description of the road to its achievement is no less foggy, and no more realistic. She urges architects to diversify the profession, liberate the canon, and listen to marginalized voices – as if they haven’t been trying to do that for at least two or three decades, arguably with considerable success. Maybe the revolution has already been televised. How does it now change course? Chen does not say. (Notice what she also does not say: Take architecture out of “the hands of the few” somehow does not make it onto her agenda.)

The profession’s signal failure – if you can call it that – has been its failure to diversify, liberate and listen to the marginalized arguments that traditional architects have made since they were ousted from the establishment in the late 1940s. The lens of tradition that worked for centuries built successful cities, if not always successful societies. But building successful cities, not solving global problems, is the job of architecture and its allies, art and planning. Having cities that work, and that exalt human dignity via language comprehensible to all, can help solve those problems – though it will take a revolution against the orthodoxy represented by Chen to win back architecture’s rightful place in the world.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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13 Responses to Disrupt architecture now!

  1. Nothing but static says:

    Anne Chen’s article has a lot of words but really doesn’t say anything and highlights the Dunning Kroger Effect many architects seem to have.

    If bill-paying clients wanted this kind of stuff, they’d build it, and most don’t. Instead we get these screeds telling us that that we are too dumb to not know that buildings and methods based on decades or centuries of tradition are any good, even though we use them or enjoy them. Thanks for opening our eyes; we’ve been living a lie all these centuries.

    Architects like this give off the pedantic and patronizing vibe that when you graduate from architecture school, not only are you given a degree, you are given the “gift of taste” handed to you by your very own Wizard of Oz! The types of people that firmly believe if they lived in the time of Plato or Thomas Jefferson, they’d of course have superior natural intellect, ability, and curiosity to those old fogies.

    All of this presupposes that non-architects are “unenlightened” and never spend time in buildings, but guess what, we do! We even hire them sometimes! Architects like this act like the public doesn’t know any better and should leave such matters to avant-garde professionals to reinvent the wheel and to teach us things we never knew about how to live. Thanks…

    Architects like this seem more interested in advancing “the profession of architecture” rather than advancing “society” the way they casually and surreptitiously dismiss all value that came before them. An editorial in a magazine littered with du jour buzz-words will do more wonders for a career than giving people practical, attractive, affordable buildings that add to places in subtle or nuanced ways. Where is the recognition or glory in that? Where is MY mark in all of this?

    The “rugged individualism” contemporary architecture espouses seems downright Trumpian to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chen is advocating the work of minority postmodernists. Minority New Urbanists don’t count. Non-ideological work done by Habitat For Humanity doesn’t count. Her whole argument is pretty incoherent and not based in reality. Replacing Gehry with a female asian Gehry is going to have about zero effect on the lives of everyday people. In the end, she’s just sucking up to the establishment by parroting their straw man arguments against traditional architecture and urbanism. (I wish I could have written this comment on her article!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous says:

      You are spot on, Justin. I don’t know why so many people of such presumed intelligence take this stuff seriously. I mean, really. Do they have nothing else in their holster?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Anne Chen says:

      I am so glad to have found these critiques, which I was expecting but had to actually search for. David, I understand you to be a proponent of classical architecture and you are correct; I do advocate against a regurgitation of classical. But I also advocate against the rote recreation of modernist/ international/ brutalist what have you. Those are also styles, reflective of a philosophy that is generally white, male and patriarchal. As with all styles there are the extraordinary works by extraordinary architects (Corbusier comes to mind). But many that follow them are nowhere near as skilled and their retread of these past styles reinforces the language of white patriarchy. Today’s building technology, which includes the construction of building assemblies that can be fabricated nearly directly from digital design files suggest an entirely different language. The construction industry still utilizes conventional methodologies so in order to create at the building scale, those systems must be used. However integrating these familiar systems with newer systems moves language forward.

      Justin, I absolutely believe that white male architects who innovate are an important part of diversity. You name one of the most influential and important architects in my view. Frank Gehry has uncovered a whole new perception of what is beautiful. Without innovations such as his, which have evolved in a consistently inventive manner through his long career, we are stuck with old ideas of beauty. Rural Studio has created wonderful and inspirational homes and community spaces for people that are truly inventive. David Adjaye too brings a new perspective to forms, spaces and assemblies that introduce new ideas of what is beautiful or even acceptable. The perspectives of architects that are not tied to the same old western canon, one that traditionally does not consider how space, forms, assembly and materials connect the people who use them are essential to creating new language that is inclusive.

      As an Asian American female architect, I have always found myself rejecting the regurgitation of past styles in new building. It doesn’t speak to an inclusion of my voice or the voices of others that bring to the profession very different experiences than those that have dominated the construction of our cities.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anne, I appreciate your very calm, even genteel, response to my post criticizing your essay in Architect. I am pleased to hear that you concede the accuracy of my basic critique. We will agree to disagree on whether expanded innovation in style is likely to solve any of the problems you perceive. I believe that the “regurgitation” of old styles, as you call it, is a good thing, and prefer to call the process “inspiration.” A correspondent of mine always ends her emails with this motto: “It is not good because it is old, it is old because it is good.” That makes sense.

        Moreover, I don’t believe that traditional architecture, or for that matter modern architecture, is systemically biased against women or minorities. They can and do succeed in the profession. If they are numerically under-represented, there are ways to correct that problem that don’t require tarring the profession with unjust accusations based neither on fact nor history. And it seems that those ways are proving successful even if they have not yet achieved the correct proportionality you seek.

        I suspect you have carved out this intellectual niche in architecture for the same reason Edmund Hillary climbed Everest: Because it is there. Although I doubt I’d much approve of your own architecture, I would encourage you to return to it and, instead of spinning your wheels in this critical theory stuff, work harder to make your designs as excellent as you can (within, of course, your limited pallette as a modernist). But again, thank you for reading my post and responding with such good cheer.


  3. barry schiller says:

    Chen’s rant is silly leftist boilerplate babble, but perhaps those who advocate for “classical” architecture should be more clear that this does just mean Rome and Greece. My brother who has visited China many times says traditional Chinese architecture is very beautiful, almost everything recent is unusually ugly. David, you had a post about Yemen’s historic treasures which I thought were beautiful, and traditional Islamic buildings and many in India are often to be admired. So for me, that is a defense against the “diversity” critics that rail about classical architecture being too white


    • Classical architecture, Barry, is derived from the architecture of Greece and Rome but its descendants embrace many forms of traditional architecture. The terms classical and traditional are not mutually exclusive but rather have a curious intermixture. There seems to be an innate relationship among indigenous architectures all over the world, including the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, just to name three, that results in features common to classicism. Classicism is the true international style.


  4. John the First says:

    Regarding the quoted parts, aside of the pretentiously bloated but vulgar ideological intellectualism, aside of the ideological cliches which are repeated to the point of utter boredom, aside of it being designed to impress the fellow pretentious among the establishments and ideologically obsessed academic parrot circuits — one would surely think of modernism first when reading the annoyingly unreadable: ‘ dominance and power in the hands of the few’, ‘white, privileged ideology’, and ‘ profit-driven planning and development, perpetuates a homogeneity’.

    Yuck! Please don’t imitate that jargon, especially non modernist architecture is so pleasantly substantial and material, one would hope to use it as the last place of resort against the flight of ubiquitous contemporary ideological bubbles. If people with beards start to talk the language, all is lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gee whiz, John, I hope I have not allowed myself to slip into the jargon! Please say it ain’t so!

      Liked by 1 person

      • John the First says:

        No worry, I figured the quotes you use to refer to her ‘phrases’ are a light polite style of mockery.

        On a serious note, to reflect on the quoted sloganesque marketing pot-pourri.

        Maybe you cant tell me what is wrong with architectural forms when they are the product of the privilege, the few, even oppressors, the racially privileged? Isn’t aesthetic appreciation totally agnostic or separated from moral or social justice concerns? Would modernism and neo-modernism be more beautiful if designed and built by philanthropists, or motivated by the greatest altruism and social concerns?

        Architecture, different from such art forms like music and painting is partly tied to the realm of necessity, as people need sheltered places to live, work, and to gather. Architecture is bound to the laws of material reality, this is also the realm of scarcity, and as such it falls partly in the realm of social justice. All this only due to necessity and scarcity (limitations), unrelated to form.
        If per example a privileged bunch would build such houses that a ten percent would occupy ninety percent of the available space, or use ninety percent of the available materials, leaving the other ninety percent of people in a position of being deprived of space and or material, this would be a concern which belongs to the realm of fairness.

        Then we are left with diversity, lack thereof is then tied to power and privilege, but who says that power and privilege cannot lead to greater diversity, and who says that more social and racial justice (whatever the latter may be..) would bring about greater diversity? And who says that more diversity is better, what if it brings about a complete mess? Would power and privilege itself not become extremely bored by a lack of diversity? Would social justice not be at risk to equalize and uniformize (the latter has been certainly the case in many Western social housing building projects)?


      • John the First says:

        To conclude, the way of thinking which departs from social justice, when it comes down to diversity of form, is the wrong approach. In fact, the ultimate social justice would produce the ultimate uniformity, as basic necessities do not vary very much.
        It is rather that when the issues concerning the realm of necessities are satisfied, freedom of development of form may increase, but this development is dependent on a multitude of factors, far more complex than the factor of ‘white privilege’.


  5. LazyReader says:

    PFfft, what’s so special about something ubiquitous that Anyone can do with a magic marker

    Liked by 1 person

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