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.