AUTONOMY OF ARCHITECTURE : OBJECTIVE SINGULARITY AND THE VEIL OF MULTIPLICITY / by Ian Bailey

***Written and posted originally 01/11/2012*** 

Here’s a hastily written rant that could turn into something useful for my DRS; feedback appreciated!

Throughout the C.20th Architecture underwent a critical period of evaluation and definition, re-evaluation and subsequently numerous further definitions with the field splitting into two positions on the role and activity of architecture today. The first would define Architecture as a convergence of economics, politics, sociology, culture and history, whilst the second would see architecture as a single event or object expressing individuality of either the architect or client through the filter of multiple contexts which determine it’s production. The first definition suggests that Architecture is a multiple discipline with Architects acting as agents for all of these fields and working to maintain control over them. The second isolates Architecture as predominantly interested in the built object but accepts that said built object will be an outcome of multiple forces acting upon it. This differs from the first view fundamentally as it retains the architect in the position of only taking responsibility for the building as an object, the effects on or of society, culture, the economy or politics are seen to be secondary to the occupation.

The idea that architecture could be separated from such mega-themes is contrary to most of current architectural education where students are encouraged and tutored in acting as sociologists, economists, philosophers, artists, historians and politicians to compose a thesis for their work. Often there appears to be a greater emphasis placed on forming and maintaining a complex thesis above and beyond the success of any final architectural proposal. The notion that architects should be expected to operate as any of the above mentioned roles hints at a somewhat friday afternoon nature for producing buildings, as if it were the least important element. If the built object is only the bolt-on to the pre-eminent thesis then one must question whether the architect is actually the best person to design it! Architecture is in danger or over academicising it’s students at the expense of teaching them how to design buildings that are successful and a pleasure to occupy. Massimo Scolari recognised this back in the 1960’s stating that the pursuit of immersing architecture in “political, economic, social and technical events only … mask[ed] it’s own creative and formal sterility.” 1 This damning indictment of multidisciplinary architectural activity was also picked up by Aldo Rossi in his book The Architecture of the City where he describes architecture as a “singular urban artefact” 2 that in it’s monumentality enables us to see the richness of the urban fabric through comparison and contrast.

Proponents of a multi-disciplinarian architecture argue that architecture is a product that cannot be separated from capitalist society, every building acts as a sign, a social force that operates amidst multiple disciplines to do more than just create internal spaces and external landscapes. Jean Baudrillard goes so far as to suggest in his book ‘The system of objects’ that architecture is overdetermined by a series of external forces (economic, social, political & cultural) and as a result the autonomy of architecture is merely an illusion. 3 The Avant-garde movement in the early c.20th suggested that the role of architecture as an object within society was dead, dissolved by it’s own social forces, this was reinforced in the late 1960’s when in France there was a critical period of social unease with some action directed towards architects as the proponents of “formal and symbolic practice”. 4 If society requests that architecture cease making formal and symbolic objects in our cities then surely it is necessary for the discipline to diversify, grappling with new methods of working as well as creating new conditions for it’s own urban action and engagement.  If not, then what is the alternative? One could argue that methodologies such as parametrics can provide alternative forms and structures that do not present any existing symbolism and perhaps such architecture, devoid of icon or symbolism, familiar forms or typologies, can release the architect to create a building as a building, rather than a social condenser, urban landscape, economic dealer or political vehicle. I don’t believe that the future of architecture and particularly urbanism can lie with number crunching through 3D modelling software, there has to be a return to being unafraid of using forms that define a building, scale to denote authority and an acceptance that a building can stand on it’s own without relying on an overarchingsocio-political thesis to connect the building with the rest of the urban landscape. The need for such over determination could be read as a response to the contraction of our own humanist communities; the increase of social media correlates with agradual decline of physical interaction and will require us to connect our cities together tighter and tighter using the built environment – be that on a physical/media/infrastructural/social or cultural level – to try to retain a sense of belonging in an ever fragmented city.

1 Massimo Scolari, ‘The New Architecture and the Avant- Garde’, in Architecture Theory since 1968, ed. by K. Michael Hays (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000), p. 131.

2 Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, trans. by D. Ghirardo and J. Ockman (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991), p. 124.

3 Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. by J. Benedict (London: Verso 2005).

4 Jean Baudrillard, ‘On Utopie’, in Utopia Deferred: Jean Baudrillard, Writings for Utopie (1967-1978), trans. by S. Kendall (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006), p. 15