Lying Fallow by Sylvia Lavin

03Oct13

In different ways, the critical and digital turns radically changed the terms through which architecture was defined–that is, how it was made and how it was received in the world at large. The importance of these turns today, in addition to the obvious persistence of both the theoretical and digital impulses they introjected into the field, is the way both shifts were associated with relatively small numbers of architects but immediately ensnared architecture as a whole into their logic. Even though historians will argue about who was responsible for taking the first steps in these recent turns, their significance derives from their structural quality rather than their origins in authorial intention. In other words, these changes are of less consequence for what they indicate about individuals, unique genius or talent, or even personal perspicacity, than they are for the way in which they reveal what George Kubler called the shape of time, which he considered a fundamentally collective enterprise.

Today, there are no new stakes that rise to the structural order of either of these previous turns, so time is more or less at a flatline. There is important work of the kind that Thomas Kuhn called mopping up to do, but the paradigm is settling in rather than shifting. There are architects working and individual projects being constructed of tremendous quality, but the field itself is in stasis; there are no clear stakes to argue for or against, and even less urgency. This is not to forget that powerfully important issues surround the field, from global warming to the foreclosure crisis, but like small children and puppies, no one argues against these crucial issues. Some believe such factors must pass through a process of abstraction and discipline for architects to have much to offer outside their individual citizenship in the global common, but even so, everyone happily agrees that environmental causes and other forces for social good ought to become more architectural than they are. As a result, once radically divergent models of the architect, the avaricious corporate architect with a practice and the isolated avant-garde architect with a project, are joining forces in the quest for goodness. At times they are nearly indistinguishable, as both groups more often than not willfully exploit each other’s traditionally opposed postures. Professional architects profess design intelligence just as advanced practices tout their professional acumen. Schools that once stood in opposition to NCARB and other regulatory agencies are now happy to advertise how many FAIA are on their faculty. When Peter Zumthor’s proposed building for LACMA, Jürgen Mayer’s Metropol Parasol, SANAA’s Serpentine Pavilion, and virtually every first-year design student project have exactly the same parti, discrimination seems futile and repetition and replication are revealed as the rule. It may well be a good thing overall that one effect of replication is to reinforce social cohesion, but it does not produce interest, and architecture without interest cannot rise to the occasion of being a paradigm for systems of thought internally or for other fields. That is why today, architecture, as such and as a whole, despite and maybe even because of the interest of particular individual buildings and the goodness of everybody’s intentions, is, well, boring.

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