In the Year of Architecture 2011, Arkitektur N has tried to look back. Not in order to recreate the past, but in an attempt to challenge the blind progressivism and the idea of unlimited growth that dominates todays’ vision of the future.
Arkitektur N asked Kenneth Frampton and Juhani Pallasmaa whether they think there is any future to be found in the past.
Today’s global society bases its image of the future on the idea of unlimited growth. We know that this idea is not sustainable. It is not even realistic: It is pure illusion. We are suffering, as Susan Sontag puts it, from “a corruption of future-mindedness”, and we have to find new ways of thinking.1 Biologist and philosopher Yrjö Haila, one of many voices that have pointed out that the biological arithmetic behind our idea of growth simply doesn’t add up, points to our cultural limitations. “We need a profound cultural transformation”, says Haila; in order to have a chance to tackle the current challenges, we need to shift from a linear mode of thinking to a cyclical, cultivating approach to the finite systems of our planet.2 What might “cyclical thinking” mean?
Arkitektur N has interpreted Haila’s call to mean, amongst other things, engaging with the past, or letting the past engage in the future, and we asked two of today’s most prominent architectural historians and –theoreticians, Kenneth Frampton and Juhani Pallasmaa, for their reactions. How do they view the need for a “profound cultural transformation”? And what is the role of architecture in such a change? What roles do history play in today’s architectural production, in our inevitably forward-looking profession? And what is their reaction to a proposition like “The Future is Behind Us”?
Kenneth Frampton: I think it’s a very valuable thing to take on. However, when you start to formulate the question in this way, it goes beyond architecture and urbanism, as this is conventionally understood, since these fields are intimately related to the emerging crisis of capitalism. I think it’s difficult not to recognize that this unstoppable wave of development since the end of the Second World War is now beginning to fall apart, an event which will change the current political- and socio-economic condition. The obvious sign of this in the United States is the unacceptable levels of unemployment, not just for the so-called working class but also for the middle class, and most particularly for young people, both in the US and in large parts of Europe. That’s certainly one unavoidable symptom of the crisis.
IHA: Architecture is not immune to these conditions. Architecture is a very expensive activity; so most architects are, as it were, dependent on the spoils of capitalism?
KF: In general, public sector investment would seem to be very much diminished from what it was after the Second World War, along with the post-war project of the welfare state: reduced not only in terms of its share of the economy, but also in terms of the public perception of value. The last 20 years have been a period of expanding universal consumption, particularly as this has been the core of the universal middle class dream, whereby a triumphant postsocialist capitalism was supposed to deliver the goods for everybody. This ideology has occupied the world stage alone since the fall of the Soviet Union. But since that time, now over 20 years ago, the world situation is rapidly changing.
IHA: The question, then, is to identify where our cultural resistance to this predicament might be? Isn’t that why Yrjö Haila is pointing to? And isn’t there somehow a counterproposition in focussing on the place of the human being within a biological reality?
KF: Surely it is. A decisive counterproposition. But this is not the only indicator of another emergent reality. At the Millennium, Richard Rogers headed up a committee in England that produced a “white paper” entitled Towards an Urban Renaissance.3 This was an officially sponsored government report recommending the strategy for building in England over the next 20 years. At some point the text stated that: “We must recognise that 90% of what will exist in the year 2020 has already been built.” I found this projection particularly telling, because it was a reminder that even in an upwardly mobile triumphant capitalist society, the future is already compromised. So despite our best efforts, it’s ultimately difficult to reduce building to commodity.
We try, like mad, to reduce building into a commodity, but it remains difficult. Compared to virtually every mobile object you can set your eyes on, building has this anchored quality; it’s not a commodity item in the same sense. Building is tied to land and to property, and this in itself resists commodification.
Juhani Pallasmaa: I agree with Ken that the problems today are far beyond architecture, and in many ways the problems in architecture are reflections of other things in the capitalist society. It’s becoming increasingly clear that in many ways we are reaching the end of the road, and that the idea of perpetual growth is a suicidal ideology throughout the world. It has been questioned before, but it has since become an accepted ideology.
And adding the forceful process of globalisation to that, it has become an unbearable ideology. Particularly if you think of any kind of idea or requirement of global human equality.
"In many ways the problems in architecture are reflections of other things in the capitalist society. It’s becoming increasingly clear that in many ways we are reaching the end of the road, and that the idea of perpetual growth is a suicidal ideology."
And one of the consequences of making architecture a commodity is even more serious: architecture is one of the most powerful means of giving us our sense of identity, home and belonging, but architecture defined and produced as a commodity cannot do that any more. So architecture is giving up its most fundamental task. From the very beginning, architecture was not just a question of shelter, physical shelter, it had a mental motivation. And that has now at large been given up.
So I would say that we don’t even need to speak about stylistic issues or aesthetically different architectural approaches – just simply, architecture as a human endeavour is in opposition to the prevailing ideas of industry, economy, and commerce. Which means that any profound, sincere work of architecture is a force of resistance. It’s bound to be a cultural resistance. Because we have abandoned architecture as a means of organising society and re-distributing the benefits of wealth, in the sense of creating dignified settings for collective life. Even in times when architecture was used for displays of power, it created environments that had a dignifying message at large.
KF: I think that even in its most imperial moments, architecture was always capable of representing the collective to some degree. While there were many, at times, who were not direct beneficiaries of the state, it was always possible for the architecture to embody and represent the nation-state.
However, once architecture becomes nothing but an aesthetically spectacular commodity, then any idea of a collective identity is immediately vitiated.
JP: And architecture has always materialised time, the course of time, and made history visible and readable. But today’s instant architecture of investment, made for the exploitation of the economic system, cannot possibly do it.
KF: Of course. It can’t, because it is completely disinterested in doing so. As such it is invariably implicated in the maximisation of capitalist profit; it cannot possibly address this issue.
"Today’s instant architecture of investment, made for the exploitation of the economic system, cannot possibly materialise time."
An architecture of resistance
IHA: It’s interesting that you say architecture of any kind of quality, or any kind of sincerity, is inherently culturally resistant. And I mean resistant in a kind of medical sense, of having resistance to disease, as opposed to a protest. Because that means that the many architects who feel powerless to achieve any aims they might have to do good, don’t necessarily need to feel so bad…
Many architects have great intentions for wanting to make a positive contribution to society, but somehow they never get into the political or economic position to do so, and resign to powerlessness. I see a kind of tragic aspect to architectural practice today, in the way that architects describe the gap between what they want and what they are able to do.
KF: However, this tragic double bind doesn’t just apply to the architectural profession. Consider the degree to which multinational corporations now have an ever-increasing hold over the sovereignty of the nation state, and over political representation within that state.
JP: Private interest lobbies are a parallel parliament in today’s governments.
KF: It is becoming increasingly clear that what we have hitherto conceived of as democracy is currently being threatened by this entire system. So this frustration is not limited to architects… I think what we wish to be able to do is to give the next generation some guarantee of the continuation of our way of life, of an identity, and of the continuation of the species. In this context, the trauma of Hiroshima and Auschwitz are ominous reminders that techno-scientific progress is no longer a guarantee of progress as such. They remain the primary warning signs, so to speak. And although we have experienced prosperity over the years since those events, the negative aspects of “high technology” have become increasingly evident.
"Hiroshima and Auschwitz are ominous reminders that techno-scientific progress is no longer a guarantee of progress as such."
JP: Another sign is the increase of selfishness, in the political and economic world. This is a clear change during the last two or three decades. It’s frightening how selfishness dominates policymaking and economic life… Notice also the disappearance of visions. In the 1960’s there were still plenty of visions about a better life and how those might be materialized. Now, nobody comes up with any visions. Everything is mere pragmatism and opportunism.
IHA: Is this also to do with the balance between individualism and collective consciousness? Is the commodification of the economical and technical aspects of society a result of the individualisation of culture, or the cause of it?
KF: I think our emphasis on individualisation is a paradoxical condition. We are forever in the habit of emphasising individual satisfaction, with regard to standards of living, private consumption etc. etc. But for me this individualism is already an illusion.
In the meantime, the one fact which is perennially shocking is the rate at which the infrastructure of the United States, is deteriorating; particularly the road system, but also hydroelectric facilities, railroads, such as there are, even airports – they are in a state of decay. And there is a real resistance to appropriating money to maintain this infrastructure.
JP: At the same time, nations, just like individuals, live over their budgets, far beyond their means. This is yet another indication of the weakening of our reality sense. We do not live in the present tense anymore; we live in a future tense, however, without any visions of the future.
KF: And the United States is still fighting a bogus war, which after a decade is also the longest war in US history, during which the country has spent 400 billion dollars in an effort to overcome the trauma of 9/11. Hence the term ”war on terror”, which by any standards is a very peculiar idea. In the last analysis, you have a powerful country, which in terms of civic discourse doesn’t know what to do with itself.
The attitude of the multinational global corporations, even towards the country from which they originate, is totally indifferent. Everything is calculated in terms of global economic advantage, and if that means abandoning the United States, they will do it! For in the end they have no other concern than the maximisation of profit. It is maybe not so categorically the case in Europe, but it’s only too evident here.
JP: A reflection of the same development, as you certainly know, can be seen in the Nordic countries. The Nordic Welfare State, based on advanced democracy, was arguably the highest achievement of western political culture and social development. However, in many ways this idea has been abandoned. The scope of healthcare is being reduced, we still have free education, but the ideology of a Welfare State, based on ideas of equality, is obviously in danger.
IHA: In Norway, for example, we have had the money to keep the systems in place. But I would agree with you that we can see an ideology dissolving.
JP: I think even this dissolution is a consequence of the erosive power of world capitalism. It’s simply such a huge force that there has been no real resistance, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
IHA: So would you go along with our proposition that an injection of history is one of the possible antidotes to such a development?
KF: Environmental cultural history is of the greatest importance because the past feeds the present. This is the position set forth in Edward Hallett Carr’s little book What Is History?, where he makes the argument that each age writes its own history. There is no absolute history, for our notion of history is constantly changing due to the experience of the subject during the moment it is being written. In that sense, history is almost always unavoidably a function of the present.
In my view, the role of the universities, irrespective of whether they are humanist or techno-scientific, is to educate the political subject; that is to educate the citizen, as much as they educate the specialist. And I think history plays an important part in that as well.
"The role of the universities, irrespective of whether they are humanist or techno-scientific, is to educate the political subject; that is to educate the citizen."
JP: Yes. Not perhaps necessarily history as an academic subject, but as T. S. Elliot speaks of it, the sense of history, “historical sense”. And that is something that is being lost. The understanding of culture and the human being as historical processes. And here I would also emphasise the importance of biological historicity, which has been so far completely disregarded. In my view, this is a very important thing to understand, and this is exactly what recent neurological studies are beginning to reveal – the role of biology in the history, nature and culture of human beings.
KF: Well I agree, but you are much more aware of this than myself.
The authority of history
IHA: Would you say that history has some sort of authority in how we understand the world? It has certainly had an authoritative role, also in architecture, at various points in time, in the sense that the priorities and solutions of the past were regarded as relevant references for practice, like the role Classicism played in the Renaissance. But does it have any authority today?
KF: I think the issue of tradition, understood in a very subtle and broad way, as something that is to be revealed in the present, is of crucial importance. For a work of architecture to be resistant, in the sense that you and Juhani are evoking, the understanding of tradition is essential in order to produce a work that has sufficient levels of culture embodied into its form. This kind of synthesis has a quintessentially resistant character.
IHA: How would you define tradition, then? Because architectural tradition, arguably, has also been dissolved, to the point that it has to be reconfigured by each individual practitioner...
KF: One of the strange things about architecture is that it always remains in some way anachronistic. It is inherently contrary to the division of labour, as it is commonly understood, even if the profession is already divided from building in se. At the same time, unlike many other fields, architects have to face reality holistically. When an architect works on a project, any project, they look reality directly in the face, since there are always very real material conditions and limitations... Many other professions only deal with a fragment or a part of the real.
JP: I have often used the word ”impure” to describe the architects’ reality, in the sense that it brings together categories that don’t fit together. Yet that’s what we need to deal with. Architecture must be logistically and philosophically one of the most complex and contradictory human endeavours.
"I have often used the word ”impure” to describe the architects’ reality, in the sense that it brings together categories that don’t fit together." Juhani Pallasmaa
KF: That reminds me of Alvaro Siza’s great aphorism when he says “architects don’t invent anything, the transform reality.” In other words, he has to transform noncorresponding synthetic demands. And that contradiction is already out there, in the realisation of something. Therefore the making of architecture cannot be purely a logical operation.
I think that history, in the sense of tradition, is the one essential catalyst by which these contradictory conditions can be culturally and significantly resolved.
IHA: I sense that you’re not talking about tradition as a material or constructive continuity?
JP: I would say that tradition means understanding that the acts of construction take place in a cultural continuum. And in this there is a respect, there is an echo and reverberation, and there is a responsibility. Backwards and forwards.
KF: Very nicely put.
IHA: And would you say that the building industry, or industrialised building, is part of that continuum?
JP: Of course. I think it would be completely wrong to disregard or devalue the processes of industrialisation as such. The question is how these processes are used, and for what purposes.
Intention and nostalgia
IHA: There has been a discussion about the glorification of handicraft, about the longing some architects seem to have for essentially pre-industrial forms of craftsmanship in building...
KF: There is always this risk that certain materials or processes become fetishized, and so run the risk of being regressive. Also socially regressive. But the term ‘rationalised production’ is promising to me: opens the way for a more productive mixture of techniques. And it brings us back to the synthetic potential of architecture, and the possibility of hybrids.
JP: I would not argue for the inclusion of craft only as a practical application, but for craft as a process of thought, and the presence of the hand. I feel that Renzo Piano’s buildings, for instance, are very optimistic in the sense that they don’t compromise industrial processes, yet they have a feel of the hand, as if one could touch the hand of the author, or the maker.
I would say it comes down to human intentionality. And care, and the heart and compassion that goes into it, and I don’t think there is any reason to romanticise craft and natural materials.
IHA: You used the word romanticising... We are running alongside another word here, which is nostalgia. This is obviously something that we very quickly come to face in our efforts to look at history.
KF: I have often said to students that when we open up the ground, to put a building into it, what the human subject deals with is as primitive as it ever was. We are engaging in the same activity as in Roman times, or in mediaeval times. The same kind of very awkward confrontation occurs between the animal and the earth. When the building rises up out of the ground, the conditions have changed, but that initial moment is still very primitive. And I think this is important because it points to the possibility of combining techniques and materials that retain that characteristic contradiction, that are not at the same homogenising level.
JP: The word ”nostalgia” has also been used as an accusation, for instance to me, that I am nostalgic. I don’t think I’m nostalgic, I’m just trying to learn about the past and the crafts and respect them. And I think that’s different from being nostalgic.
Clearly speaking, it is a problem, and it is primarily a mental problem, that we are losing our sense of history. That is why the preservation of old buildings, for example, is becoming so important.
KF: In some ways, preservation is the bad conscience of late capitalism.
“Pallasmaa: It is a problem, and it is primarily a mental problem, that we are losing our sense of history. That is why the preservation of old buildings, for example, is becoming so important. Frampton: In some ways, preservation is the bad conscience of late capitalism.”
IHA: You are probably aware of the tragic events that occurred in Norway this summer, the bombing of the government building and the killings at the youth camp at Utøya.
The problem the Norwegian government and the public are facing now, is what to do with the damaged government building. This obviously touches on the sense of loss, not just for the individuals, but a whole society’s sense of loss.
The current public debate of this question is caught between the opposite extremes of complete restoration and total demolition. But the real question seems to me to be how one deals with memory: whether one sets apart separate sites where one goes to remember, or whether the memories are part of a continuum, an ongoing discussion and practice of alternatives and differences. And maybe the present stalemate of two extremes is indicative of the very limited, and limiting, way that we think about history in today’s society.
JP: I think the problem comes back to where Kenneth started from – as construction has become almost entirely mere investment, the investors couldn’t care less about ideas of history or cultural continuum. They care about the bottom line. And that is why the architect is often the only professional who still tries to defend cultural values in building projects.
I have noticed it in projects that I have been engaged in Helsinki, a city that ought to be a bit more sensitive to these issues. All the democratic representatives talk about is window cleaning, that is, about the most practical of issues. Not any of the deep mental or symbolic aspects of architecture. It is as if architecture had lost its mental meaning altogether and turned into mere utility. But the task of architecture is also to provide us our existential foothold in the world.
The end of growth
IHA: Do you think the challenges facing us now, at the end of capitalism are comparable to other moments in history? Or are we in a unique situation?
KF: Well, we talk about the current situation as a recession. It seems that it is not of the magnitude of the 1929 crash, for example, but there are undoubtedly very high levels of uncertainty.
JP: And the fact that we have had two recessions in ten years or less shows that our system is becoming increasingly fragile and unstable. What is happening currently in the EU reveals the fundamental problems of our prevailing thinking about production and economy. We are coming to the end of a road. The ideology of perpetual growth is now beginning to show its fundamental impossibility.
KF: One aspect of this is that the transatlantic European power centre, which was previously in a position to exploit other parts of the world, is rapidly waning in influence. There are real losers in this development – Africa is very poor and has been terribly exploited – but it is very clear that China and India, for example, are turning into real powers of production. And something is happening from the point of view of capitalist consumption and production. The idea of secure markets, that can be exploited over long periods of time, is no longer quite as self-evident.
So apart from the fact that the natural environment can’t withstand all our mindless consumption of resources, the economic system is beginning to choke itself. It is not very easy to see how we will react to this changed situation.
The importance of small resistant work, all over the world, is one of the things that point in another direction. I think mainstream architecture is currently in a holding operation, while the most interesting developments are visible in the smaller efforts.
IHA: It’s interesting that you should say small, because scale is obviously a function of finance. The pockets of culturally resistant work as you mentioned often found in the smaller projects. Not that it wouldn’t be possible to achieve that resistance in larger scale projects as well, but at the moment, both publically and privately funded larger projects have primarily been focused on construction as commodity, on building as investment. There are exceptions, but often in projects that have been intelligently managed to yield both cultural and economic value.
KF: It relates to what Juhani said about investment. In as much as the big investment, internationally, is often private, it’s hard to find the space for more sensitive work in that area. Which of course suggests that at the moment there is more hope in the combined public/private projects than there is in investment that is exclusively private.
"Art and architecture are marginalised and made part of the same system of consumption as everything else, but, I believe, the potential for resistance and liberation is still there."
JP: We are talking about rather sad aspects of our image of the future, but I believe that you share with me an optimism about the potential of arts and architecture to elevate human life again, given a chance. I think the task of architecture and art has never been as important as it is now. It is marginalised and made part of the same system of consumption as everything else, but, I believe, the potential for resistance and liberation is still there.
”Future-mindedness is as much the distinctive mental habit, and intellectual corruption, of this century as the history-mindedness that, as Nietzsche pointed out, transformed thinking in the nineteenth century.” Susan Sontag: ”AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1988), in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Picador 2001, p. 177. ↩
Yrjö Haila: ”Vår plass ved bordet – arkitektens rolle i biosfæren”, in Arkitektur N no. 4-2010, p. 34. ↩
See Byggekunst no. 5-2000 for a summary of the main points of the report. ↩
The interview took place at Columbia University, New York on 19th October 2011, on the occasion of Juhani Pallasmaa‘s inaugural lecture in the Kenneth Frampton Endowed Lecture series. His lecture, entiteled ”Space, Place and Atmosphere – Peripheral Perception in Architectural Experience”, is available through iTunes.
All pictures by Cherish Rosas, courtesy of Ghost 13 International Architecture Conference: Ideas in Things, 2011.