Notes Antic Disposition

The City as a Whole

According to the definition of corruption in use by the Harvard University Center for Ethics, the profession of architecture is corrupt. Victoria Beach outlines 7 structural reasons for why this might be, which are largely to do with the pernicious and uncomfortable way that the core ethical reason for the existence of architecture—as something beyond mere shelter—is being squeezed by the demands of a professional culture:

As architects surrender their leadership positions, the odds that buildings might serve interests beyond those of their developers worsen. Many architects now sit in the back offices of these developers and are economically dependent upon them – a circumstance that was ethically prohibited a century ago.

It’s a rare pleasure to see such great comments on a blog post these days. I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing role and relevance of architects in the face of the largest wave of urban growth in history. These kinds of debates are happening because on the whole, architects seem to be struggling to correspond with demand. There’s simply too much construction, too much reshaping and movement for the traditional approach of the architecture profession to have a fair impact.

Far from having a distorted or disproportionate influence on the shape of the contemporary city, architects probably do not have enough influence. There’s no place for a practitioner who seeks to advance the art beyond the narrow scope of serving the property development class. After Robert Moses, urban design seems sunken in a flux of public planning and private speculation. Cities are sawn apart by big budget motorway infrastructure connecting shopping malls and suburban sprawl; vital aspects of urbanity are willfully ignored in these waves of speculation. Surfing the backwash of massive property bubble collapses in places like the United States and Ireland, journalists and commentators seem more focused on abstract economic and financial qualities than anything else. Nobody is discussing the bare truth that these foreclosed houses set in gaping homogenized suburban tracts were intended as spaces for real people to live.

People have criticized Matt Jones for leveraging a techno-war metaphor, but despite this, his amazing exposition of the importance of cities must function as a starting point for a new conception of the relationship between developers and developed space. From the perspective of designers, philosophers, political thinkers, and ecological futurists, if the architects won’t become us, the only answer is for us to become architects. At least, on paper, through design activism.

Utopias are still a dirty concept in our culture, perhaps because most attempts to draw our dreams of a perfect harmonious society into actuality have led to a reality distinctly more dystopian than what was imagined. And as I’ve gone to great lengths to explain, we are already making ourselves cyborg via the simultaneity of the internet embodying the contradiction of being both a utopia and a dystopia. Since we are already engaged in the project to wrap Earth’s entire planetary surface in a massive urban skin, we might as well start imagining urban development as a connected whole, rather than pretending such binary distinctions still actually exist.