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Radical architects?

Radical architects?

Markus Appenzeller

Recently a new book was published, showing the “radical architecture of the future”. Architects seem to love the word radical.

Beatrice Galilee: Radical Architecture of the Future, Publisher: Phaidon

If we look at the less prosaic reality of architecture there are few words that better reflect what it really is we are doing. The desire to be radical is constantly undermined by about any force that plays a role in architecture. Gravity kills our elegant, free floating designs. The bulkiness and the technical requirements of construction materials makes them clunky, heavy and far removed from the lightness we show in our images. The commercial clients we work for are anything but radical – they are extremely conservative and ideally want to build again what has sold already in previous projects. The public clients are constantly worried about technically challenging propositions because they might have an impact on budgets – shouldered by tax payers – or maintenance costs – also to be paid by all of us. The buyers and users are not interested in something radical either since the wardrobe they already have needs a wall to be put against and curves are out of the question since a rectangular bed does not fit a round wall. The last resort – the public – is also sceptical. It is afraid of things falling down from too extreme experiments that could hurt the kids and while it might like the spectacle of something radically new good old-fashioned looks are preferred in the mainstream taste.

Architecture is an evolutionary profession. Over generations and generations building practices, use patterns and aesthetic appearance have been evolving. Trial and error has been the most successful innovation tool architects use. At no moment in the last 500 years has architecture been really leading. Modernism, Constructivism, Post-modern, machine-age, structuralism or neo-classical – it all started in other domains. Architects signed up to those movements and engaged in the theoretical thinking. But they did not deliver radical built examples that broke with all conventions. They tried to but failed. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie that was supposed to celebrate the victory of concrete over old fashioned materials in the end was largely made of plastered brick walls. Reality is a lot more complex than anything proclaimed radical and therefore it is its natural enemy.

Le Corbusier: Villa Savoie – Source: lecorbusier-worldheritage.org

But if any attempt is futile. why do architects keep up the idea of being radical? I think we do it because it gives this feeling of avantgarde, of revolution and of breaking conventions. It makes us dream of leading the way in a world where we – despite our self-impression – never had that position. I believe that if we really want to be able to claim that role, then we have to change the way we craft space and the framework within which we do this. Radically new things require invention and not application. As architects we tend to do the latter and not the former. We need to engage in basic research, we need to step out of our limited cosy professional eco-system and we need to break with conventions, even if that means giving up our own preferences and design darlings and invent solutions that are driven by science and not by belief. We have to become design scientists. Unless we do that, radical architecture will remain a theoretical exercise without the proof of the pudding.

But the bigger question to me is – do we really need that? Will becoming radical beyond statements on paper really help the profession, our credibility with others or the world? I do not think so. Radical ideologies never have delivered more than interesting thoughts and disastrous implementation. Should we not go down the other route – not being radical, but pragmatic? With this change in rhetoric, we could achieve a lot. We would not shy away most people by our elitist attitude, but could win them as assets in our quest to make the world a better place. We could contribute to people’s life more  directly – by actually helping them in a concrete and tangible way. And we could regain a more integral role in society – a role that we have lost with our radical attitude. Most likely in the end this would help us realize more radical things in the real world. Giving up the radical to become radical.

by Markus Appenzeller

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