How can you be engaged in a polemic about something that doesn’t even exist? That depressing thought hit me during the ‘Projective Landscape’ debate staged by Stylos. The aim was to pinpoint the latest developments in architecture criticism and hold them up to the light. To stir up the debate, the choice of polemic went to what’s called projective theory, one of the latest trends in American academia. Roemer van Toorn introduced the ‘projective’ to the Netherlands by setting up an entire ‘Projective Theory’ programme at the Berlage Institute and publishing the controversial text ‘No More Dreams?’ in the Architecture Yearbook and the Harvard Design Review.

The main argument made by the ‘projectives’ is that the philosophical school of so-called negative criticism based on the ideas of Adorno and Habermas is of no relevance to the everyday design practice of architects. In the US this negative criticism helped establish the view, held by Peter Eisenman and Michael Hays in particular, that architecture is a strictly autonomous discipline. A generation of people in their forties believes that criticism isn’t a starting point for architecture at all, that criticism is a Marxist mistake, and that the idea of reflection should be replaced by a practice of ‘projection’. Sarah Whiting and Bob Somol summarised this in their controversial ‘Notes around The Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism’, an article full of contradictions that make you wonder what the authors want to achieve apart from dethroning Eisenman c.s.

What did we learn from the congress?

The congress was a good opportunity to finally find out what exactly the ‘projective’ amounts to, but the introductions on the first morning (Whiting and Somol, complemented by Michael Speaks) offered little room for hope. The ‘projective’ was mostly a lot of things not, and the presentations were full of puns, double entendres and evasions. A typically meaningless statement from Somol, for example, was that the projective was about the ’politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics’. But we were left in the dark as to which politics or which aesthetics. Whiting even refused to show any buildings, claiming it would have been ‘normative’ and ‘prescriptive’ – as well that there’s no particular image that goes with ‘projective’.

No wonder that Christine Boyer lashed out in the very first discussion by asking if someone would please adopt a point of view. Is there anybody brave enough to actually take a stance, even if that might mean running the risk of getting it wrong? There was no answer to her knock-out punch.

Speaks had already noted in passing that there was no ‘project’ as such, and he didn’t seem to have much difficulty with that either. His view of matters is that there is a development from Modernity to Postmodernity and now to Supermodernity – strikingly neo-Marxist, incidentally, in terms of linearity and the Zeitgeist idea. The modern was all about a big project, which the postmodern lost, and the supermodern was only about ‘intelligence’ within which every truth is solved and tactical operating is all that is possible.

Roemer van Toorn actually came closest to formulating a positive project. His contribution was an elaboration of his criticism of Dutch architecture practice in the mid-1990s, which he provocatively dubbed ‘Fresh Conservatism’ at the time. He seeks a practice that doesn’t affirm the status quo but that allows and reveals contradictions and, thus, creates new moments of choice. But Van Toorn didn’t fully speak his mind. His position is in fact that of the classical humanist, and although not the same, it is certainly closely related to the ideas of, for example, the early Forum and Herman Hertzberger and the critical regionalism of Kenneth Frampton.

On the second day of the congress the last word went to Michael Hays. And his was harsh criticism: the ‘projective’ was indeed not yet a project. To him it was still, at best, about ‘intentions’. That was all the ‘younger generation’ had to offer. Hays also seriously questioned the concurrence between the triumphalism of late capitalism in the 1990s and the rise of the anti-critical sentiment, seeking a new pragmatism. ‘The reluctance to construct a counter-image of the contemporary situation,’ he remarked, ‘was a failure of the spirit of architecture, a provincialism of the spirit.’

What conclusions can we draw after these two days?

The round-table discussion mentioned in the text by Gideon Boie because of the intervention of Willem Jan Neutelings really shut the door, but a few points can nonetheless be made.

If the round-table discussion is symptomatic for current academic debate, then the only conclusion is that it is in a deep crisis, particularly in North America. It was rather disconcerting to see how all ‘theory’ broke down under the comments from Neutelings who, from a design practice perspective, placed his rather conservative though no less valid remarks. It made clear once more that this debate is confined to American schools and a few periodicals. It has nothing to do with the reality of building and the city, even though the ‘projectives’ claim they are dealing with reality.

There is, in fact, a political crisis in the sense that one is refusing to engage with any programme at all. The ‘projective’ is primarily positional play in which all options have to remain open and everyone looks after themselves and no-one after us all. At the congress the ‘projectives’ were even busy distancing themselves from one another. While the projectives badly want to rid the profession of a cynical attitude, their conduct only give added cause for even more cynicism.

The European situation, for that matter, isn’t much better, even if the American projectives look jealously at us from across the water, particularly at the Netherlands. Luckily, Neutelings was able to give them a good shake-up. But there are a few significant differences – for example, the fact that the Marxist-materialist doctrines haven’t been completely discarded and that they are even still developing.

With the disappearance of the big project of the welfare state, a practice of ‘small projects’ has developed in Western Europe – perhaps in line with Lyotard’s idea of the disappearance of the big narratives. It is a familiar argument, but one still worth noting here. In these ‘small’ projects architects, authorities, clients, developers, residents and so on have to form new coalitions and decide new approaches through negotiations. These are indeed real projects, not theoretical ones. And the major quasi-ideological analyses that academics so readily brandish have given way to a practice of ‘small politics’.

Here a fruitful exchange between theory and practice can take place straight away. It’s then a matter of evaluating projects from the 1980s and 1990s, and also about defining the important projects of this moment and of the near future. A number of thorny issues arise, and the political themes are manifold.

I’ll mention just a few. How do the projects on Kop van Zuid and Weena in Rotterdam, so lauded in the profession, relate to the populist Fortuyn revolt? Is the success of the design districts on the Eastern Harbour Islands in Amsterdam a reflection of the new segregation or a paragon of ‘keeping everything together’? Is WIMBY really a form of bottom-up planning or is it just some sort of Cliniclown approach? Which form of urbanism do the housing associations want to build in the Western Garden Suburbs of Amsterdam? And, especially, for whom? Will the Zuidas project be a piece of Amsterdam or more a piece of Singapore? Is the integral development of the Wester Mosque in the Baarsjes district in Amsterdam a textbook example of emancipation, or a is it proof of further Islamisation? And so on and so forth. All of these are concrete questions for a concrete practice and, more particularly, for a concrete theory.