As part of The Persistence of Questioning, critical reflections for the future: ‘What is the state of architectural culture?’, Sergio Figueiredo writes in his essay’, about what many people see as the nose dive experienced by architectural culture in the Netherlands since 2013 as a result of the dismantling of the supporting infrastructure. He then outlines a promising future for that same architectural culture with some developments from other countries.
I must admit that I was always bothered by the untimely demise of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) as well as the intentional collapse of Dutch support infrastructure for architecture in 2013. Engendered by the market-driven ‘cultural policy’ by then State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science Halbe Zijlstra, the drastic overhaul of the Dutch cultural infrastructure also had a crushing impact on Dutch architecture culture. Through a severe defunding of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), Architectuur Lokaal, Archiprix, the (Dutch) Europan and the Berlage Institute, as well as the transformation of the NAi into the Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) — that is, the institutions and organizations that mostly facilitated architecture culture in the Netherlands — the writing was on the walls: architecture and its culture were to be left to the market.
Perhaps, some will recognize the term, while others will question what ‘architecture culture’ actually means. In broad terms, architecture culture refers (even if imperfectly) to the notion that there is a particular culture — with specific principles, protocols, premises, discourses, ambitions and practices — that is associated with and fostered by architecture and the instruments around it. A culture that has been created and developed as much by glossy, heroic architectural images in thick coffee-table books, as by dense texts of theoretical musings in the pages of academic journals. A culture that has thrived from both intimate conversations on spatial policies in obscure podcasts, and well-attended blockbuster exhibitions presenting the latest and greatest in architectural form. A culture that has been expanded with each polemic-driven lecture, with each boisterous debate, with each self-promoting post on the continuous churn of the usual architecture websites. Within this notion of architecture culture, while buildings and other projects retain a central position, it is the instruments around them that provide those buildings and projects with meaning.
Despite the inevitable differences among these instruments, the nebulous constellation of instruments creating architecture culture has always been critical for architecture. By making architecture available and understandable to everyone, they have made architecture public. At its best, architecture culture encourages each and every one of us to become more mindful of our relation to the built environment, as it insists that we value our spatial experiences and consider them through various lenses and perspectives. That, ultimately, invites us all to understand architecture as a fundamental public resource that shapes our lives and confronts our gazes, regardless of who owns any particular building or who is footing the bill for any construction. Ultimately, more than raising awareness and visibility, architecture culture stimulates a public appreciation of architecture. Discussing architecture makes architecture possible.
However, with the invisible hand of the market guiding Dutch architecture culture for the better part of the last decade, we have been confronted with architecture culture at its worst. Specifically, the chilling effect on public debate on architecture has been noticeable, with broad discussion becoming increasingly displaced by superficial promotion. As architecture culture shifted its attention from the construction of shared vocabularies and frames of reference to rather obscure technical discussions and narcissistic PR narratives, architecture debate became increasingly, and rather conspicuously, absent in the Netherlands. Without a thriving architecture culture to assist in developing, disseminating and discussing architecture’s social and cultural dimensions, nothing was left to counter the dominant economic discourse. Without this most crucial public debate, architecture has become a flattened, hollowed shadow of itself.
Seeds of resistance
As bleak as the current condition may seem, it also presents the opportunity to think and act differently. Looking further afield across Europe, especially at the margins of the profession, there are encouraging signs of how a thriving architecture culture can be cultivated without generous public funding. One that does not conform to the present condition driven by economic discourses, but instead, forcefully resists them. Scheming, plotting and enacting alternative models that show how other ways of engaging with architecture are not merely possible, but also much needed. Across Europe, young architects are busy creating a renewed architecture culture that can revive public debate as well as engage pressing social, cultural and economic issues through architecture. For that they are creating veritable spaces of resistance, both conceptual and physical. More than sporadic efforts, these varied approaches represent a shared commitment to open up architecture debate and to make it more inclusive, as well as a commitment to architectural experimentation and direct engagement. With these efforts, architecture is becoming, once again, public.
One of the first, and most visible, efforts to make architecture public also provided a clear indication that business as usual would no longer be acceptable to a new generation of architects. In Spain, the emergence of several architectural collectives provided a new model to make architecture and change its culture. Established in critical opposition to office culture and construction booms (and busts), these collectives took ethical and political positions as their basis, adopted activist strategies, and committed architectural tools and skills to common social causes. Styled as practices of self-management and urban resistance, collectives eschew the vision of architectural authorship, spectacle projects, and real estate speculation, by focusing instead on developing alternative practices and discourses for an architecture that is communal and social.
The subversive approach developed by the Seville-based Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes) to intervene and activate different urban realities through self-build, local participation, and the exploration of gaps in administrative structures, is but an example of the inventive ways these collectives engage with social realities. While greatly varied, engagement with the community is, arguably, the most important element of these new forms of practice, by developing co-authoring processes where communities participate on the various stages of architecture, from design and construction to the occupation of space. For that, these collectives rely on developing networks of information and dissemination, with direct engagement and an open discourse with which the public is able to not only understand and discuss architecture, but also develop their own positions regarding it.
Much of this work is intent on making the invisible visible, and that has also been a guiding strategy for the Portuguese urban/architectural collective Space Transcribers. Specifically, through workshops and other forms of co-creation, they have deployed models to engage with disadvantaged communities and, with them, transcribe their lived experiences through various formats — from video to model-making — so as to allow the complexity of their reality to be both acknowledged and understood by others. Through this work, they engage communities in an informal and emotional manner, one in which architecture also becomes a space of shared imagination.
Within these models of engagement, strategies of publishing and dissemination are crucially being reconsidered. Disillusioned by the narrowness of discourse and the lack of debate within mainstream architectural publications, a group of young architects and students have congregated on the loosely organized Architektūros Fondas (Architecture Foundation) in Lithuania. While their immediate goal is simply to make public discourse around architecture more visible and inclusive of (more) diverse views, their ultimate aim is to improve the quality of buildings and spaces by expanding the understanding of architecture by a broad public. For that, they not only talk about architecture, but also help others to do so as well. Notably, they have developed the format of a ‘decentralized publication’ where, twice a year, they invite contributions on various themes — be it as a podcast, a piece of writing, an illustration or a poem — but instead of publishing them themselves, they share those contributions with existing publications and platforms. By cultivating networks of collaboration, this volunteer group attempts to shape architecture culture and challenge established dominant discourses from within, as they slowly reorient the existing architecture media apparatus.
The understanding that, sometimes, the most impactful manner to shift architecture culture is to change it from within, is also shared with the British group New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.). Focused on people of colour who are under-represented across design journalism and curation, the N.A.W. is organized as a (free) year-long programme supporting the development of emerging writers, providing them with a space to develop their critical voices and the necessary tools for them to join the architectural media landscape. Either through workshops, writing briefs, or one-to-one mentoring from experienced critics, the programme aims to nurture a group of writers who can inject architectural discourse with a more diverse way of thinking, of writing and understanding the built environment. Much like Architektūros Fondas, the N.A.W. purposefully aims to occupy entrenched media spaces, thus exposing their established readership and audiences to other experiences, trajectories, possibilities, and ways of thinking so that it can reshape and rearticulate various assumptions, as the way to foster change.
A complementary strategy has been to simply adapt existing formats or create new ones at the service of alternative architectural debate. Mies.TV — which originally started in Austria but has since then expanded globally — does just that by using casual video interviews to explore all aspects of architecture. By gathering different opinions on various topics through informal interviews with (mostly) architects, the student-led group produces short television shows that attempt to create conceptual frames for collective discussion in the live showings of their videos. Through these videos and these public debates, the group attempts to demystify architecture, make it more accessible and, ultimately, broaden public discourse.
The curatorial project Unfolding Pavilion is just as determined to broaden discourse and provide space for alternative conversations in and around architecture through pop-up interventions. Specifically, the group has organized short yet intense exhibitions as parallel temporary events to each edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale since 2016, exploring themes that are both inspired and confronted by their unexpected exhibition spaces. By occupying architecturally significant yet previously inaccessible buildings around Venice, the group has created deliberate collisions between architecture and exhibition structured by compelling spatial and architectural narratives. Supported by a variety of commissioned original works that reveal and refer to reveal hidden facets of the commandeered exhibition space’s history and cultural context, the Unfolding Pavilion instrumentalizes temporary occupations to propose new frames of reference that can instigate alternative conversations and shift perceptions on architecture and its discourse.
Although these are but a few of the various independent efforts bubbling around Europe, they already provide a glimpse of what the future of architecture culture could be. Either through videos, workshops, pop-up exhibitions, decentralized publications, or other formats that are yet to be imagined, the future for architecture culture is to be, once again, of broader engagement and of public discourse. Furthermore, developing at the margins of the profession and discipline, these efforts rely on open structures and loose organizations that are nimble enough to quickly respond to changing conditions and engage in alternative forms of exchange. In their variety and diversity, they provide the space for multiple understandings of architectures that are fuller and richer than the narrow dominant discourse mostly driven by economic interests. Effectively, these independent, sporadic, self-organized initiatives are already injecting new critical ideas into architecture and producing new depths of meaning. They remind us that architecture can and should engage in conversations that go deeper than superficial façades, spectacular forms or banal interiors. Conversations that can critically question not only the role of architecture in the privatization of public space or on the encroachment of technology in our lives, but also how architecture can and should engage with the major challenges that we face today, from climate change to social justice. Architecture must raise pressing issues and use its various means of communication as tools for engagement and instruments for broader problematization.
In the Netherlands, similar efforts are developing. From digital platforms questioning the changes to our surroundings such as the Amsterdam-based Failed Architecture, to lectures series and discussions to grapple with new forms of architecture production such as the TALKS about architecture organized by the architecture office De Kort Van Schaik in Rotterdam, to rough zines questioning contemporary urban conditions published by Onomatopee Projects in Eindhoven, these initiatives provide spaces for resisting simple narratives about form and broaden architecture’s scope beyond the profit-driven intentions of developers and the construction industry. Although thus far these initiatives in the Netherlands have mostly been confined to architectural, urban and landscape circles, they are the seeds for architecture to rediscover its intellectual project as a force for shaping society and through which society has been historically shaped. Effectively, if nurtured with consistency and visibility, with public engagement and inclusive conversation, these initiatives can also become the basic ingredients for a renewed architecture culture.
A Renewed Architecture Culture?
Within a renewed architecture culture, architecture must be framed and understood as the embodiment of ideologies, concepts, values and effects of human expression. Perhaps the biggest lesson from all these independent efforts in the Netherlands and beyond is that, as governmental support for architecture culture continues to wane, it is up to us now. The question looming over each and every one of us is, are we willing to be the change that architecture culture needs?
Although we are unable to significantly alter systemic conditions that have shaped the current state of architecture culture, we can all make an individual and collective effort to cultivate a more engaged and inclusive public discourse and to actively participate in a budding architecture culture. Can we support an appreciation of architecture beyond its economic value? Can we engage with architecture’s cultural dimension as well as its historical intellectual project? And can we do all that in a way that is accessible and understandable to everyone?
Today as yesterday, architecture culture should set its goals on promoting public discourse, and do so in an active way that can contribute to an inclusive architectural discussion. For that, a renewed architecture culture must purposefully frame architecture’s discourse and practice into a broader context, reminding us how both of these continue to shape our daily lives. Therefore, what is needed is an architecture culture that can critically, yet clearly, reflect on the intersection between architecture and contemporary culture. A renewed architecture culture that must remind us, once again, of architecture’s central role in any society while creating the space to be socially and politically engaged. An architecture culture that can discuss architecture no longer solely as discrete objects, but instead as a crucial apparatus that structures and shapes our everyday lives. A renewed architecture culture must be a strategic instrument for raising questions, developing positions, introducing ideas and initiating conversations, fostering a renewed culture of questioning that can, ultimately, propel architectural practice to, as yet unimaginable, new directions and heights.
Either through the depth of knowledge collected in the galleries of a research exhibition or through supporting minority writers, a renewed architecture culture must be created by developing and supporting increasingly broad perspectives. Created just as much by plain television programmes on renovations as by decentralized publications, architecture culture must purposefully and actively ensure that a connection between the public and architecture is reinvigorated. From the themes of triennales, biennales and exhibitions, to online critical platforms, a renewed architecture culture must raise awareness and develop broad conversations on the pressing issues of the day, both by reflecting on those issues through architecture’s perspective and by questioning architecture’s role in them.
Can we understand contemporary supply chain logistics, the reorganization of labour, political polarization, social justice, the housing crisis, the climate crisis, and the role of technology by openly discussing architecture’s (often complicit) role in their underlying systems? Can we expose potential issues and problems by developing new discourses and perspectives on architecture? Can we make architecture, once again, operative? Can it be, once again, a cultural and critical practice?
In the end, architecture culture is what we — as architecture professionals, students, teachers, curators, authors, historians, critics and publishers — make of it. It is up to us to create the spaces and plant the seeds that can make a renewed and engaged architecture culture a reality. It is up to us to create more spaces for discussion and appreciation, to create the possibility for a robust public discourse. As Thomas Aquilina, one of the co-organizers of the N.W.A. programme, stated in Learning To See Through Walls: Addressing Race and Space with the New Architecture Writers, “[w]e must share the labour of transformation, not just in moments of solidarity.” Architecture can only benefit from it.