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What’s Radical Today in Architecture?

Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada, 1967

We’re living in politically, socially and environmentally turbulent times. But how are architecture and architects addressing the changes we’re experiencing?

The 1960s and 1970s were tumultuous decades of political unsettlement and social upheaval. From the construction of the Berlin Wall and the French students’ riots of May 1968, to the Vietnam War and anti-nuclear protests, these years occupy a remarkable place in recent history. Radical ideas set out to unseat existing conventions and practices in various spheres of life, including architecture.

Over this period, a number of architecture practices and collectives emerged and challenged the visions established by modernist architects reclaiming, through their radical ideas, the transformative power of architecture to change lives, cities and thinking. Buckminster Fuller, for example, proposed a three-kilometre high dome over Manhattan to regulate climate conditions and save energy. In Montreal, Moshe Safdie built the Habitat 67 social housing complex; in Colorado the Drop City hippy commune emerged; and in Italy and the United Kingdom Archigram, Archizoom and Superstudio speculated about how cities would evolve in a future dominated by technology. In Spain, José Miguel de Prada Poole’s ephemeral inflatable cities visualised a plastic future, Juan Navarro Baldeweg presented his ideas for a tropical forest in an arctic landscape, and  Ricardo Bofill finished his iconic Walden 7 development in Barcelona. Some of those projects conceived by young architects just setting out on their professional careers were put into practice. But many others weren’t.

Clark Richert, Drop City, The Complex, El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

Clark Richert, Drop City, The Complex, El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

Sixty years on, it could be said that we’re living in an equally turbulent period of global change and political, social and environmental turmoil. The climate emergency and geopolitical changes are transnational in their scale. The changes taking place in society, in the way we interact and in the economic flows that define our world are also being felt in our cities. But how are architecture and architects addressing them?

In “What Is Radical Today? 40 Positions on Architecture”, a recently concluded exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, I asked 40 architects, theorists and artists what they would define as radical in today’s architecture. Between them, they represented several generations, including some figures from the Radical Movement of the 1960s such as  Peter Cook, Denise Scott Brown, Andrea Branzi, Gaetano Pesce and Kate Macintosh. The question was complicated and deliberately open-ended, seeking an insight into whether anything truly radical exists today in architecture or in architects’ own ideas, but most of the replies were nevertheless very clear cut. Many of those taking part in the exhibition questioned the architect’s role in the system and argued for more collaborative practice as a means of recovering architecture’s value as a transforming force.

The architecture of today is very different from that of the Radical Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. But one thing is common to both periods: there is still a need for young architects to react, to seek out ideas which address the complex world we live in. Sometimes those ideas will become reality, sometimes they won’t make it off the drawing board. Sometimes they’ll take the form of a social housing cooperative, sometimes that of a university study into urban mobility. Sometimes they’ll be a sustainable house for a relative, sometimes a neighbourhood urban action programme. There are countless possible incarnations, but they all have their roots in a radical idea, in a will to change preestablished procedures. It’s those ideas that we’re looking for in this edition of Arquia Próxima.

Juan Navarro Baldeweg, A Tropical Forest in an Arctic Landscape. Application of a Climate Control System, 1972.

Juan Navarro Baldeweg, A Tropical Forest in an Arctic Landscape. Application of a Climate Control System, 1972.

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