1

“Dear David, You ask me what we architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet’s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. All of which is being managed by political leaders, whose cynicism and absurd actions put the Marx Brothers to shame.

Dear David, the answer is: nothing.

Or do you know of any moment in the history of architecture in which an architect contributed to the decisive issues of society? Architects have always kept company with the world’s mighty. They built palaces, temples, stadiums, entire cities. For the most part in the spirit of the times, and rarely as an expression of renewal and change.” Herzog’s whole letter can be seen on his studio’s website or at https://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2020/10/13/jacques-herzog-letter-from-basel.html?fbclid=IwAR3vtP779Ey9nHFpxrdi4ANo3ZB__T1XSXMTxLDoduG4S5ODLSrSd0xnGDw

 

2

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/press-room/press-backgrounders/slavery-and-the-white-house

3

Gomá Lanzón, Javier. Public exemplarity. Madrid: Taurus, 2015.

A Shot in the Foot

 

Jaques Herzog’s reply to David Chipperfield. Author’s own image.

“A shot in the foot”. That’s how the sharpest critic described the brutally sincere correspondence, made public this summer, between David Chipperfield and Jaques Herzog. The English architect had asked his Swiss counterpart about what architects can do about climate change, social inequalities, and the present pandemic when even the politicians are behaving shamefully. Herzog’s reply was crystal clear: “…nothing. Or do you know of any moment in the history of architecture in which an architect contributed to the decisive issues of society?” 1

“Architects”, Herzog went on, “have always kept company with the world’s mighty”, systematically seeking prestige because that’s what brings them more work. It’s a simple equation and, although it seems to presage the very worst, it doesn’t seem to have changed much over the ages. But if the reality of architecture is as crude and amoral as Herzog suggests it would appear that something ought to be changed.

Was it merely a momentaneous attack of sincerity? Even if it were, Herzog also notes that small opportunities for improvement still exist despite such a poor scenario. In totalitarian regimes it is still possible, for example, to submit proposals with options that will allow people to use space more “democratically”—as Herzog himself experienced with his “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in China. But is he being serious? Is that all?

For many, the tone of underlying hypocrisy in Herzog’s words is unbearable. But that is almost certainly not the case for those companies immersed in the tough day-to-day activity of pitching for big architectural jobs. There are few plausible arguments that can be brought to bear against the Swiss architect’s verdict of “that’s the way it is”. One of the most convincing, however, comes from the American academic world, in the shape of a simple metaphor: “Wage rolls for May 1795 list five enslaved people [who labored to build the White House], Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, four of whom were owned by White House architect James Hoban. Daniel was owned by Hoban’s assistant, Pierce Purcell.”2. In other words, should we rely on growing awareness in the future to rectify the inequalities of the present? Is the solution just to wait? Is everything that’s good about our present-day society grounded on irreparable injustices?

Surely there must be other answers to Chipperfield’s questions. Even without resorting to the most naively corporate argument and citing our profession’s capacity to generate beauty (with all its associated power to transform), the work and conduct of architects should at least be “exemplary”— in the best, most profound sense of the word.3

In the putrid, stagnant waters of the architecture Herzog presents, an architecture that’s practically inert and incapable of reacting to anything, exemplariness is still the first (and only?) form of political action possible for the architect. In fact, it’s the only truly edifying course of action still open to us: exemplariness in budgeting, in form, in resources, and in land use— or, as philosopher Javier Gomá would say, an individual exemplariness now made more public than ever.

If architects cannot efficiently take political sides, if they relinquish the romantic production of transcendental works and shun even the slightest hint of any heroic role, even though such functions might have been exercised thanks only to the social influence resulting from their relationship with the powers that be, how can they possibly be expected to make a “meaningful contribution”? That is to say, how can they transform others through their own behaviour? Thousands (to say the least) of budding architects expect to see that exemplariness in the figures they study in class.


Text translated by Andrew V.Taylor. 
Notas de página
1

“Dear David, You ask me what we architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet’s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. All of which is being managed by political leaders, whose cynicism and absurd actions put the Marx Brothers to shame.

Dear David, the answer is: nothing.

Or do you know of any moment in the history of architecture in which an architect contributed to the decisive issues of society? Architects have always kept company with the world’s mighty. They built palaces, temples, stadiums, entire cities. For the most part in the spirit of the times, and rarely as an expression of renewal and change.” Herzog’s whole letter can be seen on his studio’s website or at https://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2020/10/13/jacques-herzog-letter-from-basel.html?fbclid=IwAR3vtP779Ey9nHFpxrdi4ANo3ZB__T1XSXMTxLDoduG4S5ODLSrSd0xnGDw

 

2

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/press-room/press-backgrounders/slavery-and-the-white-house

3

Gomá Lanzón, Javier. Public exemplarity. Madrid: Taurus, 2015.

Autor:
Arquitecto y docente; hace convivir la divulgación y enseñanza de la arquitectura, el trabajo en su oficina y el blog 'Múltiples estrategias de arquitectura'.

Deja un comentario

Tu correo no se va a publicar.

Últimos posts