Two Dutch architects recently struggled aloud with the question of contemporary architecture’s mission, and by extension, that of architecture education, in front of two different American academic audiences. Both men buzzed with agitated energy and communicated the sense that society, let alone architects, cannot come up with answers fast enough to the most vexing issues facing the planet.
One, Winy Maas, principal of the firm MVRDV, titled his address to the Otis College of Design in Los Angeles “What’s Next?” The other, Wiel Arets, recently hired as the dean of the School of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, calls a new publication and his approach “Nowness.”
On the surface, associating the two architects’ use of similar terminology to capture their vision of the current state of affairs and to chart a path for the near future might seem facile. And maybe it is. But when two powerful voices in the architecture community are setting down their perception of where we are and where we’re going, it’s worth at least an attempt to look at their philosophies side by side.
Defining “now” is perhaps the easier part. Both Maas and Arets agree that we now find ourselves in an epoch of near-constant change, driven by technology that is at once connective and alienating. The rapid urbanization of the planet – by the United Nations’ estimates, at the rate of 200,000 people a day – is one of its primary existential challenges, with all of its attendant environmental and sociopolitical effects.
“Urbanization is the dominant issue confronting architects in the coming decades,” Arets wrote in Nowness.
In their pursuit of “now,” Arets and Maas have captured contemporary anxieties, for better or for worse, through the use of the same symbol and a suggestion that the camera might illuminate a clearer way out.
In Arets’ Nowness, Thomas Ruff’s pixelated image of the burning World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks is used, somewhat awkwardly, as a launch point for advocating designers more thoroughly investigate technology.
“If we want to develop a new definition of what cities and cultures are and could be, we must look to other disciplines to discover new tools,” Arets writes. “The interdisciplinary collaboration is currently being explored by, for instance, film directors, who are using new tools to transform the image of society and how we experience it.”
Pixels are a recurrent theme in Maas’ work, as a programming device for creating spatial variety in the DNB Bank headquarters in Oslo, Norway.
Maas adjusted the convention in a controversial proposal for the Cloud, in Seoul, South Korea, a pair of towers fused together in a pixelated protuberance, which some found to be an oblique, postmodern and offensive reference to the Twin Towers’ demise.
“What some of you considered as a kind of ironic gesture to 9/11, is actually the opposite,” Maas said. “It’s a contribution of the symphony of environments; escapes are innate in this building.”
Maas called into question the fear of dreaming big and sweeping gesture that seems to have seized the design community. Did fear of another attack weaken the design of the replacement World Trade Center? Does our need to be perceived as addressing environmental issues ignore the cause of inspiring design?
“This is a time in which icons have almost become taboo,” he said. “Many visions have been created but reduced enormously, because visions are taboo. The leadership in architecture says that we are happy with small things. If you look at Wallpaper and other magazines…they are products of beauty. All the houses are small gems. But Wallpaper hates bigness. I never see any critique on this. How can we think at scale?”
Maas’ greatest plaudits, interestingly, also go to the projected grandiosity of cinema.
“I still like Los Angeles because of its ability to dream; its never-ending hippie epoch,” Maas said. “You take the consideration to explore the future. It is an industry that somehow believes in the future.”
The implication is that architecture somehow does not believe in the future, and could benefit from the dialogue. Or perhaps Maas was simply looking for a second career as a set designer.
Not Year Zero, But…
So, how do we shake loose this yoke of the present? We can look to past masters before turning to spring forward. However, Arets and Mass disagree about how long to dance with the grotesque animal.
Arets’ investiture came in March, in the same week as what would have been Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 127th birthday. This occasion is celebrated as a holiday at IIT, whose campus bears the indelible stamp of Van der Rohe’s hand on no less than 16 ominous yet lightweight buildings, and a half-dozen more by his immediate successors.
The school combined the two events, and brought most of Van der Rohe’s living acolytes – Dirk Denison, Dirk Lohan, John Ronan, Ron Krueck and Mark Sexton – to the stage to welcome the new dean. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel even showed up to share a few words.
The hagiography cannot be overstated. Guests quaffed nostalgia in the form of “Mies-tinis,” teetered in the glassy aerie of Crown Hall, and sat through a retrospective film replete with Mies quotations, and then a first-person address to the old Ludwig Van in the form of a toast. “I can assure you that Mies during his lifetime on his birthdays never had such a crowd,” Denison said. “He believed that less is more.”
Van der Rohe also believed in creating an entirely new architecture for his times, blasting away at Victorian ornament in lieu of extreme clarity and simplicity of form. While the room was bursting with fine architects, there was something hesitant, and a bit retro, about using Mies’ legacy to launch architectural education into the future. Arets wore a professorial bow tie straight from the 1950s at the event, and recently chaired the jury of the European Union’s Mies van der Rohe Award.
While the goals articulated by Nowness, including “rethinking the metropolis” and “reinvigorating IIT as an objective Bauschule” seem like laudable ways to, as Mies put it, “bring order to the chaos of our times” by sculpting the next generation of minds, Maas has had enough of the “Re-s.”
“If you go to any university these days, the word ‘re’ is every second word – ‘reimagination,’ ‘reuse,’ ‘reduction,’ ‘revolution,’ etc…it is everywhere, and it’s horrible,” Maas said. “Can we forget about that word for awhile as we think about the future?”
Hankering for a bold and aggressive stance, Maas banged on about the current retro fetish and the obsession with mid-century modernism, enshrined in characters such as Mies.
“Because of our crisis, we produce buildings that somehow think that they want to be old, because if it is old then it has a value,” he said. “This new oldness is completely stupid.”
Yet, even if Maas’ fervor is more reminiscent of Van der Rohe than Arets’ cautious optimism, he cannot resist comparing his own work to a Modern legacy. Referring to his Mirador project in Madrid, social housing in a tower with a hole cut through the center, forming an asphalt playground in the sky as “a building Corbu never made but was thinking about.”
“Originality is not the main idea,” he said. “Instead it is to continue through with the ideas of the past that have not been realized.”
Perhaps being a custodian of the past is not mutually exclusive with being a portal to the future, after all.
The Vision Thing
In his speech, Arets insisted that he would bring change to IIT, through a new academic curriculum, public dialogues and debates, and “through the establishment of a new global relationship.” It was not immediately clear how that would happen, but some evidence of Arets’ aim for a “multidisciplinary crossroads” could be found in the pages of Nowness, including a “horizontal studio” that spans all undergraduate, masters’ and PhD programs in architecture at IIT through a common research and design course called “Metropolis.” The course’s emphasis would be changed each year and taught by a rotating roster of “some of the world’s leading architects.”
Initial reaction from students was not promising.
“Master’s students are not going to want to hang out with undergraduates,” asserted an undergraduate architecture major.
“I generally don’t associate with master’s candidates,” said another.
The campus of IIT is set amidst Chicago’s the decayed but slowly reviving, predominantly African-American Bronzeville. The Institute recently set down a 24/7 security-door policy after several “incidents” in the vicinity, and has only recently stopped considering moving to the suburbs, replacing this objective with a badly-needed $250 million capital campaign to augment its careworn Miesian box collection. Arets may find that fostering inclusiveness and collaboration among students here, let alone with the metropolis that surrounds them, a tough, er, Rohe to hoe.
The greater hope lies with the likelihood that Arets may design some of the buildings that result from said campaign – there is little question they would be sympathetic to the predominant style of the IIT campus. Sports Campus Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht could be airlifted to the corner of 35th and State and no one would blink.
Across the pond, Maas has for several years run a collegiate architecture and urbanism studio at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, called the Why Factory. Its ambitious output includes books, films and exhibitions, with healthy assistance from both the Dutch government and the BBC. Its mission is to “give argumentation back to the architectural and urbanistic world.” The Why Factory book Visionary Cities asks aloud, “Are we having too much fun? Are our dreams undermining the city? Has everything been done before?”
“Although we believe in futurism, we are still old-fashioned,” Maas said, indicating that, nice though technology is, the Socratic discussion format is still the best way to generate ideas. He had little choice but to pursue this approach at the school’s outset – three weeks after it opened, it burnt to the ground. Lectures moved to a tent in the courtyard of an existing building, which the students helped to raise.
At one point, playing with Legos became a primary instructional tool.
The Why Factory is led by a highly imaginative fellow, whose design work, such as the “vertical villages” of the Peruri 88 Tower in Jakarta and the Taipei Museum of Tomorrow, makes it seems as if his philosophy is ripped from the handbook of the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things.
Of late, Maas has begun exploring new materials with the MIT Media Lab. The outcome of this was a short film called “The Transformer” that Maas compared both to Riefenstahl and Chaplin, which imagined a material that was so responsive to human needs, that one could jump through walls, pull out furniture and mold a frying pan with which to make breakfast. The intersection between human agency, space and solid is recast into a polymorphous, manipulable mass. Maas said this rubber-like material would “shift the boundaries of architecture,” but if developed fully, it seems just as likely to eliminate architecture entirely.
Too much fun, indeed.
There is a well-founded argument that architecture has made itself irrelevant through self-seriousness and hermetic aloofness. Fear of liability, as much as fear of “bigness,” has caused retreat into specialization and the thankless role of leading armies of consultants by the nose. While postmodern pranking will always be appreciated by the Alain de Bottons among us, the future clients we should be worrying about don’t necessarily care about questions of inverted typologies and whether it’s all been done before, or whether they are having enough fun.
They care about whether their homes and workplaces will provide a quality of life that makes the future a place they actually want to inhabit. They care about whether they will have homes or workplaces at all.
If the architecture students of today want to play any role in what future we have left, they will unquestionably need to work across disciplines and shed dogmatic notions – both Maas and Arets have this right. There is a place and time for letting one’s imagination run wild, and college may well be that place. But while racking up crippling debt, students should at least learn how to do more than push blobs around. Schools could stand to replace a few lectures, not with Legos, but with mock contractor and community meetings, or a trip down to the planning department.
The people who teach architecture should challenge and provoke, but they should also prepare their charges for the vast array of problems that they’re not going to be able to design themselves out of. If the “argumentation” of architects is limited to their own narrowing field, and does not involve an unblinking exploration of the political, environmental and economic forces that really do shape our world, we may not want to know the answer to “what’s next?”