AD NEW MODES: Redefining Practice
The Changing Forms and Values of Architectural Practice

alma-nac
AD, London, 2018

alma-nac’s introductory article in the AD New Modes publication.

The architectural profession has siloed itself. With increasing focus placed on image and form, the agency of the professional architect can be seen to have steadily diminished over the last 50 years. As the environments in which architects work grow in complexity, official reports chart the demise of the profession[1].

Forensic Architecture, Rafah: Black Friday, 1-4 August, 2014. Working in the crossover between architecture, politics and law, Forensic Architecture draw on input from wide range of collaborators to create spatial evidence rather than buildings. This 'Image-Complex' illustrates how 3D models provide an optical device and a means of composing the relation between multiple images and videos in space and time (image credit: Forensic Architecture, 2015).

Forensic Architecture, Rafah: Black Friday, 1-4 August, 2014. Working in the crossover between architecture, politics and law, Forensic Architecture draw on input from wide range of collaborators to create spatial evidence rather than buildings. This 'Image-Complex' illustrates how 3D models provide an optical device and a means of composing the relation between multiple images and videos in space and time (image credit: Forensic Architecture, 2015).

Architecture appears as the exercise of an arcane and privileged aesthetic code.

—  Reyner Banham, ‘A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture’ 1996[2]

Zaha Hadid, Pavilion/Aqua Table, 2005. When a Zaha table looks just like a Zaha building, then you know you are in some kind of trouble — a visual comparison made by Jeremy Till in his 'Beyond the Fountainhead' lecture, indicating how some of the current values of contemporary architecture are so close to pure shape making as to be indistinguishable form that of furniture design (image credit: Peter Guenzel; Luke Hayes).

Zaha Hadid, Pavilion/Aqua Table, 2005. When a Zaha table looks just like a Zaha building, then you know you are in some kind of trouble — a visual comparison made by Jeremy Till in his 'Beyond the Fountainhead' lecture, indicating how some of the current values of contemporary architecture are so close to pure shape making as to be indistinguishable form that of furniture design (image credit: Peter Guenzel; Luke Hayes).

Routes to building no longer necessarily start with the architect. What remains of the architect’s services, reduced to accommodate other statutory, construction and management specialists, now occupy a smaller space in the decision making process. However there is a growing practice of architecture that is breaking free from this mould, embracing the complexities of politics and people and finally admitting that architecture without these influences is just glorified furniture design. In making this change, a new mode of practice is emerging with a very different set of role models, creating new types of outputs that relate to a very different set of values. While the profession begins to wither, the discipline of architecture is re-emerging.

But are these new values being expressed in the form of architectural practice? If so, what are the ‘new modes of practice’ that are emerging, and are they actually new at all, or merely recycled structures and ideologies played out in a new field?

New Modes Versus Old Modes

The role of architects can cover a huge range of activities and values, altering according to the project, and the subsequent mode of practice they employ follows suit. The role is notoriously hard to adequately define without the definition becoming overly limiting. However, in order to distinguish what we mean by a ‘new mode’ of architectural practice, it is necessary to establish what we believe to be the traditional form.  Russian-American Novelist Ayn Rand’s Howard Roarke, the fictional lead character of her book The Fountainhead, written in 1943,[3] would sadly have us believe the architect is the sole tortured ego sitting between the property mogul and the ultimate purity of spatial expression.

A little less impassioned, in 1997 Renzo Piano states: ‘Architects are people who know…why and houses, bridges, and cities are built'.[4] The subsections of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ have been in varying degrees of flux since the role of the architect separated from that of the master builder around 1600BC,[5]  and the profession was born. Rate of change has been particularly rapid over the last 70 years, the ‘how’ of building becoming vastly complex, and the ‘why’ reacting to the growing influence of the private sector. As set out in Finn Williams’s article ' Designing Up Stream. Rebuilding Agency Through New Forms of Public Practice', [6] architects have shifted away from the state-employed practice typical of the 1950s to the 1970s towards the private sector, with the proportion of architects practising in the public sector dropping from 49 per cent in 1976 to 0.7 per cent in 2017.

Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, Fun Palace promotional brochure, 1964. The Fun Palace was an unrealised scheme, commissioned by theatre director Joan Littlewood, for a cultural and education environment on disused public land that would adapt to the local community's desires and requirements. Intended to be dismantled after 10 years, it was designed as a kit of parts, an ever-evolving assortment of distinct structures formed from prefabricated panels suspended within an open steel frame(image credit: Cedric Price fonds. Canadian Centre for Architecture).

Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, Fun Palace promotional brochure, 1964. The Fun Palace was an unrealised scheme, commissioned by theatre director Joan Littlewood, for a cultural and education environment on disused public land that would adapt to the local community's desires and requirements. Intended to be dismantled after 10 years, it was designed as a kit of parts, an ever-evolving assortment of distinct structures formed from prefabricated panels suspended within an open steel frame(image credit: Cedric Price fonds. Canadian Centre for Architecture).

Neave Brown/London Borough of Camden Architects Department, Alexandra Road Estate (Rowley Way), Camden, London, 1979 (image credit: Martin Charles / RIBA Collections).

Neave Brown/London Borough of Camden Architects Department, Alexandra Road Estate (Rowley Way), Camden, London, 1979 (image credit: Martin Charles / RIBA Collections).

Architectural output is set by the agenda of architect, client and regulatory bodies combined. Working within the state, the focus of this output was often on longer-term value to the community. With the pronounced global shift towards neoliberalism since the 1980s,[7] this agenda can now be seen to be more financially driven and often shorter term in outlook. Within the building industry, the subsequent introduction of early design role specialisms, such as planning consultants and project managers, alongside the shift in typical procurement routes, such as the contractor led approach have all impacted the architect’s services. Architecture as a profession has seen its influence wane; the architect becoming one of a myriad of specialist consultants whose impact on a project is all but pre-decided. In the tightly worded appointment documents relating to the delivery of highly complex constructions, there is no space left for the indefinite role. Outputs must be pre-established in black and white, focused on risk management and financial goals. Roles are specialised and compartmentalised and that of the architect has been edited down accordingly.

alma-nac, Paxton House, Croydon, London, 2017. Renovation and extension of an office block to accommodate 4 home, along with co-living facilities including a spare bedroom shared by the block. The scheme forms part of the practice's ongoing research into methods of positively activating awkward sites in response to London's housing shortage.

alma-nac, Paxton House, Croydon, London, 2017. Renovation and extension of an office block to accommodate 4 home, along with co-living facilities including a spare bedroom shared by the block. The scheme forms part of the practice's ongoing research into methods of positively activating awkward sites in response to London's housing shortage.

With this curtailment of the role has come a loss of agency, further cemented through the self-siloing of the discipline, and reinforced through the profession’s reading of its own history as both purely formal and, critically, almost entirely distinct from that of its wider environment;[8] ‘privileging the building over its occupation… the building over the processes of production … the building over the way it situates itself in society’.[9] This objectification of the output of the discipline is encouraged through the methods of teaching at key influential schools of architecture.[10] Teaching and practising architecture relative to the history of architecture (a self-referential story of form, occasionally function, hardly ever of socioeconomic context or actual end-use) posits that the true value of a building is too idiosyncratic for all to understand, and must ultimately be taken on trust. Not the best starting point for the commercial justification of the architect’s role.

In the midst of all this, however, a young studio collective called Assemble, sitting clearly apart from this current mode of practice, won the Turner Prize, the most prestigious of British contemporary art awards. Their project, Granby Four Streets, was the renovation of a series of traditional terraced houses in collaboration with the local community in Liverpool, UK.  This highlighted the existence of what can be described as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the architectural profession. A new breed of architect is emerging, challenging the limitations of current typical practice.  As Williams puts it, returning to ‘the social idealism, freedom to experiment and scale of ambition’ of an earlier era, rejecting the 1980s’ architecture school of built form fetishisation yet this time with a new set of tools to play with. The new breed is no longer subscribing to less is more, but is closer aligned with mess is the law. Our work at alma-nac is part of this revolution. We are one of many practices exploring this new mode of practice, the output of which need not be devoid of aesthetic control, but rather defined by values that are not purely financial. Our recently completed Paxton House scheme in London (2017) marries these two aspects in the continuation of a self-driven research project into new forms of constrained living requirements, but in a product whose value is in part still tied to its form.

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[1] Claire Jamieson, Dickon Robinson, John Worthington and Caroline Cole, The Future for Architects, Building Futures and RIBA, February 2010: http://www.buildingfutures.org.uk/projects/building-futures/the-future-for-architects. Accessed 11 March 2018.

[2] A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture. Reyner Banham, A Critic Writes, ed. Mary Banham. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p292–299.

[3] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, New York: The Bobbs Merrill Company, 1943.

[4] Renzo Piano and Kenneth Frampton, ‘Preface’, The Renzo Piano Logbook, Thames & Hudson (London), 1997.

[5] Arnold Pacy, Medieval Architectural Drawing pp 225-227 (Stroud:Tempus Publishing, 2007).

[6] Williams, F. (2018). Designing Up Stream. Rebuilding Agency Through New Forms of Public Practice. Architectural Design, 88(05), pp.104-9.

[7] Jonathan D Ostry, Prakash Loungani and DavideFurceri, Neoliberalism: Oversold?, Finance & Development, 53 (2), June 2016: www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2016/06/ostry.htm. Accessed 11 March 2018.

[8] Jeremy Till, ‘Beyond the Fountainhead’, lecture at the Columbia GSAPP Studio-X, Rio de Janeiro,7 August 2014:www.youtube.com/watch?v=edpC6VgKWG4.

[9] Jeremy Till, ‘Port-Re’ Mies Magazine Interview, December 2013: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHsVKv40M14.

[10] Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, MIT Press (Cambridge, Massachusets), 2009, p 8.

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