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The New architecture Signs that change is afoot

Elizabeth De Portzamparc

The New architecture Signs that change is afoot
By Elizabeth de Portzamparc -

To avoid any confusion of terminology, it should be pointed out that the term “New Architecture” was in fact used by Walter Gropius, but very soon abandoned and forgotten. He used it to describe the architecture appearing in several countries at the beginning of the 20th century that took its cue from the tenets laid down by the Russian constructivists. Claiming a universality based on formalist lines in the service of industry, it was represented - among others - by the Dutch pro-constructivists (Rietveld, Mondrian, etc.) and Le Corbusier. The group met and created the Modern Movement or International Style, by which time the term coined by Gropius had already been abandoned and stood for no movement or approach.

What I call “New Architecture” is a movement with a totally opposite approach, underpinned by concern for sustainability and context. Anti-formalist, “New Architecture” totally rejects the anti-contextual, formalistic and mechanistic assumptions of the Modern Movement, its subservience to industry and the ideology of consumption.

 

The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale highlighted - and severely criticised - the Fundamentals of the Modern Movement. With the theme La modernité, promesse ou menace?, the French pavilion at the  last Venice Biennale decreed the death of the Modern Movement as a purely stylistic form of construction removed from any social, human or environmental context. The exhibition prompted thinking about the significance of the Modern Movement and modernity in architecture, a movement that originally stood for a complete break with the aesthetic and technology coming before it.

The Modern and Postmodern movements - and for that matter, all the other recent schools of style or construction technique - are all removed from the big issues of today caused by fast depleting natural resources or glaring social inequalities. They provide no answer to the real problems facing our civilisation today. The faith in progress these movements expressed in the past has given way to a general absence of hope.

Awareness of the enormous crisis facing our civilisation has led to a plethora of social movements proposing new ways to manage our collective assets. They give us hope that a more “sustainable” society can be built. When led by architects, town planners, landscape architects, or fired by certain innovative and sustainable architectural practices, these new urban movements herald, in my view, what I would call a “New Architecture”.

“New Architecture” will seek to find architectural solutions to the challenges caused by the current social and energy crisis linked to the shortage of resources. It also implies redefining the architect’s role.

“New Architecture” should indicate new approaches, concepts and tools enabling us to deal with future social and environmental challenges, to the benefit of the collective good of all humanity and all social classes. Clearly, exclusively technological architectural solutions destined just for the elite - like today’s “Smart Cities” - have no place in this new category.

The theme Reporting from the Front for the 2016 edition of the Biennale, curated by Alejandro Aravena, will take stock of architectures aiming at the “collective good”. Will this upcoming Biennale reveal precursor signs of what I call the “New Architecture”? It will certainly highlight our current difficulty to implement socially innovative projects in our present-day world. Focus should be on the role of architects in the fight to improve the living conditions of the world’s people, and architecture that while adjusting to resource constraints, still produces for the collective good.

The upcoming Biennale is an opportunity to look back on the history of architecture, the consequences of modernity and the enormous new challenges that should prompt change in the way we see the world and create architecture.

 

A look at the history of architecture and the consequences of modern architecture

In his Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Erwin Panofsky drew a parallel between architectural forms and the dominant ideology of an era, a concept that still holds true to interpret the architectural movements that followed.

In prehistoric times architecture was a matter of building simple “shelters” - caves, huts, cabins etc. depending on the climate. For thirty thousand years our prehistoric ancestors created fascinating work at the back of often difficult to access caves: rock paintings that testify to their masterful skill. This cave art was produced by many successive hands down the centuries. Man’s first artistic ventures were collective works, their aim: to throw light on the visible world for their community.

Since the origins of man and with each new era - with very few exceptions - art and architecture have always been intricately bound to the place of their making, always reflecting the dominant local culture or artistic and architectural styles of the place.

The indissoluble link between art and culture in a precise place has always been considered a founding principle for understanding works of art or architecture, at least until the advent of the Modern Movement and the International Style. The disconnect that took place progressively unhinged the link between architecture and specific land use, introducing a solipsistic concept completely removed from a specific location or culture. The loss of this “collective” dimension also reflects the liquefaction of social and community links that was happening in our societies at the same time, concomitant with the rise of the new dogma of individualism. Modern architecture expressed the values of an era that exalted industry and technological progress, Fordism, standardisation and harmonisation, the embryos of free-market capitalism and land speculation that went hand-in-hand with a generalised acceptance of the “Master Narrative” for architecture, that rapidly became a single international language thanks to modern communications, and whose boundless faith in the future led it to jettison all links with the past.
An offshoot of the hygienist doctrine of the late nineteenth century, modernity certainly served the activities allied to the building industry well, promoting a scientific understanding of the world. As a result, cities were progressively densified with little thought for the social and human purpose of new architectural objects, which in turn paved the way for the current crisis of civilisation and its values. The functionalist urbanism of Le Corbusier and his “universal city” and the International Style both produced urban avatars disconnected from the local context, from the life of the surrounding city, and from social life in general. In the determination to provide buildings that follow a set of pre-fixed rules, these architectures failed to recognise the variegated human characteristics, the specificities of places and landscapes, cultures and contexts.

The Postmodern Movement that succeeded Modernism, although very vocal about its intention to bury once and for all the tenants of modernism, now considered obsolete, merely replaced one dogma with another, which, however, has remained subjugated to the former. Postmodernism’s basic fragility lies in its exclusive critical reference to one thing: modernity. A survey of recent publications on architecture would seem to show that production is often still defined in terms of architectural movements. In other words, architectures are still being classed and categorised in the modernist way, on the basis of formal, structural and aesthetic aspects, or through the prism of the author’s personality, with monographic studies dedicated to a celebrity’s works and vision. Descendants of this mindset, contemporary works are productions that reflect the individuality of their authors and their ideologies. Contemporary art and architecture merely reflect the pictorial or construction research of the author, with no consideration for a world vision, no recognition of the “Other”, no real empathy. True, the work of certain socially committed architects does have a more “collective” register. These are people who have taken up the challenges of our times, not only persevering in their vision of the world but also proposing ways of transforming it.

Perhaps we would do well to recall Vitruvius’ definition of architecture and his famous threesome: “utility”, “durability” and “beauty”, the three basic elements by which construction technique is indissolubly linked to the aesthetic and functional purpose of a building, which in turn is considered as an integral whole. Long forgotten, these related aspects are more than ever pertinent in society today where the many upheavals have caused a far-reaching crisis of values.

 

Major contemporary challenges

Many of us today acknowledge that civilisation suffers from an economic, food, societal and environment crisis. The growing number of social movements as a result of greater public awareness and the proposals being put forward should all be a wake-up call. They testify to major social changes. Despite these positive signs, however, we are still in the dark ages. We must move forward, take action in our present time and think about our future, casting into question the basic tenets of our current model. This is necessary if our civilisation is to survive.

The disconnect between man and his environment that became all pervading during the twentieth century today seems an irreversible phenomenon destined to grow exponentially with the likely increase of economic migration and climate change. Exchanges between cultures, followed by mass international mobility have generated migrations that uproot people from their natural context. So, talking about man’s links with nature will only make sense in the context of a Knowledgeable Man, one who has changed and adapted to the culture and the lifestyle framework on his new environment.

Our current economic model based on short-term profit taking is incompatible with a sustainable economy in the long term. Our model has created the principle of planned obsolescence - the production of goods with a short lifespan so as to speed up replacement by consumers - often of non-recyclable products, which flies in the face of sustainable production. So despite scientific and technological strides, cultural and artistic creations, we all work to produce more waste - which only in a best-case scenario is recyclable. In the words of biologist Maurice Fontaine, our era should be called the “Molysmocene”, or “age of waste”. Our civilization model and the waste it generates have a vast impact on the evolution of the Earth’s ecosystem. Waste will soon saturate the depths of the Earth as well as the oceans. The real impact of man’s encroachment on the Earth will not be Man himself, rather the waste from industrial production, a blind machine now beyond man’s control. It is highly likely that our era will be seen in the future as the “garbage civilisation”.

Often considered a simple “commercial product”, architecture is also subject to obsolescence. Statistics collected in several large capitals show that many high rises built between the 1930s and the 1970s are now lying empty because no longer suitable for use. Constructing flexible, and hence “sustainable” buildings that will adapt to future use requirements is a major challenge for our era.

As social players concerned with the spatial aspects of the urban fabric, our responsibility is to conceive ethical, sustainable and flexible projects, taking care that they do more than just meet aesthetic or technical criteria. What we do must strengthen human and urban community relations. Communities must be able to have a direct, truly participative, democratic say in their housing and everyday environments, which in turn will forge social links and ensure management of community assets.

Many associations, groups and informal communities have been created to manage common goods that directly involve urban populations on a daily basis. As Marx said: “men’s […] social existence determines their consciousness”. In his The Coming Community, Agamben describes this social consciousness of belonging to the same community of human beings, of sharing the same existence, as the simple realization that “we are all in the same boat”.

Without going deeper into these albeit fundamental issues, we believe that Man is indissolubly linked to a given environment, whether his original or acquired context, for while our brain is global, our body is local, in other words, constantly interacting with the environment in which we live.

 

Signs the “New Architecture” is coming

Should the architectural responses to these challenges have a new aesthetic based on an economically sound use of materials and forms? Aren’t we going to see a new aesthetic of beauty based on functional purpose: projects that are economical in both form and materials suitable to the new challenges, and discarding gratuitous aesthetic effects in favour of serving Man and society? It is the task of us architects to prove we can produce economically in terms of structure and raw materials without skimping on plastic quality.

Given today’s world and the state of our civilisation, we must provide ourselves with a new conceptual baggage able to meet the enormous challenges - economic, sustainability, social and environmental - of our society today. We cannot continue to talk of architecture and urbanism as the simple juxtaposition of forms, volumes, space, functions, etc., or as a mere design or technological achievement.

The recent story of our civilisation clearly shows that we must go beyond the Modern Movement and find new directions more suitable to the current social and environmental crisis. The architectural and town planning theories we have inherited from it are no longer appropriate or effective to conceive and adapt today’s cities. We have to go beyond the very term “modern”, which in architecture smacks of the Modern Movement, which, admittedly, when first created, represented a break with the past. The term “New Architecture” must take a great leap towards the future, driven by the same creative drive that fuelled the Renaissance, taking its cue from the fundamental models of the past to creatively reconstruct a Western civilisation today in decline.

Current architectural forms are beginning to testify to mindset changes as the result of a new awareness of the world in its entirety, based on an ecological, anti-globalisation standpoint. We architects have a responsibility to think through and formalise the “New Architecture” that should provide appropriate answers to the human and urban challenges produced by the deep-rooted crisis of today’s civilisation. This new architecture must bring about the (re) naissance of an ethical, responsible architecture. Its values will be twofold:

 

1-    it will be sustainable, constantly focused on the social and
    environmental; 

2-    it will serve society and the environment.

 

Is there a new social ethic on which to found tomorrow’s architecture? Will the architecture of tomorrow have its roots in a new social ethic? How can current architectural practices be encouraged to adopt a more ethical, community-based mindset if the commissioning system, and the realities of a profession that relies on commissions, prevent this?

 

Five major themes for the “New Architecture”

In conclusion, let me rapidly sum up my many thoughts over the last few years as I have attempted to understand today’s architecture and its changes, and attempt to forecast what is to come. I believe it is fundamental to understand how architecture relates to our world on several levels: the aesthetic and ethical, the industrial and technological, the economic and political, the environmental and ecological, and finally, its purpose as a creative act. It is this basic purpose of architecture that, I believe, defines the architect’s role in a given society. I cannot close this list without mentioning how difficult, even impossible, it is in our current economic context to realise our dreams and aspirations to change the world. All this leads to the fundamental question of the true purpose - in the classic sense - of architecture, i.e. “to serve Man and Society”. In light of our current awareness, it would be better to say: “serve Man in his relationship with his environment”.

I see the changes we are now seeing in architecture itself, the direction taken by some research and experimentation, and the commitment of some architectures to changing the world as signals of a new architecture in the offing.

The New - truly sustainable - Architecture will be posited in the future on five major issues:

 

1-    Economy of form and resources through architectural purity
    and rigeur. Simplicity and consistency must underpin the aesthetic

    The formalist excesses of recent architecture, the cause of so
    much raw material wastage, must be discarded. Strict control
    of form and materials, from the extraction of raw materials to the
    fabrication of products and their use, is a fundamental principle
    of sustainability;

2-    Flexibility and adaptability of plan and volumes based on
    a concept of architecture, its plans, volumes and structure and
    construction that ensures free communal use and the
    re-qualification of spaces as may be required with time;

3-    Preserving the identity of places by either adapting buildings
    to their context ensuring total integration or a true dialogue with
    the site;

4-    Sustainability, in the sense that buildings are conceived
    as part of the natural cycle,
with the development of a circular
    economy allowing for the creation of areas that enjoy energy and
    food autonomy through local production and consumption;

 

and last but most important:

 

5-    Sustainability in the sense of architecture indissolubly
    linked to social considerations,
as a means of countering social
    inequalities, developing systems that avoid rupture and exclusion
    and encourage the creation of places that enhance community life.

 

The above five principles must be the drivers of any return to the forgotten tenets of architecture and urbanism in order to produce spaces for the long-term; spaces that express values, and are a common, sustainable good available to all.

I end by hoping that the 2018 Biennale will be dedicated to the “New Architecture”, an architecture that builds a more just world in a more sustainable way.

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