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Architecture’s New Frontier

Maurizio Sabini

Knowledge and research are becoming the new frontier of architecture. Even though accidental discoveries have taken place throughout the history of the arts and sciences, new knowledge is mostly achieved through strategic research, and research has always had the pursuit of new knowledge as its core mission. Increasingly, knowledge is characterizing our era, in economic, social and cultural terms. Already in the late 1960s, Peter Drucker, with remarkable foresight, envisioned that “[…] now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement […] The learned are […] the true ‘capitalists’ in the knowledge society”.1 While the explosion of our computing capacity has allowed us to process exponentially larger amounts of information, the changes in mass communications and the invention of the Internet and social media have created the opportunity and the demand for more shared knowledge. This culture of “knowledge sharing” has led sociologists like Manuel Castells to elaborate on the “power of the network”: “[…] nowadays wealth, power, and knowledge generation are largely dependent on the ability to organize society to reap the benefits of the new technological system, rooted in microelectronics, computing, and digital communication[…]”2 It has been argued by communication sciences studies that knowledge should be considered a public good.3 Evolving from a knowledge economy to a knowledge society has been an inevitable trajectory in our recent global history. More than ever, knowledge is also becoming a more powerful lens than wealth through which to understand the great divides and conflicts across our world and its societies. Political theorists have started to warn about this emerging question, which can potentially impact, with as yet unknown consequences, the future itself of democratic societies.4 Situated within such an unprecedented context, and experiencing crises and evolutionary leaps similar to many other fields in the arts and sciences, architecture has gone through profound changes over the last decades, with established sets of paradigms, patiently built over the Modernist era and its later revisionist stages, being challenged, de-constructed and disrupted. The paradigm of a professional culture reassuringly relying on the legacy of modernist/post-modernist/neo-modernist principles, construed as the timeless tenets of the craft, has been shaken to its foundations by technological and theoretical seismic shocks. Whether from the perspective of a new epistemology of “design intelligence” spurred by “knowing by making,”5 or the “post-authorial” condition that, through the dominance of parametric algorithms, seems to replace the over five hundred year old “Albertian model,”6 or the morphing of the traditional professional figure into a “wiki-architect” operating across platforms of shared knowledge,7 architecture is seen to be in a transition towards unchartered territories. Albeit certain trends (such as progress in digital technology and materials science) that contributed to these interpretations may have the character and momentum of unstoppable processes we, however, can, with a better understanding of trends, forces and actors at play, transform what could be a potentially confused and directionless journey into a quest for a new frontier. Architecture has always grown its body of knowledge through advancements in technology, interpretations of new artistic and/or philosophical ideas, and responses to societal demands. Somehow, though, especially at the turn of the last century when its inward looking spiraling had accelerated, architecture lacked the power to produce new knowledge that was relevant beyond its so-called complacently defined “disciplinary boundaries.” What we are witnessing in recent times is a paradigm shift from a “craft based (mostly) on experience” to a “practice based (mostly) on knowledge.” Not that the achievements of the past “craft” era (Euclidean geometry, ordering systems, proportioning, scale, spatial organizing principles, tectonics, etc.) are to be completely abandoned because irredeemably obsolete. On the contrary, they can still serve the practice well and they still need to be mastered and learned. However, those principles and the “experience paradigm” are no longer sufficient for the knowledge economy and the global culture of knowledge sharing. To maintain its leading role in the areas of sustainability and energy, ecology, infrastructure, building science, materials science, digital technology, robotics, urban data mining and interpreting, health and wellness, architecture has had to grow out of its state as a millennial craft and venture onto new levels of knowledge and innovation. In the last couple of decades, precisely because it started to engage society at a level perhaps never reached since the early phase of Modernism, architecture has started to become a vehicle for relevant knowledge. When faced with questions of social inequities, new material technology, new possibilities in digital technology, new opportunities of data mining (and big data processing), but also new challenges deriving from the increasing complexity of a globalized human community, the architectural profession realized that it needed new relevant knowledge. The only way to pursue and acquire it was to engage in a whole new level of research. Periodically and throughout history, research has influenced and constituted part of the practice of architecture. From the Renaissance, to Modernism, there have been moments in which architecture advanced knowledge through research from within the field, be it in the areas of representation and spatial knowledge, materials, or construction technology. As Jonathan Hill has aptly noted, “to understand research as new to design is to ignore the history of the architect.”8 In his seminal book The City (1943), Eliel Saarinen is credited as being the first to explicitly mention “design research” while outlining his philosophy of envisioning the future city as a way, in reverse, of appropriately approaching the planning of the present one.9 From the mid-1960s and through the 1980s, a number of firms started to engage in research in a strategic way. By 1968, for example, Candilis-Josic-Woods had already developed a “two headings” model for the firm (Research and Realization), with the two streams of work influencing and offering opportunities for one another.10 In the 1980s, the Göteborg (Sweden) based firm White Architects, now among the ten largest firms in Europe, created a research foundation to fund architectural research for the firm, also by outside architects and researchers. Dutch critic and historian Bart Lootsma has tried to trace the threads that may connect the studies of some of the Modernists, such as Cornelis Van Eesteren, Ludwig Hilbersheimer and the Bauhaus circle, with some key contemporary architects/thinkers such as Rem Koolhaas, Winy Maas, and Jacques Herzog.11 Even though not specifically qualified as “research” by their authors, the studies by Le Corbusier and Robert Venturi (with Denise Scott Brown for the Las Vegas research) did indeed advance the knowledge of architecture and its application, to envision novel approaches to human habitation and transformation of the physical environment. A decisive thrust towards infusing research into architectural practice, thus starting experimentation with what has now become a widely diffused model of practice, came from Rem Koolhaas with the creation in 1999 of AMO, a research based spin-off from OMA. As Koolhaas recalled in 2008: “OMA and AMO [Architecture Media Organization] were like Siamese twins that were recently separated. […] The separation enabled us to liberate architectural thinking from architectural practice.”12 Such a model proved quite successful, with AMO developing a substantial portfolio of research, studies, brand development, and “design projects” not related to buildings (such as, for example, the design of “Strelka” a new post-graduate educational program in Moskow). The Prada complex in Milan (inaugurated in 2015), a project ranging from “brand re-positioning” to the actual renovation of abandoned former industrial buildings, was also an AMO project. With typical entrepreneurial flair, Koolhaas also created AMO to bring financial benefits to the firm for studies that, according to Koolhaas himself, OMA was previously doing anyway in the preparation and development of its projects.13 Equally important though, in the decision to launch AMO, was the possibility for Koolhaas to continue in different (and more powerful) ways his on-going quest for a renewed sense of Modernity: “[AMO has been] a very deliberate creation of an entity that is able to consistently modernize and reinvent.”14


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