What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
A prescription for contemporary architecture
By Clément Blanchet
Architecture cannot just be a striptease with good intentions
— Clément Blanchet
Architect Clément Blanchet proposes some radical, counter-intuitive treatment measures to cure architecture of its contemporary malaise.
Architecture and urbanism could be described as two fields attempting to achieve immunity from a variety of rather dangerous phenomena that include resistance, nostalgia, image, seduction, fragmentation and overdose.
Below is a kind of miscellany of what I believe to be contemporary architecture’s most toxic substances.
The future hope for architecture might involve protecting itself against such poisons by self-administering microscopic amounts, then gradually increasing the dose in order to acquire immunity.
The future is driven by a certain type of resistance. To generate progress from the current state of the fields of architecture and urbanism you need to resist several contemporary phenomena:
resist nostalgia, resist politics, resist nature, resist utopia, resist egos, resist beauty, resist consensus, resist planning, resist technologies, resist graphics, resist speed, resist media, resist publicity, resist risk.
What if architecture could help us rekindle a certain kind of hope? What if architecture could become a source of confidence, bolstering a sense of certainty and a continuity of thinking, free from the accidents of ego or of political vagaries? What if architecture could offer a specific kind of resistance again?
Architecture should resist and help represent the “unknown”, generate a new sense of endurance, in order to lead to future optimism.
Architecture should not always be extra-ordinary. It should reconsider its ability to be ordinary within a new type of collectivism, to be the source of an extra-ordinary urbanism.
What’s wrong with nostalgia? Paradoxically nostalgia may be a proactive driver for nurturing progress. From the past nothing should be preserved or restored, but all should be respected. Nostalgia should remain as a medical term in architecture, a condition from which you are able to diagnose the future. Nostalgia should become a contemporary phenomenon in architecture.
Present culture is dominated by the image, graphics and advertising. Their effects on architecture and on its modes of representation need to be looked at carefully. Through them the perception of objects is transformed. The image kills the picture. An open attitude must be adopted towards these changes. Therefore we should favour substance over image.
The desire to force a strictly visual order on the city by only controlling what is built is no longer plausible. Conceptualising the city involves a complex alchemy that goes far beyond visual representation. It needs to address issues and areas beyond the boundaries of architecture and urban planning, such as sociology, technology and media. The city is no longer being made as it was fifty years ago: policies change, the economy fluctuates. Strategic thinking must prevail in the city over unbridled and unlimited planning.
The current architectural world is double-sided. On one hand it wants to sell and on the other hand it wants to preserve.
Architecture should naturally attract. However, this unfortunately leads to the absence of consistency, and sometimes of the ordinary. Flexible, optional, spectacular, shiny, seduction should be considered carefully.
It’s tempting to ban all iconic architecture or phraseology: the profession could just become one of instant self-service. Architecture cannot just be a striptease with good intentions. This architectural hypertrophy values hyper choice, ending only in simple collage of common beauties without common sense, or even sometimes lacking any essence at all. The image overcomes the essence, which ends only in tragic design conclusions.
What has been really learnt from architecture and urban planning over the past thirty years? Or more urgently: what has not been learnt, or even forgotten? In regard to planning, since the worst excesses of modernism, up until the 1980s, a vague consensus based on fragmentation has developed. Each site is now routinely sub-divided into smaller plots which are then themselves sub-divided into small groups of individual operations.
Terror of megalomania and the monolith has led to the embrace of fragmentation and fractalisation as an antidote to our past follies. Desire for this fragmented approach came from the experience of the “failures” of general planning. But now there’s the opportunity to consider new alternatives to this accelerated, sometimes uncontrolled, fragmentation towards infinity.
After this global appetite for composition through fragmentation – which seemed at first to be a revival of traditional methods by which cities developed – the results, once so heady, now seem artificial and lifeless. Aiming simultaneously at variety and familiarity, this has resulted in an incapacity for either the brutal power of anarchism or the potential coherence of the truly planned.
More and more architects feel compelled to demonstrate their peaceful existence and egocentric views. What we have lost is our ability to be unitary, our courage to demand big ambitions, our delight in being visionary.
A world bamboozled and distressed by an overdose of “beauty”, has created over-exposure to a mirage of signs, colours and whimsical explorations in architecture. The architect survives in a model of practice activated by signals from the immediate consumption of beauty. It is necessary to rethink this model and move a critical distance away from this often unreadable bombardment of superlatives.
Architecture could be seen as an organism whose organs are exposed to a range of toxic substances. Shared values are key to its health and survival. Defining the meaning of each of these values is a way of offering coexistence.
“What we have lost is our ability to be unitary, our courage to demand big ambitions, our delight in being visionary.”
The field of architecture should introduce a culture of experiments. It should reinvent itself through interrelated phenomena. It should allow failure again as it allows progress. It should consider absorbing local knowledge, or medicines. Architecture would become a stronger body or organism as a result.
It’s important to offer an architectural setting that allows for the production of optimism, a context of freedom, and possibly an appetite for learning. We should allow for cultural associations more than architectural associations. In this way architecture can become a kind of dispensary for all kinds of treatments. ■