Review: ‘Architects After Architecture: Alternative Pathways for Practice’

A quick review of ‘Architects After Architecture: Alternative Pathways for Practice’ (2020), edited by Harriet Harriss, Rory Hyde, and Roberta Marcaccio

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Dec 28, 2020 · 8 min read
Ed.  The editors of this new collection, Architects After Architecture, kindly asked me to write a short endorsement for the dust jacket. Of course, I wrote a form of quick review instead, from which they plucked the sentence they needed for the back cover (above). But I thought I’d share that quick review here, as the book is so very useful. Full disclosure: one of the editors, Rory Hyde, is a close friend, and several other friends and colleagues are featured in the collection — indeed, some of my own work, with Studio Folder for the Punkt MP02, can be briefly glimpsed in there too. (Studio Folder also designed this handsome book.) Yet as is often the case in skilled hands, a new curation shed new light on the work, and workers, I already knew — and I learned much from those whose work was new to me. As with Rory’s earlier Future Practice (2012), this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the future of architecture, and design more broadly, and the things and environments it produces. Finally, see also my articles for AD, Architects without Architecture, on related themes.

Drawing from an alternative reading of architectural history, a tangled dotted line from Charlotte Perriand to Google via Frank Duffy and Forensic Architecture, this brilliantly engaging book may actually be one of the first to describe and discuss what might be architecture’s true value at this pivotal point in our own history: seeing that everything is connected, and artfully hosting that complexity, before constructively plotting routes towards clarity, pinned up on broad civic, ethical foundations.

So Architects after Architecture, as the title suggests, is not about buildings. Or at least not always, not directly. Buildings are simply one of the ways that this complex yet constructive sensibility might exert itself, but they are certainly not the only way, nor are they always the most potent – as muf’s Liza Fior makes clear here, when she says “the answer to a brief is not necessarily a building.”

Of course, buildings are usually part of the answer—they are hard to avoid, after all, despite claims to the contrary, and for good pragmatic reasons. Yet more important than those practicalities, architecture is cultural production, and so buildings and spaces are tangible articulations of cultures. This means that they can be truly potent indeed.

Buildings make concrete what we stand for, what we believe in, whether we mean to or not, for good or ill. The process of construction, or intentional shaping of space and environment, forces us to understand, discuss and decide what we might share in our collective identities. It is a brutally honest practice. There are few more revealing, if we recognise that the sheer difficulty of building—its intransigence, permanence and incompleteness—speaks volumes about us. Understanding architecture as an actor in the shared production of space lends it a particular power, synthesising numerous otherwise slippery aspects of everyday life. It speaks in systems, and performs unique balancing acts: of permanence and evanescence, decisiveness and incompleteness, of intimacy and commonality, of technology and culture, artificial and natural, public and private, infinite space and finite mutual exclusivity.

So as the editors of this new book suggest, buildings, and the practices of architecture that produce them, are at their most meaningful if we understand them as embodying “the messy space between politics, economics, culture, and spatial thinking”. Via a richly diverse and extensive set of interviews, this book conjures imaginary maps of those messy spaces.

Architects After Architecture starts with a powerfully generative quote by Charlotte Perriand:

“If I abandon the ‘profession of architecture’ in order to focus on problems more directly connected with life, it is to be able to see more clearly into these problems.”

Perriand’s apparently easy fluidity and facility across various media and formats is echoed by many here, including Jane Hall of Assemble, whose practice looks to create “a strong infrastructure within which different things can happen”, based around that similar sense of ‘multidisciplinarity’.

Architecture’s higher-order abilities for ‘making different things happen’ is now finding a home well outside of buildings. Google’s Matt Jones describes architects as “the translators”, moving between and across boundaries, specialisms, and perspectives, revelling in the space where “different forms of knowledge collide … a brilliant nest to bring the shiny things from other fields back to.”

In this sense, architecture’s sheer breadth could be unparalleled, from framing questions at ‘stage minus one’ though to managing the process of transforming ideas into things and places and models for living with. This hugely rewarding and engaging pattern book outlines the range of perspectives, formats, and approaches that are latent within an inquisitive and engaged reading of what architecture can be.

So when Miriam Bellard, art director at Rockstar Games says here, “I don’t think conventional architecture could offer me anything close to this level of innovation and creativity”, this book shows how this is a positive statement, by placing it amidst other voices describing possible futures for architecture, all running across numerous formats yet sharing this sense that a deliberately unconventional architecture is more open, diverse, and meaningful. It may indeed be that Bellard’s architecture for video games — a truly digital architecture—is indeed one of the brightest, most intriguing of these futures for the discipline, but this collection’s value is in showing it is by far from the only one. Those futures will not be uncovered by preserving the limiting aspects of architecture’s past in buildings, although key foundational principles persist, but in addressing the discipline’s blind spots: the futures of culture and nature, as played out in value and values, politics and polities, and the interplay of biodiversities and technologies.

As the premise of this book makes clear, covering work by architects inside and outside of traditional architecture, the discipline’s unique capability may be in working directly with ideas themselves as forms of cultural imagination irrespective of their materialisation, before guiding the transformation of those ideas into environments. This last part—the stewardship involved in actually making something—is key to not only being accountable for the results, but also in terms of better understanding how to frame the question next time. Making is perhaps the most powerful form of learning, and architecture’s motive force is productively oriented in that direction, most of the time at least.

So far so good. Yet Architects after Architecture is also a necessary kick up the arse. All too often, instead of grasping and embodying the potential outlined in depth in the book, architecture has either unthinkingly followed or cravenly served the power dynamics of the last few decades, backing itself into a cul-de-sac, often unable to make truly positive impact, largely undervalued, and increasingly subservient. So this book is a salvo across the bows of the architecture’s traditionalists and preservationists, not least those professional bodies and academies complicit in the discipline ending up in this position, often attempting to preserve in aspic those aspects of architectural practice which reinforce various abusive relationships, most of all with the property development and construction industries or private finance sector.

Every shot here hits home. Justine Clark, Liza Fior, and Andres Jacque lend vivid descriptions of an unconscionable systemic lack of representation, inclusion and deeper participation in practice. See also the self-serving virtue-signalling airport-building architects skewered in Jeremy Till’s powerful piece, which ends with the clear-sighted hope he sees in his students, as his school works to “distribute the pockets of hope of the next generation.”

Such a redistribution is hopeful indeed. The next decades, as global population growth tails off, undercutting the need for new building and many of those prognoses about new cities, may see that the dust settles instead on an age of the Slowdown, rather than the Great Acceleration that unduly continues to influence so much recent discourse. In that context, and perhaps not before time, architecture may be largely concerned with un-building, re-building and not-building.

As many of the case studies and essays here thrillingly make clear, architecture may have even more to offer in this mode, after all. In their excellent introduction, the editors write:

“Through the accumulation of these stories, we hope to illustrate a version of architecture where the limits are no longer fixed, but able to be designed and redesigned, making the most out of the unique form of intelligence that architecture can offer … It is our hope that these stories of architects as collaborators, as integrators, as enablers and listeners can stand as a powerful alternative to the stubbornly resilient image of the architect as a singular hero. It is by charting these many alternate path- ways that we can begin to reset this perception, and discover the unrealised potential of architects after architecture.”

This book is a powerful wake-up call, providing multiple signposts and pathways forward into numerous richly-populated spaces of possibility and purpose. Full of ideas, stories, histories, and futures, Architects After Architecture is intensely motivating, for anyone working in and around architecture, as well as for those simply interested in practices that can collide and shape diverse ideas, perspectives, and places.

There’s a lovely line in Liza Fior’s interview here, when she says:

“If you get into the room, wedge the door open for others.”

This book suggests a doorstop—almost literally, given its breadth and depth—for precisely this act, wedging open a door to an entirely different vista for architecture.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic…

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

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