“Architecture, development and construction are now conceived and implemented as almost wholly private enterprises…even at its most social ends, development is now determined by market conditions,” opines Sam Jacob, director of UK-based architecture practice FAT. Indeed, with practically everything now controlled by market trends, from personal lifestyle choices to wars between states, what makes architecture exempt from the grip of economy?
We might as well recall that fundamentally, architecture was borne out of a basic human need that is shelter. But so does cuisine from the need for food, or fashion from clothing, the functioning of both now under the mercy of populist market forces. The status quo of freemarket economics, designed to empower the ordinary consumer, ends up with the capitalist reality that monopoly capital is the real arbiter of taste (that is, even if taste is still a relevant concept). In the case of architecture, large real estate developers are virtually at the helm in the shaping of towns and cities, through commercial estate developments and public housing. These investments are of course stemming from careful market studies, which means that the ubiquitous faux-Mediterranean and identity-challenged “modern Filipino” houses that sprawl across suburbias, the generic and banal condominium towers, are but a reflection of popular preference. But is prevalent taste and capitalist economy all that is to blame for this “degenerate” cookie-cutter architecture? In his essay “Less for Less Yet,” Michael Benedikt writes:
In societies at peace that can maintain free markets, people can get what they want; what they want depends on how successfully their needs and values are addressed by competing producers. With a modicum of prosperity, people have choices. This is the context in which architecture, as an industry, broadly conceived, has become less and less able to deliver a superior evolving and popularly engaging product that can compete with other more successful products—with cars, movies, sports and travel, to name a few. And the less successfully architecture has competed with these diverse “growth industries,” the less architects have been entrusted with time and money to perform work on a scale and with a quality that could perhaps turn things around.
It is comfortable to squarely put the blame on “big greedy developers” for this affront to our meticulously crafted intellectual and aesthetic standards. But did we ever direct the question on ourselves that as architects, we may have failed to respond adequately to the challenges of a rapidly changing modern world? Have we become so oblivious with the divorce between elite architectural ideas and ordinary perception? Perhaps what the profession needs to do is to get down from the proverbial moral high ground and stop isolating its tenets like an ancient stone tablet on museum display. If the architect wishes to stay relevant, he cannot exclusively serve the select few who will accommodate his whims. Like everybody else, the profession must adapt or risk oblivion.
What is positive about this contemporary architectural milieu, like many other disciplines, is that we are standing at an opportunity to redefine the profession in so many ways. For starters, our moral status is getting a makeover. Yes, in the past we have famously slept with megalomaniac monarchs and dined with dictators. We have been spoilt by our esteemed place in civilization. But the new status quo, with an eroded old money, empowered nouveau riche, and a significant impoverished majority, is pushing us to a moral identity crisis. We are beginning to see the effects of our service to society beyond our professional fees. Political correctness in architecture may still be a difficult terrain to comprehend, but the discussion itself is a merit to the moral question.
As for architecture itself, we have been overtaken by other creative practices in adapting to circumstances. In the greater design world, the idea of design and the role of the designer has seen constant evolution, unmarred by government regulation and other perceived limits. From a single process to an end product, design has, in Jacob’s words, “a kind of glue between a huge range of scales and services and substances.” In contrast, architecture and architects are a step or two backward, still living the old purpose of simply producing buildings. Should we remain one-trick ponies, experts if you like? I don’t think so. The blurring of many boundaries is suggesting that we take a similar argument to that of design. The architect has to expand its role to stay relevant. The portfolio of services must be broadened. In pure economic sense, nobody would want to pay a fortune for a service that fulfills only one need. I argue that to counter high specialization amongst professions, the architect must step out from the mold and revisit the old role as “master builder” in a true contemporary sense. Society itself had redefined architecture and we cannot simply watch from our ivory towers.
– Arch’t Francino P. Delima, RMP
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