Esther Choi and Marikka Trotter (Editors)
Workbooks/MIT PRESS 2010

The recent anthology, salve Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else (AEEE), web edited by Esther Choi and Marikka Trotter explores the anxious state of architectural thought and practice. Choi and Trotter have compiled a notable list of thinkers and practitioners to interrogate the current moment in architecture. The dialogues flow from four trajectories: What is the future of the architectural discipline? What is the state of post-criticality? What are contemporary and future ways of architectural critique and theorizing, and how can architectural discourse apply to adjacent fields of study? These questions are represented through a series of seven conversations and nine hand-picked essays. The editors attempt to weave a coherent survey from a broad range of discussion topics and formats. Many of their choices are successful; however the results vary in quality.

In the introductory dialogue readers are confronted with the idea that the discipline of architecture is at a cross-roads and its very future is in question. This is by no means a new question as Architecture’s agnosticism in incorporating diverse ideas into built forms is essential to its practice. But the authors ask if this agnosticism has taken the discipline to a place where it can no longer define itself? The incorporation of ideas and trends from philosophy, psychology, environmental sciences, mathematics, and engineering have served the creation and description of novel forms while simultaneously obscuring rigid disciplinary boundaries of architecture. The recent history of academic and professional disciplines has moved towards interdisciplinary praxes—such as the spatial and linguistic turns that occurred in the liberal arts and social sciences. An increased interest in interdisciplinary approaches emerged from the realization that any specialized field’s self-contained body of knowledge is limited and incomplete, only remedied by being open to other modes of working and thinking. The question remains, does architecture, more than other disciplines desperately desire to be something that it is not?

This search for distinctive meaning in the discipline happens at a time when the practice of architecture is also in doubt. With less and less demand for architects, there are ever increasing numbers of people coming out of architectural schools without employment or clear purpose. However the practice of architecture is still a vital part of cultural production and it may prove true that the world has too many architects but not enough people who understand architectural thinking. There is a constant tension between the unique habits of mind and training that comes with architectural practice and the increasing reality that architects are becoming unnecessary.

AEEE includes contributions from a number of contemporary architectural thinkers, teachers, and practitioners. However nearly half of the contributors (seven of the seventeen) have an affiliation with Harvard Graduate School of Design, and only one person is from outside of North America and Western Europe. Due to these limiting factors, there is great potential for institutional myopia; however any adverse affects are not readily apparent in the text. What this text highlights is the presence of a generational divide between the authors, not an explicit conflict between older and younger architects, but a clear and perceptible distinction between the two. Younger contributors (namely Choi, Albert, and Trotter) write like they have something to prove, parts their discussions leaning towards the unnecessarily cerebral and disjointed. Most of the conversations consisted of more developed dialogues, unfortunately others like the Albert/Lavin conversation are cut short and not given the space to develop. Certain sections could have been expanded or left out but not published in its current format.

The most consistent message throughout this text is that architecture is struggling to find its place among various disciplines. There is an eagerness to claim insights and language from other fields, as if architecture needs external justification for its existence. Architecture’s over-reliance on obtuse language and half-digested theories has led to difficulties in describing its meaning, theory becoming just a screen thrown over mediocre, repetitive, or opulent constructions.

A large portion of AEEE situates itself uncomfortably in the middle of the decades-long debate of critical, “restive” architecture versus post-critical “cool” architecture, with one side represented by K Michael Hays and Peter Eisenman and the other by people like Rem Koolhaus, Robert Somol, Sarah Witting, and later Sylvia Lavin. Both Hays and Lavin are featured in the interviews featured in the book. It has been nearly twenty-seven years since K Michael Hays wrote Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form [1] and equally as long for a new generation of post-critical architects to rise to stardom. Also in this time period was the collapse of the Soviet Union, captalism’s premature and triumphal “end of history,” a complete reshaping of the global economic system. and multiple boom and bust economic cycles. Kazys Varnelis in a short but cogent post from 2008 declared the collapse of post-critical architecture, speculating that the collapse of the global economy will cause architects to reevaluate “Koolhaas’s injunction that the architect should surf the waves of capital.” [2] The supposed conflict of critical architecture versus post-critical architecture is a debate that should have been resolved by now, but curiously continues to play out in the pages of AEEE.

To frame the debate roughly is as follows: Modernism had a specific utopian programme and Critical architecture, like many post-1968 sought to liberate everything from the master narrative. The emergence of post-modernism, of Deconstructivism [3], and the Linguistic turn in the social sciences reflected the response of architects and theorists to break with the past. But as argued by the post-critics the critical architects held onto the idea of architectures ability to be transformative and/or programmatic. The post-critics claim was that this stifled creativity and made architects focus on the ephemeral and theoretical aspects, thereby giving more power to a narrative layer on top of buildings than the buildings themselves. Instead, the post-critical architects advocated for a surface and formalist reading of architecture, often anti-theoretical, and what emerged was the embracing of capital and architects advocating a collaborationist “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. There is a false dichotomy here because big-A architecture does not exist without capital. So for a certain number of the post-critical architects, they serve in a way as apologists but the critical architects are just as complicit.

One important notion that bridges this gap between the critical and post-critical is the idea of autonomy. Autonomy exists both in the architecture itself and the architect. These two are connected but also contingent. Objects have a life of their own outside of any programmatic or ideological leanings of its designer or builder and architects have all sorts of ideas, proclivities, and ideological influences that may or may not see their way into the work. The material presence, internal logic, affective resonances, and environmental impacts are elements that an architect can consider and plan or alternatively can be completely missed.

Like it or not, architecture is inherently conservative. Acts of building and designing take specialized training and the subsequent specialization lends itself to a very isolated worldview. This does not mean that architectural practitioners are politically or socially conservative. Quite the opposite is true. But a certain degree of realism, a certain degree of cooperation or concession-making is a necessary component in the practice of architecture. A new generation of architects faces a critical juncture if this book is any indicator. They will face a diminished field with less direct opportunities for their formal training. Architectural training is broad enough to prepare practitioners for any contingencies and though certain skill sets may prove useless, others will provide tools for engagement. Architects will have to navigate through new territory adding to and jettisoning models of thought that may be hindering as they move forward into the unknown.

  • [1] K. Michael Hays, Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form. Perspecta vol. 21 (1984) 14-29.
  • [2]
  • [3] Deconstructivism was a brief movement in post-modern architecture concerned with assembleges of parts rather than integrity of the whole. This was also coupled with an obsession with philosopher Jacques Derrida.