Taking a closer look, the identity crisis that emerged around the turn of the last century of architecture as a profession is not a crisis but rather a reluctance to accept a new phase in the relationship between architecture and society. One can leave to sociology the question of how this society precisely works. However, we are interested in the fact that society seems to be a much more fragmented entity than ever before.
As Peter Sloterdijk has pointed out metaphorically, contemporary society is made up of a large number of spheres that are only partially connected. The whole arrangement is comparable to a foam structure. In this organization, some social spheres touch in the sense that they have common cultural norms, but some are also totally disconnected from each other. This structure stands opposed to earlier forms of society that were unified under a sphere of common understanding. In these societies, all the different factions of society shared common norms. There was a basic acceptance and understanding between the different parts of society, and fragmentation was very limited.
Three Main Challenges
With regard to architecture and urbanism, at least three important facts result from this state of society. The first one concerns technology. Through specialization inside the spheres and synthesis between them, technology has advanced much faster than society and the individual mindset can cope with. The digital revolution is in fact a revolution in the sense that it rapidly changes and galvanizes society. And while architecture was at the forefront of technology when its advance was limited and generally understood by the profession, this gap is now also quite apparent in multiple ways: in some cases, technology runs parallel to or is totally detached from design; in other cases, it dominates design. Almost as a rule, moreover, ambitiously applied technology is mostly outdated only a few years after a building has been conceived.
The second important fact concerns how architecture is communicated and perceived in society. A fragmented society does not cater to homogenous demands of how architecture should treat public space and to what criteria its formal appearance should conform. Even if sometimes there seems to be a consensus, it usually changes much faster than the buildings do, outdating them. Thus, it seems that even if some architects claim to build in the one and only way for our society, this is a trick they play on their clients, on themselves and their employees.
The third fact concerns the importance of the built environment as something to be analyzed. In contrast to the centuries before, we are not confronted with a nature to be tamed and discovered any more. Nor do we live in cities whose invisible workings are so simple and generally known that the results seem self- evident to us. Rather, we are facing a mostly anthropologically coined environment that we have created ourselves but rarely understand the mechanisms of, let alone know how to control. In contrast to the centuries before, when we look at our cities, they give us no obvious clues about the mechanisms behind their appearance. And they also do not give us many clues about how their production is to be carried forward. This effect can be felt on many levels, for example in view of the simple fact of mass-production and globalization: the production patterns as well as styles of urban buildings usually reach far beyond the local context.
Architecture and Society
A first major decision in this very complex situation is to stick to the term architecture and to our self-description as architects. The past shows that both term and profession are at once resistant and adaptable. The image that society may have of architects can thus be playfully dealt with, because stubbornly sticking to an old-fashioned image of the architect could in turn prove tactically and intellectually dangerous.
The second decision is to take another seemingly ambiguous term – society – and engage with it. Society was and is the context to which everything, including architecture, is related. Society is what brings clients and architects together, caters towards tax money being put in competitions, and creates niches where young architects can create their own office. Architecture cannot exist without society, and it is responsible for the spaces in which architecture takes place.
Concerning the engagement with society, two alternatives stand out: That of the avant-garde rebel and that of the well-integrated man working out from the middle of society. During a seminar week with students from Zurich in Paris, we took a closer look at the apartments of two representative architects from both sides of the spectrum, Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier. What we observed in the apartments confirmed what we had already sensed in the urbanistic ideas of the two architects. While Le Corbusier’s apartment, despite its conceptual clarity, has an oppressive, pedantic and unindulgent atmosphere, Auguste Perret’s apartment, conceptually equally clear, breathes an air of liberty, tolerance and enjoyment. Materials are more restrained and user-friendly in application, the floor plan is self-explanatory and of a stunning simplicity, the rooms are clearly and unpretentiously cut, and most of all the windows grant a lavish view of the city – all of these properties are carried out in quite the opposite way in Le Corbusier’s apartment. Perret’s apartment is not only a place not only groomed to the purpose of functioning perfectly in one’s own profession, but a place where one can work as well as debate, dance, drink and laugh. While Le Corbusier created a place representing one personality, Perret’s apartment is a place where one can move freely also when being someone else than Auguste Perret – it is self-explanatory and can be adjusted by the user, for example through positioning furniture in one’s own fashion, something that seems to be impossible in Le Corbusier’s apartment. The Perret apartment is universal, welcoming and adaptive. This point is quite ironic considering that most of all architects Le Corbusier seemed to be throughout most of his career to aim at a modern architecture “to end all architecture,” an architecture that left no open questions, no ambiguities.
Clearly, we prefer Perret’s position. Architecture should open up itself to society. One should feel free to move inside of it. And with the exception of certain moments, the architecture of a building should stay in the background. Doing this in the present is not easy, because the situation is so complex. In trying to be a “contemporary Perret,” some architects choose to emulate the past in stylistic terms, a move that we judge as fruitless. Also, we do not want to run with what the press and developers like, for example with an architecture parlante that at first glance seems to please investors and feuilletons alike. Rather, it seems to us that carrying the attitude of Auguste Perret into the present demands an engagement with the foam structure of our society. This explains why we as an architectural office engage in multiple ways with society.
Ways of Engaging with Society
We view our reaction to today’s challenges not as a dogmatic, true and idealistic, but rather as an ongoing experiment. Our practice is a form of applied research that we constantly evaluate and revise. While the overall leverage of what we are doing right now is limited, we constantly aim to keep a balance between increasing the leverage and reflecting on the results.
Regarding the gap between technology and society, we claim if architecture is to be an accomplice to something, it should be an accomplice to the human being, not the technology. It is sensible that certain parts of the building process prioritize efficiency so that the benefits of industrialization can exceed simply serving technology as a goal in itself. But architecture’s widespread old-fashionedness is not entirely negative. We regard with suspicion tendencies to implement what is happening on a technological scale directly to architecture. This is not because we are enemies of progress: quite the contrary. But as society and individuals are often overwhelmed by the rapid advancement of technology, it is advisable to stick to things that seem to be old-fashioned at first glance. We apply this stance to the production process of architecture as well as to spatial and conceptual configurations.
Instead of blindly serving the latest trends in urbanism and technology, architects should emphasize reflection and observation. Reflecting the zeitgeist is in our opinion an inappropriate use of architecture and its prospects. Also, if talking about sustainability in a broader context than just technological gadgets, we think that such an approach could truly make the most of the resources we have at hand.
To describe our stance as conservative would however be wrong. There is nothing we want to conserve for its own sake. Rather, we cater towards what Claus en Kaan Architecten describe as “high theory, low practice.” Ambitiously building for today’s society does not necessarily mean implementing a super- advanced practice, but rather being realistic about what the users of architecture can cope with and also what the people involved in the building process are able to implement. In terms of perception architecture should speak to both the users and the professional world. It should not speak over the heads of the users or adapt to their needs contradictorily.
Camenzind, our magazine, has the goal of actively linking up architecture with society, thus touching the second important fact stated above. With Camenzind, we aim at reaching across boundaries of understanding that are obstructive in the present situation. Architecture apparently isn’t self-evident any more–so, we give evidence. In placing Camenzind between popular architecture magazines such as Dwelling or Living at home on the one side and theoretical magazines on the other side, we attempt to bring issues that are important to architects across to non- architects. Since today people are confronted with large amounts of information, we chose the medium of a printed, colourful and humorous magazine to make the approach easier.
Communicating about the built environment is also a goal of the BHSF office talks regularly taking place in our office space. Every three weeks, our office turns into a forum for ideas. Architects present their work in progress and their thoughts about it and share it in a lively discussion with the audience. While Camenzind aims at talking about architecture in a wider circle, the office talks are kept small to enable an intimate discussion and keep it from becoming a mere show. There is no recording, no twittering, no blogging, no streaming of what is taking place in our office at those evenings. Rather, they are only about the moment of the discussion, resulting in a salon-like atmosphere with both speakers and audience saying things they would otherwise not say.
Our past and ongoing academic research assesses the third important fact that was pointed out at the beginning of this text, namely that we live in an anthropologically coined environment that is hard to understand in its appearance and mechanisms. For us, the most important challenge in architectural and urban research is to decipher the mechanisms that form our built environment and clearly show these mechanisms in a commonly understandable way. Indirectly this caters also towards a better understanding of architecture and urbanism both by architects and non-architects. The research about Grey Architecture – the everyday architecture of the German post-war reconstruction after 1945 that Benedikt Boucsein extensively researched in his dissertation – is one of the first results of this approach, where the question of “why do our cities appear the way they do” is taken into serious consideration. The ensuing publication has positively resonated both among architects and non-architects.
In conclusion, we think that engaging with society opens up a variety of possibilities, of which we have touched upon only a few. Other practices touch these limits in their own specific ways, and we very much enjoy exchanging positions and methods with others. For us, it is interesting to note that with working the way we do, we are becoming much more relaxed regarding an assumption that has always slightly bothered us during our studies: that what will differentiate our young practise from that of our teachers has to lie in the realm of formal expression. Not that we do not care about formal expression: it is something that we regard as highly as the other factors in architecture that are still significant as they were in the times of Vitruvius. The time of forced formal evolution has passed. Formal self-evidence is not a holy grail but something that is relative. The knowledge that we have to be neither avant-garde radicals or reactionary conservatives, and that we can deal with formal issues in our own way without tension, liberates us.
[1.] Peter Sloterdijk, Schäume: [plurale Sphärologie], (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004).
[2.] Charles Rattray and Claus and Kaan, “High Theory and Low Practice,” Architectural Research Quarterly, No. 2, (1997): 26-37.
[3.] Benedikt Boucsein, Graue Architektur. Bauen im Westdeutschland der Nachkriegszeit. (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2010).