Interview: No more business as usual

In a global world where only 5% of the build environment is made by architects while less new architecture is needed in Europe, architects needs to develop a new consciousness and reinvent themselves, claims Hans Ibelings and Powerhouse Company in their recent publication “SHIFTS. Architecture after the 20th century”. met art historian and writer Hans Ibelings from The Architecture Observer, and architect Charles Bessard from the Copenhagen-Rotterdam based studio Powerhouse Company, to discuss the future role of the architect and the temporary challenges.


Hans Ibelings: You see this model in the book? The diminutive black dots here are the percentage of architecture worldwide made by professional architects. The rest is buildings made by people who are not professional architects. So the relevant of architecture is limited. There is only 5 % which is architecture made by professional architects, the kind of architecture we usually discuss when we see magazines or exhibitions or whatsoever. And in Europe this percentage has been much higher for a long time, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but is not totally unlikely that it will come closer to the global average in the nearer future.

Prosperity and people are the two basic engines for new architecture.  And some European countries are still growing a bit, but on average Europe is not growing in population anymore, which means we do not need all this new architecture to accommodate all those new people. If you look around, like Denmark, you see that every small village has a library in the school, a cultural centre, a theater and everything, with some maintenance; you can keep them for next 40 or 50 years.

No more business as usual

So what does this situation demands from architects to make their way of living and make themselves necessary in the temporary world?  For instance the Danish think tank, Mandag Morgen recently published a report named "The architect industry of the future" suggesting four strategic path for architects to go: counseling, developing of concepts, specialization and renovation...

Chales_Bessard_powerhouse.pngCharles Bessard: The last part is true. The rest is arguable (laughing).

The goal of our book is to understand what is happening now and to go a little beyond the surface of the news we are bombarded with everyday. We are suffering the aftermath of the economic bubble, but when you start to look more in detail you'll realize that it is a much deeper rooted crisis.  And somehow the bubble was very much rooted in larger shifts in Europe: in the economy, in the demography, in the urban structure, in relations to the country side, the technology and the culture. Our perspective as participants is to look at the present to understand, what are the forces shaping it in order to engage, and decide what would be our positions in the coming years.

HI: We believe that it is quite unlikely that it will be business as usual in a few years time.


Denying the problem

HI: And of course as a writer and publisher of books, I'm in an even deeper hole than architects: I'm a coal-miner, and coal-mines are going to close. But I see the same coming for architecture. The reaction of many architects is just different; they are denying the problem. They believe everything will return to the same old nice situation of the 1990s or before the crisis. Proclaiming that there is always another market, because there is China, there is whatever.  Ignoring the fact that, especially in Europe and the United States, there is such a large number of architects and there are more architect schools and architecture students than ever before, which is strange for a business that, from a purely rational point of view, has peaked a while ago, and it is unlikely that it will continue to grow. So in that sense rethinking the architectural profession is quite important.

You can say that there is always a need for a solution for a functional spacial problem, but the question is what shall we do response on, which scale?  There is a group of architects, who's dealing with small spatial agencies - and according to me, they are a bit too humble, because they are denying the qualities they have as designers. So at one end you have people denying there is a problem, believing they can just continue in the same way, and on the other it seems like there is a formal resistance, which is maybe too weak.


Architects need to focus on their professional core

HI: I think architects should stay in their professional core, spatial design. So if this report by Mandag Morgen is pointing that architects are not specialized enough I understand it.  It's a part of the system for an architect to believe they can do everything. And I'm not sure if that's really the right direction, but on the other hand, the idea that an architect should be prepared to be an advisor sounds like a very poor solution, like an acceptance of the lost of a position. In the past the architect was a builder and a designer as well, he designed and built - then he was the designer, lost control in the design process, and during the last maybe 50-60 years you see an enormous deroute for the architect to be merely a cosmetic designer, the person that comes up with the clever concept and that's it.

CB: The focus on specialization  of architects and the building industry, has actually shown in the past to be a way of rubbing in the vulnerability of the branch - because specialization is about knowing more and more about less and less: you specialize on a coffee cup, and then you specialize on the profile of the coffee cup, so you get super super good but in something that is extremely limited, and I think what you can see  at least in the economy, is that when the economy is diversified then it is much more resilient. It is the same with an ecosystem, the more diverse the stronger. You can see it for example in the big industrial areas in North of England or Ruhr-district - they were specialized and not versatile, they were modern in a functionalist way, and then they became very vulnerable to changes.


Too many ideas and too little focus on craftsmanship  

CB: I think we see a weakness similar in the trend of specialization, which is a specialization in concepts. We make concepts, we make diagrams of buildings, but there is very little said today about details or how you put things together, what the process is, and how it is integrated within the realization of the building itself. I would say that this overestimation of the concept is a very risky situation for two reasons: First of all because we don't miss ideas, especially today. If you look at our practice in Powerhouse Company, only approximately 5% of the projects get realized. That means you have twenty times more ideas than you actually have buildings to build. If you think of it as an office with 100 persons, only 20 people does the concept, 80 people is working with the realization process; designing, solving different aspects of the buildings, level of flexibility, finding the right material.  Architecture is in fact much more about craftsmanship than about conceptual diagrams.


Quality and the problem of standardization

CB: Craftsmanship is also related to the question about quality and long term sustainability. This is a central issue in China, where everything build 10 years ago, is being demolished. That is a problem of quality in large scale. But also here at home, where everything gets standardized, we find issues of quality. Standardization in the build environment is very good to create a minimum of quality, but what we actually start witnessing is that standardization is also a barrier to maximize quality, because nobody wants to derivate from the standards anymore. So you lose the knowhow, you lose the capacity of going beyond the standards. For instance if you think about a complicated piece of wooden  carpentry for a roof, it is becoming difficult to find a craftsman in Denmark, who is skilled to do it, and even more - willing to do it. Of course you can claim, that the question is about finding someone willing to pay for it, but one thing is sure, you are very likely to find a skilled craftsman in Poland, because they build a lot of complicated roof structures, for example  for the roof of the churches. So in a way, you can say, there is a looping aspect about it, there is an interrelation between the capacity of the architect and the capacity of the industry.

If we look at the market around us, this is really still a very big challenge, that requires innovation, not only looking at concepts but also looking at how to build, how to build in a more sustainable way, more acceptable way not only for the environment, but also for the industry, in a way that also creates and maintain an industry and a know-how in the long term. These dimensions, that used to be a huge part of our business, we have given up upon with our specializations. And this has made our business very vulnerable. What we should do? I agree very much with Hans, we should re-concentrate on the core of our business, which is largely space and craftsmanship.

HI: But here is a point of course in this issue of specialization, because every architect claims to be able to design a theater, a school, a big housing block, whatever, and that means, there is no distinction between one or another, because for most clients, what we consider as the most important distinction of quality, is not so visible. In that sense, I understand that you need to stand out as an architect: you have to come up with something which is visible and understandable for your potential client. And the challenge is growing since architects are sharing the same global market with less regional distinctions.

Architecture blogs and one night stands

CB: The result is that architecture works in two different realities: the reality of the physical buildings and the reality of the blogs on the internet.  The picture of a project living only six hours on a front page before being replaced by another one, the intensity of projects you get through blogs is unbelievable - this kind of consumption of ideas at this scale and speed, has never been seen before in architecture. Never have we been bombarded with so many architectural images as today, this contrasts with the fact that only so few building are actually built by architects . It's a very puzzling reversal.

I think architecture has difficulties to communicate every time it tries too hard to be conceptual, rhetorical, or technological, and forgets to be architecture. I never have problem with communicating architecture when I take a client to a building and make him experience it, then architecture speaks its own language: materials and space. If a building is well made, there is very little you have to say. I always realize that if I have to explain a building, it is often where the building is failing to achieve its goal.

Architectural blogs and magazines are very powerful tools in terms of marketing. But we should be careful not to fall completely into that power. Images only need to live a few minutes to be successful on the web. But with an actual building, you should be designing something people will see every morning they wake up and still be able to love. What we have to design are long term relationships and not short affaires.

HI: There are of course a lot of one night stands in architecture: buildings which are famous for a very short time.  

CB: Blogs consumption started to exist because offices started to promote every single project, and putting the same emphasis in every project built or not built. When one comes to re-thinking architecture in a larger perspective, we should really not lose sight of the core: the fact that architecture is buildings. There is still a balance to be found in between the two realities of architecture, and that's a field of exploration for younger generations - to find out how to articulate these two scales.


Beauty and convention

CB: The purpose of architecture is to make our environments more functional, but also more beautiful. It is not a kind of beauty separated from the user or something to be judged from a distance - e.g. from a blog. The blog is important, but it's not the main core of architecture.

HI: In relation to our daily life and experience, beauty should be conventional, somehow. There are conventions of how you live and what you do, and much of what is published in magazines is not conventional architecture but spectacular exceptions. And if everyday life were to be exceptions it would be pretty tiring. In some fields it is totally logic: with cars there are design conventions making it possible to step into every car and drive away, because you know how. When architecture needs a sign to indicate where to go, it becomes problematic. It is not convention.   I think one of the qualities, for example of the Salk Institute, is that even if it is not a conventional building, you can clearly understand how it is organized. Maybe that's one of the essences of really good architecture: it's obvious the moment you enter.


Find the book in DAC& BOOKS/SHOP

Shifts_bog_150x200.png"SHIFTS. Architecture after the 20th century" is published by The Architecture Observer.

Date of publication: 22 May 2012
14.5 x 20 cm, 96 pages, illustrations in colour and black/white
ISBN 978-90-819207-0-4
Price: 18.00 euro (plus postage).

The book can be purchased in DAC& BOOKS/SHOP

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014