Architecture is the most comprehensive human endeavor, that can combine respect for nature with transcendental aspiration. Since time immemorial, it is the expression of our agency.
Its wonders can be shared by everyone.
As long as architecture can help us to measure, we won’t succumb; nor to the climate collapse, nor to the cyber surrender. As such, architecture is the guardian of humanity.
Life is too short to waste on a lost cause and the history of architecture too rich to believe the present will forever determine its future. We had far better focus on all the potential for alternative scripts and keep striving for them. If the capacity for measure is in deep trouble, and the ideal medium for implementing it is not delivering, we can improve the latter and hope for its effects on the first. The most important thing is to reestablish the relationship between the two. How can architecture once again be a measured response to a real need? To begin with, here are some proposals and speculations. Can there be some light in the froth of history?
Not long ago talking about imminent collapse was ridiculed as doomsdayism. Today it is no less than a matter of fact. There is profound concern about indefensible global injustice. There is anxiety about the encroaching grip of algorithmic intelligence on our lives. But we are close to certainty about the planetary consequences of our worsening overshoot condition. We are now almost permanently exceeding our planet’s ability to regenerate the essentials for human life: climate, biodiversity, and our natural resources.
till Earth Overshoot Day 2023
We have already passed Earth Overshoot Day 2021 on July 29, after a brief interim in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Clearly, our “time is out of joint”, and we are in dire need of balance before we sleepwalk into catastrophe. And to achieve balance we need a strong sense of measure. Measure is the opposite of excess, it’s the safeguard against abuse. In fact, grasping the right measure is the result of a prolonged effort to improve oneself. It is the key attribute, as well as benefit, of character.
For individuals, a sense of measure can express itself in many ways, under the influence of different value systems. But if there is one overarching, comprehensive and almost timeless modality of finding measure that all humanity can perfectly understand, it is architecture – the art of organizing our life in space and time... measuredly.
Why has architecture over the centuries merited this status as the embodiment of measure and balance, acquiring the reputation of being a metaphor for world order itself? It must be because there is no operation of the human mind that needs to factor in more parameters of life, or that allows more human and natural dimensions to be part of the equation, within the single synthetical act of creating and framing situations and events happening in our lives. It is the most all-encompassing medium for reconciling, combining and synthesizing virtually everything that exists. Most importantly perhaps: it galvanizes intention into result.
Architecture, defined in this way, is clearly not just a profession delivering a service. It is the way humanity touches base with itself. That is why it has survived for thousands of years. That is why, in its best manifestations, it has been the work of polymaths and boundlessly curious people who never stop seeking to understand more. As long as there are human beings and their challenges, there will be architecture. Therefore, architecture is obviously too important to leave solely to architects. It is both our meter and our clock. We measure our lives with architecture. From the toddler building a sandcastle on the beach, to the dying person’s enjoyment of a ray of light coming through a window, we appreciate life with and through architecture. Good design makes you love life. And we can all be designers.
So, how can architecture, as our profoundly human endeavor, help us to rediscover our sense of measure and battle excess and abuse? Surely not by accepting what today is defined as architecture by the people who claim it as their territory. On the contrary, architecture as the art of measure has been completely forgotten by a building practice that, despite some singular efforts to counter it, is still largely adding to ecological and moral overshoot. The same is true of its discourse which continues to overshadow common sense. On the contrary, current architectural practice privileges a frenzied production of new projects, new reputations and new events, restlessly crisscrossing the globe for opportunities to excel. It took a global pandemic to impose a quantitative limit. What will it take to make this limit a quality in itself?
Egotecture was an exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1997. Invited by museum director Chris Dercon, I received access to the vast collection and prepared an exhibition-essay about the last 500-year history of space concepts, intertwined with the history of human self-awareness, and their mutual influences. The exhibition was based on my doctoral thesis The Rise and Fall of the Self, which had led to two degrees in Cultural and Architectural History at the University of Amsterdam in 1990.
The exhibition was designed as a journey, beginning with the Renaissance, through half a millennium of discovering, mastering, reflecting and speculating on the idea of personal space, and eventually getting lost in it. This story was interwoven with an equally long history of the self-portrait, showing how human beings pursued the idea of a self from curiosity, through mastery, to alienation and even oblivion.
Images of the exhibition can still be recovered, but a selection of works that were on show, as well as an introductory statement, can be viewed on the project page.
The Invisible in Architecture was a project, initiated jointly with fellow architecture student Roemer van Toorn, that began as a lecture series at the TU Delft in 1987-8 and culminating in a book which appeared in London in 1994. Throughout its duration, the project was fueled by dissatisfaction with the growing icon and celebrity culture that emphasizes image over substance. The title, The Invisible in Architecture, was a call to keep paying attention to architecture’s mission to provide inspiration and be a medium for human agency to take care of our life world. The book interrogates the work of the most famous contemporary architects for its cultural depth and relevance for society. Remarkably, most of these architects are, a quarter of a century later, still famous.
RealSpace in QuickTimes (and the ensuing series of articles QuickTime in RealSpace), entailed a comprehensive project investigating the subjugation (and potential resurrection) of architecture in the wake of ubiquitous digitization. In 1996, I had curated the Dutch pavilion for the Triennale di Milano, showcasing the potential of integrating architectural craftsmanship with digital design and production techniques, as well as with digital art forms such as soundscaping and visual computer animations. An accompanying book featured a substantial essay describing the many repercussions of digital technology for an art form still completely grounded in an analogue way of thinking. Another pavilion, conceived for Cultural Capital of Europe 2001, explored the new spatial experiences in store once architecture becomes entirely information- and time-based. The project concluded that architecture was incapable of absorbing the digital and that its own inclination was to be absorbed by cyberspace itself, while limiting its status as a construction industry or “built environment”.
Clearly, architecture has drifted away from its true potential to be the medium of balance and the measure of our existence. It has no substantial discourse, let alone a design for remedying social injustice. It doesn’t provide strategies to protect us from ubiquitous and invasive technology. And most existentially, in its current guise it doesn’t help us to cap global warming to a maximum of 1.5⁰C. Not even to the absolutely necessary 2⁰C.
Architecture in permanent overshoot mode has little to do with architecture as a profound human capacity to create balance. It speaks volumes not only about the predicament of architecture, but more so about the weakening agency of humanity itself to be its own guide and determine its own destiny.
to beyond or not to be.
It may already be out of our hands: the fate of civilization and even our human destiny. Can we still salvage what is about to escape us? Is there still time to change course?
By whatever means, we don’t have much time left for reasserting our agency. As we continue to borrow from the future or, in harsher words, to steal from the next generations, the thread of life is being stretched to breaking point.
What could save us?
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Granted, it is already a practice to indicate the power of architecture in a positive way, in words and exemplary results, in the hope that it will be leveraged to wider practice. But projections may not be enough to make a real dent in the Great Acceleration in our era, dwarfing any good intention by its lethal direction. In seeking to rediscover our proper measure, it is more important to understand that if only we start to change the fundamentals of our society in order to reshape it and to make it sustainable for the long term, we will come to rely on architecture much more profoundly than as a set of pilot schemes and demonstrations. We can be inspired by examples, but we ultimately need to deal with necessity, and turn the exceptions into the rule. We need a different architecture to lead system change.
Architecture can bring back the sense of measure we so badly need. What do these proposals reveal? First of all, decades of work. I’m glad it can be archived. But hopefully they also show that architecture still has all the potential to regain its original meaning as a unique symbol of our human agency, and as a mechanism for providing measure in our life. Reconnecting with society, repurposing as a discipline, proving its power in actual projects and becoming a creative and healing time machine for overcoming the present and finding alternative futures that help us not only to survive, but to live life to the full.
By turning a world-famous, architect-designed urban monument into a design museum – or, even better, an active agenda to design society.
- Design Society, 2015-present
How could architecture once again become a place for civic life and a stage for societal innovation?
7 / 8
Design Society began as a collaboration between the Chinese state-owned enterprise China Merchants and a major British museum, the V&A. I began working to turn this into reality in 2015. At the end of 2017 it opened as a creative ecosystem of civic, cultural and commercial activities, situated first in an iconic building, then proliferating through other projects as a design platform for general and professional audiences. By abstaining explicitly from the term museum and choosing “design society” instead, the mission was defined as never to be finished, and open for everyones participation.
By considering the many ways to design and synchronize our daily rhythm.
- Battle for Time, 2003
How could we conceive of an architecture of time that helps us to recover quality of life?
6 / 8
Strijd om Tijd (Battle for Time) was an assignment by a Dutch publisher to investigate the social consequences of the ongoing atomization of our time experience, in which people have less and less reason to encounter, understand, let alone engage with the other. Written in 2003, the essay focused mainly on technologies that allow people to define their own agendas, anticipating the imminent exacerbation of the situation by the rapid rise of mobile services that on the one hand distract from the here and now, and on the other allow people to actively bypass the other. The essay concluded with a manifesto to return to a culture of mutual acknowledgement, listing several measures, techniques and policies that would restore common ground via a deliberate synchronicity.
By tapping into the resources brought together a long time ago and recharging them with new meanings and effects.
- Re-Set, 2010; Value Factory, 2013-2014
How could architecture rescue and reinstate hidden value?
5 / 8
Between 2008 and 2012 I either curated or commissioned the Dutch entry to the Venice Architecture Biennale, located in the Dutch pavilion. The three editions were dedicated to a thorough recalibration of the relevance of architecture, starting with a deep reflection on its future after a major fire at the Architecture Faculty in Delft (Archiphoenix, designed by Stealth), through an extensive unsolicited proposal to revamp and reposition the wealth of beautiful but vacant building stock (Vacant NL, designed by Raaaf), to a proposal to redesign buildings as modifiable units, using the techniques of stage design to multiply the various uses a building can have, and in so doing release architecture from its ex nihilo syndrome and find beauty in what already exists (Re-set, designed by Inside-Outside).
The Value Factory started out as the venue of the 5th Shenzhen Urbanism and Architecture Bi-City Biennale in 2013-14, subsequently curated into an actual “Special Culture Zone” poised to become an important place for cultural production in Shenzhen for the years to come. The actual transformation, and hence reanimation, from an old glass factory, i.e. a place of mass production, into a place for ideas, was threefold: a physical transformation to expose and amplify the unique qualities of the building and site and so showcase the power of design; temporary inhabitation by a range of global cultural institutions, to study, expand, show and leverage their work in China; and the organization of a wide range of public activities to bring the factory alive on a daily basis, including the running of a design school for the duration of the Biennale.
By taking a leading role in system change, by addressing the urgent questions of our time and so proving its indispensable qualities and undeniable relevance through helping the world to drastically reduce overshoot.
- Architecture of Consequence, 2010
How could architecture use its worst crisis in living history to once again completely prove its point?
4 / 8
Architecture of Consequence was a multiyear (2009-2012) agenda for the Netherlands Architecture Institute that claimed an inspiring role for architects by showing how their profession was ready to address the existential issues of the planet and its people: food, energy, health, space, time, social cohesion and value creation. A book, a traveling exhibition, a studio for unsolicited projects, national submissions to global biennales, and many other initiatives, embodied this program to tackle climate change and social tensions through design. The project was punctuated by another exhibition, Testify, the Consequences of Architecture, which switched the focus entirely from intentions to results.
By resetting architecture’s own agenda by means of conviction and unsolicited actions.
- Unsolicited Architecture, 2007
How could architecture rediscover its inner strength?
3 / 8
I coined Unsolicited Architecture in the first editorial of the new magazine Volume, founded in 2005. It pointed out architecture’s ability to reclaim its autonomy, this time understood not as a free zone for disciplinary experimentation, but as an exercise to develop an ethical agenda of its own. The idea was further developed in a studio taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2007, run as an imaginary Office for Unsolicited Architecture, later renamed Unsolicited Studio. Some students who joined this office concentrated on exemplary unsolicited projects, others on the strategic and managerial aspects of such a practice. The results and the underlying manifesto were published in Volume 14. Between 2010 and 2012 the Studio continued as part of the NAi program, actively pitching strong architectural proposals for solutions to societal issues, publishing “bid books”, and arranging match-making sessions aimed at finding the right “clients” for those solutions.
By building a discourse of “what”, “how”, and “why” to first understand then strengthen the metaphorical power of architecture, and ultimately use that for active proposals for change.
- Archis/Volume, 1996-2007
How could architecture be presented as the ultimate medium of culture, with the potential to change it?
2 / 8
Archis, (1996–2005) was a professional journal aimed mainly at architects. Under my editorship it evolved into a cultural magazine that presented architecture as a direct reflection of unfolding history and explored its power to participate in that history. This direction was rejected by the owner, the Netherlands Architecture Institute, who wanted to terminate the magazine. Through the intervention of the Dutch parliament, and the establishment of an independent foundation, Archis was able to continue its mission to investigate the rationale and opportunities for architecture as spatial intelligence – rather than just presenting what happened in the built environment, presenting how things were made, or providing exposure to the people who designed it. In this way, Archis returned to a tradition cultivated by such predecessors as R.K. Bouwblad, Goed Wonen, Tijdschrift voor architectuur en beeldende kunsten, Wonen TA/BK At its best it queried the very raison d'être of architecture as a medium of culture, exploring the cultural motives within the architectural dimension of society.
During the past 15 years, the Archis Foundation has continued with the completely internationalized publication, now titled Volume, in collaboration with Columbia University and the architecture office OMA. In the wake of a massive disruption of architecture due to globalization, digitization, neo-liberalism and the introduction of technologies interfering with the essential features of the architectural discipline, Volume went beyond the question of “why” per se and began to explore how architecture could find new territories beyond itself. An agenda to stimulate a new self-confidence for the oldest human endeavor: creating a place on earth.
By seeing itself as an answer that aspires to relevance, hence completely opening itself to the needs of society.
- Netherlands Architecture Institute, 2007-2012
How could architecture repurpose itself?
1 / 8
I was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) between 2007 and 2013, when it was blindsided’ by a government-induced merger with two other institutions. During the NAi’s final six years, I calibrated the mission of this publicly funded institute to unequivocally embrace the idea of architecture as a response to what society needs, and in so doing, thereby re-charging the social relevance of architecture in a time of deep economic malaise. Accordingly, everything the NAi undertook in those years, exemplified this pursuit: the building became more sustainable and more intensively used. A new wing for children presented architecture as an activity for all, explicitly addressing tasks for architects. The exhibition program and collection policy were geared to the same idea, proving the point of architecture as a highly intelligent solution to complex problems. An innovation agenda aimed at inspiring architectural practice was launched, to show the degree to which architecture could directly respond to the climate emergency, public health issues, the energy transition, and other major issues of contemporary society. Additionally, the NAi launched a smart phone app to disseminate the NAi collection and support the public debate on past and future architectural quality.
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