Reviews & Resources

November 23, 2009

Architecture Depends

Jeremy Till’s Architecture Depends (MIT Press: 2009), is a strongly-felt polemic against the stultifying aspects of contemporary architectural practice and education. Many aspects of the culture of architectural education, Till argues, are not about good training as architects, but about perpetuating professional and institutional authority:

“[T]he main way that architectural education avoids staring the stasis of its own processes in the eye is by confusing radical making with radical thinking. Because things look different, from school to school, and from year to year, the assumption is made that the formative educational processes are equally different and equally evolving.”

One of the most strongly entrenched ideas, is that architecture is a discrete and autonomous enterprise; a pure field that only engages with the mess and disruption of the world under duress; that the work of architects is primarily answerable to other architects. Professional institutes such as the RIBA frame architects’ responsibilities as primarily to the clent, neglecting far greater, or at least equivalent, responsibilities to users.

The modernist tradition of equating ethics with aesthetics exemplifies the concept of an autonomous architecture. It is actually a way of escaping genuine ethical concerns by calling what you’re already doing a kind of ethics. If aesthetics are ethics, then architects can carry on worrying about formal elegance and feel good about their ethical standards. Architecture is contingent, Till points out: contingent on external forces, social conditions, inherited ideas and images, finance, material inconsistencies, the mess of human existence. The cover image of Architecture Depends shows a man in a bear suit (artist Mark Wallinger) wandering around Mies’s Crown Hall. Wallinger satirises the concept of abstract, autonomous architecture by becoming a conglomerate of things it excludes: animals, wildness, the low-brow, humour. Till’s book is like this: it confronts the hermetic closure of the discipline with the messy, contingent world that it often seems to ignore.

[ Extended review at Diffusive Architectures ]