Now that Aravena has won the 2015 Pritzker prize it might be worth discussing the current fault lines in architecture that run between the technologists and what Patrik Schumacher declaims as a “safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern”. To do this I want to briefly analyse two projects by these very different architects in Monterrey Mexico. Just after Aravena won the prize there was an unusual outburst via Facebook and across social media from Schumacher:
“The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now “to serve greater social and humanitarian needs” and the new Laureate is hailed for “tackling the global housing crisis” and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.
When I read proclamations about political correctness I instantly associate this with a neoliberal and regressive politics. A politics intent on discounting social difference. Please forgive my skepticism but I am an academic after all. But an architecture focused on “specific societal tasks” might just mean: important big projects. For “responsibility” the cynical might read: more big projects designed by Patrik and Zaha and “architectural innovation” could refer to an architecture driven by all of the new technologies: drones, 3D scanning, 3D printing, AI and above all parametrics; and all of this innovation is promulgated through the new digital media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TED talks and Linked-in-Profiles (I should talk) and maybe even Snapchat. Social media is nowadays the new collective imagination of architecture.
A more clear sighted and less cynical analysis might ask if Schumacher is correct in his stance and is Aravena’s position any more worthy? Is it any more innovative and to what extent does it lose any sense of societal tasking and responsibility? Does the work of Elemental, Aravena’s firm, posit itself as a credible and alternative architecture?Schumacher goes on to directly criticise Aravena suggesting that it is a kind of comforting opiate for the “humanitarian” set. Perhaps he might just be right?
I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his “half a good house” developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation. I would not object to this year’s choice half as much if this safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern was not part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my view signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage about the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.”
Reading this I was intrigued by what Schumacher meant by the terms “frontier” and “our global high density civilisation.” It starts to conjure up images of John Ford’s film The Searchers. Interestingly, I found that both architects have produced schemes in Monterrey Mexico which in its own way is a frontier city. A city where narcotics, capital and America’s free trade agreement with Mexico collide. I know Monterrey reasonably well having visited a few times with post graduate MSD students in 2010 and 2012.
Monterrey is a city that has little planning regulation, has grown in a adhoc manner and contains extremely rich suburbs along side informal settlements. It is a city full of contradictions it is a large industrial city with many factories supplying the United States whose border is only 3 or so hours away by truck. The total amount of Nuevo Leon’s exports, the state in which Monterrey sits, in 2012 were 35 Billion USD, 11% of Mexico’s total exports. The city is home to one of the most important universities in Mexico and Latin America: Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM). It is even home to a large Lego factory. It contains both the richest and poorest suburbs in Latin America. It is where Narco-Mansions are sited near informal settlements with no sewerage or drainage exist within close proximity of each other.
Don’t get me wrong I love Monterrey and would go back anytime. But it is an example of what happens to a city when global capital is allowed to run wild. It is in many respects a test bed of free market urbanism
Aravena’s and his firm Elemental’s 2009 project in Monterrey Mexico sums up a lot about their approach to affordable housing. The housing is designed to be incremental, in the sense that the inhabitants can add to the housing themselves as personal economics allow. It is an open ended approach and adhoc approach. A relinquishment of architectural agency in a sense. The final form of the housing appears to respect the surrounding grid pattern and typology of Monterrey. I don’t want to impose a european reading on this work but the project arguably sits formally in a European canon. The flat roof and form of the housing seems to have its precedents in Corbusier’s Pessac project and even seems to evoke the urban morphologies of a Rob Krier or a Latin American version of Taut’s housing in Weimar. In other words it is affordable housing with an aesthetic and tectonic edge. It is an effort, I think, to forge a frontier in the gap between ordinary lives and high architecture.
In contrast Hadid and Schumacher’s scheme for Monterrey there is nothing adhoc about this project; there is not doubt that it has been designed with a capital D; nothing has been left to the residents to design; its hive like cells and sinuous and curvilinear forms are at odds with the cities surrounding typology. The central landscaped space is full of nice people enjoying the sun. The renders have a lot of gym action and treadmills in them. This is another Monterrey development that proclaims its wealth. A project made to take advantage of Monterrey’s low cost wage structure and labour intensive concrete technologies. Complete with 981 units that look like they could be anywhere in the global and urbanised civilisation that Schumacher aspires to cover the earth with.
I remember as a young naive architecture student, in the dinosaur age, Eisenman coming to visit my architecture school. Replete with Brooks brothers button down shirt and braces he proclaimed that architecture was “autonomous” and in no way political. Architecture could only do what it could do. Schumacher’s position is not dissimilar but it is perhaps more dangerous because it is driven by the new technologies, with scant regard to the politics of the neoliberal frontier. The contradiction, of course is that Hadid’s early work seemed to claim a political position via the use and reference in it to the Russian Constructivists. It has morphed into something else now.
In contrast Aravena’s work speaks of the small architect. Aravena’s work clearly positions itself on the margins and in the cracks of cities. After all when everything is said and done we are all small architects trying to fill the gap between high architecture and ordinary lives.