What’s the Matter With Contemporary Architecture?

What’s the Matter With Contemporary Architecture?

Lost Causes

The growing nostalgia of contemporary architecture.


To work in architecture is to be perpetually tempted by nostalgia. Things just aren’t as good as they used to be. Even worse: They can’t be. This sense of terminal decline abounds inside the field, where practitioners often lament that they are not afforded as much creative freedom or professional prestige as their forebears were. It exists outside the field as well, with people often wondering why buildings today don’t look anywhere near as good as those from even a few decades ago, not to speak of those much older. “Doesn’t everything now just look kind of… bad?” these critics of contemporary architecture ask. In a recent editorial, the editors of n+1 answered with a resounding “Yes!”

This leaves architects with a lot to complain about: the decay of their profession’s prestige and authority; their inability to live up to their world-changing potential and participate in capital-intensive, socially consequential projects; and the fact that no one seems to care anymore about hiring them to design the buildings they live in—even if many people still care enough to blame them for the ugly buildings that do get built. The whole enterprise increasingly has the appearance of a lost cause, many architects worry; the battles over what good buildings should look like and what they should do are now waged, mostly in futility, by a rarefied set of people working to enact an even more rarefied set of values, to the applause of no one and the criticism of many. Even if a new library, say, puts forward an innovative paradigm of public architecture, many more people will likely interact with the dozens upon dozens of “5-over-1s” going up in cities all across the country. As a result, architects suffer under the notion that no one really gets what they do and therefore, at least from the architects’ point of view, no one pays them the respect or money they deserve.

Recent efforts to unionize architecture firms have highlighted the extensive and unfairly compensated training and professional expertise of architectural workers. Unpaid internships are still alarmingly commonplace, if frowned upon, and 60-hour workweeks are often the norm. Something is amiss in this corner of the world; there seems to be a total mismatch between how architects conceive of themselves, how their clients treat them, how the public sees them, and what they actually do.

One writer who would seem well equipped to address this situation is the architect Reinier de Graaf. Famous in certain parts of the field, de Graaf remains mostly unknown outside it; his career contributions are best characterized as “architecture for architects.” In 2017, he published a collection of essays titled Four Walls and a Roof, whose 529 pages were intended as a warning of sorts that architects shouldn’t get too high and mighty about what they do. In case the message didn’t take, he followed up that book in 2021 with a 328-page novel called The Masterplan, in which an egotistical architect gets a painful lesson in humility from forces beyond his control. Show, don’t tell, as they say.

De Graaf’s latest book, Architect, Verb: The New Language of Building, is a mercifully shorter nonfiction work whose introduction describes it as “a quest for architecture to be architecture again, written in the sincere hope that, in ridding it of unsolicited baggage, our profession might one day re-emerge as an independent and critical discipline.” But even though de Graaf wants to rescue the field from its marginalization, self-imposed or otherwise, his new book is deeply mired in the same nostalgia that plagues the architects he faults for creating the current crisis. Architect, Verb eagerly and cynically points at everything that’s wrong with architecture: The “green” standards are insufficient! The awards are pay-to-play! Real estate interests supersede good design! While a number of these observations, as well as their inherent criticisms and ironies, are spot-on, and de Graaf backs them up with ample data, the book is ultimately not all that concerned with how things got this way or how they might get better.

De Graaf’s litany of complaints is informed by decades of experience. He’s the longest-serving nonfounding partner of the Dutch architecture firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which was started in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia Zenghelis, and Zoe Zenghelis and is probably best known in the United States for its design for the Seattle Central Library, an angled, jutting metal form with large interior spaces into which natural light falls generously through a diamond-shaped lattice of metal mullions.

The Seattle Central Library, completed in 2004, is arguably the high-water mark of OMA’s work. The project demonstrated the firm’s dexterity in enacting theoretical concepts through architectural form. Beginning its work on the library in 1999, OMA designed a building composed of immobile “platforms” (imagine thin, floating metal boxes containing at least one building floor) connected by vertical circulation elements like stairs and elevators. The spaces above each platform (the top of the box, to continue the analogy) were intended to remain flexible, available to be used by librarians and patrons for whatever purposes they saw fit. It’s a relatively simple concept, but it demonstrated an acute understanding of the way that the use of space within a building could be facilitated via architectural design.

OMA’s Casa da Musica, a concert hall in Porto, Portugal, that serves as the home of the National Orchestra of Porto, also proved paradigm-breaking. By managing to give the classic shoebox-shaped concert hall a faceted exterior form, OMA created new ways for the public to engage with a type of building usually associated with exclusivity. Around the same time, OMA completed an understated but exquisitely executed embassy for the Netherlands in Berlin that plays with the history of building codes in the formerly divided city. Its perfectly square floor plan fills out the site, in keeping with West Berlin ordinances, but its cubic shape is broken up by floors that jut out or dig into the overall perimeter. The embassy won the 2005 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, also known as the Mies van der Rohe Award. With these three buildings, OMA solidified its status as an innovative firm willing to take risks but also keenly aware of how people use space.

By the early 2000s, Koolhaas and de Graaf—the latter being the former’s quieter counterpart—had successfully set themselves up as architecture’s deep thinkers. In 1998, they had founded AMO, a think tank within OMA that was meant to give intellectual substance to the firm’s formal pursuits. In 2002, de Graaf became its director.

AMO’s track record has been mixed. Although de Graaf involved it in international sustainability and energy-planning efforts, producing Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe for the European Climate Foundation, AMO has seemed equally concerned with giving an architectural edge to brands like Prada, for which it has designed catwalks, exhibition spaces, and, with OMA in 2009, a complex of renovated industrial buildings, including one covered entirely in 24-karat gold leaf, for the Fondazione Prada, the company’s art foundation in Milan.

Whether or not OMA and AMO always lived up to their promise, it seemed to young architects that the firm was positioned to make a real difference in the world, and so they followed its work closely. Koolhaas and de Graaf appeared well aware of the complex realities—social, economic, political, and otherwise—with which architecture had to contend and well-poised to deliver a response. They never purported to have the ability to change the conditions that, for example, forced some people to use the computers at a library to access information, but they could produce buildings that actually responded to those problems.

Now, nearly 20 years later, OMA and AMO’s impact feels markedly different from what their projects once promised. On the one hand, the firm’s influence extends far into the field. Several well-known architects today—the Chicago-based Jeanne Gang, the late Zaha Hadid, the recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Kate Orff, and Jair Bolsonaro’s infamous friend Bjarke Ingels—got their start at OMA. On the other hand, the scale of the work that the firm now takes on—one of its latest projects is a master plan for a 1.3-million-square-meter health district in Doha, Qatar—seems to exceed the limits of its research-and-theory-based approach to architectural design.

Part of the trouble is that the world around OMA and AMO has changed. Their faith in a vast, architecturally designed commons now seems like a wistful vision of a future not likely in the offing. With one global recession under our belts and another possibly in the making, it is hard to imagine feeling optimistic about the future of the commons because of how one public library arranges its stacks, computers, and reading rooms. It’s equally difficult, in a post-Brexit world, to find exciting pluralism in a proposal for a new European Union logo of sorts (a barcode made up of merged flags) as one AMO design in 2001 did. The realities, grim or otherwise, of which Koolhaas and de Graaf were once so acutely aware have caught up with and outstripped the architectural tools they had to deal with them. Koolhaas, for his part, seems content to play the role of overly intellectual naïf. (See, for example, the 2020–21 exhibition he helped curate and design at the Guggenheim, “Countryside, the Future,” whose central thesis seemed to be “Did you know that people live in rural areas and that things happen there?”) But de Graaf still wants to find a way to make his ideas matter.

The sense of thwarted potential that results from de Graaf’s desire to render the theoretical practical is the tension that underpins Architect, Verb. Divided into 10 chapters that each reflect some aspect of what he calls the “extraneous quest” to make architecture something it is “neither able to resist nor capable of fulfilling,” the book seeks to show how the field has been set up to fail by a variety of external circumstances.

To make his point, de Graaf starts with a chapter on the so-called “Bilbao effect,” the notion that the Basque city’s economy took off after the 1997 opening of the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum there. As de Graaf points out, the Guggenheim was among several large-scale projects built or commissioned in the late 1990s in Bilbao, as a part of a broader investment plan. It has, however, become synonymous with the city’s revival. Moreover, attempts to replicate the Bilbao effect elsewhere have failed—you cannot just will urban prosperity into being through a single construction project, however monumental it might be.

De Graaf is not wrong here. But he does think there was another kind of Bilbao effect: that “after the Guggenheim, architecture was never quite the same.” Gehry’s building may not have been solely responsible for launching Bilbao into financial greatness, de Graaf suggests, but it did popularize the idea that a city’s economic success could hinge on a single piece of good architecture—an impossible standard for any building to live up to. But even before the Guggenheim in Bilbao, wasn’t at least one criterion for a building’s “success” the way it transformed the environment and the economy around it? Was this secondary Bilbao effect really all that different from the previous standards by which architecture was measured? De Graaf exaggerates the Bilbao myth’s impact to prove his point that architecture is now held to some new, impossible standard—but it doesn’t seem all that new. He is caught between being forced to admit that architecture doesn’t actually have this kind of power and wanting to believe that, in fact, it does.

In another chapter, de Graaf seeks to challenge a different set of myths, this time concerning the term “livability.” Using data from surveys by Mercer, The Economist, and Monocle to define how the term has been construed, he delves into a condensed history of the city of Vancouver and the ways in which attempts to make it more “livable” have also made it unaffordable. Once again, de Graaf is not necessarily wrong here: “Livability” has often been little more than a metric for producing higher real estate values and, for most of the people there, a far more unlivable city. But de Graaf gets in the way of his own arguments by not examining why architects might have embraced “livability” in the first place. The concept was never really about making a city more livable, but rather part of an effort on the part of architects to place themselves closer to power and maximize their projects’ “impact.”

The other chapters in Architect, Verb are full of similar incisive criticisms that unfortunately stop short of addressing the larger questions of power and capital that operate in the field of architecture. De Graaf bemoans the trendy use of the word “creatives,” the lack of good definitions for “beauty,” and the trend of breaking increasingly obscure building records in order to label projects with grandiose superlatives. He is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, interested in “the new language of building” and how it distracts both architects and those who live and use the buildings they create from the material realities of making them. Yet even here, de Graaf does not sufficiently dig into whom these ideas might be benefiting and why architects, on a practical level, might be compelled to use them.

While there is a good deal of jargon and professional cant in architecture these days, and while de Graaf is not wrong to mock it (the book ends with a “Dictionary of Profspeak,” a long list of sometimes nonsensical words thrown around by “creatives”), the language of building is not the real problem here. Rather, it’s how and why we build: the way all construction produces carbon and material waste; the way supply chains, even for “green” materials, are carbon-intensive; the way most projects are led by private real estate developers and therefore have only one priority—profit.

The current crisis in architecture runs so deep that architects themselves, who once treasured their status as professionals who stood outside the working class, have recently begun to recognize their status as members within it in the hope that, by doing so, they may improve, at the very least, their working conditions. Architectural workers in Portugal just formed a national union. Their counterparts in the United Kingdom have done the same. Stateside, Bernheimer Architecture in New York City has become the first unionized architecture firm in the country.

Meanwhile, there are architects out there who, even given the field’s limitations, are attempting to confront some of the problems enumerated by de Graaf. The Paris-based firm Lacaton & Vassal has developed a reliable, replicable system for refurbishing existing social housing projects, reducing their carbon footprint and preserving their use. In Ireland, Grafton Architects has honed a site-sensitive, understated approach to design that treats buildings not as heroic structures but rather as just one part of a functioning urban ecosystem.

Such firms—and there are others—are willing to work within architecture’s constraints. And, to be sure, there are many: The main drivers of building, at least in the United States, are private developers, none of whom are all that concerned with the very real issues that keep de Graaf (and others, myself included) up at night: quality of design, affordability, the climate crisis. The building sector is responsible for 40 percent of annual carbon emissions worldwide, and any attempt to significantly reduce that number will require architects and the field’s attendant thinkers and researchers to turn at least some of their attention from new construction to the retrofitting of existing buildings. Meanwhile, when architects don’t go to great lengths to mitigate the effects of for-profit development and the policies that make it possible, architecture and urban development tend to heighten existing racial and class inequalities. It’s easy to blame the field or the individual architects themselves, but they too are caught in a system not of their own making.

De Graaf seems to think that we can undo this system by getting rid of the “baggage” that has come with it, looking backward toward a time when architecture could be simply itself. Such a time, however, never existed. Even if it had, it would be nearly impossible to liberate architecture from the constraints of a society whose inequalities and ills architecture can already exacerbate. Instead of indulging in nostalgia, or pretending to have more power than they do, architects should confront the problems already in front of them, of which there are plenty. If the avenues within the profession for addressing those problems are limited, they might find other inroads, not as architects, but simply as people. Like all fields of work, architecture alone cannot remake the future, but grappling with the realities of today might help architecture begin to make a better tomorrow.

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