Where is Architecture Going After the Pandemic Fades?
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In terms of Covid, 2022 is more likely to be like 1920 than like 2020 or 2021. “Change or die” is a cliché, but often a true one. The past two years under the pandemic have forced many kinds of changes across society that may have helped prevent a lot of deaths. But many other aspects of our culture had already been changing in ways that predated the pandemic, gradual shifts that, once Covid hit, became instant and ubiquitous: remote work, remote learning, the dominance of online shopping and the death of brick-and-mortar retail, the obsessive focus on health and well-being. All of this, and more, is now a fundamental aspect of our daily lives.
I think similar changes are at work in architecture.
18 Months Later, We Revisit Our Predictions on the Built Environment in a COVID-19 World
The aesthetic revolution of International School Modernism exploded into America before World War II, became the aesthetic default for recognition, and eventually was seen as the future of the profession. But radical movements change when they cannot sustain their expectations. Puritans were religious zealots who came to America and then, over a century, changed into Congregationalists. Marxists in the 19th century became Communists in the 20th, and now what was Communism has largely morphed into socialist statism.
If the past is prologue, then the pandemic may provide a pivot, where transformative change becomes possible.
Birthed in radical Modernism, the orthodoxy of Modernist aesthetics reigned unquestioned for several generations. That default outcome may be changing—just as radical Puritans and Marxists had compelling ideas for a minority of those they sought to save, while their ideas ceased to have relevance for everyone else. The internet allows for mass reaction to elite determination. There are no governing institutions, magazines, or museums to anoint a favored way of making architecture to the exclusion of others. Everyone can talk to anyone, now, for free. Ideas are flung out and responses are received. Debate occurs, instead of top-down direction from an “expert class.” The recent rethink in what we want from our homes was not led by HOUZZ, Architectural Digest, realtors, or the AIA, but by people deciding that what they had was not what they wanted or needed.
Architects are beginning to look at what they value, and how what they want and what they value can be manifest, not as a “style,” but as a basis for creating buildings and communities. This healthy change has been triggered in part by these two crazy years.
So much shut down in 2020 that most architects felt the construction constriction and a huge drop in billings that was not reversed for six months. Then the “Covid bubble,” when design and construction activity exploded, arrived for many and carried through to the end of 2021, when billings for most architects gravitated back to flat.
Regions vary, but the pandemic is global, so this has been a unique two-year moment when everyone was sitting in the same leaky boat. Construction is essentially an on-site, in-person exercise, classified as an “essential activity” during the 2020 lockdowns, so any architect building anything was busy. But economic uncertainty often stalled or terminated commercial projects or residential work in cities. Last year saw that depression become a boom, as interest rates remained low and desire ratcheted up in a time of uncertainty. Now, as with 1920, when the flu pandemic waned, Covid is slowly becoming more of a bother and less of an outright terror.
What does this mean for design? Since the Great Recession of 2008, the rollercoaster of the construction world’s boom/bust economic model had flattened to a lower-than-boom/higher- than-bust continuity. This decade of dull activity was essentially without any discernible direction. Yesterday’s starchitects were passing away, with no new heroes offering anything but a broadly applied mutation of Modernism, or the parallel boutique of Classicism. Of course there were ongoing refinements of sustainability and “resilience,” and trendy marketing fads like “3D printing” or “tiny houses.” The pandemic smashed this shaky status quo, but these two years have yet to reveal any coherent path forward and, even worse, have distracted everyone from the growing, increasingly daunting reality of climate change.
Academic enrollment for architecture was robust and steady before the pandemic, with about 27,000 students during the 2019–20 academic year. About 30,000 architecture positions were eliminated in 2020, and a third of those jobs returned in 2021, with an anecdotal shortage of people for jobs now plaguing the profession. It’s a time of dramatic work fluctuations, but relatively steady human involvement.
Architecture culture, however, has been forever changed by digital technology. The 200,000-plus architects and 27,000 architecture students are finding each other instead of looking to an architectural establishment. Internet sites like The EntreArchitect, which has grown to more than 6,000 members in the past year, are conducting daily live streams and podcasts, bypassing the established venues of top-down communication. Architect Evelyn Lee focuses on new and evolving ways of using an architecture degree and making things in her Practice Disrupted podcast, as part of the website Practice of Architecture. Websites like Common Edge, ArchDaily, Architizer, and other venues have opened up editorial content to a broad spectrum of approaches, aesthetics, and authors. For the first time, thousands of voices (often unedited, alas), can express thought without the “correct” focus of the media and industry establishment.
When the Great Recession destroyed advertising revenue for publishing and limited the cash that architects had for PR and photographers, a long-established way of promoting architecture was compromised. That same moment saw the instant availability of smartphones, with insanely good cameras, huge memory, and powerful transmission. This digital revolution turned graphic duffers into artists. Anyone can now photo, video, and narrate any perception, anywhere, instantly, often for free, and share universally.
Institutions are both forming and changing, taking advantage of these new technologies. In my teaching at the University of Hartford, I can bring in many different voices into the studio at no cost. Similarly, I can be a live jury critic for Ryerson University in Toronto at no cost to them, and very limited time by me. The Building Beauty Program has flourished on the internet and added ancillary seminars and lectures. My local AIA chapter has also offered any number of new connections in programs, offering a diversity of perspective that was impossible before these technologies and was accelerated by the circumstances of sequestration.
Our Covid isolation has also spawned an upsurge in populist criticism, led by the participants, not by an elite dictating what gets criticized or why. Modernism, a Facebook group for architects, has long debates and open submissions for anyone who signs up. Another, That’s It: I’m Architecture Shaming, has more than 500,000 members and endless commentary in conversation. Kate Wagner’s McMansion Hell remains an internet sensation, where posts receive thousands of comments, unsolicited, unedited, and free.
Change is happening, whether we like it or not. In cities, this means that office buildings in now-struggling commercial zones may morph into mixed-use structures. Universities may have part of their student enrollment shift from in-person to interest-based classes, facilitated by remote capacity, but also manifesting the personal empowerment new technologies afford anyone who can access them. Telemedicine will live on long after Covid becomes endemic. And the ability to see and share architecture and even find designers who share your values (as opposed to a “look”) is now possible. Humans need human contact, so the use of virtual meetings will change to suit its limitations once this pandemic ebbs.
For a century in architecture, the canon of Modernist orthodoxy squeezed out aesthetic diversity, and was threatened for only a decade by the now-disdained PoMo revolt. But the time when a consensus elite has the exclusive tools of communication, creating an “expert class” for publication, communication and recognition, is over.
Ding-dong, the Canon may be dead. In its place may be a breadth of architectural expression that will surely alarm the purists, the ideologues, and will assuredly have some flawed outcomes, but might also celebrate the undeniable humanity of buildings. Our culture continually finds both new language and new ways of speaking to each other, especially in unprecedented times. And that’s when real change happens.