The Changing Texts of Architecture

by Andrew Wade

In case our group reading of The Infrastructural City has merely opened the floodgates of interest in more texts on architecture and the city, this post highlights some new and interesting work.

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Vitruvius' Ten Books on Architecture seek to order and structure the practice of architecture and the role of the architect.  This may be seen as definition by exclusion - everything that lay outside of the purity of classical geometric order is outside the system of architectural consideration.

Where does architecture begin?

Perhaps we are at another point where there is a crisis of definition for architecture, however this time it has become a definition of inclusion.

Where does architecture end?

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What comes after the ten books seems to reflect the increasingly inclusive definitions of architectural practice and its associations with other traditionally defined fields.  While not only recognising the linkages that become stronger with time between design, planning, development, and empowerment of the end-users, many sources now acknowledge that this loss of control and end of the 'Master Builder' is a positive evolution.  The resultant shift in the profession to that of strategist, enabler, and map-maker represents an attempt to understand the political and social processes that form our cities.

In particular, this shift is critical in opening up the profession of architecture to the reality of growing slum populations and inadequate basic services for the world's urban poor.  Architects must engage the micro-scale of the food seller in Dharavi as well as the macro-scale of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project - and then reconnect these elements in a coherent way to propose solutions.  Perhaps if Vitruvius were writing the ten books on architecture today, he would be the editor rather than the author, strategically choosing his ten chapters from planners, anthropologists, geographers, economists, etc. and concluding them with thoughts on design and the spatial manifestations of the included concepts.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do for the designer is to hand over the pen.

Credits: Image of Bhabha for Architects from the AA Bookshop.

5 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed this. It calls to mind a response by Lebbeus Woods to comments on his 'Dumb Boxes' post ...

    I have argued that serious, creative, innovative architects have to take up the design of spatial fields, networks, addressing transitory conditions, and not concentrate so much on single, monumental buildings. But this is very different from what we have known as ‘collectivist’ projects a la Socialism and Communism, which have not worked well anywhere. We must develop entirely new ways of thinking about urban architecture ensembles and constructs, and therefore new approaches to design. The System Wien project of 2005 (see lebbeuswoods.net) is one example of such thinking and design approach. However, it is only the barest beginning.

    The challenge is to embrace, simultaneously, the needs of the community for orderly change, and the free choices of individuals to define themselves. Up to now, collectivist projects have failed to do this, because they have failed to address the complexity and almost paradoxical nature of the challenge. http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2008/04/08/dumb-boxes/

    ... although I think you envision architects becoming even more integrated into broad networks.

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  2. Thanks for your comment and link to Lebbeus Woods' blog. The System Wein project looks fascinating, and I particularly like the description of cities as " . . . systems of energy interacting, colliding, continually-evolving in form and content . . . "

    I also agree with his general idea of "dumb boxes" and the efforts of some contemporary iconic architecture to simply use technology to re-clad the same old functional and programmatic brief. The truly extraordinary comes from re-thinking how a building is used and transforming the way that it relates to the city. I think the critical step there is in seeing the building not as an end but as a means to facilitate the connection and exchange of these "systems of energy".

    Far from taking the failed collectivist approach of which he speaks, an accurate analysis of the end-user groups of cities doesn't view them as a monochromatic sea of people with identical aspirations and life-rhythms - it addresses the inherent complexity of conflicting aspirations and interests in a just and resource-driven way.

    For me this brings to mind the idea of URBZ in facilitating "user-generated cities".

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  3. I agree, and that's a good way of putting it. Thank you for the intro to URBZ as well.

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  4. Hi Andrew,

    This post gave me a lot to think about.

    The Ten Books of Architecture was a book of its time. You are correct in stating that its purpose was to classify, but not in the modern sense of a “definition by exclusion”. The Ten books registered an architectural grammar that permeated a social universe of built form, construction and habits in antiquity. Vitruvius doesn’t treat the issue of “slums” because it is simply beyond his imagination and his time. I think one must be careful about its interpretation for slums because it may be anachronistic

    I would also argue that the “crisis” of inclusion you allude to is not new. In the latter half of the 20th century, architects were at the forefront in addressing the challenge of “slums”. Furthermore, "crisis" has defined architectural avant gardes since at least the middle of the 19th century. Is “Babbha for Architects” a rebranding of that cycle?

    But let me challenge the post a bit further. I recently saw a catholic chapel in the municipality of Pachacamac in the periphery of Lima, Peru. Located in a “Pueblo Joven” (euphemism for slum or shanty town), the structure was a vernacular interpretation of the classical façade characteristic of Spanish colonial architecture. I ask: Why wouldn’t a copy of the Ten Books in the hands of its builder contribute to such an endeavor of subversive mimicry? We could go farther. What if the Ten Books’ chapters on aqueducts, arches and construction were to provide ideas for self help vernacular slum-upgrading solutions? If we follow Babbha, the co-option of Vitruvius’ text is the radical project.

    Perhaps Vitrivius’ combination of “Form, Beauty and Utility” allows for a simple self-help pragmatic solution. How would Babbha’s Liminality, Hybridity, and Third Space address the sheer necessities of sanitation, water and electricity?

    And while one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, this new publication makes me ponder about the following: Sure, it provides good intellectual exchange (nothing wrong for that), but is it for “parachute” cosmopolitan architects or slum dwellers? What is the value of architectural theory (postcolonial theory in this case) to resolve practical design problems? And what are the politics of knowledge when they are specifically geared towards the figure and role of the architect?

    I guess I really need to get the book...

    As a last thought, just as one may ask the architect to let go his pen (and I agree with you on this point) one may also ask the postcolonial theorist (or any theorist for that matter) to draw a working plan and/or live in a slum. IMO, It is by sharing these “liminal” experiences (to use another term embraced by Babbha) that mutual understanding and the boundaries of new Architectural practice and theory may happen.

    Thanks for posting this provocative post.

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  5. Hector, thanks for all of your comments and thoughtful questions. Bhabha for Architects is a fascinating read, so I highly recommend it!

    This post was meant to serve as a vehicle to introduce new literature in the guise of a narrative that is propelled by Vitruvius and Bhabha along the way.

    I think you have a very interesting idea in speculating how a Vitruvian conception of architecture might influence slum upgrading policies and directives. By some measures, its simplicity and relative purity would seem to celebrate the functionality and resourcefulness of emergent development found in informal settlements.

    The dominant idea that puts Bhabha and postcolonial theory as central ideas to Third World development for me is that of complexity. The inherent complexity and layering of conflicting elements in the concepts of liminality, hybridity, and the resultant 'Third Space' speaks to the condition of the urban poor. In a sense I think it validates the ability of slum dwellers to reclaim their say in their own development. It challenges the established, European modes of what constitutes architecture and how inhabitants should engage with the city.

    I believe it warns against the interventions of "parachute" cosmopolitan architects, or at least makes such foreign architects fully cognisant of the inherent resourcefulness and creativity of slum populations and the enormous task they face in overcoming repressive political and planning framework.

    Postcolonial theory certainly doesn't offer a unique building design that can transform slums, but I believe it does highlight the fact that, as David Satterthwaite recently stated, "they [the urban poor] usually have more knowledge than you [the professional] on almost all aspects of development".

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