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Architects Bridge the Gap January 24, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, collaboration, infrastructure, the economy.
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With all this talk about chasing after infrastructure work, architects – at the start of the New Year and the administration – have bridges on the mind.  This is understandable for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves architects finding themselves in survival mode until credit starts flowing again. Likewise, in order to survive professionally and creatively, architects must find ways to convincingly span between the world as they knew it to the world-in-the-making they are beginning to witness in the new year.

Architects are masters at bridging – in the linking of two disparate worlds on a regular basis. On the one side is the real world of contingency: people, time, politics, ethics, mess. On the other resides the utopian ideal every architect secretly carries around in her head: one dependent for its very existence on things outside itself – on autonomy, purity, and control. In other words, in essence, architecture is ideally independent of the real world, and the architect – with each heroic architectural act – attempts to bridge the gap between the dependent and independent.

Author Jeremy Till, Dean of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Westminster and a partner at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, has just written a fantastic and fantastically funny book, Architecture Depends, that addresses this very conundrum.  The fairly straightforward premise of the book is that uncertainty, contingency and circumstances invariably intervene to upset the architect’s best-laid plans—at every stage in the process, from design through construction to occupancy. Architects, however, tend to deny this, fearing contingency and preferring to pursue perfection.

Books such as Architecture of the Everyday speak to our everyday world as a disordered mess. Till argues that it is this very messiness from which architects have retreated—and this retreat, says Till, is deluded. It is a hopeful and positive statement that this book proposes architects must face reality and engage with the inescapable reality of the world. And, perhaps more importantly, in that engagement is the potential for a reformulation of architectural practice. Contingency should be understood as an opportunity rather than a threat. As MIT_Press so convincingly stated, Elvis Costello said that his songs have to work when played through the cheapest transistor radio; for Till, architecture has to work (socially, spatially) by coping with the flux and vagaries of everyday life.

And this is where the last bridging occurs: in a collaborative effort, between architects. Architects, Till proposes, must move from the autonomy still sometimes instilled in school with its reliance on the impulsive imagination of the lone genius to a confidence in the collaborative ethical imagination. From clinging to notions of total control to an intentional acceptance of letting go, ironically the architect can find a way to successfully hold on, spanning the necessary distances.

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