With the expansive period of economic growth of the past fifteen years now officially over—the U.S. was averaging over 3 percent increases in GDP since 1995, but is so far this year down 5.56 percent—the architecture, planning, and urban design professions are in a quandary. What kind of architecture and urbanism will the new economy want, need, or more importantly, financially support?
Some pundits are already announcing the death of the much-hyped and derided “star” architecture system and the baroque extravagances of digital fabrication, and hailing the beginning of a more realistic, sober, and sustainable period of design. The hard economic times seem to demand it. This criticism of high design often ignores the spectacular built achievements of the “stars” in recent years, and sometimes sounds like little more than local envy of successful international practices.
And yet what about the success of design to influence society, a goal that architects have long argued for? To a worrisome degree, the profession has been bent on realizing the creation of gleaming new cities that seem to exist for only the wealthiest members of society. While it is not the responsibility of architects, for example, to intervene in the financing of the built landscape (in fact, it can be their undoing if they try), design professionals do need to completely rethink how they can bring positive change to how we envision, develop, and live in our cities.
And so with fewer private commissions on the horizon and government RFQs on hold, it is a perfect time for architecture and urban planning to rethink the basics of their professions and embrace a culture of research inside their offices. If the history of past recessions offers any guidelines, clearly the effect on architectural theory, image making, and production was enormous; they all flourished during these periods. The economic depression of the 1930s turned architecture practice upside down (it wasn’t all achieved by MoMA’s 1932 Modern Architecture exhibition) and seduced city planners into thinking they should turn away from physical design to public policy.
But it also generated scores of exciting ideas and proposals. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, CIAM’s Athens charter, the WPA’s innovative Greenbelt, and the TVA’s new towns program were all products of the period. It was also in this bleak time that our design education was transformed: Walter Gropius established the GSD at Harvard; Mies van der Rohe turned the Armor Institute into the Illinois Institute of Technology; Buckminster Fuller, Josef and Anni Albers, and others at Black Mountain College brought modern education to the arts and design.
Similarly, the economic crisis of the 1970s was also the time of John Hejduk’s experimental and influential architectural education at Cooper Union, the glory years of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and the provocations of Delirious New York. This embracing of a research model or independent unit may well mean the downsizing of large offices, the delaying of new ones founded by younger practitioners who hope to build, and even the rolling back of the kind of large commissions that afforded architects their Audi station wagons. But it is indeed time for designers to hunker down, rethink the future, and even rethink how to think.