Billed as part of an ongoing, multiyear, multivenue, and multiauthor “19 episode” blockbuster research project conducted by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate landed in L.A., a city facing an unprecedented housing shortage and a parallel homelessness crisis, with an unfortunate but predictable thud.
An impenetrable and arcane little book, The Art of Inequality, along with a well-organized and intelligent panel discussion, accompanied House Housing’s Los Angeles’s appearance. The panel was moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, and included a witty, knowledgeable, and acerbic group: L.A. architect Julie Eizenberg, and San Diego–based academics Juliana Maxim and Andrew Wiese. The panel, as it turned out, was better than the show and the book combined because it was focused, relevant, and brief. If there is one broad criticism I might offer here it is this: The never-ending parade of traveling shows, publications, events, social media feeds, and inscrutable websites that now stand in for academic research and dedicated curatorial work has tanked.
And sadly, this effort seems to highlight the entire dilemma. What started in the mid-to-late ’90s with the Harvard “Project on the City” and the Architectural
Association of London’s Design Research Laboratory as an attempt to realign architecture with reality, has now descended into a farce where loosely appropriated data and reality samples are presented as research—and petulant attacks on practitioners as political action. Forced to absorb a series of half-baked guest essays, useless charts, graphs, meanly redrawn housing unit plans (what a waste of some poor grad student’s time), and attacks on well-known octogenarian architects, the audience must somehow surmise that this is meaningful academic work. How dumb do the curators think the audience, professional or otherwise, really is? Is there an even an audience for this sort of work? Do the authors care if no one shows up?
Despite its appropriate setting, House Housing perfectly illustrates all that is wrong with these sort of airless engagements with the realpolitik of contemporary city-making by architects today. If the aim of the exhibition was to invite “scholars and practitioners to discuss how we might reframe our understanding of the relationships among architecture, housing, and real estate in light of the inequalities they both produce and reflect,” the net effect is a misreading of the jujitsu-hold many practitioners find themselves in as they attempt to negotiate the market forces that have been at work reformatting our cities since at least the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher era. House Housing parades out real-estate and architectural-atrocity exhibits, “from architect-designed houses to prefabricated apartment blocks to suburban gated communities,” presented less as a coherent analysis of the tragedy of housing inequality than as some sort of evidence of the intrepid academic’s adventures in the “real city” wherein the desire, ambition, and greed of the inevitably evil developer class squash the dreams of the proletariat. Architecture, predictably, plays the role of the villain’s guileless and dim-witted sidekick. Architects are caricatured as willing handmaidens to the construction of socioeconomic injustice. “More than just a building type or a market sector,” the editors argue, “housing is a primary architectural act—where architecture is understood as that which makes real estate real.”
An easy target like Frank Gehry ends up demonized for being part of market-rate development in New York and the author of an oddball suburban house renovation, while Bernard Tschumi, formerly a radical leftist and current dean emeritus at the Columbia GSAPP, gets no censure for the Blue Condominium housing tower on the Lower East Side—average sale price, $1.5 million as recently noted by Alex Cocotas in the Jacobin. One wonders, here, if the author-editors are even aware of their own biases.
It has to be stated that the entire effort is also very condescending. Once again we are offered that late-20th-century academic cliché, Institutional Critique, as an innovative model of cultural production. Instead of a more genuine or provocative proposal for redefining the role of architecture in city-making we are served up, yet again, the now-zombified Standard Marxist Critique of State Capitalism. As neoliberalism accelerates the transfer of urban control from a near-dead public sector to the hyper-advanced private sector, the best the authors can suggest is that if “architecture is imagined first and foremost as an investment…thinking and making it otherwise remains a fundamental, unmet challenge for our times.” The political ambivalence of this statement reveals that the very academic tools used to draw attention to social inequality and architecture’s role in its production fall far short of the potentially radical and ferocious work that will need to be done by architects on their discipline and the professional organizations, academies, museums, and research bodies that support them in order to change the situation. Nothing less than total outrage and focused action will address the social violence of radicalized poverty and its caustic effects on the 21st-century city.
What is required now of architecture, especially academic architecture, is not another retreading of the usual antagonisms. Resipsa loquitur: The boring and never-ending Facebook-adjacent arguments around this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale are primarily about mindless parametricist fundamentalism versus patronizing do-gooder fundamentalism. Who cares? Only the difficulty of real adversarial engagement, not fantasy critiques launched from the ivory tower at the profession, will further the conversation. Architecture will not advance one step as either a symbol of the one percent or as a tool of the other 99 percent; it must adapt and grow beyond its currently servile relationships with capital and/or community. What is required is nothing less than a wholesale attack on the discipline’s stagnating orthodoxies, left and right.
House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate ran from April 9 – May 8, 2016 at the MAK Center at the Schindler House.