Oh, look -- I think I see *two* ladies! Via  Knight Foundation

Oh, look — I think I see *two* ladies! Via Knight Foundation

The flurry of recent “solutionism” talk, inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s recent book, made me recall a passage I pruned (probably for good reason) from an early (2009?) draft of my 2011 Click/Scan/Bold: The New Materiality of Architectural Discourse and Its Counter-Publics” article:

“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,” Architect Newspaper’s William Menking reported in a July 2009 editorial.[1] 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” — or, [various design/blog/hack -athon] organizers might add, outside those offices, in places like Storefront or the Architectural League, or even on hotel rooftops. But would Menking have imagined that that architectural research would have encompassed processing economic and social data, mapping climatological and astronomical phenomena, pushing architects into other highly specialized fields? Mark Foster Gage suggests that “research architecture,” increasingly prevalent, often advances a hegemonic agenda:

While the mapping of ‘research’ is justified by assuming a legitimate cause-and-effect relationship between cursorily observed problems and their subsequent architectural solutions, a precedent-based approach [, one that understands architecture’s historical lineage,] is founded on the assumption that architecture is not only the solution to pressing contemporary problems but also a living trajectory of invention.”[2]

Research architecture often cultivates the “mistaken assumption that we are always more powerful in dealing with social injustice or inequality in our role as architects than in our roles as citizens or activists.” Design publications sometimes create space for writers and readers to play out these architectural-imperial fantasies: “If the world is framed by architecture, then the world can be rebuilt.” An underlying implication is that in order to rebuild the world, we have to frame its problems as architectural problems.

If all you’ve got is Revit or Catia or ArchiCAD or whatever — and if you’re out to change the world — the world’s problems tend to look like design problems: “We’ll just build them a new community center out of shipping containers, and fit it with a stationary-bike-powered water filtration system!” And maybe that’s just what they need.

A similar framing seems to be happening in other non-architectural design/tech contexts. Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon (the whole “if all you’ve got is a hammer…” maxim has been around for a while) — but the general data-fetishist/DIY hype seems to be rather novel. If you’ve got lots of programmers armed with lots of algorithms, “social change” could potentially be reduced to finding the right open data set and hacking the hell out of it.

All this effort is commendable, and I don’t mean to knock it. But perhaps we’d do well to think a bit more about the impetuses and ideologies behind, and methodologies implied by, these quick-attack “-thons” and “sprints” and “slams” (I really do think it’s useful to think of these things in terms of methodology). I co-organized one such event in 2009, and, honestly, it left me feeling super-conflicted and unsure of what on earth I’d just done. I’m glad people like Morozov, Jake Porway, and the folks at the University of Amsterdam are thinking about these things.

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[1] William Menking, “Thought Process” Architect’s Newspaper, July 29, 2009, 5.
[2] Mark Foster Gage, “In Defense of Design” Log 16 (2009): 42.
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