This is a manifesto about changing the language of architecture. It starts with the structural bait-and-switch at the root of its education and ends at the outer edge of its definition: what is architecture, and where do we draw the line between architecture and mere building?
We challenge the traditional descriptor of the architectural typology, or building form. If once one could correlate a tower in the Alps with the use of “hotel”, that relationship has become blurrier now that forms have overriden use. A skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa has 9 stories of hotels, but that’s impossible to infer from its shape or location. Today, the link between form and use is broken on a whole new level: AirBnB, the largest hotel in the world, doesn’t even have an architectural form. And yet, the study of “typologies” has not been rendered obsolete as a metric for buildings, both in education and in professional life.
This might seem harmless if not for the fact that it hinders new ways of approaching architecture. With Covid19 as a tipping point for the recalibration of design priorities, we will argue that occupancy, and not shape / typology, is the best way to categorise, understand and redefine the boundaries of contemporary architecture going forward.
It begins, of course, with education; the training and entrainment into one of the greatest grifts on Earth.
Show us the ropes, that we may hang ourselves.
Make no mistake: architecture is an extractive industry, the main pillar of which is to learn how to design, by design. You put in the work and the money. They turn out your work into money.
Expect to be hired on the merits of your portfolio. Every head needs hired hands, and this is a shrunken head market to start with. The conceit is there’s a lot to learn from those who practice, that this an initiation into a guild. The reality is that, whether above or below, you form part of a pyramid scheme.
The brunt of largely negligible conversation with the international cadre of masters and pseuds alike will be restricted to the studio, and diluted at the seminars.
Design school is a monocult with remoras.
You will be told, but not shown: reality is complex. You may not be told, or shown: reality is also complicated.
The vast majority of the built environment bears no relation, whatsoever, to this education. One is taught to design milestone buildings when not everything can be a milestone. (Or a building.)
You will be trained to draft unicorns, but not in the fine art of capturing one. (You may be told it takes a virgin, but that is too pure to be true.)
In the fundamental and, at times, deliberate disconnect between career aspirations and the reality of practice, only a fraction of architects get to do what they were trained to do.
In other words, most architects are grossly un(der)prepared: 90% of your indoctrination will be applicable to 10% of your professional life. With luck. To step (or drop) out, is to step or drop through the looking glass. The world you will find is recognisable, although inverted; a total gamechanger, especially given perverse incentives.
There is the storied distinction between P(ape)R Architecture and the Built Object, though there is not, alas, a word to describe what is built but isn’t Architecture. You will hear of good and bad architecture, and the rest will be thrown to the planners.
The one redeeming quality of this model is that it has proven tenable for decades, at least until now. But how so?
In a demanding attention economy, acceptance of cognitive dissonance is par for the course. Design education resolves this particular quandary through the idol of image. Image trumps usage. Program is accessory to the eidolon.
Now, for the clincher.
This is not a phenomenon restricted to design schools. In practice —because, as we said, reality is complicated— the relationship between typology and use has been overcome already, long ago: a rose is a rose is a rose, but a monastery can be a hotel. A skyscraper comes down not to content but to skin, and shape, and exterior projection.
This would seem to reinforce and validate design instruction as it stands. Our 10/90 filter means architectural practice is skewed towards chasing the tip of its tail. Form equals function died with modernism. The buildings that we celebrate today don’t mind dysfunction provided it’s formally flattering. This is not to say function isn’t good to have —it is— but, like underwear, it isn’t technically required and only users will be able to tell anyway.
The neglect of function is the designed byproduct of contemporary architectural education.
In parallel, the actual usage of architecture has also rendered function secondary. Man can adapt to anything, and so he is made to. Buildings can be infinitely retrofitted, and they are. (Erstwhile, infrastructure and manufacture don’t miss this beat.)
As an architect, you will be a trained hand and trained to hand in the forms of your labour —your function—. You will be detached from the everyday experience of your building: its lifecycle, its operation, its maintenance, its adaptations. Its usage will be delegated to the termite mound of engineers, technicians, decorators, heads of maintenance, clerks and bugmen of all stripes. Your process begins with a vision —the inception of the project— and ends with an image —the photograph at its inauguration—. Anything beyond that is another project. You are a projector. The building itself falls outside your scope.
This is not a problem, but it is a fact that needs to be accounted for.
Because, you see, postcovid, typological transformation will be all about usage, not image. The wave of renewals will be usage, not image, oriented. Design hacks will cut through the eidola. This will forcibly put pressure on the language around architecture. Typology, as we understand it —that is to say, as you’ve been taught to understand it— is imprecision. The content of a skyscraper is undisclosed, hermetic. Something can be a hotel without your knowing the first thing about its form. Almost nothing outside infrastructure is as unequivocal as a basilica.
So we will go out on a limb. If a contemporary building’s gauge is anything but occupancy, we should question whether it is really architecture anymore. Where something is more important to the function of the building than its occupancy, we have hit the edge of architecture. The point in history has been reached in which the shape of a building can no longer tell us whether it is, in fact, architecture or not.
With usage as our new benchmark for analysis, we propose a new metric for architecture, by situating it on two main axes: the amount of people who will occupy a given space, and the duration of their stay. The shape of usage is contemporaneous.
This is a developing manifesto for a durational experiment we hope to pursue into the next few years, buttressed by the logarithmic chart we share below. We start our exercise by mapping the occupancy-duration of five distinct spatial programs —the soccer stadium, the corporate complex, the theme park, the restaurant and the non-stop transoceanic flight— and will continue to add to it in the following days, weeks and months.
The footnotes comprise a Programmatic Catalogue that will account for each inscription in chronological order and include: a) the date of its incorporation to the project, as well as b) considerations and criteria for its place/locus on the grid and c) an anchoring device or representative example. It will also take stock of any modifications or amendments made to original entries. New features or maps will be added or reshaped as the project evolves. Its complete progression will be publicly recorded here, on LapsusLima.com.
Diacrítica is a design and consulting firm founded by Alonso Toledo and Mónica Belevan. They are currently based in Los Angeles.