It seems like everyone is trying to figure out what architecture’s role should be in this ever-changing-but-steadily-degrading economy. Here’s a quick answer: More moralizing. Less showboating.
In what appears to be quite an uncoordinated attack, both the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne and the Financial Times’ Edwin Heathcote wrote about architecture’s role in Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration building projects in the context of today’s economic collapse.
Their points are different, yet the parallels are clear. Hawthorne argues that the oncoming economic downturn might be good for civic and public architecture because it will refocus the profession on small-scale public amenities—especially in hyper-privatized Los Angles. Heathcote traces the historical record of stark economic and social failures that immediately follow the construction of skyscrapers that are said to be emblematic of the whole of human achievement itself. Examples: Chrysler and Empire State Building—the Great Depression, World Trade Centers—the grime-crusted and violent New York City of Taxi Driver, Petronas Towers—the collapse of Asian markets. He notes that once the building opening cocktail parties are over, economies in freefall invariably retreat to austere vestiges of classicism, recognized in this country as work from the federally funded WPA but also prevalent in the Fascist nations of Germany and Italy before WWII during the Great Depression. In both critics’ examples, hard economic times lead to architecture that places more emphasis on modesty, accessibility, and simple dignity--no less humanistic, but clearly less aspirational.
Certainly, the days of budget-busting museum expansions, a new “tallest building in the world” every month, and name-brand designer condos for every multimillionaire seem to be on their way out. But does the loss of the high-dollar price spectrum automatically spell doom for architects? Is there any way they can make up the difference with a collection of pocket parks, bike trails, and new public transit stations? They would at least have a shot if cities and municipalities could commit to building them. Few (if any) sparking glass condominiums or office towers can offer the broad democratic and sustainable improvements in people’s quality of life like these projects.
At least since Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, architects have been advocating for an increased investment in the nation’s basic infrastructure and the AIA has advocated for incresed federal infrastructure investment as part of a new economic stimulus package. The federal government has already shown its (reluctant and pained) willingness to directly invest in the nation’s financial infrastructure. Why not choose now to do the same with bricks and mortar? Why not choose now to head off the next financial collapse with sustainable buildings that can liberate us from fossil fuels?
No one is disputing that the next months and years ahead are going to be particularly rough on everyone’s pocketbook. The challenge now is to use the situation as an opportunity to reassert the democratic goals of architecture.