Whether critiquing the architect’s societal position and the role of the user, conceptualising the performative dimension of the architectural object, or considering the effects of theory for architecture at large, current debates in architecture intersect in the notion of agency. As fundamental as it is often taken for granted, this notion forms the keystone of this issue, inviting contributors to rethink architecture’s specificity, its performance, and its social and political relevance. Agency in architecture inevitably entails questioning the relation between theory and practice, and what it might mean to be critical - both inside and outside architecture - today. The main proposal is to rethink contemporary criticality in architecture, by explicating the notion of agency in three major directions: first, ‘the agency of what?’ or the question of multiplicity and relationality; second, ‘how does it work?’, a question referring to location, mode and vehicle; and third, ‘to what effect?’, bringing up the notion of intentionality.
Each of the contributions to this issue throws a new light onto one or more of these questions. In the form of an interview, Scott Lash, Antoine Picon and Margaret Crawford probe the theoretical implications of agency as a notion for architecture. Pep Avilés disentangles, in his analysis of Italian neorealist architecture, the multiplicity of historical agents shaping its discourse. Sebastian Haumann examines the intersection of aesthetic concern and political agency in Venturi and Scott Brown’s project for South Street in Philadelphia. Emphasising the pertinence of transdisciplinarity to contemporary practice, Rolf Hughes develops the notion of ‘transverse epistemologies’ that is implied by it. Inspired by contemporary sociology, Robert Cowherd proposes a ‘reflexive turn’ in architecture as a reply to the ‘post-critics’. Gevork Hartoonian reconsiders Brutalist architecture for contemporary practice, arguing that the theme of agency in architecture is tectonic in nature. Against the internalisation of architectural discourse, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till posit the notion of spatial agency, as it is evoked by alternative forms of practice. Three review articles, by Lara Schrijver, 'The Agency' Group, and Tahl Kaminer, demonstrate ideological rifts in the current debate.
Isabelle Doucet is trained as an architect, and currently a PhD candidate at the Delft Technical University, Delft School of Design.
Kenny Cupers is currently a PhD candidate at Harvard University and has an architecture degree from KULeuven, Belgium.
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Issue's editors: Isabelle Doucet and Kenny Cupers
Isabelle Doucet and Kenny Cupers, editors | Agency in Architecture: Reframing Criticality in Theory and PracticeAbstract Article [free PDF]
Scott Lash and Antoine Picon, in conversation with Kenny Cupers and Isabelle Doucet. Comments by Margaret Crawford | Agency and Architecture: How to Be Critical?Abstract Article [free PDF]
Pep Avilés | Autarky and Material Contingencies in Italian Architectural Debate (1936-1954)Abstract Article [free PDF]
On 3 October 1935, Mussolini’s fascist regime invaded Ethiopia with undesired but foreseeable consequences for its imperialist aims: four days after the conquest, the Society of Nations imposed economic sanctions, promoting an international economic blockade. This soon translated in both a control of foreign currencies in order to purchase iron and steel on the international markets, and a vociferous campaign discouraging the use of materials that were demanded by the military endeavour. Architecture as a discipline and all the industrial activity around it suffered from government directions as well as the scarcity and control of commodities. Hence, its discourse accommodated to the new material situation. National and autochthonous values came to the fore, promoting local materials like wood or stone for construction as well as artificial and newly created ones.
By the end of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s the dispute about available materials became one of the main concerns in Italian architecture. If during the immediate past the defence of modern materials was traditionally articulated around technical and social values, the battle in interwar Italy was understood in political and economic terms. After stigmatising modern materials such as iron and steel as ‘antinational’, the dispute between those who recognised in modern techniques a threat to traditional Italian architecture, and those embracing the formal and intellectual basis of the modern movement, became predominantly ideological and represented both sides of the political spectrum. This paper examines the way these interwar debates were shaped by economic policy, political ideology, and material scarcity, and in turn affected architectural production during Italy’s postwar reconstruction.
Sebastian Haumann | Vernacular Architecture as Self-Determination: Venturi, Scott Brown and the Controversy over Philadelphia's Crosstown Expressway, 1967-1973Abstract Article [free PDF]
Rolf Hughes | The Art of Displacement: Designing Experiential Systems and Transverse Epistemologies as Conceptual CriticismAbstract Article [free PDF]
Robert Cowherd | Notes on Post-criticality: Towards an Architecture of Reflexive ModernisationAbstract Article [free PDF]
Since around 2002, the performance of critical theory in architecture and the humanities has itself undergone a critical re-evaluation. Authors representing divergent perspectives, from theory’s perennial naysayers to the standard bearers of critical theory themselves, have converged towards a similar conclusion: judged by outcomes, critical theory has proven ineffective at best, and arguably, corrosive to human progress. In architecture, the debate has revolved around the identification of a ‘critical architecture’ in education and production since the 1970s. In apparent rejection of the isolation and purity of critical architecture’s orthodoxy, Rem Koolhaas and others have chosen engagement with the forces (and commissions) of late capitalism to which the term ‘post-criticality’ has been applied.
Beyond the confining dichotomies of the post-criticality debate is a perspective offered by sociologists Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash and Anthony Giddens on what they have called a ‘second modernity’ or ‘reflexive modernisation’. This literature re-contextualises the modern-postmodern pairing within the larger trajectory of modernity and identifies a characteristic distinction from former modernities in the term ‘reflexivity’. Where high modernism pursued utopian ideals of pure form and functional simplicity, reflexive modernisation acknowledges contingency in human systems establishing feedback loops that trigger course corrections in the process of modernisation itself.
Operating against the ossifications of twentieth-century modernity, reflexivity opens prospects for a second modernisation characterised by a heightened capacity to deal with complexity and time. Speculative architectures of reflexive modernisation benefit from a re-engagement in real-world problems, particularly at the scale of the city. To what extent can considerations of political economy, culture, globalisation, and environmental crisis be translated into the explicit performance criteria and computational parameters? What role is there for tools forged in the fires of ‘critical architecture’ in the emerging architectural creativity increasingly characterised by complexity, provisional outcomes, and unpredictable form?
Gevork Hartoonian | Theatrical Tectonics: The Mediating Agent for a Contesting PracticeAbstract Article [free PDF]
This paper posits the idea that the theme of agency in architecture is parallactic. It discusses the tectonic as an agent through which architecture turns into a state of constant flux. The intention is to promote a discourse of criticality, the thematic of which is drawn from the symptoms that galvanise architecture’s rapport with the image-laden culture of late capitalism.
In an attempt to log the thematic of a contested practice, this essay will re-map the recent history of contemporary architecture. Exploring New Brutalism’s criticism of the established ethos of International Style architecture, the first part of this paper will highlight the movement’s tendency towards replacing the painterly with the sculptural, and this in reference to the contemporary interest in monolithic architecture. Having established the import of tectonics for the architecture of Brutalism, the paper then argues that in the present situation, when architecture - like other cultural products - is infatuated with the spectacle of late capitalism, a re-thinking of the Semperian notion of theatricality is useful. Of interest in the tectonic of theatricality is the work’s capacity to bring forth the division between intellectual and physical labours, and this in reference to architecture’s reserved acceptance of technification for which the aforementioned division is vital. Particular attention will be given to two projects, Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Center and OMA’s Casa da Musica, where architectonic aspects of New Brutalism are revisited in the light of the tectonic of theatricality.
Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till | Beyond Discourse: Notes on Spatial AgencyAbstract Article [free PDF]
The Agency | Before and After AGENCYAbstract Article [free PDF]
Lara Schrijver | Whatever Happened to Projective Architecture? Rethinking the Expertise of the ArchitectAbstract Article [free PDF]
Tahl Kaminer | Framing ColominaAbstract Article [free PDF]