Published in 4/2022 - Home


Ecocatastrophe Requires Negative Ideas

Julius Jääskeläinen

SLETH: Æggepakkeriet, Aarhus 2020. Photo: Rasmus Hjortshøj / COAST

Architects are usually presented and thought of as providers of ideas. In image banks, they are the types who wave their hands to a group gathered around a drawing desk saying “Hey what if we do it like this!” With their abilities of spatial conceptualisation, architects come up with surprising synergies, win-win solutions to the Gordian knots of society’s conflicting ambitions, working as the lubricators of the social machinery. That’s what we get paid for.

In common usage, an idea means a sudden realisation, an invention, a clever solution: “10 new ideas for arranging a remote office at your home”. In the Platonic sense, an idea was the true, perfect, eternal, ideal form of things, that could be shown by everyday experience only as a pale shadow. The idea of the idea, if you will, has changed historically. What should architects looking to the future think about their role as the ones whose job it is to create ideas, or to express them, if the ideas of the future will be different from those of the present?

We are living in the anthropocene, the age of the ecocatastrophe. It is wishful thinking that a few bright ideas would suffice to survive the disaster. It takes a whole system of new ideas, a new ideology. Can architects help with this? Or are we hopelessly locked into a role where we keep coming up with new ideas to keep the system headed towards a certain doom?

In the recent years, many have noticed that the architectural fashion has come full circle. We are creating again unified, strictly repetitive formal systems like in the 1960s. The change has come about quickly and widely, as if by common agreement, even though there is no clear, commonly understood programme behind it. On the grassroots level, people might just be bored of the obligatory twists and turns. When you’ve gone through all possible variations for arranging your building volumes and facades in a quirky, “interesting” fashion a few times, the poor draughtsman feels relieved to go back to a more platonic world. There, one simple idea, eternal as it were – almost always a tectonic grid of columns and beams – holds on throughout, fulfilling all the petty requirements of the program and the site almost unnoticeably, without missing a beat. In the end, a comprehensive unity is, perhaps, a more challenging goal for a designer than a confusion of contradictions.

The grid style focusses the attention away from formal ideas back to basic questions.

The grid style has an ideological layer as well. It focusses the attention away from formal ideas back to basic questions. When all buildings are grids, there remain the questions of what the grid is made of, who gets to inhabit it, and on what conditions. At the moment, the grids are made of concrete that destroys the climate, and they function as instruments of a real estate investing business based on rent extortion. In designing the grid, maximum profit to the investors is a more pressing concern than getting sunlight into the rooms, or children having a place to play in the courtyard, or having enough space for a bed in a bedroom. Or the fact that humanity should stop heating up the climate. When architects refuse to embellish the grid with “design”, it can be seen as a quiet protest against this development.

However, the aesthetic strike of architects is a weak signal of virtue that may send a message of sorts to colleagues, but will hardly turn the development around. Such a belief in the power of an architectural style would be naïve idealism.

Architects should not only present possibilities they have found out, but also impossibilities that they have run into. An ideology is not only a collection of positive ideas, but of negative ones as well. Architects can work also as makers of negative ideas. An integral part of the work of the pioneers of the Modern Movement was to build a negative view of the traditional urbanism, construction and aesthetics. “Ornament is a crime”, was Adolf Loos’s bold claim at the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of the 21st, it should be made clear that concrete is a crime. Building a new motorway is a crime. Demolishing a suburban shopping center to make way for speculative apartments is a crime. Selling a two seven-square-metre cells, a mini kitchen and a bath as a two-room apartment is a crime.

Architects should get rid of the idealistic view that our task would be to find a solution to any problem. There are many problems that we cannot solve. The further the anthropocene progresses, the more there are of them. In the scientific world, it is as important to publish negative results as positive ones. We must also dare to draw an X over unfit solutions with the same insolence that Le Corbusier did. And not only when we are discussing the most important symbolic spots of the capital city. ↙

Architect. Founder of architecture firm Ark Brut.