2 / 2019 - Education and Research

In Finland, architects have traditionally constituted a rather homogenous species and architect-identity has been a shared experience. In recent years the spectrum of duties entailed in the profession has become wider, resulting in the fact that a single architect cannot master every aspect. For example, combining architectural practice with an academic career is no longer necessarily possible.

Today in Finland over 250 new students start programmes in architecture, landscape architecture, interior design and urban studies and planning each year. The issue features up-to-date thoughts on architectural education from the three Finnish architecture schools and presents interesting recent student work.

Articles and interviews explore the relationship between research and teaching and bring into question some current unwritten practices within the field – from gendered structures underpinning the architectural profession to public image of architects – that we have a possibility to modify with conscious identity work. The projects presented in the issue are all educational buildings, ranging from daycare centres to higher education.

Contents

Interview with

Matti Sanaksenaho, University of Oulu
Pekka Heikkinen, Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture
Juho Rajaniemi and Marleena Yli-Äyhö, Tampere University

Increasingly high expectations are being placed on the societal significance of an architect’s work. The contemporary notion of the architect as an idealist is not, however, a solely positive development if it doesn’t rethink the structural dimension of architectural production and work.

During recent years, the professional image of an architect has been at a major turning point. With various exhibitions, publications, educational programmes and collectives, a new perspective has emerged on the production of architecture and the social and societal responsibility of architects in curbing climate change, for example. On the other hand, the more traditional educational frameworks and means of conceptualisation that emphasise individual creativity are still going surprisingly strong. Although few in the field are talking explicitly about architectural maestros anymore, the media coverage of awards and architectural competitions is often personified in the main partners of architectural firms or rising young talents with exceptional potential. What happens when these very different perspectives collide in the discussion regarding the role of architects in society?

A more societal and political approach to architecture has been called for especially by architectural theorist and pedagogue Jeremy Till, whose polemic (self-)criticism of the current state of architecture, Architecture Depends published in 2009, raised debate particularly among the architectural profession of Great Britain.

A long-term faculty member of the sociologically focused School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, Till emphatically disassociates himself from the perspectives highlighting the autonomy of architecture, according to which an architect is considered to remain above any societal discord. As claimed by the autonomic tradition, an architect must be allowed sufficient aesthetic freedom in relation to society and politics, or the consequence is invariably some kind of aesthetic compromise. The roots of this tradition span from the classical 19th-century Beaux-Arts teaching method to the 1970s discussion on architectural autonomy, in which the teachers were regarded as a type of older-generation guardians of deeper knowledge and thinking.

In the autonomic tradition, the stereotypical, often male architect has a deep sensitivity to nature and an ability to see beyond social conflicts and political interests. At the same time, the definition manages to exclude anyone who does not fit the mould, as pointed out by, for instance, Despina Stratigakos’ pamphlet Where Are the Women Architects? (2016). By polemicizing about how such often unconscious base assumptions guide architectural education and practice, as well as the representations produced thereof, Till can be considered to have anticipated a later, wider discussion.

The deconstruction of the genius myth that maintains the artist's autonomy is one of the hottest current cultural-political issues. The #metoo discussion, for example, has brought to light the ways in which many social evils and even authoritarian features related to artistic work and art education are justified by mystifying various fields of art as having a unique and special character, and thereby deserving complete autonomy. However, citing the creative, exceptional individual as a justification is rarely done explicitly today. The autonomy myth is communicated rather through the representation of the starchitect – the celebrity architect that is so often seen in the media.

The starchitect ideal

The architects who have received ample media attention over the last few decades, such as Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, as well as Patrick Schumacher who is currently running Hadid's firm, can be construed as proof of the concept that exceptionally fascinating architecture is still chiefly produced by exceptionally fascinating, creative individuals. They are not shackled by too strict public planning and building regulations, for example.

In his book The Architecture of Neoliberalism (2016), English architectural theorist Douglas Spencer suggests that such a conception of autonomy is principally a product of the neoliberal era: architecture must remain free of social obligations for the sake of not only architecture itself but also of society at large, for the free market is, according to neoliberalism, what determines the social balance. It is therefore within the interest of society to allow complete artistic licence for exceptionally creative individuals.

This idea has also been adopted by Patrik Schumacher, who has suggested that architecture, urban planning and housing production should be left entirely up to the market. According to Schumacher, this would guarantee not only higher-quality planning but also planning that better meets the common shared interest: for instance, housing prices would be determined by the market, which is currently prevented by, according to him, artificial public regulation.

Like Schumacher, Danish-born Bjarke Ingels, who is perhaps today’s most talked-about architect, is a good example of how the autonomy of architecture is justified in the neoliberal context by citing the common good. On the face of it, the BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) firm led by Ingels seems to depart from certain elitist features associated with the starchitect representation. For instance, the firm does not scorn housing projects or downplay architecture’s responsibility in social and ecological problems. Indeed, on the flipside of the shiny starchitecture aesthetics are invariably questions relating to, for example, how architecture can be employed to meet the challenges of climate change or to make public spaces more human-oriented and engaging.

Is Ingels not identified, then, more as an idealist than the kind of authoritarian genius that the starchitects rising from the autonomy tradition, such as Frank Gehry, are often described as? In a way, the answer is yes, but in precisely this contradiction lies one of the reasons behind Ingels’s success. In the current economy, value is created not through the manufacture of goods but through innovation and design. It is necessary for this kind of value creation to also engage in continuous demarcation with perspectives that are typically completely opposite to those of the economy, such as counterculture and a criticism of capitalism.

Whether we are talking about a Silicon Valley start-up or a socially critical artist, success is based on how adept one is at balancing between economic growth and criticism directed at it. This is exactly where Ingels has succeeded, as the Big Time (2017) documentary by Kaspar Astrup Schröder, for example, demonstrates. The documentary follows Ingels’s work in the cross-pressure of conflicting objectives. Ingels is seen attending the Burning Man cult festival and advocating cycling and communal spaces, all the while winning the most significant competitions for new skyscrapers in Manhattan and expanding his firm into a global giant. The documentary shows Ingels going in for a brain MRI due to headaches, which luckily does not reveal anything seriously wrong. However, this detail offers the opportunity to indulge in a clichéd reflection of whether even the structure of an exceptionally creative individual's brain has to show signs of exceptional genius.

Ingels seems to be an updated version of an architectural genius – an exceptionally creative individual who both follows in the footsteps of the great masters and dabbles in counterculture. An exceptional individual can be both an idealist with ethical and ecological interests and, simultaneously, involved in designing the world’s first Hyperloop rail system, with nearly six-fold travelling speeds compared to contemporary trains, between the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi that seem to stop at nothing in their pursuit of growth.

Read the rest of the article from the printed issue.

Aleksi Lohtaja (b. 1990, M.Soc.Sci.) is doctoral student at the University of Jyväskylä. His research interests include the political dimension of architecture, utopias, and the cultural policy of creative labour.

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