"Listening to any contemporary conversation on architecture is like being indulged in a form of Orwellian Newspeak"
Architects must stop using the vacuous buzzwords that dominate the profession if they are to make a positive difference in the world, writes Reinier de Graaf.
"A civilizational revolution that puts humans first". "An unprecedented urban living experience". "A model for nature preservation and enhanced human livability". "A place for people from across the globe to make their mark on the world in creative and innovative ways, created by a team of world-class architects and engineers".
These are all phrases taken from a press release for The Line, Saudi Arabia's sci-fi megastructure.
The language to promote architecture has become universal. Be it The Line, King Charles' Poundbury or, more recently, the idea to create a School of Place to "revitalize Britain's built environment", backed by UK housing secretary Michael Gove, anything to do with architecture is invariably marketed with the same buzzwords.
Anything to do with architecture is invariably marketed with the same buzzwords
New projects are either "world-class", "award-winning", "creative", "innovative", "sustainable", "livable", "beautiful" or all those combined, and more than seldom foster "a sense of place and wellbeing". These have become the obvious terms of choice, embraced by the Left and the Right, by democracies and dictatorships, in the West as much as in the rest of the world – applied in perfect alignment, and always without a shred of irony.
What is the significance of such buzzwords? When does a building warrant the label "world-class"? What makes one city more "livable" than the next, one building more "beautiful" than the other? What is the meaning of "creativity" or "innovation" in architecture? What building can credibly claim to improve anyone's "wellbeing"?
The urge to claim such attributes hides a grim reality: Vancouver, ranked among the world's most livable cities for 10 consecutive years, has been forced to introduce a vacancy tax; the zero-carbon, zero-waste city of Masdar is about to turn into the world's first green ghost town; Pittsburgh, a city undergoing multiple creative-industry-driven revivals, only did so to end up where it started; and Heatherwick Studio's placemaking icon Vessel remains shut after a spate of suicides.
What are we to conclude when livable cities are too expensive to be lived in, eco ambitions prove unsustainable, creativity equals stagnation, innovation implies regress, and larger-than-life landmarks end up being a springboard to death?
The more architecture is explained, the more architects seem to owe the world an explanation. All too often, our craft ends up being on the wrong side of history: complicit in escalating house prices, an integral part of the largest CO2-emitting industry, oblivious to the political machinations it helps perpetuate.
Idolized for much of the 20th century, architecture today mostly registers as a cause for concern – a discipline to be scrutinized and kept in check. The incorporation of extraneous terms such as "livability", "innovation" or "wellbeing" into the glossary of architecture is far from coincidental; it is part of an ongoing trend, in which the language to debate architecture is less and less architects' own, and more and more that of outside forces imposing outside expectations.
The architecture profession has become moot
Once a discipline of foresight – a domain that created standards – architecture is progressively expected to comply to standards set by others. From architects trying to explain to the world what they are doing, we increasingly witness a world in which architects are told what they ought to be doing, forced to adopt ever-more extreme postures of virtue, held to account by the world of finance, the social sciences and even the medical sector, each with less disputable evidence at their disposal.
Confronted with ever-growing armies of "thought leaders", "strategy consultants", "content specialists", advocates of "best practice" and "subject-matter experts", the architecture profession has become moot, left with no other option than to mimic the language of those who have co-opted its intellectual domain.
Listening to any contemporary conversation on architecture is like being indulged in a form of Orwellian Newspeak, which, in the name of "the good", has banned all antonyms. The discourse that ensues is as uncontestable as it is uncomfortable. What architect, in their right mind, would wish for people to be unhealthy, want to design unlivable buildings, or put humans last?
And yet, I wonder: what becomes of architecture if the sole ambition of architects is to live up to expectations? What remains of our work once it becomes an echo-chamber of universally applied buzzwords? Not much, probably. In echoing the words of others, architects will most likely find themselves driven further into a corner, unable to make any meaningful difference, at the mercy of extraneous quests which they are neither able to resist nor capable of fulfilling.
In a world facing the imminent consequences of climate change, pervasive economic inequality, and a resurgence of authoritarian rule, much of the prevailing rhetoric will prove all but a lofty waste of time. If architects really wish to engage with the issues of our time on their own terms, they best start by addressing these issues in their own terms.
Reinier de Graaf is a Dutch architect and writer. He is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and co-founder of its think-tank AMO. He is the author of Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, the novel The Masterplan, and the forthcoming Architect, verb: The New Language of Building.
The image, showing part of the cover of Architect, verb: The New Language of Building, is courtesy of Verso Books.