I Have a Dream

Once upon a time, not so long ago and also not that far from where we are now there lived an architect. He, because it was a he, had the ambition to build big, real big impressive projects. He had a vision, or actually he had several. But something was preventing him to execute his ideas. He couldn’t find an investor or a developer who would support his plans. It made him miserable. But he wasn’t the kind of guy that gives up easily. So on a sunny day, it must have been November, he said to his wife and children and to some neighbors that visited his house: “I have a dream, I have a dream that one day I will be able to create what I envision. That one day, I will be able to make this place a better world.” That’s what he said. And everyone in the room applauded and was impressed. Everyone? Not his eleven year old daughter. She walk over to him, pulled his sleeve and asked with her sweetest little voice: “But why don’t you do it yourself, daddy?” The little rascal. She obviously had hit a sweet spot, because he burst out in tears. “Because”, he stuttered between his sobs, “my fellow architects won’t let me”.

From today’s perspective, this story seems light years removed from where we are now. In most countries it is no longer forbidden for architects to develop by themselves. But fifteen, maybe twenty years ago, this would still be a rule in the code of the profession. Though shalt not develop. If architecture is more than just another profession, if architecture is also one of the liberal arts, the vulnerability of that position should be protected. Therefore design quality and financial interest should be kept wide apart, so was the idea. This conviction ruled most of the twentieth century. The builder can compete on price, the architect should compete on the quality of his service (alone). In the golden triangle of client – architect – builder; of desire – vision – expertise; of initiative – proposal – execution; the separation of roles was crucial.

In a world where the client is the owner/user of the building, this mechanism functioned fairly well. But in a world where buildings have become speculative objects, investment vehicles, this division of labor becomes less relevant, it doesn’t make much sense. The changes in practice of development (the story is different for the US and Europe) and in power relations created a new reality for architects. They were less and less protected from competing on price and were losing more and more control over how things were being built. The wall between developing and designing no longer made sense. Architects should not just be exposed to minimizing their margins and a reduced role in the actual execution, but also be allowed to participate in the world of risk taking – the architect as entrepreneur.
There are more process innovations that drove the architect from the ivory art tower he or she once inhabited. The turn-key project is one, a more holistic understanding of performance embracing the full lifecycle of the project is another. On a more mundane level, the recent practice to include beyond the initial program and delivery date thirty years of maintenance and flexibility in use in the assignment, introduced a far closer collaboration between developer, designer and builder, blurring the traditional boundaries between them.

The simplicity is lost that developers are money wolves without remorse (but admittedly with grand visions), that architects are irresponsible dreamers (but great designers of course), and that builders are tricksters constantly pinching the quality of execution and adding to the bill (but amazing craftsmen for sure). Instead, we’ve entered a time and field of hybrid practices where architects can develop and do product design and be consultants all the same, where developers become designers and facilitators, and where builders absorb both design and development. But also a practice that sees new kids on the block: individual private development, cooperative private development, crowd-sourced initiatives, experiments with other kinds of ownership. It is at this point in time of almost total flux and fluidity that Columbia’s young Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) proposes to emancipate real estate development from a practice and profession into a full-blown discipline. I have a dream.

It is a dream worth exploring because a large part of this world is literally shaped by the activities of real estate developers. The developments I just described are taking place in only a fragment of this world. It is the part that invented modernism, but also the part that was heavy hit by the credit crisis, the part that has trouble to return to business as usual. The ambiguous condition that results cannot be taken as announcement of the next economic cycle, as the model for the world at large. How things will play out is highly unpredictable, but at present one can see it at least as an alternative that could be.

To pump up the Volume, the main theme curated by CURE, drafting a real estate development discipline in the making, is flanked by two explorations into the caves of architectural history. With a little help from our friends of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre in Rotterdam and Bureau Europa in Maastricht, two inserts have been created that respectively address (architectural) Structuralism’s quest to foster an open society and Cedric Price’s personal quest to create a democratic architecture. These two probes show that architects cannot resist meddling with society, that some of the experiments currently presented as innovation have been preceded by probably more radical experiments some twenty to fifty years ago. They also show that the power of initiative and the political role of the project were very much on the table at that time. They are on the table again, to be further explored in four new issues in 2015. Keep posted.

Volume #42: Art & Science of Real EstateThis editorial by Volume editor-in-chief Arjen Oosterman was published in Volume #42, ‘Art & Science of Real Estate’.

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Volume #42 — Out Now!