Architectuur in het nauw (Architecture forced into a corner)

In the October 1992 issue of Archis Richard Plunz offered a glimpse of the new American ghettos with their torn-down blocks. Since the destruction of the `Cité des 4000′ in La Courneuve in 1986, blowing up tower blocks seems to have become a form of sport in France. In the Netherlands there has been the debate about whether to demolish parts of the Bijlmermeer. These seem to be so many acts of despair, with architecture being banished as scapegoat to the wilderness.

Discussion still continues on the theme of architecture’s responsibility for crime and vandalism raised by Oscar Newman in Defensible Space. Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (1973). Alberti’s belief that the beauty of architecture could persuade even barbarians to restrain their urge to destroy may not be openly expressed these days but it lives on in the subconscious. One does not build architecture, one makes it beautiful in the hope that it will have the power to tone down such behaviour. How otherwise are we to explain the fact the concern among architects that low-income housing should be built under the heading of architecture? In the face of the current debacle surrounding this architectural housing and urban dwelling types in general, architecture seems to be flourishing as never before.

Must we fall back on Adolf Loos’ distinction and say that housing has everything to do with dwelling and nothing to do with architecture, that architecture can only produce useless monuments of art and not ordinary, affordable housing? This distinction leaves aside whether there is a relation between the two terms, whether the architectural monument can have meaning for unarchitectural dwelling. In other words, whether architecture as an art form is an escape, a masquerade, a luxury, or whether in its own way it is part of the reality of dwelling – whether architecture can be justified socially. These questions are all the more pressing now architecture has been driven into a corner. Not only is housing under threat everywhere, but as a result of the recession the entire building industry is on the point of collapse and architects can only look on helplessly.

So the ball is back again in architecture’s court. Can architecture reasonably be expected to cover the whole field of building, from housing to monuments? Or can Loos’ distinction be interpreted as an internal conflict within the domain of architecture? If one looks at what happens in practice, and this was Loos’ starting point, one can only agree with him and answer the question in the negative. The way in which `bricklayers who have learnt Latin’ go all out and produce a travesty of architecture, particularly in the field of low-income housing, providing it with meaningless decoration and stamping their authorship all over it, is an utter disgrace.

One can think of many reasons for this situation arising but, as Hans van Dijk suggested earlier in Archis, there is no real reason why architecture should not be able to contribute positively to housing. Architects must, however, give up thinking in terms of art history and their own place in it and show solidarity in concentrating on the real task in all its complexity. In his entry for the Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competition 1992, Rem Koolhaas argued in favour of a `house with no style’, an anonymous house in a designer-free zone – not beautiful perhaps, but real architecture. He turns the issues around. Now architecture is in a corner, it has a chance to take a fresh look at its task. The architectural quality of low-income housing can serve as criterion for the social actuality of its approach as a whole.

Alexander Bodon (1906-1993)