By Geert Bekaert
The last but one Archis contained several eyewitness accounts of the unmanageable problems facing Los Angeles, where architecture no longer has any role to play. And then there are the devastated cities Beirut, Sarajevo, Grozny. But no one nowadays dares to talk in terms of ‘a blessing for the city’, as did Rotterdam’s rebuilders after the bombardment of 14 May 1940. Even the generators of the ‘new monumentality’ in urban renewal, who have been so good at blowing their own trumpet in recent years, have fallen silent. It seems as if the only remaining genuine and solid experience of architecture, of an architecture that is now past, comes from photography and film.
Nevertheless, architecture is not only being swept away by the tide of brutal life, to which it no longer seems able to offer any resistance, but is also apparently foundering in the flood of ‘virtual reality’ that is assailing it on all sides. Mark Taylor has, in typical fashion, thought up a new term for architecture in the approaching Virtual Age: electrotecture. This is an architecture that has gone beyond the materiality of building and the laws of gravity and which operates in the airy regions of ‘cyberspace’, the interstice between material and immaterial, between body and mind. ‘If people are going to be spending more and more of their time in cyberspace, then perhaps architects should begin to ask what role they can play in designing our virtual worlds.’ And he adds pragmatically: ‘For the vast majority of architects, so-called material building is going to be very difficult, if not impossible’.
The odd thing is that at both ends of the spectrum, reality and virtuality, people stubbornly cling to that nebulous notion of architecture, and not only to the notion but also to its professional practice, in order to adapt it to the new challenges and so enable it to play a role in their solution. For the time being, the idea that an architecture might, as Tafuri has already observed, die out and vanish, seems insupportable. Without exactly knowing what lies ahead for architecture, it is deployed as a fetish, a secret force with which to exorcise the looming reality of the future.
Perhaps that’s not such a bad idea after all. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to define architecture and to chart its future course. Perhaps architecture does not really exist at all, is no more than that seemingly indestructible aura, that fata morgana, that dogged assumption that architecture must exist. If that is the case the situation must be reversed and, instead of being derived from what it once was, instead of being described and codified and frequently ridiculed by art historians or academics in the process as is happening at the moment at the Eindhoven University of Technology where, under the guise of science, a ‘style gauge’ for future designers has been launched architecture should be approached, again and again, as a task, an inevitability, whose aura is no more than a symbol, where humanity must achieve its rationality and its freedom. It could well turn out that the eclipse of architecture is a precondition for rediscovering it and designing it in such a way that it can continue to live up to its aura.