A cyber-conversation on architecture and political agency

Apple's proposed new headquarters in Cupertino, CA
Apple’s proposed new HQ in Cupertino, CA: taken completely out of context

“I really don’t think architecture is about social or political activity any more than I think politics is about architecture.” –Michael Graves at a symposium in 1981 (as quoted in Peter Rowe’s Design Thinking, 1987)

Thankfully, Graves’ perspective is less prevalent than it was 30 years ago–but the legacy of autonomous formalism remains in the DNA of the discipline. A strain of architectural discourse has only recently (re)focused its attention on the issue of social and political agency in architectural practice. Some yearn for a revamped critical project, others seek a revised form of utopianism. Questions surrounding agency in architecture are certainly not new, but I believe they offer the greatest hope for protecting the profession from its ever-present potential of slipping into the realm of mere fashion and pure formalism. 

Centered on this topic, a productive conversation has been taking place over the past few weeks. What started at a live panel discussion (as in, people talking face-to-face) has now moved to the blogosphere. Here is a video and synopsis of the initial event at the Storefront in New York City (apologies for the poor quality). Ross Wolfe then wrote this review. Quilian Riano, one of the panel speakers replied with this post. And finally, Wolfe responded back on his own blog. The content of their back-and-forth is thought-provoking, even if it lacks in much specificity (yet). Personally, I think the most productive direction is in defining what is meant by ‘political’ (not to mention ‘critical’, ‘agency’, and ‘utopian’) to better clarify how architecture is or is not political. But the very conversation itself (with its mixture of interpersonal activity, criticism, response, commentary, etc.) presents the kernel of a nice model for more productive dialogue–something the discipline could certainly use more of.

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