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So what else is new?
In my earlier posts, I wanted to observe aspects of the existing legislative system that limit architecture’s agency or at least fail to enhance its relationship to the public good. I wrote about the Tariff’s admission of architecture’s weakness in the face of the economy; that the AIBC’s mandate advocates for protection of the public good, not its advancement; and that the density bonus program operates horizontally within existing class structures as opposed to vertically across them.
Beginning this post, I am left with the feeling. Indeed, so, what else is new?
Certainly none of this so far. Joshua Prince Ramus spoke about Architecture’s diminished roll in his 2010 TED Talk and SHoP Architects book Out of Practice has similar concerns. Their answer, one common in the profession, is a deeper engagement with production and industry. In principle, a good idea, however, in proposing an marketplace solution, in a way, they beg the question: they assume the truth of the marketplace as the appropriate frame through which to evaluate their work.
Such proposals lend truth to the lie that architecture should define itself in terms of economics. Lisa Rochon’s recent article The business case for beautiful libraries illustrates this point nicely. At what point did architecture cede so much authority as to sound like it were making a case for itself in a night school MBA program?
That the public good and aims of the marketplace are fundamentally opposed and that we insist on the mistake of framing issues in terms of economics is obvious. But the central problem remains: at no point in setting out the Tariff or interpreting the Act and Zoning Bylaws do we challenge that structure.
I see two approaches. The first, cousin to JPR and SHoP’s advocacy of deeper engagement with production and industry, is to accept the marketplace’s dominance and codify the provision of support (through advocacy, assistance, or service, for example) in the Act, the Zoning Bylaws, and the Tariff.
What form might those take?
On the one hand they might adjust the bonus density program such that still further density (something this city will surely need) in exchange for dedicated contributions to neighbourhoods in decline. Or how about adjusting the Tariff and requiring builders to contribute directly to a fund that could partially cover pro bono work taken on by architects?
Both would be easy to implement, require not a lot of money, and if administered appropriately, could do a great deal of good. As solutions go, however, they are the structural solutions of a systems manager.
The harder solution is a change in the culture of architectural practice, and this was made a little more clear to me while watching the recent Buildex Architectural Keynote roundtable, Architecture, Who Cares? when Michael Green lamented our disengagement from public and Peter Cardew recalled that decades ago, Vancouver’s City Council comprised architects, lawyers, and doctors.
Why do those two things matter here? Because architecture’s disengagement from the public realm has reduced its importance in the collective conscious of the city. The result is that architecture’s chief advocate – the public – has little cause to champion great iconic work, let alone the prospect architecture aiding the disenfranchised and the dispossessed through small but generous works.
That the start of our solution to architecture’s limited agency might lie in an improved engagement with the public should not come as much of a surprise: from conversations come understanding, enjoyment, and ultimately love. It is only through a richer understanding of architecture that the public will be able to see its use as transformative, both on a grand civic scale, but also – as I’ve said – on a smaller scale where the need for architecture in its most primary sense – structure – is perhaps greatest.