Figments of the Architectural Imagination

Figments of the Architectural Imagination

Todd Gannon

In the past decade and a half, at architecture schools in Los Angeles, “city talk” has gone deeply – and fruitfully – out of fashion. In advanced architecture studios at SCI-Arc, for instance . . . faculty often wonder aloud whether urban analyses or arguments about city context can usefully inform the creation of new architecture. By now the question is largely rhetorical and the answer a rarely qualified “No.”
– Joe Day, “The iUrbanisms of Los Angeles” (2015)

It should come as no surprise that so many architects who cut their disciplinary teeth in the heady 1990s have little patience for “city talk” today. For those whose first forays into city design involved weaving intricate spatial patterns into the warp and weft of an already unruly urban fabric, who honed their skills conjuring complex form from the dynamic forces of metropolitan life, topics that now dominate the conversation – bike lanes, walkable streets, workable public transit, and the quotidiana of the urban milieu – are understandably tiresome. It’s not that these architects necessarily have something against biking, walking, or any of the other activities pursued with docile consistency by the translucent figures that populate every rendering of every new design proposal for every city in the world. It’s just that so much city design today can seem, well, unimaginative.

With “The Architectural Imagination,” curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León have cleverly reversed the question quoted above. Rather than rehearse the unproductive assertion that city talk can no longer usefully inform the creation of new architecture, they ask whether architectural speculation, specifically, might be of use in imagining new cities. Their answer, reinforced by 12 architecture proposals for Detroit (illustrated in these pages), is an unrhetorical and unqualified “Yes.”

This reversal offers not only a more promising way to frame an urban agenda but also a way out of a debilitating impasse that has emerged in recent decades between many of today’s advanced architects and innovative city designers. On one side, as the widely accepted caricatures go, egotistical architects (backed by private fortunes) pursue irresponsible formal complexity with blissful lack of regard for the supposed “realities” of the cities in which they work. On the other, earnest grassroots organizations eke out modest gains in the interstices of the urban fabric, unconcerned by the negligible impact of their efforts within a broader cultural context. Neither side seems to have much actual knowledge of or interest in the activities of the other, and all involved tend toward a deep insularity. The crux of the impasse, however, has less to do with the difference between making cities and making buildings than with a widespread misunderstanding of both the professional and the disciplinary responsibilities of the people who make them. Andrew Zago and I took on this issue in a recent essay. The profession of architecture, we argue, undertakes building and city making as a service to society, and therefore attends primarily to issues of accommodation, efficiency, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness. The discipline, on the other hand, pursues building and city making as an art form, and thus works primarily to advance the public imagination, a term we use in the strict sense of forming images in the mind. Thus, while an architect’s professional responsibilities require close attention to the physical matter of buildings and cities, her disciplinary responsibilities are by definition abstract and take place in the virtual space of the imagination.

. . .

Tipping the balance too far in one direction is detrimental to both ambitions. Shirking professional responsibilities quite simply cannot be tolerated, but inattentiveness to the disciplinary project of advancing the public imagination is the more serious concern. For while substandard professionalism can result in the rampant inefficiencies, patent absurdities, and, occasionally, real dangers that plague our cities, these issues are more easily remedied than the cultural impoverishment that results from sidelining disciplinary concerns. In the best cases, the functional, structural, mechanical, economic, and other obligations administered by the profession attend to our immediate needs so efficiently that our consciousness of those features of the built environment can fall away. This hard-won freedom from quotidian concerns affords our minds the opportunity to slip into the realm of abstract images for which the discipline takes responsibility.

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