Architects in a casino of distraction
An unaccepted submission to Log for its Winter 2017 issue.
When Trump said he’d make America great again, Hillary said it already is great. He said less is a bore, she said yes is more. If we read Trump as a tragic irony, that he holds the purse strings of a supposed $1 trillion cache for new projects should be unsurprising to architects consumed in their own celebration of irony. There’s a lot to lose right now: given global conditions, there is tremendous opportunity to affirm intelligent models for crafting the human environment, but with a pseudo-neo-Rococo addict in the White House, who is also a schlock-job casino mogul, the timing couldn’t be worse.
But architects don’t have a choice. Trump’s campaign slogan and debates of autonomy in the neoliberal age notwithstanding, it’s actually the job of designers to make places great again. From water to wages to Walter Scott, the human environment has never been more political. During the global boom times of past decades architects demurred political consciousness, invoking theory to muffle and blush the harsher truths of capital. Now, in Trump’s casino, the house forces a dire hand. Less is a bore. When AIA chief Robert Ivy pathetically punted to Trump, he betrayed a broader denial in the discipline about how to innovate not just what we build but architectural practice(s) itself. To a yes man, yes is more. But on the ground, it’s hard to tell which irony is craziest: is it the irony of Trump himself, or of architects’ obsolescence in a built environment saddled with obsolescence, or of new work in the worst possible way?
The glass is half full, it would seem, just with the wrong kind of water; all the high ground might be in the part half empty. Can it be done? Can architects of all kinds, urbanists, place-based innovators, and civic activists fill that void with affirmations of democracy and place through tangible expressions of social, ecological, and economic resilience? It’s unclear. At times like this, we look to discourse to feel out an agenda and point out possible paths forward. This is one aspect of the discipline that makes it unique. Through a dynamic academic and critical wing architecture is constantly experimenting to trace meanings in the human experience.
But from Chicago to Venice, architecture is in a state of intentional yet distanciated ambivalence. Primitive shapes are presented as victories, airbrush gradients too-cleverly belie material, and basic observations about everyday human behavior posture as marvels. In this era of winking candy quotations, everything is a punchline but with no setup. It will be a double irony for architecture if, cruelly, the glass half full is a coup of a distracted discipline. On the other hand, it could be Spring. But it will be hard. For all of architecture’s colorful daydreams, we still face a dearth of imagination even as imaginary evils hold sway in Trump America. And yet, if our imagination can counteract mediocrity, perhaps something to fight for can, in turn, save our imagination.