“Everything is Architecture” [a rant]

Physicists can rightly say everything is physics and chemists can rightly say everything is chemistry and we’d all agree that everything at some level is one of them, both of them, or some combination of them. Some undiscovered grand theory may prove them to be two different names for the same thing and, when it does, everything will indeed be that one thing. I look forward to that exhilarating rush of comprehending that pan-universal truth even if I’m only happy someone else has comprehended it.

There’s many reasons to be suspicious of the concept that everything is architecture but my main one is that it diminishes the importance of anything being architecture. I know, I know – whatever that may turn out to be, but I’d like to stay with the opening thought and not rush to embrace diversion. People or at least architects have been debating what architecture is for about six centuries now but it’s odd how much credence this non-answer is gathering. Why?

Perhaps it’s because it’s the opposite of an architectural formalism that limits architecture to quantities and qualities unique to it. Perhaps its because the more fuzzy a concept becomes the less useful it is, the less threat of it actually doing something of social utility. Either we have a concept of architecture that deals with qualities unique to architecture, or an architecture of overreach that sees itself in everything and everything as part of itself. It’s not that this is incompatible with a formalist stance. It just means that everything is unique to architecture – a statement incompatible with commonsense.

“Architects have to stop thinking in terms of buildings only. Built and physical architecture, freed from the technological limitations of the past, will more intensely work with spatial qualities as well as the psychological ones. The process of erection will get a new meaning, spaces will more consciously have haptic, optic and acoustic properties. A true architecture of our time will have to redefine itself and to expand its means. Many areas outside traditional building will enter the realm of architecture, as architecture and “architects” will have to enter new fields. All are architects. Everything is architecture.”
Hans Hollein 1968

This came to pass. I’m inclined to believe Hans Hollein’s 1968 statement was the first time the thought “Everything is Architecture” was articulated. The year is aroundabout the advent of that neoliberal economy precusor known as post-modernism.

Hollein had been building up to it. Four years before he made us think everything was architecture, he made us think an aircraft carrier was architecture and, less poetically, that a spark plug was architecture. Everything else followed. I still have a fondness for the aircraft carrier upon its heaving ocean of grass. [c.f. Quick Question

The most overtly architectural of these 1964 montages, Built Up, looks most like what visionary architecture looked like in 1964 but is also the least successful. 

This resurgence of interest in Hollein’s statement is because of its continuing usefulness. Once we are of the mindset that everything is spatial practice, it becomes possible to convince oneself that, say, there was more architecture in the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe than its construction. Just as a quick check to see where you position yourself on the architecture neoliberalist-to-misfit spectrum, ask yourself how you feel about that last sentence. All manner of things become thinkable in a world where everything is architecture and they are not all good. The notion that everything is architecture uses the persistent notion that architecture is fundamentally a good thing, to destroy it. Have you not noticed how, as everything is becoming architecture, how little of it there is?

Moreover, if everything is architecture, then there’s no need to discuss what is and what isn’t. Criticism dies. Architectural discourse or whatever stands for it can concern itself only with topics relevant to everything. Everything is validated by producing more discourse – which is of course architecture – as exquisitely illustrated by The Autopoiesis of Architecture. Hollein’s original intent may have been genuine but the uses to which his concept can be put are less than noble. Thoughts don’t take hold because they are true but, like weeds, take root in ground that has been disturbed and open to receiving whatever opportunistic seed comes along. Charles Jencks came along not too long after, promoting the next chapter in the history of architecture’s pandering to neoliberalism.

Everything is Architecture is also a consequence of linguistic creep. It used to be we had architecture and we had architects. We were taught the only non-architect people legally able to call themselves architects were golf course architects and naval architects. I imagine the persons responsible for the architecture of microprocessors, computers and systems have now been added to the list.

Despite its claims to universality, the notion that Everything is Architecture goes no further than the bubblesphere of architectural media. Its apparent justification comes from the notion that everything happens with respect to some sort of spatial reference. We can’t deny that our daily comprehension of the world deals with the spatial relationships between things. We get through the day untroubled by the quantum entanglement of matter and the even more bizarre quantum entanglement of time recently discovered. Until that knowledge becomes “popular”, we’re stuck in our dreary spatial world where things with mass occupy space over time and in predictable ways.

This is more than sufficient to make anything into architecture, but particularly ballet, sport, plays, walking and all human motion involving an A and a B. In sport, the motion often involves negotiating a projectile through space, as does driving a car. We could redefine architecture as the engineering of spatial relationships and not exclude too much of what we already understand to be architecture. The question is where does it end? The answer seems to be it doesn’t.

I don’t have access to early copies of The Architecture Review and am now pleasantly ignorant of the latest ones as well as the infernal viewsletters. [For this I am eternally grateful to Kyle of EMAP Customer Services for deleting my contact details from the EMAP database.] Early copies of Country Life featured various advertisements for aspirational lifestyles. If you didn’t have the property or budget for even a modest Lutyens house you might still be able to afford a bottle of coca wine.

Back when not everyone had a radio, newspapers told us the news, our horoscopes, the weather, entertained us with serialised books and comic strips, gave us recipes, household tips, agony aunt advice, and a crossword for entertainment, jobs, properties for sale, the stock market. All this was funded by advertising. Magazines came along for specialised readerships and provided an array of information of interest to their target readership. Radio “soaps” were invented as a hook upon which to hang advertising. Television soaps left us with no doubt as to who the sponsor was. Movies brought us product placement. Everything became LEGO. To say Architecture is LEGO is not funny but to say LEGO is architecture has sadly come to pass. [c.f. Unimagining the Brick]

For years I’d naïvely thought the notion that everything is architecture was a consequence of too little genuine architectural content compared with the amount of advertising and marketing that needs to be hung off of it. I thought everything would sooner or later have to be architecture if architectural media was to continue to function. Architectural media can only survive if it can sustain an audience for its advertisers. Architecture magazines probably always were a Trojan Horse to get advertisements for tedious partitioning systems, glamorous bathroom fixtures, modular lighting systems and contrived door furniture inside architects’ offices. If only it had been that simple.

Thank you Victor for this excellent question, and also for its answer.

What is your opinion on “Everything used to be architecture anyway”? I mean bridges and cannons and fortifications and stuff like that were all designed by people called architects. Then they gave birth to engineers and these gave birth to HVAC and Structure and Fire safety and architects dissolved and now we have gone full circle and everything “is architecture” but not a good kind of everything, of which every instance has an isolated level of competence but a shitty kind of everything since every firm, material skill of architects has left for engineering and, after centuries of the profession’s dissolution, what we have left is that very “undefinable artistic miracle” which, in the absence of any meaningful skill in the profession, has given birth to C-list actors with strongly expressed traits of attention whore. Hence the whole phenomenon of “starchitects”, a clear performing-art celebrity twist unimaginable for the profession less than a century ago.

And also to the reader who sent me this. [I’m sorry I can’t thank you by name – you must have contacted me via misfits when it was on Facebook.]

Architecte : Du maître de l’oeuvre au disagneur
[Architect: From the master of the work to the disney]
Bernard Marrey
The profession of architect was born of the breach created in the sixteenth century between the designer and the entrepreneur who, until then, were one: the master of the work. Louis XIV accentuated it by creating the Academy of Architecture, then the Convention and the Directory by creating the Academy of Fine Arts. In the course of this evolution, the professional bodies favored an alliance with the political rather than the professional world: over time, architects have abandoned part of what normally came within their competence to entrepreneurs, engineers , To the design offices, until they are no longer reduced – in some cases – to providing the only design of the building permit. The book retraces this long decline through a few examples.

And also to Nik who introduced me to Neil Spiller and prompted this post. Google one took me to Lebbeus Woods’ legacy blog – this page, specifically. My filter bubble is no stranger to Lebbeus Woods so this was the first image that came up.

It was however, to Neil Spiller, so this is what came out tops.

Lebbeus Woods said Neil Spiller’s drawings are architecture because they create spaces that invite you to inhabit them.” I suppose they are in the post-modern sense that “space” is indistinguishable from space, and “inhabit” from inhabit but, if we do, we should for the sake of consistency say Lebbeus Woods said Neil Spiller’s drawings are “Architecture” because they create “spaces” that invite you to “inhabit” them. Words are not numbers – multiplying two negatives doesn’t make a positive.

For if anything that creates “spaces” that invite one to “inhabit” them is now “architecture”, then movies are now “architecture” and not because of photons moving. All music is now architecture, irrespective of the compression and expansion of air. All books are now “architecture” for inviting us to inhabit their “spatial” worlds. This is particularly so of fiction but no less true for how-to books, self-help and motivational books. Conversation and all other forms of communication are “architecture” for occuring in virtual “agoras” of opinions and ideas. All marketing is architecture, all human relationships, all behaviour …

A cold shower and a stiff drink have never seemed so attractive – unless they too are architecture by virtue of them offering us a cause and the promise of an effect. The concept that everything is architecture turns out to be a muddling of the deterministic cause-effect of Science with the cause-effects of Philosophy and Psychology and with a dash of the cause-effect of Marketing. This concept born in the sixties is very much a concept for our times.

If we take the careers of Rem Koolhaas, Charles Jencks and Lebbeus Woods as evidence, one could make the hypothesis that those who “popularize” the insider elitism of architecture are rewarded with intervals of fame that, if not everlasting, are at least prolonged. Conversely, those who champion an architecture of mass benefit are destined to be sidelined, destined for obscurity. Maybe all the misfit architects understood this. Maybe they knew that yet did what they did anyway. I get that.

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Instagram is the perfect platform for today’s architecture. It disseminates building imagery, it allows feedback even if the only way to dislike something is to not like it, and it allows for everyone to see how much an image is liked. It’s a promotional loop and critical feedback loop at the same time, only without the criticism. It doesn’t encourage debate. It’s only a matter of time before words in the form of captions are removed and, when they are, the last remnants of our best apparatus for the expression of critical thought will be gone. With its images disappearing after viewing, Snapchat is the more evolved. It does for images

what Instagram did for words.

• • •

While words still exist …

A New Formalism (8 August 2017)
The Formalist Canon (18 Feb. 2018)