Where are the architects of the virtual world?

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 September, 2016
Editorial: 27
Fecha de publicación original: 9 julio, 1996

Date of publication: 09/07/1996. Editorial 027.

A house with two doors is difficult to keep

“The purpose of architecture is to improve our lives”. How many people in the world could, would like to or wish to subscribe to that phrase of Zaha Hadid’s, the Iranian architect who intervened in the tumultuous Congress of the International Union of Architecture in Barcelona last week. The event turned into a boxing match where fighters of internationally recognised weight categories punched out their respective visions of the city, and the role of the architect in society today. At the closing ceremony, Ralph Erskine, Pritzker prize winner (the equivalent of the Nobel in this discipline), declared “We should not play the rich man’s game any more.” At 82, after an intense working life dedicated to erecting buildings all over the planet, this declaration arrived a little late. But better late than never.

A cross-section of all tendencies was represented at the Congress, from extreme “purists” (the role of the inhabitant of a house only begins when the key is handed over) to those who recommend human, social and political housing plans and, therefore, of the city. Nevertheless, these men and women, sculptors of the urban landscapes of a planet, 80% of whose inhabitants will be living in cities or their areas of influence within a few years’ time, hardly paid any attention to the future which is fast approaching. What the digital city will be like, is a question which was not even touched on in the debate, except for token comments about the need to take into account new technology (which ones, where, why?).

While they were talking in Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi, teams of workmen were discreetly laying kilometres of cable in the belly of the city. Just as in the last century Baron Haussman imposed a web of broad, straight, boulevards on the ancient labyrinth that was Paris, or Cerdá in the Barcelona which the participants of the IAU were admiring; just as engineers extended the railway lines which determined the outlines and content of the cities at the turn of the 19th century these teams of workmen, travelling in anodyne vans, were laying the info-highways which will shape the cities of the next century. The majority of the architects at the IUA, concerned that nobody disturb them when they design their beautiful buildings, showed themselves to be, yet again, completely indifferent to a reconfiguration of space and temporal relations so profound that it will change our lives, once again, beyond the vestiges of anything recognisable.

What will the digital city be like? Where will its inhabitants live? What living space will they claim in order to expand within it? What will the differences be between the household-household and the household-workspace? Will there be any? How will people’s mobility be resolved in the information society? Will educational equipment –to mention only one of the activities which will be more affected– bear any resemblance to the schools and colleges that we know today? Are there already any clues as to what the result of the explosive mixture between the inevitable megalopolises of the next century and the less inevitable virtual communities will be like?

These questions were of hardly any interest to the architects meeting in Barcelona. Those that came from developing countries had much more pressing matters to resolve. Trying to combat the depersonalized and industrialized architecture of the North is on its own an expenditure of energy which would leave even the most daring exhausted. Injecting a human side into the construction of cities which are mushrooming before their very eyes requires a huge effort on their part, which is not always fully comprehended. While, on the other hand, on the rich side of the equation, architects showed that their adherence to “the miracle aesthetic” or the “immaterial of design” doesn’t allow them to see the digital society that is practically knocking on their doors already. Just a quick glimpse at that interesting book City of Bits by William J. Mitchell (too North American in many aspects for my taste, but full of interesting reflections) is enough for us to comprehend the abyss that separates the needs of human beings from the puffed-up pretensions of so many architects who ascribe themselves the role of soul givers in this universe of cities that we now have to put up with.

Translation: Bridget King.