Can Design Manifestos Change the World, Monocle 24, June 2019

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In June 2019, I was commissioned by Monocle Radio to discuss what it takes to create a lasting architectural manifesto. You can listen to the episode here.

Should architects stick to their knitting, that is their buildings, or do architectural manifestos make a helpful contribution to the industry? Let’s look at three to find out…   

When the Swiss-French architect and pioneer of modernism Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) published his 5 Points of Architecture in 1921, they inspired a generation of architects – their influence ‘beyond that of any other architectural work published in this century’ according to architectural historian Reyner Banham, writing in 1960. Le Corbusier dismissed the stylistic focus of art deco, and instead embraced the open-plan spaces, long horizonal windows, and roof gardens that he claimed would fundamentally change how we interact with buildings – his ‘machines for living in’.  

His ideals were noble. In the aftermath of two world wars, architects (mostly white, straight, male, middle-class architects), created a utopian vision for a better world in the belief that they would create it. Robert Venturi questioned their single-mindedness. He wanted what he called ‘both-and’ architecture that could ‘embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.’   

In the preface to Learning from Las Vegas, a text first published in 1972 that has since become a manifesto for Post Modernism, Venturi’s co-author Denise Scott Brown calls for ‘a new receptivity to the tastes and values of other people, and a new modesty in […] our role as architects in society.’ Las Vegas was, at that time, regarded as a non-city – the sprawling outgrowth of a strip, but Scott Brown argued that it was ‘the ugly and the ordinary,’ that comprised most of the built environment and was responsible for shaping the spaces, and therefore the culture, within which most people lived. The book was hailed by progressive critics for taking a stand against the heroic posturing of Modernism and criticised by the establishment as blasphemy. 

Fast forward to 2000 and Architecture Must Burn was Aaron Betsky’s manifesto for the 21st Century. The curator of architecture, design and digital projects at San Francisco’s MOMA wanted architecture to become ‘the hearth around which we gather to tell the stories that weave our society together’. He challenged architects to undo the mundane sprawl that urban planning had become and engage in Disneyland-esque experiments. He called on them to imagine an architecture as customised as the virtual environments of computer games. What followed were buildings that could not have been conceived without digital technologies.  

Whether they trigger the next architectural movement – or not – the real value of manifestoes is their contribution to the conversation. At their best, they challenge the status quo, they call for change, they start debate. Even when they backfire, as Patrick Schumaker’s urban policy manifesto did so spectacularly in 2016, they ask us to consider the effect that placemaking has on the way we live, the cultures we curate, and the societies we build – and that can only be a good thing.