Nick Axel: The State of Architecture

Nick Axel delivering the State of Architecture address. Photo: Urban Cerjak.
Nick Axel delivering the State of Architecture address. Photo: Urban Cerjak.
Nick Axel
2 November 2023

It’s an incredible honor to have been invited to deliver the yearly State of Architecture address. I am not just standing in front of you all today, but also in the shoes of my predecessors in this role, who are an incredible set of thinkers and practitioners who have worked tirelessly to expand, clarify, and redefine what we mean when we say the word “architecture,” or when we call ourselves “architects.”

Reviewing the 546 applications to this year’s call for fellows has been an experience that inspired me deeply and gave me a certain confidence in the direction that architecture is headed. There are so many good ideas, so many incredible projects and proposals that, I must admit, I do not envy the LINA members who had to go through the list and pick only 28 fellows. That said, it’s been an incredible pleasure, a luxury even, to review them, and get a glimpse of what the future of architecture looks like. I want to start off by congratulating all of the 28 featured fellows, as well as the 518 applications that are yet to be featured.

I also want to mention that in this address, I will not be mentioning any projects or applications directly. Instead, I aim to speak to—in fact, to speak through—your projects. You, after all, are the state of architecture, or at least, its future.

Going through the applications, a number of common themes and interests rise to the surface. Cutting across them are a variety of methods and formats that provide entry into their nuances. The first that I would like to speak about today is the workshop, which is participatory by nature. For many applications, the workshop was almost an inevitable way to test out or ground a certain set of ideas which were themselves the real intent, but didn’t really have any other way of expressing themselves. Participation, as we know, has a problematic history in architecture. It cuts to the core of the social purpose, as well as the modern agenda of architecture: that architects build buildings for people. But in many cases, as one application put it, buildings throughout the twentieth century were "built for the people, but not with people." Many applications sought to address this problematic history.

If, in the twentieth century, buildings were built, but they weren’t for the people, it seems as if in this part of the twenty first century, architecture—at least in cities—is so focused on being for people that it’s not entirely clear whether anything will, or needs to be built at all.

Indeed, in many places, we have built enough. There is plenty of empty space. Overwhelmingly, then, what’s needed is not architecture, at least not insofar as it’s conceived of as a building, but rather a different way of seeing architecture and our built environment.

Andres Jaque recently claimed that “architecture is not about space, but about composition.” I would venture to take this one step further and argue that architecture is not about building, but about inhabiting. Architecture can both teach us what it means, and is itself the practice of inhabiting space. That said, in order to do this, the question of “what” architecture is must be preceded by the questions of “why,” “how,” or “for whom.”

When architects work with participation, when they use it to legitimize their projects or their practice which they so often do, I would encourage a great sensitivity, and perhaps more importantly a careful specificity of who is included.

Indeed, as I will speak more about later, workshops, or research more generally, are not simply a means towards an end: they are an end in their own right. They have real effects on the people they involve, and on the world. Indeed, that is often the point of doing them in the first place. And it is often by designing the workshop, or by designing the research—by designing the process—that one actually designs the impact of any project. All research, after all, is situated.

It was also interesting to see the different types of projects proposed between the city and the countryside. As I mentioned, many projects for cities did not propose a specific design, but rather a way of working or inhabiting. In the countryside, however, things were different. There, perhaps, everything is more clear. There’s not so much stuff. It’s easier to see. But what about cities? Cities have changed so much over the past 10, 20 years. And they are profoundly weird. They have perhaps never been so “nice,” so “clean.” Cities were never nice! We have perhaps never been so “happy,” and depressed at the same time. All of this, I believe, should be treated with suspicion. This is not to say that it’s all a lie, but do we really understand what is happening, how our lives are being shaped? The question of how we got here, of where “here” is at all, is an ever present and urgent question. The city is a polyphony if “here’s,” of “we’s,” and architecture has a unique potential to not just illuminate, but also give form to identities and collectivities who have yet to fully emerge or be even recognizable as such.

Beyond being an analytical tool to uncover, to identify, to document, architecture also has the power to give form—to something, to someone—which itself has the power to collectivize, subjectivize, to outlive and to represent. But to do so, architecture must depart from a curiosity, almost an estrangement, and ask the world a simple, open question: what actually are you?

Many other applications sought to develop or deploy toolkits or games, which by playing or using, would transform the way people think, see, or relate to their surroundings, their practices, themselves, and each other. This was taken further in a great deal of applications that were dedicated to play, be it for children or adults. Play is fundamental to life, and has an incredible transformative power. However, according to Johan Huizinga, this power of play comes from the fact that it is a state of exception, that is demarcated in both time and space. Yet according to Chin Jungkwon, over the past 50 years, with the development of neoliberal capitalism and its precarious modes of subjectivity, the “magic circle” surrounding play has dissolved.

Games have become labor, and labor has become a game.

The cities we live in today and the lives we live in them are all structured by play. This is a perverse form of Constant’s New Babylon in which we still need to work, and when we play, it often feels like, or actually is work. If the magic circle around play has been broken, what would it take to repair it?

I would like to invoke the shift that the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk has initiated in thinking about collective gatherings as “trainings,” and particularly, trainings for the not-yet. Games, play, but also workshops, exercises, etc. are all spaces of radical imagination. They are also spaces for the radical suspension of disbelief, not unlike the theater. They are spaces of performance, and in this sense, I wonder what would happen to take this element of performativity, and also the nature of experiences had within them, seriously. The radical architects from the 1960s and 1970s who were working with pneumatic structures to create ephemeral spatial installations did so because they believed that another way of living, another way of living and relating to one another; that another way of inhabiting space was possible. And even though the air eventually needs to stop pumping, or the workshop, the game, eventually needs to end, the memory of what people saw, what they felt, what they believed, who they became, is something that might never be forgotten. When we create games, or workshops—when we work with others—let us inspire to the point that it will be difficult to return back to reality.

Because it is in that friction between the real and the ideal, the immediate and the possible, that new lines of flight and new futures are born.

Moving away from participatory formats as gateways both to the here and now and to the imagination, there was an overwhelming concern with material practice among the applications. I want to start by saying how impressed I am at how few purely speculative proposals there were in this field, and how many actual projects and realized prototypes have been done by applicants. Indeed, high carbon materials such as glass, steel, and concrete have become cheap and widespread thanks to industrialization. What we build our buildings with is a significant factor in the building industry’s contribution to global carbon emissions, so finding new materials to build with is an incredibly urgent task. To do this, a lot of people have simply been looking down, and what lies beneath our feet, and have been investigating soil and earth as building materials. Others have been experimenting with bio-based materials such as wool, mycelium, and more. But the question still remains where we source our materials from. Many applications sought to answer this question, and thus unveil the political, social, and ecological entanglements not just of a single material as we encounter it in a piece of architecture, but all throughout its lifecycle, from its source.

Indeed, how materials appear to us, in the West, often mask a series of violent, toxic, extractive processes that are often built upon the foundations of colonial histories.

All materials have a story, including (and this is drawing from just a small section of the applications): cobalt, oil, tomatoes, more tomatoes, nuclear radioactivity, forever chemicals, cacti, bugs, plastic, and more.

What do we hope for, or what do we expect by mapping out and revealing the stories of materials? Critical mapping, in this sense, has a certain power over its viewer. It might change the way people see the world around them and relate to or feel towards certain elements within it. If they are practicing architects or actually just any consumer, it might influence their decisions in specifying certain materials to use in design projects, or household objects to buy and consume. However, I wonder if this kind of mapping might not be able to do more. Mapping resource supply chains might also reveal new sites for architectural intervention. If designing an electric car, for instance, designs Bolivian and Chilean landscapes; or if designing a building out of wood designs a forest, what would it mean to intervene at the site of the forest, or the salt flat? How does designing a forest, or a timber mill, or a DIY store, design buildings?

This is a kind of trans-scalar approach to design and systems-based thinking that is increasingly important to reckon with and assume responsibility over our decisions and our futures.

But this will also require the development of new practices, of rethinking what it means to intervene within and shape the built environment. We need new protocols for the circulation of materials. We need to look at questions of certification and regulation of materials, at laws and codes as a site of design in and of themselves.

Further along these lines, some applications have been looking to redirect waste streams, or what we might otherwise refer to as waste, so as to make the lifecycle of resources not a dead end but a loop. These waste streams could be from the demolition of buildings to industrial processes like olive harvesting or greenhouse agriculture. All of this characterizes what I would call a molecular gaze, one that looks at the question of architecture from the scale of what can barely be seen, if at all. Beyond this, however, there were many applications addressing the same questions one or two scales up, at the scale of the element. These applicants sought to approach the built environment as an urban mine, and transform the perception of the act of demolition towards one of dismantling, one that does not remove but actually creates new resources to build with. Many applications even tried to argue that we don’t need to demolish at all, and advocated for rehabilitation, renovation, and more.

Because it’s true: we have already built so much, and at the same time, there is so much empty space, much of which is in danger of falling—or already has fallen—into ruin.

In some situations, some might argue that demolition actually is the most suitable response to a situation. According to Keller Easterling, “subtraction” might even open up radically new potentials in the built environment. In other situations, however, it’s not so much a question of whether a building gets destroyed, but how it is “deconstructed” (and I don’t mean philosophically). But in many, if not most other cases, destruction is not even an option. This shift to renovation heralds a deep transformation in the field of architecture, one that is both being driven by architects themselves but also politicians, with governments across Europe increasingly incentivizing renovation over demolition, if not its outright ban, as in the case of Brussels. What it will mean for architects to be forced to locate their imagination, to situate it within not just the project constraints but the material histories of a place, will require not just new ethics and expectations, but also new skills, new tools, new practices, new ways of working. Key to this, according to many applications, is the format of the archive, the inventory, or the database. Indeed, the idea of the urban mine presupposes an archive of the city, and some projects sought to create a database of methods for reusing building elements. There were also proposals for the creation of archives of: building materials, unused or abandoned buildings, demolition sites, and unused land. But beyond the subject of reuse and materials, archives were proposed of film, of movement, of play, of games, and more.

The presence of archives in the applications shows to me an overwhelming concern with the past, which brings to mind the old Soviet joke: “The future is certain; it is only the past that is unpredictable.”

Times have shifted, and this joke, which originally spoke to the authoritarian regime’s habit of editing and controlling historical narratives, might today be taken as an activist rallying cry. For where else does any future come from than a past? And it is amazing how much we as people, as societies, as cultures, forget. Archives archive nothing less than potential. But archives can also accumulate dust. Archives are precious, but also precarious. They are also an infrastructure that must be maintained, lest they fall into disrepair. They must constantly negotiate access and their audience, lest they fall into oblivion. Furthermore, the act of archiving is itself a laborious, yet potentially radical act. Let us not take for granted what it takes, or what it means to build archives. Let us also not archive for the sake of archiving. Let us think carefully and strategically of the things we keep. But let us also be willing to let go. Indeed, our planet is currently plagued by that which we cannot let go of—carbon dioxide, plastics, additions to oil, toxic ideologies, etc.

I want to conclude this address with a set of more general reflections on the nature of contemporary architectural practice, what it means to be a young architect, and maybe even what it means for you all to be here today. Architecture as we know it is a thing of the past. We are at an uncertain, uncomfortable moment in history today. Indeed, we are, or we at least feel like, we are at a turning point. But isn’t every point in time is a turning point if we use it to turn? The climate crisis is only becoming more present, more undeniable. Its consequences are growing in scale and intensity. This is, however, just one element of the “polycrisis” we live in.

It is important that we do not privilege or prioritize climate over all—that it does not become the “one true cause”—or that we address climate to the detriment of other urgent issues.

“Green inequity” is already real at a global scale, and many new sustainable building materials coming onto the market actually introduce dangerous chemicals into our domestic atmospheres. Let us therefore think and learn what it means to practice intersectionally and horizontally, in a way that takes ecology, politics, and health—past, present, and future—into consideration. Indeed, the built (and unbuilt) environment never has been the sole domain of the architect. What it means to intervene within it might end up looking like a building, but the means of actually doing that might be something completely else.

Let us not lose sight of the city, or the countryside—let’s just say the environment—as the ultimate domain of intervention, as the goal of our activities, our practices. But let us also be kind to ourselves in valuing the scale of impact and the slowness that change may take.

While some people may want to change the entire system, others may only want to change the way one person sees or feels about one thing. And that can be enough.

When we present work, when you go on to make exhibitions, public programs, give talks, organize workshops, publish books, write texts, etc, let us understand these actions not as means to an end—that illustrious goal of “real” intervention, of building, or whatever—but as ends in and of themselves. Let us take our audiences and our opportunities seriously.

For every format, every gathering, every event is an opportunity to change the way people see the world, to change the way people live their lives.

There will not be one solution to the climate crisis or all of the other crises of today. There need to be many. Look around, and do not be discouraged by others. Instead, be encouraged. Create alliances; join forces. We are all in this together, and we need each other. We only got into this mess in the first place thanks to the coordinated effort of millions of different people across different geographies and millennia, and it will take an enormous collective effort of solidarity to create an alternative or do anything about it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that changing the status quo isn’t a point in the future that may or may not happen. That is what we are all doing here. That is what you are all doing with your work. It is a long journey, but so long as we stay critical, that we stay curious, that we stay estranged from what presents itself to us as natural; as long as we understand that the way we have been taught to do things isn’t the way we need to do them in the future; as long as we understand that we need to support and teach ourselves as well as each other, Then we’re moving in the right direction.

The State of Architecture is based on an analysis of the applications received to the LINA Open Call, and a broader reflection on its overarching themes and their context. The text is a transcript of the lecture, delivered by Nick Axel at the 2023 LINA Conference, which you can also watch.

Nick Axel is an architect, editor, educator, and curator. As Deputy Editor of e-flux Architecture, he has overseen the development of the platform since its founding in 2016 and edited over fifty publications in collaboration with biennials, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions around the world. Nick is also Head of the Architectural Design department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam. From 2020–2022 he was Curator of Architecture and Chair of the Architectural Advisory Board at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Kyiv, where he commissioned architectural projects including the Babyn Yar Synagogue by Manuel Herz Architects. He has edited numerous books, including most recently Accumulation: The Art, Architecture, and Media of Climate Change (University of Minnesota Press, 2022) with Daniel A. Barber, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Anton Vidokle, and Babyn Yar: Past/Present/Future (Spector Books, 2021) with Nicholas Korody, winner of the 2022 Most Beautiful German Book Award.

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