Somewhere in the Future of Architecture…
A spokesperson for the BNA (Union of Dutch Architects) discusses the vital role the field of Architecture has played in supporting the huge social, economic, cultural, ecological and spatial transitions of recent years.
Q: We’ve had to deal with a lot, from preventing and coping with Climate Catastrophe to economic crisis and populist backlash against culture, science and interest in the built environment. For a while there is didn’t look like we’d make it, not as a profession, not even as a civilization What do you think the turning point was?
A: Well first I think it was the ability we gained to be self-reflexive, to make our own basic assumptions transparent to ourselves and then challenge them. This gave us a choice on how to act and allowed us to become more strategic. It freed the profession to be more resilient and diverse and this was essential to dealing with the challenges we were facing. If I could point to how that came about, then I have to admit it was the intersectional feminist movement that triggered it.
It might seem obvious to everyone now, but in past we had an unconscious tendency to center one point of view as the ‘gender neutral’ norm. This norm however wasn’t neutral at all, it had a strong identity, that of white western, usually, middle to upper class, able bodied man, paired with all the current cultural expectations of masculinity attributed to that class and culture. This seemed so natural, it is as if this ‘identity’ was the identity of the profession of architecture. Architecture as a field had these gender norms and expectations of behavior built into it, and into practice itself. If you happened not to fit that norm. then the chances you had of true participation, being recognized and having influence in the field were marginal. In the end this underlying assumption became counterproductive, there was nothing inherently bad about anything in that identity, it just wasn’t inclusive enough, we needed more stories to get a bigger picture. We could no longer continue to subordinate the diversity in the field to privilege this one point of view.
We were under threat from many sides, we felt it from each other in the form of competition, we felt it from the retreating support of the state, from the centralization and increasing automatization of industry, from the ‘expulsion’ economy and weak legislature. We even felt threatened by the idea that ‘other’ types’ of perspectives and people would be seen as integral to the profession. We felt like we were losing power and relevancy. Without really realizing it, we kept protecting this one normative white masculine point of view because we thought we were protecting architecture. We hadn’t learned to separate this bias from reality. The norm seemed to be where all the power was. Fear was leading to narrowness. We could see how politics at the time in tithe United Sates, starting from 2017 and Donald Trump’s Presidency, was dealing with threat. The backlashes throughout Europe and here in the Netherlands were part of a similar trend, and this was a warning toll. Could this be our mirror? Could this be our future? We decided emphatically no.
Q: So what happened then, how did you implement change and how did this lead to the success we’ve had in in centering architecture and the built environment in the transition to preventing catstorphic climate change, the rich culture we enjoy today and economic stability?
A: We needed to make a great shift to survive and to become truly relevant again for society and the future as a profession. By upholding this singular point of view, we were blocking out or under representing a great deal of the potential., reality, solutions and intellect in the profession. Especially among the youth and the future of our field. When we stopped centering this one point of view an enormous amount of energy and possibility was released. When we stopped putting energy into creating and maintaining divisions and false status internally we made room for a sense of unity, solidarity and collective will. As a result, we were less easy to conquer as a professional group by outside forces and we grew in relevance and influence.
The transition we needed to make was both pragmatic, and of course like all things in heaven and earth, inherently political. It was a six-fold campaign waged at once; internal, legislative, public, industry based, in education and at state level. It was a feat of profession wide mobilization and solidarity. We worked on inclusion and basic supports from within and with major clients, education and industry. We made agreements to protect commissions, fair and equal pay for the work done. Created incentives for cooperation between offices. We made sure we considered parenthood not as obstacle but part of a person’s career, and made sure people could be supported to return to the profession after long periods away for parenting or illness. Not only to include people, but so the field itself could benefit from the diversity of experiences. We did everything we could to understand and support what empowering management and a healthy, creative work environment should look and feel like.
We challenged law to protect labor rights but also to protect future generations to make clauses that would always mean new architects and young graduates would get a chance to participate in the big commissions. We shifted focus, we created a platform, funded in every possible way you can imagine, for new experiments from outside our normative discourse, on a technical, spatial and social level. We were no longer hesitant to center care and democratic access to sustainable technology and economic independence, nor to challenge the bias of culture that was steering away from ethics and beauty. We did everything we could to bring our perspective to the public mind.
Allowing young women, transgender people and men from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to lead, greatly increased our audience and grassroots political support. We came out in solidarity for other professions and people under threat. With political influence came the ability to implement new policies to center new economic solutions, circularity and using the built environment as the great generator for combating climate catastrophe. As a result of inclusion, we were able to act quickly, and make the necessary connections. instead of being left behind as we had feared, we essentially led the way forward in society. The rest is history.