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Death to the architectural concept



You will undoubtedly be asking, isn’t the conceptual element in architecture important? Most definitely, perhaps it’s now even more important than ever before. But a good concept alone is no longer sufficient in current times. There is most definitely life after conception, maybe life doesn’t even start until this point. But it’s a long way between the concept and the realisation.

The art of building has been forced to develop towards a somewhat more technological direction since the nineteen fifties. Back in those days it was fairly easy to keep up with current methods as an architect. You knew the masonry connections, you knew how to detail a wooden frame and you were generally capable of sorting out a mechanical problem yourself too.

The physical building aspects were also comprehensible. The material was taken to the building site and the building work was completed based on the specification drawings provided by the architect. This is naturally quite a simplistic description of the method of working in those days.

It’s not worth the effort to sketch out a caricature of the current situation within this afternoon’s context. But you should certainly be in no doubt of the major differences with the aforementioned description.

The architect has a different message and all the airs and graces can be locked away. The army of star architects which is conquering the world still exists. They behave like Aliens which are realising their strange concepts right in the middle of historic structures, which they appear not to have noticed. We are taking great interest in becoming acquainted with these in the glossy magazines. But it’s not the essence of the task we are currently faced with.

The writer Indira van’t Klooster writes the following in the introduction to the “Reactivate! Innovators of Dutch architecture” book: “The post star architects generation isn’t concerned with iconic concepts, nor with serial facade production in the suburbs. The ideas regarding how society should function at a social, economic and cultural level have seen some major changes at the start of the 21st century. And so the youngest generation of architects no longer refers to a Programme of Requirements and specifications, but instead talk about economic engineering, open source urbanism, urban bio logic, Freemium, performative urbanism, crowd funding and the Ideal Day method. These are instruments for new finance mechanisms, product development for homebuilders, energy flows and closed cycles, soil sanitation and social innovation in empty buildings”. End of quote.

The future changes in our physical environment are now starting to take shape. However, the question does remain: has the Delft course noticed these changes and has it included them in the curriculum. Perhaps we should be asking whether the course would have wanted to include the changes. I do wonder to what extent this is actually necessary. Why not allow the practical component to regulate the practical issues. We now have the WAT (Wet op de Architectentitel) (Architect Title Act) in place, which dictates 2 years of professional experience. The faculty can concentrate on the autonomous course to the architectural engineer. You can always become an architect at a later stage. You specifically need to devote a great deal of attention to research. Technology is constantly becoming more important. Plus there is a backlog in the construction technology which demands an innovative approach.

A future without new technological developments is simply unthinkable and impossible. Building or constructing is not particularly in the forefront in the flow of the technological evolution. But there are now an increasing number of industries which will be interested in our spatial planning. Technology’s major influence is on the up. Plus the technical components are becoming smaller and less visible. We still thought we needed to “technologise” traditional materials and methods back in the times of the High-tech movement. I was personally very involved with this too. This movement definitely resulted in architects thinking differently about constructions, building physics and transition technology. The information technology development will prove to be more radical than the development of the physical and material technology. At the same time society is changing too. The social and technological changes will develop a very strong relationship and will become interdependent.

Architects are far too often seen as visual suppliers. Many consider this concept to be quite satisfactory. The responsibility for the realisation is left to other parties. This certainly hasn’t done the architects any good: architecture as a visual language. The 3D drawing programmes were selling like hot cakes. The ease with which the most beautiful 3D perspectives were being sold as architecture did an incredible amount of damage. Many customers did indeed appear to think that the architect supplied the images which would then be realised by others.

Luckily some changes are now becoming noticeable. Mainly the young architects are now establishing clear links with matters like energy technology, climate adaptation and food production. But social – and yes, specifically also global – areas of interest. Yet this broadening of the architect’s professional field also has its downsides. You will notice, for example, that they are now also presenting themselves as developers. Researching building possibilities and taking initiatives don’t seem like a problem to me. But be aware of the financial risks. These can be disastrous where making good and responsible plans are concerned.

I would also like to mention Thomas Rau’s ideas in this context.
Quote: ”People are no longer looking for possessions, but are looking for access to mobility, washes, usage. So they actually want to buy performance, whilst the raw materials remain the manufacturer’s property. They want access to a certain presentation. If we allow our existence to be less dependent on what we have compared to who we are, then the immaterial values which allow us to exist in the first place will take on a much greater meaning.” End of quote. I am not sure if he is right, but his ideas will undoubtedly have an impact. The availability of raw materials will become an important item in the near future. Society is also starting to hate waste and wasting. This doesn’t merely apply to money, but also to raw materials and even creativity in general.

The changes we can see around us are forcing us to reorientate. The number of architects has now halved, whilst the future building assignments haven’t really decreased. The number of entrants to the design market also isn’t showing signs of reducing for the time being. The last figures I am aware of from this faculty is that 553 Master diplomas were awarded in 2011. Eindhoven awarded 267 engineering diplomas in 2012-2013. Many of these are hoping and aspiring to be architects in the future. But this is a dream which will be difficult to fulfil.

Architectural Engineering has an important task in the changing architectural climate. There is plenty of work to be done in Delft, with a large share for research and innovative designs, in order to educate people who can repair the somewhat degenerate image of the architect. Not because of the architect’s image, but from pure social necessity. I have no intention of coming up with a list of focus points for the building industry in this company. I would imagine you are all familiar with them. Jos Lichtenberg has provided the following description: “The work will continue to look like the work of the current architect, yet with a great deal more emphasis on product knowledge, engineering and process on the one hand, plus the current and future user’s requirements on the other hand. And with many more responsibilities, comparable to our surrounding countries.” And also: “The role of the architect in this context is literally that of an industrial designer. Also employed by the industry. The system and the options are designed, not specifically the building or the home”. End of quotation.
The decorative visual culture needs to be replaced with a culture of intensification in materials and methods related to social problems and tasks. Even though it would seem interesting to come up with suggestions for the Architectural Engineering and Building technology course, I will try to refrain from doing so. There are plenty of people here who could do that. I remember back in my time we used to get told off for interfering with architecture in the lectures and where the students’ assistance was concerned. This used to make me feel quite rebellious. I am assuming it’s no longer an issue now.

Innovative designs, integral designs, cooperative designs, there are many different ways of referring to the new types of designs. One thing’s for sure and this is that we need to do it together. Working with a team of specialists right from the beginning, whereby the architect would need to take on a leading role in the first part of the total process. Christiaan Koremans from Zus has stated the following about the role: “The role of the future architect is not about producing buildings, but about programming and scheduling”. End of quotation.

Of course I do realise I have been skirting around the real problem somewhat, but whoever does know may stand up now. Innovation and technology would be leading concepts in the development of our physical environment. Irrespective of whether we are talking about the town, the building or about the detail.

But above all else, what’s really needed is a true passion and love for the profession. The concept hasn’t quite died yet, but will need to be moved to the next part of the process via the incubator, ensuring it can lead a long and happy life. Contraception is not an issue in our profession.

And I’d like to finish off with a saying for this afternoon: The glass is half full for the optimist, half empty for the pessimist and the glass is twice as big as it should have been for the architectural engineer.

Jan Brouwer.
March 2014.