History has a habit of identifying the dominant architectural movements of a time in very broad strokes: Beaux Arts, Victorian, Art Deco, Modernist, Post-Modern, and so on. Nuance is sacrificed in the name of simplicity, even though myriad sub-movements compose each stylistic or philosophical era.
To talk about architecture today, we use the categorically vague term "contemporary architecture," since we don't have the benefit of hindsight to analyze which practitioners turn out to be the most influential and which movements are the most significant. However, one thing is abundantly clear about today's landscape: The work before and after the financial crisis of 2006-2008 is profoundly different. A new infographic by Alejandro Zaera-Polo, an architect and the embattled former dean of Princeton's School of Architecture, attempts to categorize exactly how.
"During the last decade, there has been a growing interest within the architectural debate about the possibility of a political re-engagement of the discipline, a subject which had been remarkably absent from the disciplinary debate since the 1970s, but which seems to be back in the spotlight," Zaera-Polo writes in an essay on ArchDaily that unpacks the dominant architectural themes of the past decade.
The infographic originally appeared in El Croquis, an architecture journal based in Spain, and includes 181 emerging firms placed into a spectrum of seven categories: "Activist" architects who focus mostly on community building projects funded by non-conventional strategies, like Urban Think Tank's Metro Cable connecting informal communities in Caracas, Venezuela; "populist" architects who are trying to make their work more accessible and understandable to the public through how they're presented and discussed, like BIG and its media-friendly diagrams; "new historicist" architects who use history to inform their work, like L.A. architects Johnson Marklee; "skeptics," whose reaction to the financial crisis's impact was to return to postmodernism's playfulness; "material fundamentalist" architects who provide a tangible counterpoint to slick, glossy pre-crash architecture using tactile materials, like Smiljan Radic, who is known for his visceral structures; "austerity chic" architects who focus on process, like Asif Kahn ; and "techno-critical" architects, whose practices focus on speculative architecture, like Terreform One and its biotech-based design.
To map the firms on the circular diagram, Zaera-Polo and his research partner Guillermo Fernandez-Abascal estimated the political inclinations of each. The more closely a firm hews to a category, the closer it appears to the circumference. The more hybridized the firm's approach, the closer it appears to the center.
This approach is not without its flaws, Zaera-Polo and Fernandez-Abscal admit. "The difficulties of locating the practices are evident: Some of the practices were often bridging non-adjacent categories, so they were difficult to locate," they state in their essay. "Practices are not homogeneous and sometimes shift positions between projects and sometimes, between partners." When they asked the 181 firms to locate themselves on the map (only 101 firms participated in the self assessment), 15% matched where Zaera-Polo and Fernandez-Abscal placed them, 20% placed themselves in a different position entirely, and 5% said they didn't fit into any category at all.
It was a legendary diagram from Charles Jencks—an architectural historian and founder of the cancer charity Maggie's Center—that first inspired El Croquis' writers. In 2000, Jencks attempted to distill the dominant architectural forces of the 20th century and chart their ebb and flow in what he famously called an "evolutionary tree":
In an article he penned for the Architectural Review, Jencks wrote:
[T]he last century was uncommonly turbulent. My diagram, and its tortuous blobs, captures this continual revolution. At any one time, the twentieth century architect has had to face three or four competing movements of architecture, respond to changes in technology, social forces, style and ideology—not to mention world wars and such large impersonal forces as the Internet. It was an exhausting century.
It's been a rough few years, politically, all around the world. 2016 has been especially exhausting, to borrow Jencks's terminology, and architecture has felt it, too. Two major forces in today's architectural landscape—the AIA and Patrick Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects—were thrust into political controversy within the last month for remarks they made, the former for pledging to cooperate with President-Elect Trump and the latter for promoting privatization and attacking public housing. Members of the AIA responded by distancing themselves from the professional organization's politics, whole Zaha Hadid's firm issued a letter lambasting Schumacher's words and clarifying its belief in socially driven work.
While the financial crisis rocked architecture—the purse strings tightened and architects had to respond with work that was more budget minded, resource effective, and thoughtful—today's political climate may be sparking a similar "rethinking" of architectural practice, as practitioners are questioning what their impact ought to be.
"Many of the practices tended to express a wish to move toward the center of the chart, to remain in a more ambiguous position, including those positions which claimed that every project develops its own political stance," Zaera-Polo and Fernandez-Abscal write in their essay. The duo make no predictions about the future of architecture from their study, but its granular study of architecture's identity during a "who are we?" moment might help catalyze the next big thing.