Architectural offices benefited from the real estate bubble of the last decade, and yet, when the bubble burst, architects pretended that they had had nothing to do with it. Many influential "global" architects attempt to defend the autonomy of architecture—an approach reflected in the way architecture is taught, especially at prestigious architectural schools, such as the Architectural Association and Bartlett. Pedagogy at those schools is still dominated by esoteric philosophies, abstract briefs and beautiful drawings. But perhaps it is hard to expect the Centre of pedagogy and practice to be self-reflective, to expect that the same architects who for years have pretended to be pop stars—dictating to developers and the general public what architecture is and how it should be discussed—might admit that they were just well-paid puppets, living in an imaginary world of everlasting growth and prosperity based on cultural vanity projects and speculative development. And perhaps, in turn, it is unreasonable to expect the students of these schools to develop such criticality.
So, if the Centre is unable to ask tough questions about the social, political, and economic responsibility of architecture, where can this attitude be found? Perhaps one should start to look at the periphery, where the influences of the establishment are weaker, where "freedom" might enable rebellion.
The Plymouth University School of Architecture & Design had its glory years in the 1980s, when Adrian Gale, who had worked in the Mies van der Rohe office in Chicago, took over the school. Before this period it was a rather sleepy school, tucked away in beautiful southwest England. Six years ago, Illinois native Bob Brown became the director of the Master of Architecture. Brown gave the programme a very strong character of social responsibility. Students began to work on projects in line with the slogan "real places, real people, real projects." Second year students began to study sites outside the UK, typically in cities experiencing rapid social and spatial change. Two years ago, when Krzysztof Nawratek joined the programme, an increasingly political approach was added to the existing social agenda.
"Architecture is not independent of the socio-political or economical context in which it exists. The same building can drastically change its meaning and function when the socio-political context changes. I grew up in Eastern Europe—I saw it with my own eyes. Over just several months neighborhoods changed dramatically—even though it was still physically the same buildings, the same streets," says Nawratek.
Plymouth students and staff are convinced that architecture should be always evaluated from outside the profession. Buildings should be always considered in the broadest possible context: spatially, politically, socially and economically.
Radical rejection of architecture's autonomy is a rebellious gesture, and an expression of rage against mainstream architectural education visible in British universities. Interestingly, in Plymouth, architecture is contextualised not only in the field of social sciences, but also from a highly practical engineering perspective. There are always two questions: How is the building built?, and How does it affect society? In London, earlier this summer, students from the University of Plymouth and the Technical University of Gdansk exhibited their work together. The projects focused on the impact of a major new road linking Gdansk's airport and port, and the exhibition was an opportunity to critically reflect on the social, economic, political, spatial, and cultural effects of large infrastructure projects in the context of the current financial crisis. A century after the architects of the Congress International Architecture Moderne (CIAM) first asked this question, the students' aim was to consider: what role is there for architects as active agents of political and social change? Can urbanism and architecture be part of radical politics?
The exhibition entitled Radical Architecture? was launched with a debate between Owen Hatherley author of Militant Modernism and Contemporary Ruins of Great Britain , and Malcolm Miles, author of, inter alia, Cities and Cultures, Consuming Cities and his latest book Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetic of Liberation. The conversation between two Marxist critics of architecture harmonised neatly with the works presented. Projects included a proposal for radically low-cost social housing, where the starting point was not the form, but the legal and economic conditions, and a decentralised carp-breeding plant, exploring the tension between the pragmatic and highly functional aspects of technology and a decentralised socio-economic environment of suppliers and buyers of fish. Another project utilised the skills of shipyard workers, focusing on the manual preparation of products and specifying the building down to the level of a single screw and including a manual for the building's construction.
One of the most fascinating projects was a pirate wastewater treatment plant. This project carefully presented a process of hacking into the urban sewer network in order to return to people—by producing fertiliser and building materials—what the state takes from them. On a theoretical and social level, this project was a polemic aimed at the obsession with 'clean' sterile cities and space, the political effect of which is always some kind of fascism.
There were no projects for galleries, museums or luxury homes for imaginary clients. It was functional, useful architecture; design that participates in the struggle for a better city and a better world for everyone, not only the wealthiest. Krzysztof Nawratek, who in April became the new Master of Architecture director at the school in Plymouth, is blunt about the programme's objectives: "We want to educate architects who know exactly how buildings designed by them work, we want to educate architects who know how these buildings can become weapons in the fight for a better world. Yes, we believe that a better world is possible and we want to build it. I personally do not have a problem with the word 'revolution.'"
The formal language of these projects is rebellious and unpolished, rejecting the glossy uninhabited world portrayed in architectural magazines. The strength and ideological intransigence of this architecture lies in its content, and it will find a way to seduce us. Forget the well-fed and self-satisfied architects of the Centre. The revolution is coming from the periphery.
Marcin Szczelina is a Poland-based architecture writer, co-curator of Biennale EVENTO in Bordeaux, and co-founder of SALON: Laboratory for Testing Boundaries of Architecture.