Looking through this year’s promising group of “Emerging Voices,” it’s hard not to be encouraged about the future of architecture. The eight firms selected by the Architectural League of New York, through a portfolio competition, represent a diversity of approaches and an impressive output of work. Art-based practices, DIY pluckiness, landscape urbanism, boundary-crossing offices, socially conscious projects, these eight firms demonstrate the dynamic and varied currents shaping architecture today. Several of the firms also happen make very beautiful buildings. Parametric design, while present, seems an underlying, rather than dominant concern for these firms. Time will tell if that is a lasting trend or merely reflects the moment or predilections of this year’s jury.
Like our media-saturated culture at large, there seems to be a lack of a general conversation in architecture, the intellectual lingua franca has gone missing. Debates are scattered over media platforms, schools, local architecture centers, and even across continents. The style wars of the past, the Whites versus the Grays, for example, seem provincial and quaint, something for which to be nostalgic. While the passions of those debates were generative, producing books, exhibitions, and not much architecture, the in group/out group quarreling now feels like wasted energy, tone-deaf to the concerns of the larger world. Today, architectural history and theory occupy the ever-swelling ranks of PhDs. Practice, even for young, ambitious design firms, is more grounded, more connected to making, to clients, to engaging with the city, to addressing—in whatever limited way architecture can—pressing contemporary challenges.
That is not to say that today’s designers are not intellectually driven, just that their aims are more open rather than dedicated to disciplinary infighting and name-making. If anything, young architects work more fluidly across global contexts, design and fabrication technologies, and new regulatory hurdles. They are generalists rather than specialists. Architecture as a discipline has become more porous. In so doing, young architects have made themselves and the discipline more approachable and more relevant to the culture.
As economic recovery begins to take hold—hopefully in spite of government spending cuts—it will be exciting to see these and other promising firms begin to operate in a more fertile environment, to further expand their reach. Despite the economic strain of the past five to six years, architecture has not stood still. Paper architecture and academic retreat was never going to be the approach this generation would take to the challenges of today. Who can fault them for that?