The latest edition of the AIA’s Handbook of Professional Practice includes, for the first time in its nearly 100-year history, a section called “The Architect in the Political Process.” Featured in the book’s opening chapter on professional life, the new addition boldly states its intention in the first sentence: “Architecture, by its very nature, is political, and architects are often well suited to be effective participants in the political process.” The handbook describes why architects are uniquely qualified to make important professional contributions in the political arena: They are often in a position to influence public projects, their work is subject to intense public scrutiny, and they are often asked to be visionary by creating new concepts and translating them into reality.
The recognition that a political dimension exists in architectural practice is an important first step for the AIA, and I applaud them for including it in the handbook. For this view is clearly not universally shared by architects. The reviews of the recent Venice architecture biennale and the United States pavilion there make this quite clear. Almost all commentators suggested that the American pavilion featured designers who foreground political engagement, while work in other sections of the biennale focused on form and ignored societal concerns. These reviews, written by both journalists and practicing architects, paint a picture of two competing professional approaches, forgetting that all architecture is on some level political. While certain architects continue to claim a stance above the political fray, others choose to acknowledge and celebrate the political dimension of architecture through varied approaches to collaboration.
The U.S. pavilion, for example, featured work that maintained a high level of design while also benefiting from a collaborative process. Projects by Rural Studio, Teddy Cruz, and Laura Kurgan’s Spatial Design Lab are only three obvious examples. Conversely, not all the work elsewhere in the biennale was blind to its social and political context. The sculptural project by Frank Gehry highlighted Italian craftsmen and the communal nature of construction by having those artisans on hand during the run of the biennale, continuously applying plaster to the structure. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s video installation of gondolas navigating Venice’s canals featured the commentary of gondoliers, putting workaday life front and center. Such works were clearly stronger for their engagement with the outside world.
Even those designers who live exclusively inside digital space, where they believe they can determine all the variables and parameters of their world, must confront the social and political realities of practice. If they don’t, their work will remain only design and not architecture.