by Paul Preissner

Architecture pretends to not just respond to trends and fashion, but to cultivate and facilitate them in its own unique way, creating the atmospheric social agreement that is culture. This has always been a progressive policy that leans heavily on the responsibilities of power to dramatically direct the new atmospheres that make up civilization. The subservience or manipulation of the power of building, money and clientele serves as an organizational proverb for architecture regarding responsibility and accountability.

Considering the proxy nature of this arrangement with power, perhaps architecture should reconsider the dividends afforded to it, since apart from the painfully slow process of progress, the power served tends to be much more effective at hastening culture’s elimination. As we wake up from the four week regression of Lebanon and the wholesale liquidation of Beirut (which only recently began to return to a complete and cosmopolitan city), we find ourselves contemplating the forced participation of the Lebanese people in a Buddhist mandala ritual on a scale too large to meditate upon and empty of spiritual fulfillment at its end, although the same message of impermanence is conveyed quite clearly.

In Tibetan Buddhism the mandala is an imaginary palace that is envisioned during meditation. The ritual is widely known as the process of representing this palace with colored sand through a ceremony that takes days and sometimes weeks to complete. At its end the palace is erased, signifying impermanence. It’s romantic to be sure. It’s also terrifyingly similar to what has happened to the Lebanese people during the past 40 years. Unlike the mandala ritual, in which only sand is destroyed, the Lebanon ritual also destroys people, life and culture, signifying the futility of life in a region with no power.

For a discipline that considers itself part of what constitutes culture and in possession of the ability to coordinate and manipulate material that facilitates it, perhaps it would be worth imagining a reversed tree of power. All this material expertise should be as valuable to politics as it is to the markets, especially considering that every presidential election in the US since 1980 has been decided on issues of cultural and personal definitions, over policies.

To be fair, the profession isn’t entirely absent from political issues. We are often quick to speak of our interest in pursuing ‘green’ materials or how we can come up with visually stunning projects for regions decimated by flood or hurricane. As the evolution of our planet’s ecology can attest, these critical areas of expertise and involvement certainly are needed. But when will we as a group decide to tackle unfashionable issues of violence, military influence and its consequences, and the extension of an industry whose only goal is to reduce buildings to rubble and living bodies to corpses?

Should Skidmore Owings and Merrill (for example) so casually participate in the design of a new NATO headquarters without bearing some culpability for the results of future aggression coordinated from those same offices? At that point in time, does the selection of office carpeting or the proportional organization of the building’s massing make a difference beyond creating comfort for those inside? Is it possible for one to refuse to take a position and still be exempt from this responsibility? Failure to engage these issues for lack of an internal opinion as to its role beyond the creation of buildings reduces architecture’s credibility as an agent in the articulation and organization of culture.

Architecture has never been about the specific detailing of construction in any effort besides its ability to produce a complete work. We aren’t fetishists and we aren’t isolated from the neighborly effects any new project produces. This atmospheric communication and the expertise and techniques employed to curate it require nothing less than a desperate commitment to the politics of discourse (which is why critical architecture is both important and raises people’s interest) and the engagement of a public. As the only aesthetic pursuit that is unavoidable in public life and the politics of space, it is also the only discipline that has no choice but to involve itself with the politics of public discourse. The difficulty lies in having the courage to engage in politics at a level beyond advocacy and beyond fashion.

Cities such as Beirut, Haifa, Fallujah, Baghdad, Sarajevo and Belgrade all attest to the destruction of life and culture through the maintenance of contemporary practices. The end goal of any military operation is invariably domination and pacification of what is framed as the opposition (enemy), without regard for preservation of lives, property or culture. The results are destroyed populations, ruined families and traumatized civilizations.

Architecture is completely failing the world right now, not because of its inability to create housing or withstand a flood or make someone happy while shaving, but because it refuses to participate in any serious conversation about power, politics, culture, military operations, or economics aside from how to get power, how it is glamorous, or the cost of concrete, steel and glass. As a discipline exceedingly fascinated by new colors and materials, petroleum based 3d-prints, the novel popularity of the architect and the fascination with celebrity, we are now reduced to willing participants in our own culture’s deterioration, even while we dress up and pretend to be its largest supporters.

The failure of the modern project within American society created an enormous fear among architects about the limits of our profession. Once considered capable of making anything better through design, architecture is now too insecure to contest any social or political agenda for fear of creating a larger Pruitt-Igoe. Content to design warehouses of past cultures and decadent homes for the elite, the discipline of architecture has largely removed itself from any sincere engagement with culture. Perhaps a fearless confidence, once possessed, provided architecture’s only non-reliant system of power over culture’s future and today’s behavior. The brilliance of past architects was their irreverent attitude toward power and tradition as well as their supreme faith in the promise of the new, however ugly or failed, to deliver something better. Architecture has fallen mute when it comes to speaking with absolute authority on the future. To save culture, architecture must reclaim its faith; otherwise there will be more Lebanon rituals to come.