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When and why did architecture isolate itself as a profession?


Shama Patwardhan, Palak Gupta, Anchal Srivastava, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Agency, Profession, Pedagogy, Practice, Education, Professional, Discourse, Contingency, Externality, Educational, School, College, University, Firm, Company, Client, Customer, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Peter Eisenman: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris's idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him … Walter Benjamin talks about "the destructive character,” which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgment that I am screwing up the world because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.


Cristopher Alexander: Good God!


PE: Nor should you feel angry. I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally, there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc.


CA: If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs. Excuse me, I'm sorry, but I feel very, very strongly about this. It's all very well to say: "Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here -- it's all fine". But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world. And if a group of very powerful people, yourself and others …


PE: How does someone become so powerful if he is screwing up the world? I mean some body is going to see through that …


CA: Yes, I think they will quite soon.


This is an excerpt from the 1982 Debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman on contrasting concepts of harmony in Architecture. It was an early discussion of Architecture's "New Sciences" of organized complexity. This iconic discussion took place at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design on November 17th, 1982.

Shama Patwardhan, Palak Gupta, Anchal Srivastava, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Agency, Profession, Pedagogy, Practice, Education, Professional, Discourse, Contingency, Externality, Educational, School, College, University, Firm, Company, Client, Customer, Zeyka, Zeyka India

It all started in the 1970s. Jane Jacobs brought down Robert Moses, and Pruitt Egor housing was considered a failure. Modernism was labeled a failure for not delivering on its promises of social redemption, made a century earlier. It was the decade of the rise of computers, technology, and consumer electronics. The introduction of postmodernism in architecture with the Vanna Venturi home, all contributed to this. Finally, globalisation increased urbanisation, and informality served as fuel for the fire.


If you were an architect at the time, you could have seen your profession's walls crumble as fast as one could imagine. The profession was on fire from all sides. All the masters had retreated without apologising. To inflict even more damage, they had declared that the demands of the world were unsubstantiated. So, what would have you done?

Shama Patwardhan, Palak Gupta, Anchal Srivastava, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Agency, Profession, Pedagogy, Practice, Education, Professional, Discourse, Contingency, Externality, Educational, School, College, University, Firm, Company, Client, Customer, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Jane Jacobs, Peter Lynch, Christopher Alexander, and others were altering the way we looked at cities, thereby shifting attention away from architects and planners and towards urban designers. Architects were under attack and also had their limelight snatched away from them.


Except for a few isolated cases throughout the world, the profession's common path was one of retreat. Only a few architects stepped forward to redefine their practice's modalities. The masters took on the role of pedagogues once more. They preached the same ideas under the guise of postmodernism, then neoliberalism, and finally avant-garde architecture.


One of the major characteristics of the time was the prevailing theoretical establishment that remained consumed and obsessed with the formal and linguistic notions of the architecture of the past. As a result, intellectual credibility remained in the hands of a select few. And they were only given to structuralism's tenets. As a result, traditional pedagogy and practice were once again intertwined.


As a result, architecture retreated, and new professions arose to fill the gap. This undermined architecture's social importance. Thus the world had become more abstract than it had ever been. It once again adopted autonomy over reality.

Shama Patwardhan, Palak Gupta, Anchal Srivastava, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Agency, Profession, Pedagogy, Practice, Education, Professional, Discourse, Contingency, Externality, Educational, School, College, University, Firm, Company, Client, Customer, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Spanish architect and critic Ignasi de Sola-Morales put it as "an interior game architecture was a cosmos sufficient unto itself, fed by its own history and growing from the interiors of its laws and conventions."


The critics and mouthpieces did their best to use hyperboles. This persuaded architects to take part in the retreat. And it appealed to the vast majority of the profession. As a result, they were able to define the profession's behaviour on its terms. It is worth noting that India's Architects Act was enacted in 1972 as well.


We defined a profession based on the excellence of master’s works and their "great" architecture. This profession's main aim was to protect its autonomy at all costs, not to serve and produce. How? By enclosing the ‘degrading' forces of nature. Underneath it, imperialism, modernism, and structuralism's dictatorial forces and value systems were maintained.


“This expresses Eisenman's idea of order: it is not about wholeness, but rather the expression – one could say celebration – of separation and frustration. It is this “social narrative” which is all that matters to him.

The debate is, therefore – despite the title given to it at the time, of “Discord Over Harmony in Architecture” – more about Order than Harmony: Foucault’s Order of Things vs Alexander’s Nature of Order. On the one hand we have Order presented as something subjective, socially-constructed, with the flavour of repression about it, and on the other Order as something objective, a fundamental property of matter, something essentially generative. Alexander was convinced, as he had been for twenty years – well before Eisenman got into bed with any “nuova scienza” – that Order and Harmony were both objective facts, susceptible to scientific method, and, since the debate took place, a number of scientists have begun to come around to this same position. By contrast, Derrida’s use of science has now been classed among the Intellectual Impostures, so here in the debate we see the early stages of the inevitable clash between real science and voodoo science in architecture, which is only now coming out into the open in the wake of the publication of Charles Jencks’s The New Paradigm in Architecture.

Subsequent architectural history shows that Alexander's “New Paradigm” has been marginalised, as professional opinion steadily embraced Eisenman's paradigm. Many question how this could possibly have happened. Why should people have ignored the sane, reasonable, and humane vision of Alexander in order to embrace the transgressive vision of the deconstructivists – a vision, as Alexander pointed out twenty years ago, that neglects feeling? But of course the deconstructivists don't neglect feeling altogether. Theirs is the feeling generated by abstractions writ large, by the shock of scale and contrast, by the sensationalism and spectacle of the new and the bizarrely transfigured – a totemic architecture of novelty. Eisenman's architecture turned out to be a perfect fit with a late-industrial society seeking ever more thrilling forms, new assemblies, alien geometries – all permutations of the same limited industrial vocabulary. The deconstructivists offered this world a highly entertaining new metallic expression. That it had little nutritional content was not the point.”


Shama Patwardhan, Palak Gupta, Anchal Srivastava, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Agency, Profession, Pedagogy, Practice, Education, Professional, Discourse, Contingency, Externality, Educational, School, College, University, Firm, Company, Client, Customer, Zeyka, Zeyka India


About the Writer

Anchal Srivastava is an architect, urban planner, writer, researcher and scholar. She is a certified GIS specialist from IIRS, ISRO, Dehradun. She is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi and Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technical University (APJAKTU), Uttar Pradesh. She has experience working at the Town and Country Planning Organisation Delhi, Jabalpur Smart City Limited, Suresh Goel & Associates (SGA), APS Green Architects & Associates, and as the head architect at SSAP and Shantiniketan Buildtech Pvt. Ltd.


About the Editor

Shama Patwardhan is an architect and writer from Mumbai. She is a graduate of the Rachana Sansad's Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society, India. She has experience working with Rethinking The Future (RTF), Abhikalpan Architects and Planners, and Manasaram Architects.


About the Illustrator

Palak Gupta is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is also a graphic designer, illustrator and painter. She has experience working on the packaging design and branding for NutriTown Organics.

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