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What is the architect's responsibility? A polemic against the text by Tomasz Malkowski

11 of February '21

Tomasz Malkowski's text, which appeared in the summary of 2020 in architecture, electrified the architectural community for a while. Social networks, which are usually sluggish in reacting to texts about architecture, have debated like never before. Dozens of architects engaged in a heated discussion about their profession. I would like to thank Tomasz Malkowski for sparking this discussion - no matter how much I disagree with him, a public debate about architecture is sorely needed in Poland.

I am writing these words while waiting out the lockdown in an apartment rented for a few months in one of the new developer's housing estates. Although there is not a single tree within a radius of several dozen meters (underground parking lots), due to the density of the development, direct sunlight never reaches my apartment. Not only is the entire development lacking in greenery - there are also no services (neither private nor public) and well-designed places for leisure activities. Instead, there are parking lots, Żabka and a high wire fence separating us from the older - much greener - part of the city. There is a reason why I am meticulous in describing the surrounding spatial context. It is through the prism of the daily experience of living in smog and ugliness that the general public evaluates architecture and architects. And it is on the flawed criteria for evaluating architecture that the critical text by Tomasz Malkowski, with which I will argue, focuses.

In his text, Tomasz Malkowski criticizes competitions. Not those whose task is to determine the best future concept. The criticism focuses on competitions that summarize architects' past activities, such as the popular year-end summaries. According to the article's author, something is wrong with the criteria for evaluating buildings in such summaries. As he argues, instead of looking at the craftsmanship of the creator, the pro-social functions and good intentions behind a particular building are evaluated. Instead of rewarding objectively best-designed buildings in architectural competitions, buildings that are at best correct, but are endowed with a social mission, are rewarded. "AmI the only one who gets a red light when a class-oriented nomenclature is injected into the evaluation of architectural works?" asks Malkowski rhetorically, describing moments later the logic of the competition criteria he describes as moral blackmail.

The polemic is made more difficult by the fact that the author of the article has not explained what criteria he thinks should be used to evaluate architecture. Here and there he writes about the "general lack of any signs of excellence, originality, above-average" of highly rated works, which he does not like. Writing in turn about good - Western - examples, he praises them for their "strong concept," "visionary" and "courage." Does this mean that for Tomasz Malkowski the correct criterion for evaluation is the unique form? It is a pity that the author did not formulate his suggestions on how to evaluate contemporary architecture.

Despite this glaring deficiency, Tomasz Malkowski's text deserves polemics. For the author has chosen the object of his criticism extremely well. Contest-summaries are like space-time tunnels that connect the closed world of architecture with the more general public debate on Polish space. It is through such juxtapositions that narratives that have hitherto reigned in hermetic architectural circles have a chance to confront those of the general public. I understand the bitterness of architects at this state of affairs: their architecture is judged for qualities over which the architect has very limited influence. The location, program or mission of a building is usually clearly defined before the architect gets to work. From this point of view, addressing resentment for failures only to architects is extremely unfair.

However, this does not change the fact that architecture, although created by architects, is used and evaluated mainly by people unrelated to the profession. Immediately after construction, buildings detach themselves from their creators and live their own lives, enmeshed in a complex contemporary social context. So the question is, who should judge the buildings: the architects who create them, or the society they serve? I don't understand very well what would be the use of summaries in which architects are judges in their own case.

Journalists compiling year-end summaries, meanwhile, represent the point of view of huge and heterogeneous groups of their readers. Mr. Sarzynski has been criticized wrongly: by creating summaries, he fulfills his journalistic mission, confronting the works of architects with public expectations. Unfortunately, there is little critical debate in the architectural media. Focusing on the craftsmanship of the creators, it rarely addresses the key problems of architecture users. Such as the daily reality of living in the shtetl, which I described at the beginning of the article.

I am not uncritical towards the competition-summits. I understand the embitterment of architects: they are often reprimanded unjustly, for mistakes that arose already at the conceptual stage. The creators of summaries should constantly update the methodology of the competitions they organize. They should also promote the message that "city-making" is the result of cooperation between many actors. Reward and punishment should be given to the partnership of architects, developers, planners, activists and officials. Isolating architecture from the complex context of building creation makes absolutely no sense. Importantly, this principle should work for architectural failures as well as successes.

The architectural community, in turn, should take advantage of the opportunity for direct dialogue with broad segments of society provided by journalists. Today, channels of communication between the public and the world of architecture are dramatically lacking. A grotesque (but also frightening due to the scale) example are the dozens of "revitalized" market squares across Poland, transformed - as we now hear, against the expectations of users - from green oases into granite pans. If the architectural community had participated more actively in the public discussion of Polish cities, this drama could have been avoided. The case of the markets is depressing, because it is not one isolated case. It has turned out that the architectural community ignores public expectations in a systemic way.

This conclusion leads to another strand of Tomasz Malkowski's text, with which I fundamentally disagree. Although not explicitly, the author formulates the architect's responsibilities quite narrowly. He treats architecture as a craft - the ability to construct a building based on set parameters. The craftsmanship of working with the building material and structural system, the knowledge of how to create functional spaces, as well as the ability to understand the investor and fit within the budget - these, as I understand it, are the qualities of an ideal architect. While such an architect is responsible for the construction of the building, he bears no responsibility for the social consequences of the works he creates.

Such a "technical" reading of the architect's role is understandable. Socio-economic changes, which basically caused the disappearance of the public investor (in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the West and a decade later in Poland), made it insanely difficult for architects to carry out their public mission. Their new generations adapted to this situation, abandoning the mission and focusing on architectural craftsmanship. This approach, however, compromised and put many architects in a very uncomfortable position. Instead of talking proudly about her out-of-the-box buildings, Elizabeth Diller has to defend herself against accusations that she is responsible for the gentrification of midtown Manhattan. For the self-isolation of architects does not mean that the public will view their responsibilities differently. In the public perception, an architect is a profession of public trust, even though the lion's share of architects' clients are private businesses. There is only one way out of this paradoxical situation: active and constructive participation of the architectural community in the public debate on space.

This is all the more important because public expectations of architecture will grow over time. I fully agree with Tomasz Malkowski's observation that the criteria for evaluating architecture are evolving and becoming increasingly "collectivist." However, he is wrong to insist that the phenomenon of increasingly tighter evaluation of buildings in their social context applies only to Poland. Similar criteria apply in the contemporary architectural debate around the world, as the author himself noted, citing the widely acclaimed and award-winning buildings of Alejandro Aravena and the Lacaton & Vassal office. In Polish criteria for evaluating architecture, one can hear echoes of those currently used by critics in the West. By the way, moving along trodden paths is typical of the Polish debate on architecture.

The mechanism described by Tomasz Malkowski will deepen with time. When the framework of public discussion changes, the public perception of architecture automatically changes. This in turn affects the criteria for evaluating buildings in competitions. As an example, let's take the seemingly very distant from Polish problems discussion around race and colonialism. Its indirect result is the desire to value architecture located far from the core of the West. Jurors of competitions such as the Mies van der Rohe Prize are looking with increasing attention at buildings located in post-colonial countries, or.... post-communist. In the name of equality, they value distant realizations, even if it means rewarding architecture with less access to new technologies and smaller budgets. If Polish criticism ever went in a similar direction, buildings in former county capitals or on the sites of bankrupt state farms, for example, would have a greater chance of awards.

Thechange in the frame of discussion is not only about architecture: literary and film awards are also evolving. Looking at how the Academy Awards changed last year (not without scandal), we can anticipate possible trajectories for the development of architectural awards. Perhaps in the near future, jurors of architectural competitions will try to balance the number of awards given to men and women. Or perhaps it will matter how the construction process was organized and who participated in it? This is slowly happening: already today awarding a major prize to, for example, a stadium that would have been built by scandalously treated immigrants seems unlikely.

To sum up: I agree with the diagnosis made by Tomasz Malkowski. The competitions-summits evaluate architecture according to non-architectural criteria. However, I do not agree that this is a bad phenomenon for the architecture profession. Cooperation with journalists from outside the world of architecture is the best way to systematically update this hermetic profession. The phenomena described by Tomasz Malkowski will get worse. The political, economic or environmental revaluations that are taking place in Poland (and more broadly: in Europe and the West) will redefine the framework of public debate. All the aforementioned aspects of change are directly linked to the shape of urban space. It is architects who have a direct influence on it, so it is difficult to expect architecture to be excluded from the public debate on these most relevant issues.

It's time to prepare for the discussion. One can start with a public conversation about the criteria for evaluating architecture and the extent of architects' social responsibility. Tomasz Malkowski's article was a great start and critique of the current order. The next step should be a constructive discussion (moderated by "Architecture & Business"?) about the criteria for evaluating architecture. I suggest including people from outside the profession, such as Piotr Sarzynski, a distinguished contributor to the Polish debate on cities. Perhaps the next summary of the year in "Polityka" will be created on the basis of the new criteria for evaluating architecture, emerging from the discussion just beginning.


Lodz, 17.01.2021

PS Tomasz Malkowski's article was full of references to the literature of Ayn Rand - an avid free-market fundamentalist and lover of unfettered individualism. I wondered whether, in the spirit of absurdity, to balance the invocation of Rand with quotes from Maksim Gorky. However, I decided not to do so - if we want to talk constructively, let's exclude extremists from the debate.

Kuba Snopek - urban planner, urban researcher, educator. He is the author of the book "Bielajewo: Monument of the Future," dedicated to the protection of intangible heritage, and the project "Architecture of the Seventh Day" - a study of churches built in Poland in the second half of the 20th century. Kuba is also the co-author of "Scena" - an award-winning public space in the city of Dnipro, created through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. He is a Fulbright scholar and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently working on the "Real Estate Art" project, a study of art funded by developers.

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