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Hey architects, the future of architecture is not about you

Hey architects, the future of architecture is not about you

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As part of Verge Hack Week, we've invited great minds from around Vox Media to contribute their thoughts on the future of everything — from food to fashion to the written word. In this installment, we welcome Curbed senior editor Amy Schellenbaum.

Architecture is largely a discipline that sits on stilts, away from the floodlands of the people that use it in everyday life. These supports, which keep the art and science of building design (and, to some extent, the appreciation of buildings themselves) accessible primarily to card-carrying intellectuals, were erected, consciously or otherwise, in the last forty years by a team of masterful thinkers and artists (starchitects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid) and journalists who are quick to glamorize the field (like, say, by using terms like "starchitects").

In the last few years, people have started to shake the pillars architecture sits on, building their own weird little houses, crowdfunding their own architectural projects, and using buildings to solve small-scale problems. Architecture started gurgling up from the grasses; non-architects began building community centers in Haiti and apartments made of garbage Dumpsters in New York. These projects are not blessed by the powers that be in the architectural world, but they’re happening anyway.

These projects are not blessed by the powers that be in the architectural world, but they’re happening anyway

This is not the first time, either. Communes of the ’60s and ’70s were defined by this kind of building. Colorado’s 1965 Drop City, a counterculture community considered by some to be architecture’s "decent stab at sexual utopia," was built on a premise that entire societies could be impromptu art performances. Its geodesic dome dwellings, an architectural form popularized by a guy who got kicked out of Harvard twice, were built with the metal from old car roofs.

That’s not, of course, to say that communes will be a thing in 2016. Architecture (despite what some museum directors believe) is an art; it’s subject to the same types of paradigm shifts and pendulum-like swings as any other medium. The field’s not going to be totally cut-down and re-erected in some sort of micro home revolution — but there’s a shift imminent.

The proof that architecture is moving away from the elite (or, perhaps, disintegrating and reconstructing it) is in the proverbial Snackpack: Al Jazeera just announced a new six-part series on architects working to solve social problems — problems like a lack of low-cost housing in Vietnam or flooding in Nigeria’s slums. One of their featured architects looks at the role architecture plays in Israel’s occupation of Gaza.

Architecture (despite what some museum directors believe) is an art

More proof? Well, there’s the influx in scrappy, self-made buildings, plus the wealth of Kickstarter campaigns for urban projects. There’s the fact that big-name architects Tadao Andao, Toyo Ito, Fumihiko Maki, and Kengo Kuma drafted a petition in May to nudge fellow starchitect Zaha Hadid to scale down her wildly expensive plans for Tokyo’s Olympic stadium, which they deemed "too big and too artificial."

Perhaps the biggest indication of a change came five months ago, when the Pritzker Prize (an architecture award so primo, folk that earn it get the epithet "Pritzker Prize winner" attached to their names for basically eternity) went to a guy famous for designing and building disaster relief housing out of garbage and reconstructing earthquake-damaged cathedrals with cardboard.

By nature of the permanence and expense of its medium, it takes a long time for architecture to change, and this change has been roiling under the surface for years. For example, at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale (an event that’s considered the most important architectural exhibit in the world), famous architect David Chipperfield directed the show under the theme "Common Ground," a term, Maclean’s once wrote that’s "freighted with connotations of civic engagement." The entire event was considered a "veiled attack on […] big budget, signature-style buildings that dramatically transform cityscapes, often with blatant disregard for the neighbors." In an interview with design blog Dezeen, Chipperfield said architecture was like "perfume brands at Duty Free, on a pedestal, singular and isolated," and called for "standing on the ground, which we share." His Biennale was about "architectural culture" not about architects themselves.

It takes a long time for architecture to change

That pseudo-populist drumbeat thumps on: just recently, in New York Times, a prominent archicritic thoughtfully skewered the idea of the starchitect, writing that architecture "is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression."

That is to say what has been stewing on the corner burner since the economic collapse of the early ‘90s is starting to bubble; architecture is changing in a way that prioritizes the fulfillment of the community over the fulfillment of the individual, the built over the philosophized, the rudimentary over the sophisticated. And, well, hallelujah for that.