This is not utopia

”Let us leave beautiful women to men without imagination”. I was a teenager when I read this sentence by Marcel Proust, and I confess I was sceptical. But when it comes to “pretty” renderings, I have no doubt.

In the dazzling maelstrom of architectural images of the web, I can always spot the Danish project. There is the overpowering greenery and a sort of merry concupiscence across generations, races, genders, etc., all marinated in a thick layer of hygge and hysterically busy. And they are all quite similar.
The “Christiania” bike, driven by a young coloured woman or tattooed hipster (blond girl and dark small boy in the basket), is always speeding up to get to school before an important board meeting starts. And all around the scene people are, yet another day, preparing for the Olympics. All that locomotion! Like in the (bad) movies, when ideas disappear action takes over.
Although the green avalanche is already a cliché, it is still on the loose: both in the Amazonia and in Copenhagen, an unstoppable and omnivorous green wave has taken over, eating up our roads even before we finished them.

I think we should take another advice, this time from Borges, very seriously: “above all, don’t be obvious”. I guess that one of the first things that bothers me and bores me about these renderings is precisely that they are obvious. And this has to do not so much with their pretended realism, but with the predictable “add-ons”, the socio-political varnish that covers (hides) the architecture.

To be a bit more precise, I’m not very fond of those drawings, for two reasons:

1. Because they block my imagination

Any good drawing, computer generated or not, should engage imagination. However, the renderings of most successful (best selling) offices today in Denmark are opaque: the trees of hygge and politics cloud the deep forest of architecture. And we need depth, not distractions.
These days I mostly look at plans, sections and elevations, life is becoming short for some renderings. In a constructive detail, a section, indeed a good plan, I can still “project” my imagination; actively recreate the architecture in my head. Paradoxically, some expectancy, openness, still lies in these supposedly technical, objective drawings, something that is gone from renderings. In these classic professional drawings, our mind can continue where lines stop.

2. Because their promises are many and architecture is not one of them

I like drawings that make a double promise. They must promise the presence of a good architect today, and the possibility of a good building tomorrow. But these renderings show an absent architect and a rather ignorant client today, and they promise, someday, a social arcadia beyond the power of any architect. I don’t see the architect; he or she must be buried under the layers of different agendas (clima, economy, gender, etc.). But I do see the advertising man, the seller. A part of the profession that used to be in the background has now taken the foreground of the rendering.

This is not utopia

These renderings don’t lie, they mean business. They are a portrait of the profession today in Denmark.
Yes, we miss the point when we condemn them because they are utopian, or unrealistic. Of course they are utopian, only the building is in “topos”. But a drawing can, and should, be architecture: take Mies’s collages, or his pencil views. They still feed us by distilling a life more complex, a higher life, a better utopia. Or simply an utopia that is about architecture.

These renderings are snapshots of a professional drama, the transition from service to servilism. If I stress the Danishness of the phenomenon, I hope I’m not deliberately unfair to my beloved adopted country. Here, more than in many countries, the fate of a project depends on the judgment of laymen. I believe that here the influence of the architect, which wasn’t big for starters, is diminishing rapidly. There are many symptoms: the architect is a minority in the jury of architectural competitions, popular consensus and opinion from outside the profession weigh more than professional arguments, architecture criticism is on the run … etc.

And then came philanthropy

With the appearance and decisive influence of economic funds, no one knows anymore who chooses a project, under which professional legitimation, other than loads of money. These funds favour a few offices that get bigger and bigger, shoving them commissions that used to be spread more evenly. The consequence is that taking risks or being critical becomes harder for the six offices that build everything, too many mouths to feed. The architects that care about a drawing that aims beyond a selling tool are few.
The edge of a knife ought to be sharp if we want to cut. The golden filigree infills of the blade are irrelevant. But if instead of cutting we want to impress a king (Realdania, Lokale og Anlægsfonden, politicians, communal functionaries, “the people” …), let’s go heavy on the decoration and let the edge go blunt.
Our most dear, essential, professional tool, the drawing, has become a sycophant bribe.

Our keys to architecture

Drawings to me are personal keys, opening doors in two directions, towards the architect and towards the project. I’m looking for a more intentional, filtered reality, where not everything is said, where contingency withdraws to allow some sort of permanence, which belongs also to architecture. To hear the voice of architecture, these drawings allow place for silence. An eloquent silence.

Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno. Insincere flatterers grovelling in excrement.

Originally published on ARKITEKTEN.DK