New work for the unbuilt
Guest editor Anthony Burke introduces this dossier on unbuilt work by arguing that, in the contemporary world, the unbuilt dimension of architectural practice has expanded and been embraced as an effective strategic tool for advocacy and inclusion, and a means of powerful reflection and ethical action.
Every architectural work has an unbuilt side. In Robert Harbison’s classic (romantic) book on the subject of the unbuilt, he states categorically, “…the solidest architectural facts are fictional to a degree. Like much art, buildings often have a virtual or imaginary component, not that they are liable to vanish like thoughts, but that they are more precarious than they ordinarily appear, because preoccupied with meaning something.”1 Harbison seeks to locate the motivation of architectural endeavour from the material to the immaterial dimensions of every project. In his terms, what architects seek to create is always more than bricks and mortar; not just the unbuilt but also that which is “unbuildable.”
Today, to dissociate the unbuilt from the stuff of “real” practice is to ignore a huge amount of the work that architects do, and the development of one of the most significant and growing areas of disciplinary influence on the built environment. As has been pointed out many times before, architects don’t actually build; rather, they instruct builders what to build. This is a banal truism that perhaps obscures rather than illuminates; the lesson is that the agency of the architect is located first and foremost in the unbuilt. And yet, discussions of the unbuilt continue to polarize the discipline into those who see it as a path only to a built work (the materialists?) and those who see it as a useful end in itself (the idealists?).
It is not accurate to correlate this split with the divide between the discipline and the profession, which is itself a blurry boundary at best, especially in this moment when dichotomies of all sorts are too blunt an intellectual instrument for thinking folk. But what we can recognize is a complex evolution of the unbuilt project as a form of work, and the new nature of that work as a response to the changing professional context of practice.2 The contemporary unbuilt is migrating from the edge toward the centre of practice. And while “research has always been fundamental to the most innovative types of practice,” as Flora Samuel notes,3 it is those practices that tend to work on unbuilt projects that are embracing an evolution in their practice model in order to include strategy, advocacy and new forms of organization and research, in which the unbuilt has become an essential product or tool. The question we should be asking is: How, then, does this recognition adjust our disciplinary remit and force a reconceptualization of essential practice skills?
Looking back to the experimental architecture of Hadid, Koolhaas and Libeskind during the 1980s, and further back to the beginnings of modernism
(think Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino,
Mies van der Rohe’s glass skyscrapers and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City), we recognize an entire parade of unbuilt histories that haunt our disciplinary canon and that are arguably at least as influential in our conceptualization of the profession as built projects by the same architects. While we might find ourselves nostalgic for the unbuilt works of the 60s, 70s and 80s, we should also acknowledge that those propositions by experimental, radical architects – too poor to eat but compelled to draw – have elevated those same architects to the multinational architectural brands of today. But the question before us now is: What is the value of the unbuilt today, when futures seem more fragile and more contested than ever and when the speculation and critical optimism of the 80s avant-garde is hard to come by?
I argue that the unbuilt dimensions of an architect’s practice have not disappeared but, instead, quietly expanded. Less radical, perhaps, but with a more strategic agency, unbuilt projects have been repackaged as reference schemes, invited competitions and new forms of organizational agency. All of these are forms of work, all are unbuilt and all are projects, for sure. As the radical voices have tempered, the influence of the unbuilt project has risen. The resistance of the
60s, 70s and 80s has seen its currency devalued, shaded by a quieter and often less spectacular form of speculation, one that channels agency through building critical consensus rather than through critical deconstruction.
If the unbuilt has been integrated more centrally in practice today, how might we recognize its impact on our discipline? The architect with their graphics alone will not do. We wearied long ago of softfocus, slanted-light renderings and sci-fi speculations, gladly ceding this ground to Hollywood. Today, actions matter, and this has shifted the tone of the unbuilt from one of shock and visual provocation to one of gentle persuasion. As Berardi reminds us, of the unthinking assumptions made in processes of (architectural) production, “The effect produced by the chain of automatisms may be defined as a deterministic trap, a trap in which the possible is captured and reduced to mere probability, and the probable is enforced as necessary.”4
The unbuilt targets those issues that exceed a specific material world and that defy the conventions of commissions, precisely expanding thinking beyond the “chain of automatisms.” Perhaps even more important, as Philip Vivian writes in this dossier, are those projects that fit in the space between agencies, but that are no less significant to the evolution of the city. Clearly, the thinking architect doesn’t just build what they draw, but draws much more than they build.
Perhaps the most surprising finding following this brief dip back into an unbuilt history is not that the unbuilt has not disappeared, but just how much it has been embraced and, to a degree, normalized within forms of practice and disciplinary culture, both as a powerful strategic tool for advocacy and inclusion and as a means of reflection and ethical action. If, as Mel Dodd argues in her essay, the unbuilt is the front door to a conversation about a new form of practice and a new form of disciplinary framing, then perhaps we should spend more time looking at these works less as visions and dreams and more as declarations of what we as a discipline value.
The unbuilt has exchanged its single-handed visionary paper heroism for a subtle integration into a profession that is now more than ever engaged in an understanding of the built environment as much broader than buildings alone.
In his essay, Mark Tyrrell notes the value of the reference scheme as an intentionally unbuilt yet powerful organizational tool for forming political and social consensus. In the right hands, the reference scheme is a formidable strategic tool, the sole purpose of which is to utilize drawings, visioning and conceptualization to bring unwieldy stakeholder groups around the same table to establish the principles for design in complex projects, rather than develop form per se. This shift is remarkable: the ability of the unbuilt to engage with and work through complex scenarios to reach a point of (uncynical) agreement can only be seen as a core strategic role for the architectural unbuilt at the earliest and biggest ends of the (political) project scale.
In this dossier, Philip Vivian takes a practice-focused view of the unbuilt, discussing work that operates in the space between government agencies and private commissions as a form of advocacy.
For other practices, lost competitions or projects that will not come to material fruition as initially imagined find new value as sponsored avenues for research, opportunities for testing and developing studio design culture, and invitations to focus tactical and strategic discussions among design teams. Instead of getting shelved, the second-place competition scheme is a catalyst for a very different type of design critique and values-driven conversation. Perhaps most interestingly, Philip acknowledges the positive role of the unbuilt beyond the speculation of the small practice and centres it right in the middle of large practice as both a positive cultural influence and an economic investment at scale.
Mel Dodd reflects on practice itself, noting in no uncertain terms the detrimental outcomes of a profession defined only by its built outcomes rather than by the entire spread of its intellectual, cultural, technical and material contributions to the world. To understand and access this breadth of discipline, as Mel notes, is to appreciate architecture in its fullest sense.
One critique of the unbuilt is to pejoratively label it as mere “paper architecture.” Of course, individual subjective bodily experience is the power of the built. But as the unbuilt testifies, it is not the only form of power employed by architects. As Mark Tyrrell writes, the unbuilt, understood as an idea captured in its ideal state, might hold more enduring capacity to effect positive change over multiple generations than the specificity and idiosyncrasy that any built work can hope to offer.
I realize it is contentious to attribute value to materially untethered ideas, especially in our own architectural culture, which is most often presented as a form of safely aestheticized (and commercialized) pragmatism under a hot southern sun.
Yet while many Australian practices are actively working to break this lazy disciplinary convenience, all architects would readily identify both built and unbuilt schemes as important influences in shaping their disciplinary imagination. And today, more than ever, the unbuilt project that steps outside our disciplinary edges is, as Philip, Mel and Mark all acknowledge, a necessary invitation to talk and think together – broadly, generously, tangibly (paradoxically not abstractly!) and beautifully – and a means for architects and the public to whom we are responsible to imagine a different future together.
— Anthony Burke is a professor of architecture at the University of Technology Sydney.
1. Robert Harbison, The built, the unbuilt and the unbuildable: In pursuit of architectural meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 7.
2. This shift was perhaps most clearly recognized by Thomas Fisher, who noted the move “from large bureaucratic organizations to smaller project-based operations; from specialized jobs to versatility; and from professional autonomy to participatory teamwork.” Thomas Fisher, In the scheme of things: Alternative thinking on the practice of architecture (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 1.
3. Flora Samuel, Why architects matter: Evidencing and communicating the value of architects (London: Routledge, 2018), 82.
4. Franco Berardi, Futurability: The age of impotence and the horizon of possibility (London: Verso, 2017), 13.