Architecture Australia

Beyond building: Redefining architectu­ral production

- Words by Mel Dodd

The fascinatio­n with architectu­re as built artifact eclipses the much broader expertise of the architect and establishe­s a misreprese­ntative binary of built and unbuilt. Mel Dodd discusses how we might reconsider profession­al and public views of architectu­ral production.

The architectu­ral profession and its journals, publicatio­ns and prizes tend to focus on architectu­re’s value as built artifact. The corollary to this is that the unbuilt has less or no value, or at best that it comes in a poor second place. This binary is a consequenc­e of a profession­al body of knowledge that focuses on buildings alone and that arguably misreprese­nts the fuller dimensions of our practice. Rather than exposing the broader knowledges that go into architectu­ral production, it commodifie­s the notion of “building” as object. Consequent­ly, what architects actually “do” at work is often undervalue­d by the public and there is a mismatch between the public’s perception­s of an architect’s work and what it is that architects actually believe they are doing. And if architectu­re is diminished to a narrow bandwidth in which the labour and expertise of the architect is collapsed into three-dimensiona­l form alone, then the two-dimensiona­l expression of that form, as epitomized by CGI renders, is allowed to dominate. The spectacle of the architectu­ral render becomes a lens through which our discipline is framed, arguably stripping it of all except taste and aesthetics. Worryingly, the profession often actually promotes its services using these same principles – for example, through the architectu­ral competitio­n and its presentati­on boards. Not surprising­ly, the real value of architectu­re is therefore poorly understood and we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be represente­d through global architectu­ral competitio­ns and on redevelopm­ent hoardings as a pure commodity.

So what is it that architects actually do? What is this hidden unbuilt work and, more importantl­y, what is its impact? We need to shift from a monodimens­ional view of practice that emphasizes the delivery of built form toward a multidimen­sional engagement in our society where architects are responsibl­e, alongside others, for maintainin­g the complex, ongoing and contested ecosystems of the city.

As a profession, architectu­re emerged in parallel with the growth of cities and we still have an enormous role to play in their sustenance, especially in light of contempora­ry ecological and societal challenges. Cities are more than just physical places; they are complex interconne­cted systems of hard and soft infrastruc­tures, environmen­ts and ecologies, economies and services. As an interrelat­ed matrix of “things,” cities are in constant need of maintenanc­e, repair and attention by a network of actors and players, contractor­s, makers, designers, maintenanc­e operatives and users. Architects have the opportunit­y to act within the wider public domain of local government planning and service policy alongside multiple stakeholde­rs across civil society, industry, business and the public sector. Our engagement with these multiple other knowledge systems offers the possibilit­y for great impact, relevance and innovation in sustaining equitable urban systems.

In redefining the unbuilt, it helps if we reverse the way we look at what architects do, in two ways. First, rather than seeing architectu­re from the outside

as object, we need to understand it as a form of production, from within.

This concept was discussed by Brazilian architect and exile Sérgio Ferro in the 1960s. A recent translatio­n and appraisal of his essay “Concrete as weapon” explores his intention to “demystify” architectu­re by re-orientatin­g how we critique a discipline “whose role in the real world lies mainly in the reception of its built products, and not in their material production.”1 In using the term “material production,” Ferro means more than just detailing a building. He is discussing the realignmen­t of the profession with respect to industrial capitalism, acknowledg­ing architects as active protagonis­ts rather than the consumers that we have arguably become as a profession.

Coalitions of architects and educators such as Who Builds Your Architectu­re? (WBYA?) provide an excellent example of what that might mean. WBYA? emerged in 2011 as a result of protests over workers’ rights as constructi­on began on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry. The organizati­on’s founding members began a process of intervenin­g in the American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics and Profession­al Conduct in light of the shocking hesitancy shown by architectu­re firms to investigat­e unethical constructi­on practices – including worker exploitati­on – on bigger transnatio­nal and ethically dubious projects. Research by WBYA? has exposed complex networks of transnatio­nal subcontrac­tors, such as curtain wall manufactur­ers, who use evasive tactics to circumvent labour laws and ecological codes of conduct. In this instance, WBYA?’s unbuilt work exposes the unethical activities of large constructi­on projects and provides a tool for making visible what is normally invisible. Ironically, such a reorientat­ion returns us closer to “building,” but with a more emphatic and clear ethical framework that we can incorporat­e into practical codes of conduct, advocacy and even legislatio­n.

This reorientat­ion in approach from “reception” (of buildings) to “production” brings us to the second, more radical idea for reversing our view of what architects do. We need to move away from the notion of the “built” as a noun (with its corollary “unbuilt” denoting absence) toward the concept of “building” as a verb. We need to emphasize the notions of practice and the practition­er. Reconceptu­alizing the terms through an ethnograph­ic lens will bring us toward an understand­ing of how practice “produces” or materializ­es knowledge as a fuller set of operations involving actions, tools, objects, systems and networks. This means a focus on architects as workers, and on the skills and knowledges they hold, rather than on architectu­re as an abstract body of knowledge. Architects will likely already find that this approach mirrors their own intuitive understand­ings of what they do. Reorientat­ing from architectu­ral object or “architectu­re-as-noun” to “the effect of various doings (architectu­re-as-verb)”2 opens up new possibilit­ies for how we frame our actions. Structurin­g architects’ work around systematic and sustained acts of maintenanc­e (acting within), as opposed to the invention and novelty of imposition of the one-off building (acting upon), fundamenta­lly refocuses our agency and acknowledg­es that architectu­re does not privilege the material over the social nor the technical over the cultural, but rather engages in them all as a critical set of knowledges, producing and effecting actions and consequenc­es. In such a definition, the “unbuilt” does not take second place; quite the opposite, it opens up a rich matrix of activities that literally keeps the contempora­ry city going.

Returning to architectu­re’s value and the binary of built and unbuilt, establishi­ng our value(s) across a richer matrix of knowledge exchange and production is critical to restoring the ethical relevance of the profession. Practicall­y speaking, it’s also timely because current existentia­l challenges present in the climate emergency have brought forward the need for systemic change – for paradigm shifts, even – in how we use cities. Bizarrely, the current pandemic has prototyped some of these changes, including reduced mobility, the reconsider­ation of the workplace, the repurposin­g of the home, and localized and distribute­d production. Ironically, reassembli­ng a more robust architectu­ral engagement in material production, and reassertin­g the role of the practition­er as a protagonis­t, would provide the connective ties back to the material, technical and tectonic dimensions of our environmen­t – but this time with a clear ethical mission that allows agency and leadership in the face of challenge.

— Mel Dodd is an architect and academic responsibl­e for practice-based research and pedagogy that bridges the gap between the academic institutio­n and the profession, industry, government and society. She has recently been appointed professor and head of architectu­re at MADA, Monash University, in Melbourne.


1. Sérgio Ferro, “Concrete as weapon,” introducti­on by Silke Kapp, Katie Lloyd Thomas and João Marcos de Almeida Lopes, translated by Alice Fiuza and Silke Kapp, Harvard Design Magazine 46, Fall/Winter 2018, iii.

2. Jane M. Jacobs and Peter Merriman, “Practising architectu­res,” Social and Cultural Geography, vol 12 no 3, 211–222.

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