This was the year of fear. Surveying architecture (and the blogs I wrote this last year on the subject), you can see its marks in Baltimore, Paris and Beirut, New York's Times Square, and everywhere else. You can also see tactics that might help us defeat fear and build a more open society:
We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Made Monumental
This was also the year of height, with the super rich disappearing into the clouds while doormen protect the entrances to their sliver towers. While the super-wealthy luxuriate in their aeries, the rest of us are left with shadow and the results of social inequity.
The walls we have built around our campuses and the gates we have locked are apparently not enough: we need to make “safe spaces” where those with ideas frightening to us are not welcome. The closing of the American mind now has a physical embodiment.
In Europe, they are building walls to keep immigrants out. In Palestine, they already have them. If it were up to some of our politicians, we would have them here as well. We have them around our gated communities, why not around the whole country?
We have finally rebuilt most of Ground Zero, but rather than it being a symbol of our resilience and defiance, its bland office buildings, dead turkey carcass train station, and formulaic memorial exhibitions are surrounded by barriers and girded with solid steel and concrete. Have the terrorists won?
The Chinese President said it back in 2014 (and was fifth in the worst column of my list of Best and Worst Architectural Events of 2014), but many more people seem to believe it. The experimentation that the domestication of new computer and communications technology made possible right before the turn of the millennium has produced the inevitable reaction: The call for order will defeat fluid forms.
As a corollary to this, critics are so wary of architecture they don’t understand that they are willing to proclaim thoroughly mediocre and confused buildings such as the New Whitney Museum as works of genius because they are so bland, but do no harm.
It is not just the products of architecture that are becoming more closed: The profession continues to close itself off, moving towards a licensing path that more and more will preclude exploration and experimentation in schools. The closing of the American mind threatens to imprison architecture.
There Is Still Hope
Believe it or not, we can find models for an open architecture for an open society right in suburbia; I am living such a possibility at Taliesin and Taliesin West, and, if we go back to the idea that we want to break the boxes where we live, work, and play so that we can be open to nature and to each other, we could have the building blocks for a better society.
For the last decade and starting in South America, architects and activists have been developing tactics to empower and enable people to take charge of their lives; the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the Biennale I co-curated in Shenzhen this year showed abundant examples of these experiments.
Applications such as Waze that help us find our way through a continually changing world free us to explore as well as to save time and money.
Some architects continue to believe in an architecture that opens itself to possibilities and interpretations; the awarding of the design commission for the last major Ground Zero to Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) promises to continue that tradition.
The notion that architecture should neither proscribe nor be without qualities, but should afford—make possible, encourage, evoke, and enhance—activities is gaining traction. The Ryerson Student Learning Center in Toronto by Snøhetta is an excellent example of how this works.
Artists such as Doris Salcedo, whose work was on view in Chicago and New York this year, are reminding us how important is to not turn away, not forget, and not sublimate. Architecture needs to regain its capacity to memorialize and monumentalize (hence the renewed popularity of New Brutalism?) and artists are showing the way.
The New Baroque
In the face of the retreat into the places of fear, some architects are kicking out the jams and enjoying the exuberance new technologies make possible. The peeling, gesturing skin Mark Foster Gage Architects proposed for 57th Street in Manhattan might only be a skin job, but perhaps it will invade the body of architecture in 2016.