I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again, no no
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
Pete Townshend, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971
“A new generation is coming,” warned the Guggenheim Museum’s curator of architecture and digital initiatives, Troy Conrad Therrien, as he looked down at the black-clad array of architecture deans and officials (including myself), “and they have a very different attitude about architecture.” According to Therrien, Generation Z—those born in the 1990s—are more interested in storytelling, fairy tales, astrology, and even communication with nonstandard entities in nonstandard ways (think LSD and ESP), than they are in data and form. Without any clear proof (but then again, metrics are so ’naughts), he narrated a future in which architects would evoke mythical worlds rather than remain content to work for The Man producing just more office buildings and housing projects. Within the next five years, Therrien pointed out, the first Z-er will be appointed deans at major architecture schools. The rest of us should get ready for retirement.
Therrien’s was an especially powerful message because it was delivered to an audience that included the deans of most of the major architecture schools in China, as well as such figures as Mohsen Mostafavi, Intl. Assoc. AIA, who just announced his retirement as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Brett Steele, the brand-new dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA; and his successor as director of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, Eva Franch i Gilabert. Sitting next to them on that front row were Michael Speaks, dean at Syracuse University; J. Meejin Yoon, AIA, the newly appointed dean at nearby Cornell University; Philip Ursprung, dean of the ETH Zurich; and Hernan Diaz Alonso, two years into his tenure as CEO of SCI-Arc, whose ascent symbolized the advent of the post-digital generation. All of us were being assigned to the dust heap of history.
This not insignificant tranche of what counts as the power elite in architecture education had flown to Beijing to help celebrate China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts’ 100th anniversary. (Full disclosure: They made 10 of us “Honorary Professors” while we there.) We had all answered the call of their brand-new architecture dean, Zhu Pei, whose appointment itself marked the coming into a power of the avant-garde generation spearheaded by figures such as 2012 Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu (also in attendance), that is beginning to have an impact in the discipline far beyond its native country.
Blessing the whole conclave with his presence was the man who has mastered the avant-garde for most of his 70-plus years, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA—who was listed modestly as “Professor, Harvard.” He presented his new work on rural sprawl and agricultural rationalization, as well the long-overdue compendium of the Elements of Architecture that memorialized his work from the Venice Architecture Biennale more than four years ago. He was as forceful and insightful as ever but, as Steele pointed out, Koolhaas’ 2,000-page book was most useful to the crowd as a device to lift up the microphone so he did not have to bend his lanky frame to reach it. A student who had no doubt stood in line for several hours to squeeze himself in front of the podium spent most of his time social messaging the storytelling, rather than watching the data-heavy slides. No wonder that Steele presented a parody of one of the many graphs Koolhaas showed. Steele’s version contrasted “OMA influence” and “OMA size” declining and rising in asymptotic counterbalance.
Whether Therrien was right or not, it did seem clear to me that the current generation of machers, which actually encompasses at least two generations of “thought” and administration leaders whose ages range from the mid-40s to the early-60s, is at the end of making whatever contributions they have to offer. They have taken the architecture discipline beyond the tempests of Postmodernism towards the shores of a digitally driven, social media-animated, and yet still recognizable world of buildings, interiors, and landscapes. What lies beyond the plains where such structures have arisen remains so far unclear.
What was evident was that the ways in which the deans tried to distinguish themselves (more digital, more branding, more research, more engagement with the profession, more group love, more let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom) seemed trivial compared to the real challenges facing the discipline now. Those bigger hurdles include not just the further integration of technology, but also issues that range from the profound, such as the imminent disasters caused by climate change and resource depletion, to the trivial (or at least purely professional), such as the advancing automation of design and construction and the difficulty we should be having in defending the idea that stand-alone, new buildings are still at the core of the profession.
How architecture and architecture education will answer those particular conditions and challenges will be the task of the next generation of educators, administrators, curators, critics, and, oh yes, designers. In the meantime, the whole scene reminded me, as I jetted off back to my job running the School of Architecture at Taliesin on an airplane with Diaz Alonso and Steele, comparing frequent flyer status until we dozed off somewhere over the Pacific, of the scene F.T. Marinetti set near the end of his 1909 Futurist Manifesto:
They will come against us from afar, leaping on the light cadence of their first poems, clutching the air with their predatory fingers and sniffing at the gates of the academies the good scent of our decaying spirits, already promised to the catacombs of the libraries. But we shall not be there. They will find us at last one winter’s night in the depths of the country in a sad hangar echoing with the notes of the monotonous rain, crouched near our trembling aeroplanes, warming our hands at the wretched fire which our books of today will make when they flame gaily beneath the glittering flight of their pictures. They will crowd around us, panting with anguish and disappointment, and exasperated by our proud indefatigable courage, will hurl themselves forward to kill us, with all the more hatred as their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes.