It’s crunch time. For me personally, as I work both to make sure that the Taliesin Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture continues to exist after this month, and that the Shenzhen Biennale I am co-curating, “Re-Living the City,” which opened on December 4, runs smoothly; for the planet as a whole, where climate change, the depletion of un-renewable natural resources, and social unrest at a vast scale are threatening our continued existence—issues we try to address through architecture both at Taliesin and in Shenzhen—and for many other issues in-between. Perhaps what we need, I have been thinking, is architecture for crunch time, or a crunchy architecture.

Crunchy architecture is architecture that exhibits and frames reality, that is gritty, open, and has some meat to it. It does away with the opposition between new and old, as it delights in renovation, addition, and hybrids in time and form. It is the opposite of the kind of slick, bland, and anonymous forms in which most of us are imprisoned every day. Crunch architecture feels and is real. It is material to the max, messy and sometimes even aggressive—not because it wants to hurt us, but because we have become so used to reality disappearing behind images that tell us what to buy, where to go, and how to think that we forget what it means to be real. Crunchy architecture has gaps and falls apart. You can feel crunchy architecture in your bones.

Shenzhen Biennale venue
Courtesy Shenzhen Biennale Shenzhen Biennale venue

Nostalgia is a big part of crunchy architecture. Walking around the venue for the Shenzhen Biennale—a former flour mill that is largely condemned to oblivion by a super-slick OMA plan of grids and boxes—the reality of the concrete, the smells, and the dust are all around you. There is a reason that such spaces have become popular sites for renovation, and why the most successful new public space in the United States, the High Line, is essentially a mechanism for viewing such crunchy architecture, even though it is now becoming hemmed in by smooth and expensive boxes: Reality is made real by use and disuse, by making and re-making, by living and re-living.

New York City's High Line.
Joan Garvin, courtesy of Friends of the High Line New York City's High Line.

Crunchy architecture can be both old and new, as it starts from a love of, extension of, and framing of what we have already made. There is also a history of crunchy architecture, one that reaches back at least to the New Brutalism that is receiving renewed interest as of late, but goes all the way to the love of ruins and other romantic tropes from the time when the Enlightenment started to slick things up. It is a history of forms that show off their material, that look unfinished, that loom and lumber, cantilever and crumble, lunge, and are full of holes.

A student shelter at Taliesin West
Mark Peterman A student shelter at Taliesin West

Is it possible to make new crunchy architecture? It is difficult, as so many of the qualities that make it real come from use and disuse. Yet, as we see a renewed interest in handicraft meeting the possibilities opened up by computer technologies, and as we realize the potential in passive planning and the active extension of existing structures, we realize that you can make things crunchy still today. To do so, you have to make an architecture that has the quality of ruin and construction, of the past and the future, built into it. Our Shenzhen Biennale will be filled with such architecture, and—building on Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy not only of organic architecture, but also of forms such as “desert concrete” (stones from the site set in just enough concrete to bind them) and open, tent-like structures—we are trying to make it crunchy at Taliesin.

Hani Rashid of Asymptote Architecture shows designs for the New Hermitage Modern Contemporary Museum.
Courtesy New Hermitage Modern Contemporary Museum Hani Rashid of Asymptote Architecture shows designs for the New Hermitage Modern Contemporary Museum.

I have noticed that even the makers of slickest and most fashionable skins seem to be getting crunchy: Look at Asymptote Architecture’s recent designs, such as the firm's art museum for Moscow. Andrew Bromberg, Assoc. AIA, of AEDAS (an architect I visited in Hong Kong), recently showed me new work that eschews the fluid forms which he used in the past for open, crunchy forms. You can feel the crunch in your mouth when you see this work.

Jeddah Plaza, night
Courtesy AEDAS Jeddah Plaza, night

Crunchy architecture is neither new nor old, neither finished nor unfinished. It is disturbing, satisfying and very real mess that structures and gives shape to our modern lives in a way that will help us get ready for crunch time. It’s time to get crunchy.