What is architecture for?

Wednesday 5 November, 21.30 until 23.00, Maus Hábitos, Rua Passos Manuel 178, 4º Piso, 4000-382 Porto, Portugal International Satellite Events 2014

Tickets €3, available at the venue from 20:30 on the evening of the debate.

In the midst of a global economic crisis, where money is tight even for the essentials of life, is ‘architecture’ expendable - an unnecessary luxury in an age of austerity? It is widely appreciated that we need to build infrastructure - hospitals, houses, schools and even cities - but does it matter what they look like? We need universities, airports and commercial buildings, but do they need to be architect-designed? The booming cities of China are certainly the product of a much more dynamic economy than is to be found in the West. But in China, too, this does not necessarily include for the provision of good architecture. Does it matter?

In Portugal, where 40 per cent of architecture graduates are unemployed and half-finished construction projects litter the landscape, how should architects respond to critics who argue architects would be better off doing something else entirely? With the recent Lisbon Triennale expanding the definition of architecture far beyond what is conventionally accepted, design and construction gave way to ‘dialogue’, ‘multi-disciplinary collaboration’ and ‘social engagement’. Do these somewhat nebulous ambitions represent self-doubt and a loss of direction? Or are they a welcome outcome of a moment of self-reflection? Do architects even have to do buildings – could they not be artists, critics and philosophers? In the future can or should architects help society in other ways?

Indeed, architecture today is seldom discussed in its own terms (possibly because few architects would even profess to know what ‘its own terms’ are). Instead, many tend to justify or defend their work rather than explaining it. Instead of enlightening the viewer, they humour or pander. In fact, they are more likely to stress design’s moral contribution to myriad issues, including responsible consumption, social inclusion and sustainable living, with little regard for the design itself. As such, rationing, building sustainable communities, adapting to climate, promoting health, minimising travel, encouraging responsible design, prioritising localism, advocating recycling or reducing footprints - in other words, social-policy issues - seem to be synonymous with a designer’s professional duty and emblematic of good architecture.

So this session asks whether architecture is necessary? Does it offer the transient appeal of fashion or should it lift the eternal spirits? Is it about high ideals or practical realities? Does architecture have to be ‘for’ anything at all?

Carlos Castanheira
architect, Carlos Castanheira & Clara Bastai Arquitectos Lda

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Joaquim Moreno
architect and editor; researcher, Univesity of Porto CEAU (Center of Architecture an Urban Studies)

Luis T Pereira
founding partner, [A] ainda arquitectura architecture studio, Porto

Professor Gabriela V. Pinheiro
lecturer, Fine Arts Faculty, University of Porto

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Luis T Pereira founding partner, [A] ainda arquitectura architecture studio, Porto
Recommended readings
Has Architecture Lost Touch With the People?

Are designers preoccupied with making artistic statements rather than spaces where people would actually want to be?

Kaid Benfield, City Lab, 28 October 2013

Interview with Alain de Botton, Author of “The Architecture of Happiness”

Better known for his books and television documentaries, which address the importance of philosophy in our daily lives, Alain de Botton is founder of “Living Architecture,” a company which rents holiday homes designed by renowned architectural practices like: MVRDV, NORD, Jarmund/Vigsnaes, David Kohn Architects and Peter Zumthor.

Hugo Oliveira, Arch Daily, 8 September 2013

The Big Rethink Part 4: The Purposes of Architecture

In common with many aspects of modern civilisation, architecture has lost its enriching sense of purpose, leading to toxic anomie

Peter Buchanan, Architectural Review, 27 March 2012

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