The Role of Architecture in Humanity’s Story

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Martha Thorne (Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize),Richard Rogers (architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyds building and Millennium Domein London and founder of Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners) and Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean of theHarvard Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design). We discuss the very nature of architecture itself, how it relates to culture and topics ranging from the nature of cities, how buildings influence our lives and the future of architecture itself

Humanity leaves immortal echoes through its history using the media of language, art, knowledge and architecture. These echoes are not simply viewed in retrospect; they are primary to our time and define our civilisation at any given moment, justifying our very sense of being human. This justification is important. Humanity exists in a near-perpetual war for existence. We are mortal, but we wish to become eternal and culture is our success in this battle. Culture allows us to assert our existence to ourselves to the extent that we are not just ‘now’ but are- in essence- forever.

In his 2011 book “Philosophy for Architects” Branko Mitrovi? notes that, “Plato reasoned that material or perishable things could not be called ‘real’ since what is real cannot be temporary…” He continued to describe a story where, “…Plato describes a group of people who have been chained inside a cave since childhood. Light comes from behind them, and they cannot see things directly. All they can see are shadows on the wall of a cave. They learn when various shadows coincide or follow each other, and they know what kinds of noises accompany certain shadows. They take these to be the noises of the shadows, and they take the shadows for reality.” Mitrovi? asserts that according to Plato, “…the ‘things’ of our world are reflections or shadows of eternal Forms or Ideas, which do not exist in space or time, but outside of it….”

Culture is experienced in the present time as the fluid gamut of structures that define our experience of living, but in truth (and paradoxically)… it exists in retrospect. We may use language to communicate and knowledge to exchange, but it is only when we look at the story of language, the body and origins of knowledge, that we can contextualise them, and understand their role as elements of culture.

Throughout time, architecture has persisted as one of the most profoundly important reflections of culture. Whether we consider monumental structures such as the Roman Coliseum, Notre Dame and Taj Mahal or modern icons such as the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House or Guggenheim Museum, we see each building reflecting the story of the time, and how that iteration of culture wished to project itself to the future. Architecture also persists through our infrastructure from bridges to public spaces and even the very layout of our cities themselves. In this sense, one could consider architects as being the arbiters of our future history. There are so many Architecture companies nowadays, how do you choose architecture services in Michigan that will create an iconic design that will reflect the story, history and future of your business? How did architecture become so central to our experience of being human?

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Martha Thorne (Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize),Richard Rogers (architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyds building and Millennium Dome in London and founder of Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners) and Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design). We discuss the very nature of architecture itself, how it relates to culture and topics ranging from the nature of cities, how buildings influence our lives and the future of architecture itself.

[bios]Martha Thorne is currently the Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. She also serves as Associate Dean for External Relations of IE School of Architecture Madrid/Segovia. In recent years, Ms. Thorne has also led the architecture selection process for various public institutions, such as the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphiaand Columbia College-Chicago , among others. From 1996 to 2005, she worked as a curator at the Department of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago.

She is the co-author of the books “Masterpieces of Chicago Architecture” and “Skyscrapers: The New Millennium“, editor of “David Adler: The Elements of Style“, editor and author for “The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years“. Additionally she has written numerous articles for architectural journals and encyclopaedias. During a prior stint in Spain, she was a member of the three-person editorial board of Quaderns d’Arquitectura I Urbanisme, published in Barcelona.

Ms. Thorne received a Master of City Planning degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Affairs from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She undertook additional studies at theLondon School of Economics. She served for six years as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and was on the Board of Advisors of the International Archive of Women in Architecture for three years.

Richard Rogers (Baron Rogers of Riverside) is the 2007 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate, the recipient of theRIBA Gold Medal in 1985 and winner of the 1999 Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Medal. He is also winner of the 2000 Praemium Imperiale Prize for Architecture, the 2006 Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement (La Biennale di Venezia) and the 2007 Tau Sigma Delta Gold Medal. Richard Rogers was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1986, knighted in 1991 and made a life peer in 1996. Most recently, in 2008 he was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour.

In 1995, he was the first architect ever invited to give the BBC Reith Lectures – a series entitled “Cities for a Small Planet” – and in 1998 was appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister to chair the UK Government’s Urban Task Force on the state of our cities. He was Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and has played an advisory role on design to the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He has also been an Advisor to the Mayor of Barcelona’s Urban Strategies Council. Richard Rogers has served as Chairman of the Tate Gallery and Deputy Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He is currently an Honorary Trustee ofthe Museum of Modern Art in New York, Trustee of Médicins du Monde and President of The National Communities Resource Centre.

Richard Rogers’ practice – Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – was founded in 1977 as Richard Rogers Partnership and has offices in London, Madrid, Sydney, and Shanghai. It is best known for such pioneering buildings as the Centre Pompidou, the headquarters for Lloyd’s of London, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the Millennium Dome in London. The practice has worked – or is currently working – on a wide range of projects including: Maggie’s Centre in London, winner of the 2009 Stirling Prize; Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas Airport, winner of the 2006 Stirling Prize; Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport; two underground stations in Naples; the Leadenhall Building in the City of London; Riverside South, a major office development in Canary Wharf, East London; Tower 3 on the World Trade Center site in New York; mixed-use developments in Seoul and Florence; major residential developments in London and Taipei; the Oxley Woods housing scheme in Milton Keynes;Bodegas Protos, a winery in Spain; and a new exhibitions and conservation centre for the British Museum in London. The practice is also participating in the Greater Paris project, which looks at the future of the city as a more integrated metropolitan region as it faces the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century

Mohsen Mostafavi, an architect and educator, is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design. He was formerly the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University where he was also the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture. Previously, he was the Chairman of the Architectural Association School of Architecturein London.

Dean Mostafavi is a member of the trustees of the Van Alen Institute, and serves on the steering committee of theAga Khan Award for Architecture. At Harvard, Mostafavi co-chairs the Common Spaces Committee, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Mahindra Humanities Center and the Standing Committee on Middle Eastern Studies. He chairs the North American jury of the Holcim Foundation Awards for Sustainable Construction. Previously he served on the design committee of the London Development Agency (LDA), the jury for the RIBA Gold Medal, and the advisory committee on campus planning of the Asian University for Women. He is a consultant on a number of international architectural and urban projects.

He studied architecture at the AA, and undertook research on counter-reformation urban history at the Universities of Essex and Cambridge. Previously, he was Director of the Master of Architecture I Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Dean Mostafavi has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge University, and the Frankfurt Academy of Fine Arts (Städelschule). His research and design projects have been published in many journals, including The Architectural Review, AAFiles, Arquitectura, Bauwelt, Casabella, Centre, Daidalos, and El Croquis. He is co-author of Delayed Space (with Homa Fardjadi, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994); and of On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (with David Leatherbarrow, MIT, 1993) which received the American Institute of Architects prize for writing on architectural theory. Dean Mostafavi’s recent publications include: Approximations (AA/MIT, 2002); Surface Architecture (MIT, 2002) which received the CICA Bruno Zevi Book Award; Logique Visuelle (Idea Books, 2003); Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (AA Publications, 2004); and Structure as Space, (AA Publications, 2006);Ecological Urbanism (Lars Müller Publishers, 2010); and Implicate and Explicate: Aga Khan Award for Architecture (Lars Müller Publishers, 2011); Louis Vuitton Architecture and Interiors (Rizzoli International, 2011).[/bios]

Q: What is the fundamental purpose of architecture?

[Martha Thorne] That’s a very simple yet complicated question. Architecture exists to create the physical environment in which people live. Obviously that’s a very simple answer, but if we deep digger we see the complexities. What is the built environment? what constitutes quality of life? how do architects determine whether something is positive, helpful or relevant for individuals and collectives?

[Richard Rogers] It serves society and improves quality of life. It’s a physical manifestation of the society’s wishes to be civilised! …public domain being the obvious place which encapsulates this as buildings, alongside being art and science, are part of the public domain. As architecture is very important in society, it makes sense as to why anyone who is looking to maintain a building’s structure would look into something like truss and glulam beam repair, with the assistance of professionals who know exactly what they are doing.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Architecture should fulfil multiple criteria. One of its purposes is to itself. A lot of people believe to some degree, in the autonomy of architecture as a discipline which means that part of the purpose of architecture is to construct new forms of knowledge that relate to the enhancement and advancement of the discipline itself. In a way, this is inseparable from the performance or performativity of architecture in terms of its responsibilities to engage with the society at large. There is, in a sense, a purposive dimension to architecture which really provides the symbolic ideas of habitation and- broadly- serving the humankind.

It’s both this version of architecture that removes purpose, and one that really engages it fully in a purposive dimension. I think the simultaneity of these two conditions that’s key.

Q: To what extent is architecture art or science?

[Martha Thorne] Architecture is both an art and a science. I might even take it a step further and say that it’s a multifaceted gemstone as it is not just art, or just science… it is more than that. This is a discipline which draws on psychology, sociology, economics, politics and so many more areas.

I am reminded of my time working at the Art Institute of Chicago. Architecture in that sense was a curatorial department in a major art museum. Within the museum itself, there is a hierarchy and with my colleagues we sometimes joked that the more useful art is- the more you can walk on it or sit in it- the less it was considered an art and the lower down the totem pole it was!

Architecture on one hand is considered and art and is studied as such. It is strange in the sense that architecture is not truly the creation of an individual or collective for the purpose of research, contemplation or beauty but has the purpose of responding to functional needs. That takes it beyond the realms of art into other fields of human existence

[Richard Rogers] It has to be both! The architects nightmare is to have a blank piece of paper… we’re not writers or abstract artists… we’re a strange mixture of the two. It’s about using imagination in form, giving scale, giving order, giving rhythm… to space.

Q: How does architecture relate to wider culture?

[Martha Thorne] Without a doubt, architecture is a part of culture- it has been called the mother of all arts! It is certainly part of how we see ourselves, and part of how we see the world. The unique aspect of architecture is that in its physical incarnation of buildings, it may last for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Architecture is created by people! the most successful architecture goes beyond just being a shed or a box for living… the most important architecture as we look back over history are buildings or environments that have done so much more in a variety of ways- be that innovation in building and construction, or buildings that have pushed the discipline to get us to think about our environment in different ways, or just incredibly beautiful buildings that have lifted the human spirit in addition to housing our activities and our lives.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Many of the practices of architecture are about the discipline’s entanglement in contemporary issues. The concept of contemporary is one that is fully implicated in contemporary tradition, practices and ideas. There is therefore a symbolic dimension to architecture which leads it to become a manifestation of those themes. Therefore, as a form of art practice… as a cultural production… it is obviously the manifestation of the spaces within which we see practices and lives taking place…. exemplars of contemporary life.

If architecture wasn’t implicated in that project, one would simply have to conclude that it was not keeping up with the times. Does every piece of architecture accept these responsibilities? well… that remains to be debated. For me however, that responsibility is not in question.
Whenever you collaborate on a project which involves multiple agencies and participants- like people playing jazz together- each player contributes to the tonality, sound and experience of the overall. In that sense, architecture as a cultural production has the responsibility to be of them time, but represent the time…. to be the vehicle through which transformations are made….

We have to be aware of the responsibilities we have for architecture as a framework for social action. In that way, there is a reciprocity… a connection.. between how you’re affected by a circumstance and how you affect the circumstance itself

Q: What do you feel makes great architecture?

[Martha Thorne] I’m immediately reminded of the words of Renzo Piano. It’s very interesting to debate and discuss architecture and buildings with him, he’s an extremely eloquent and thoughtful person. We’ve debated that buildings must be functional, manifestations of their time and not just seeking to replicate the past or manifest nostalgia… We’ve discussed the fact that buildings must be well constructed- one building must serve a multiplicity of functions and people in very defined ways. Renzo Piano always said, “…in addition to that, there’s a quality of magic….

That’s what differentiates good architecture from just being any old building. Good architecture is intentioned. It somehow touches the people who use it and live in it… it somehow touches the human soul. I realise these phrases sound somewhat utopian, but truly good architecture has the ability to relate to individuals in a very profound way. That is a quality which cannot be deciphered into scientific terms or quantified- but is something we all know when we experience a quality building or a space that somehow goes beyond being functional and is- somehow- very special.

To give you an example… when I entered the Ningbo Museum by the recent Pritzker winner Wang Shu, it’s a building which is truly huge. It is- in some ways- monumental. When you enter that building however, you know that it was made for the people that visit it and work there. You never feel insignificant… you feel that you’re cared for as you go in the building. It’s a magical quality that’s hard to put into words, but undoubtedly is there within the building.

[Richard Rogers] This is a very difficult question and the answer would have to consider all the various aspects of architecture including rhythm, function, aesthetics and more. At one level, this could be something very simple… even a wooden hut in your garden.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] What’s important is that we acknowledge architecture as an artistic practice not as pure science. It is an artistic practice to the extent that it involves new forms of creativity and creative thinking. At the same time, we are deeply conditioned by our knowledge of science.

Science is not purely seen in a rationalistic sense, but also in the context of natural sciences. We cannot then see the worlds of art and science as so inseparable but rather as fields of available knowledge and practices that are open to us. I think the relationship of art to practice is very important.

If we look at the act of drawing as a way of imaging as opposed to assuming you have a scientific knowledge of a field that you are replicating. The artistic dimension of creativity is critical and it’s imperative that we do not separate the worlds of art and science in architecture.

Q: What have been the most significant eras in architecture?

[Richard Rogers] Every successful period history was modern during its time, so we see that change is a continuous process. The big changes in terms of ‘modern architecture‘ are not only because of a modern-eye which moved from impressionism to modernism, but also new technology. It’s been a stripping-down in many ways from the amazingly enriched periods like Baroque and Rococo to a more ‘economic‘ visual time.

Every age thinks it’s making the environment more human, but changes are always reflected. If I had to say what the greatest change has been in my more than 50 years as an architect? It is sustainable ecology. It has made tremendous changes to architecture… not enough… but still impactful.

If we go back through history to the beginning of the modern movement, the big change came in the form of the steel frame and steel buildings in Chicago, the lift and the telephone. You simply couldn’t build high-rise buildings without these two innovations.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] We are very aware of distinct periods. When we now reflect on the medieval period,the renaissance or the baroque…. each of these temporal moments in reality are identified to us because of their specificity, differences in approach and differences in outcome. Many of the qualities that we find in baroque architecture are (or at least should be) of incredible relevance to what we do today.

It’s not necessarily that we see a direct link between medieval, renaissance, baroque and contemporary practices- but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to learn from them. Surely the purpose of teaching history in context of architecture is to make that material alive, make it present and to be inspired and learn.

Today we are more influenced by the tradition of enlightened thought- simply because there is a greater connection between the philosophies of that period and the notions and concepts of modernity and modernism.

I think one of the most wonderful periods of architectural advancement was the baroque. It’s not clear to me that we have understood, studied and analysed this period sufficiently to understand the ways we could benefit from it.

Q: How is architecture influenced by the political, economic and social zeitgeist?

[Martha Thorne] There’s definitely a link between the broader concerns of society or the situation we find ourselves in- and architecture. This often worries me. In recent years there has been too much misuse of architecture to create a narrative that is outside the built environment. Many times we see that politicians or other people seek to build a monument to something, or create a show of power. They are asking architecture to do things that go beyond what the true values of architecture are. It’s upsetting to me when people say, “..we’re going to create a new icon for this city or this country“. An icon is something that evolves through popular acclaim or acceptance and develops over time or may be the result of a special event or a moment in history. To ask an architect to create an icon for a city, or an economic renaissance, is missing the point. The first purpose of architecture is to create habitat and to fulfil the needs of society or individuals for places to work and live. The purpose of architecture is not to create a monument to help someone get elected or to get them on a cover of a magazine. If it’s a side product… that’s ok… but if we’re looking for iconic monuments and think we can produce them, I think that’s missing the point.

Q: What is the relationship to the function of a space to its design and aesthetic?

[Martha Thorne] Architecture is all of these things together. If a building is well-designed, it of course functions well! The materials used are appropriate… it works with nature in terms of energy, light and use of resources… it creates spaces that somehow go beyond just functioning well. I like to often say that if something is well-designed, you don’t need to add anything more or take something away- any of these acts would diminish the whole. In that sense, function is important but all these other aspects are too- and they can’t be separated. I often cringe when someone says, “…we’ll do the structure, and we’ll add the architecture later..“. No!

Architecture is everything! It has to do with the structure, materials, purpose, context and function of a building. It’s everything together and you simply cannot separate these ingredients out.

If we look at the word ‘design’. It is increasingly applied to broad areas… we now speak of ‘design thinking‘ in business, textiles designs and much more. If someone were to ask me what design was? I would start with the assertion that design begins by knowing what question to ask… reformulating a question. When an architect is asked to design a certain building or space, the first thing should be to ask what is needed? what is the purpose?, who will be using it? This leads to a process of introspection which asks much broader questions… do we really need an airport? do we really need a stadium? or… perhaps… this structure could do more than that! Design is first asking a question, and then creatively find the best answer. That answer is often not the most obvious or the most commonly used, and may involve pushing the envelope and thinking a different way. Design is therefore the formulation of a question to find the right answer!

Q: What is the role of aesthetic and beauty in architecture?

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Many of the tasks we undertake- even the simplest building project- as an architect, you are always hoping the outcome will be something beautiful. What constitutes beauty however, is more complex. To use the cliché, it’s in the eyes of the beholder! Trying to foreground beauty is a valuable task.

Aesthetic refers more broadly to the philosophical thinking procedures, including questions around visuality, reception and the whole apparatus of discussing the aesthetics of buildings themselves. This is something that is very relevant and important. In terms of architecture, we don’t discuss these issues very systematically- they have been left to be thought of in terms of purely subjective criteria. We do not spend enough time articulating the reason why we think something is beautiful, and that’s all part of a training process that is necessary. To use an analogy from wine… you could drink any wine and think you do like one or don’t like another…. but actually there is a lot of discipline involved in the appreciation of palette and the development of taste. It’s not a purely subjective quality, there’s an art in the way taste becomes sensitive to nuances. That’s something which is critical in architecture- and we must pay more attention to the manner in which we discuss beauty as a topic.

Q: Can architecture influence the identity and emotion of a place and it’s people?

[Martha Thorne] Without a doubt, buildings are accepted by communities and imbued with emotions and the appreciation or disdain of people! They are included in the identity of a people, city or place. I don’t think it’s something that an architect or developer can will onto people- it’s something that happens naturally and relates to how people see a building, how they accept it and… of course… this does lead to discussions around branding and communications. In this sense, the Empire State Building has become part of the image and identity of New York and is a source of pride for the people of the city, and a connection they have to the city’s past. It’s fair to say that most people feel affection and appreciation for the Empire State Building!

People speak of the ‘Bilbao Effect‘. The Guggenheim Museum is a very important part of the city, but there is a misnomer. People often say that the Guggenheim Museum turned around the City of Bilbao and that Frank Gehry has turned the city around and created an icon. Well.. that’s not exactly true…. Bilbao was an industrial city that was coming into the 21st century. All of the city’s improvements were based around industries that were decaying and becoming obsolete. The regional government and city leadership developed a planned for around 13 different major public works. This included moving the port from Bilbao down river! These were huge investments which… on a postcard… are not as obvious as The Guggenheim Bilbao, but which were fundamental in changing the city. Cleaning the river was incredibly important and didn’t receive as much credit as the Guggenheim…. alongside this you had the installation of trolleys across the city… conference centres… music halls… subway system…. all of these things also contributed significantly to the rejuvenation and rebirth of Bilbao.

Bilbao without the Guggenheim would not be Bilbao… but also, Bilbao without this collection of other public works would not be the city it is today.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] I certainly hope so!

Don’t you find that often, when you walk into the room, you may talk about how you find the qualities of the room to be somehow calming? A space may instil certain emotional conditions and I certainly believe in the emotive power of architecture. Those emotive powers are very important as they speak about the sense of experience and the sense of experiencing architecture. It’s not just about an intellectual reading of architecture as a cognitive rational process, but also about the emotive dimension.

The spaces and buildings we love the most instil certain feelings in us that are often not easy to describe.

Q: How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population and climate change?

[Martha Thorne] Architecture, as with any field, has excellent examples of attempts to move forward and be much more mindful of societal issues and problems. We must remember that architecture has to be kept in perspective. The vast majority of buildings in our world are not designed by architects. They may be undertaken by builders or begun spontaneously but we certainly cannot say that all buildings that populate our city were intentionally designed by architects.

I just came back from Austria where I attended a conference called “Space Matters“. On one hand we realise that space is important, it affects our quality of life. But this also relates to the scientific sense whereby space is matter… it is made of matter, not something intangible. A lot of people were talking about architecture and activism. If we look at Favelas and other forms of spontaneous housing and communities, we see that there are alternative forms of architectural practice. Architecture in this sense is activism, not object creation. There are aspects of social integration and organisation in these communities that are enormously positive and we could learn a lot from them.

Q: What has been the impact of technology on the last quarter century of architecture?

[Martha Thorne] Technology has affected several aspects of architecture and the wider field.
One aspect is that some people are concentrating on form-making… because they can! Computers and the use ofparametric models have made it much more feasible to create unique forms. Many people see this as a very important part of the discipline.

There are other aspects where technology has, and will continue, to have an effect. One has to do with the relationship of people who are undertaking architecture, and the building process. There’s much more communication now between architects, engineers, contractors, builders and all other stakeholders in the building process. The way design and construction were traditionally undertaken was much more linear First you had the architect, then the engineer, then the builder and so on. Now it’s much more integrated and unified. I think the jury is out in terms of whether this is leading to better buildings, but it has the potential to profoundly change the landscape of building.

The next area where technology has had a big impact has to do with the possibilities it opens up for construction. There are now a lot of construction software companies thanks to technology. In the past, either standard products had to be purchased off-the-shelf- with the limitations they had. The only other option was for things to be custom made by hand, which was very expensive. Technology has made it much easier to send information from studio to production. It’s now possible to do mass-customised elements for buildings. In the building process, that type of potential should definitely lead to better quality in construction… more possibilities for innovation and, hopefully, more creativity.

[Richard Rogers] Right now.. without a doubt… the web is the greatest single change agent. The fact that we can communicate globally at practically zero cost is astonishing. I have a meeting after this with a co-architect who is based in Beijing and we will be drawing together via the net.

Interestingly when the IT revolution began, there was talk about people retiring to their villas in the mountains using technology to communicate. The opposite has in fact happened because people want to be together, they want to communicate and you only have to go somewhere like Canary Wharf to see the vitality that exists after work because people want to be together.

Q: What are your views on urbanisation and do we need to rethink the concept of ‘the city’?

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] The concept of the city is often ahead of us. In many parts of the world, people are urbanising districts much faster than architects and planners have time, energy and resources to deal with. Thinking about the future of the city is a critical topic, and one that we need to spend more time on. The tools we have in terms of thinking about cities are fairly old fashioned. We are the inheritors of modernist planning and are now seeing the such a rapid shift from rural to urban that these tools are incapable of dealing with new forms of urbanisation. What is clear is that the whole topic of infrastructure and infrastructural-urbanisation is a first step to thinking about future cities. This is an area that requires more attention.

There isn’t much expertise in the world to deal with the intersection of infrastructure, urban planning and public space. Infrastructure is thought of as part of engineering as opposed to thinking about the relationship for example, between infrastructure and its impact on urbanisation.

In terms of the future of cities… the big challenges will centre around the questions of extreme urbanisation, fast urbanisation, climate change and more. We must think very differently than we ever have done about how we plan cities and move away from master planning and separation of functions. We have been able to learn a lot from cities as they’ve grown organically but now we need new tools and techniques for imagining the cities of the future.

We are also faced with limitations on resources and must think creatively through these challenges to innovate and consider new types of urban environments that are really sustainable in the long-run. Many of these themes are being discussed from the point of view of assessment… insofar as we ask the question as to whether a city is liveable… but we should really be thinking from the perspective of production. How do you create new spaces that are quite different than the spaces we are used to. That’s a big challenge!

Q: How can architecture influence economics?

[Martha Thorne] There are many ways that architecture can influence an economy. On a broad scale, this also relates to the design of entire cities and neighbourhoods, not just individual buildings. It also requires an wide scale understand of how a city functions. There are now conversations around efficient cities that make best use of resources including public transportation. People are now starting to consider how people interact with their city. Where do they live? where do they work? and how do they travel between these activities? Can those activities be combined to make city use more efficient?

There are many other ways in which architects can contribute to the economy- albeit this may not be direct! If we look at individual buildings I wouldn’t go so far as to say they can illicit certain behaviours, but without a doubt… a well designed school can encourage learning and provide the right conditions of comfort, lighting and acoustics to foster ideas and set the stage to think creatively and promote curiosity. Bad architecture makes people tired, uninterested and bored! Well designed workplaces are crucial too. Many studies have shown that people in well designed spaces take less sick leave, they are more focussed and make better contributions to their organisation. This relates to the first observation that architecture is art, science and much more. Good architecture has to be aware of those aspects which may have economic impact.

Good design is good business!

Q: What is the economic and social role of signature buildings?

[Richard Rogers] I take signature to mean buildings which are recognised. If I take Pompidou, the first paragraph of our report (which we had to submit with our drawings) was that this should be a place for people, all ages, all creeds, the poor, the rich, a place for meeting. That explains the social context which drove the form in a way… Pompidou had a big piazza, continuation of the public space up the facade, interior flexibility and more.

This need for flexibility was critical. In the renaissance, the era of the ‘monument‘, it was said that when a building was perfect nothing could be changed, nothing could be added to. Today it’s nearly the reverse, if you can’t add to it- it becomes a white elephant! Buildings frequently outlive their uses, and if we’re talking about sustainability it stands that one would not wish to demolish a building and that it should be flexible for the communities who use it. I used to say as an example that the Lloyds Insurance building could be used as a university one day. At the time we built Lloyds Insurance, the IT revolution was just starting and questions were raised about why the building would need meeting spaces, market spaces and so on. Things can be very temporary…

Buildings also help to form the identity of a place. You can see the life of the people and community expressed in architecture and hopefully if these spaces are well-designed, they will positively affect the people within them. If you are unfortunate enough to live in a brutal derelict space then you, yourself, will be affected. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in nice green areas and areas with good public spaces most likely have a better chance at enjoying life and- I suppose- play a role as citizens.

Q: What is the role of architecture in the fields of infrastructure and transportation?

[Richard Rogers] The idea that as an architect works on his own is no longer valid, it’s about teamwork. I work very closely with structural and environmental engineers, sociologists and people from other disciplines. You move forward as a team. Probably the most important person in this team is the client! All the buildings which I could say are the better ones we have done were driven by the vision of a client who understood what they were trying to aim at.

Let me give you a simple illustration. When we started the Pompidou, it had three major departments; museum, music and library. By the time we finished the Pompidou, the weren’t any books in the library! Nobody had really envisaged that change would have moved so fast. We see this in terms of transportation too. My guess is that the car is dying…. What will replace it? how will it be replaced? there are interesting signs coming from researchers who build vehicles which, rather than being driven, follow magnetic lines and so on… That will make a tremendous difference to our streets and give us more public space. That is a situation where hopefully, the engineer and architect work together. You could also consider individuals like Brunelleschi. Was he an engineer? was he an artist? was he an architect? They are very overlapping.

Looking at transportation…. One of my first memories as a young child was going to Paris, and seeing trains going off to unheard of places and it was very exciting. In many ways, my inspiration was probably more influenced by railway stations than by neoclassicism. What really excited me when I took on airport projects was the spirit of travel. If you are going to spend time there, you may as well try and make it a gateway! …a gateway in this sense is a spirit. This mode of thinking is part of the art of architecture. We cannot forget that for modern airports, the business-end is all about retail. I sometimes feel that what business people want is a shopping centre with wings on!

Q: What is the role of regeneration and repurposing on the story of architecture?

[Richard Rogers] Especially in countries like Britain which were massive industrial nations, the real art of architecture is retrofitting. Whether you are retrofitting in terms of brown-field (sites where buildings were already), retrofitting existing buildings or intensifying… that is a very important part.

England has more brown-field land than any country in the world! There’s no point building outside cities, we’re nowhere near filling gaps within our own cities. This is also an environmentally sustainable strategy. You could avoid using cars and go by bike, foot or even bus whereas if you live in the suburban sprawl, it creates tremendous pollution.

Cities are also a great meeting place for people- something which has been at the heart of the concept of ‘the city‘ since its emergence in Mesopotamia. Cities met to exchange grain, meat, to think and to exchange ideas. In this sense, the core concept of the city has remained relatively unchanged for 6,000 years and so regeneration merely ensures more parts of the city meet these purposes.

Q: What is the relationship between government policy and architecture?

[Richard Rogers] I’ve worked very closely with governments in this regard. I was the Chairman of ‘Urban Task Force‘ and other bodies under John Prescott, Ken Livingstone and Heseltine who were all tremendously good ministers. They had a tremendous intuition, world-view and realisation that things could be better… that quality of life could be improved. For example… there is a clear battle at the moment to retrieve the streets for people where they were previously only for cars.

The UK Government has recently overhauled planning laws and regulations which have been in place since 1945-46. They propose to take 1,500 pages of documents down to only 50 pages. I think the aim is questionable, but I do understand what they are trying to do. Regulations have made a difference… If you take the example of London becoming denser… Ken Livingstone stated that no rural land or open space will be used outside the brown-field areas in London. In 15 years, the city added over 1 million people who all live within these contexts. That also makes the city much safer as eyes on the street are a critical part of safety.

Q: What are the key challenges and opportunities faced by education in relation to architecture practice?

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] I think one of the key challenges is to make architecture more relevant. This is very tough as we live within a cultural milieu where the value of architecture has been diminished. This is in many ways, a cultural question as much as an education question. We live in a world where the vast majority of students studying in high-schools have no exposure to architecture. In some parts of the world, they still have art classes- but there is very little coverage of the history of architecture and art- and even less about the organisation of our cities.

In the United States, it’s extremely complicated to study architecture. You must complete a degree, work, then art school for a further 3 to 4 years… When you finish, you have a lot of debt and the salaries that people receive in this field are relatively low. It’s a field which requires people to be incredibly passionate and dedicated to their discipline. This is a problem to the extent that over the years, the value of architecture has decreased.

For architecture schools, the challenge is to train individuals who are not only the most creative people in their field…. but also who are able to see their future job opportunities and possibilities in context of a society that appreciates what they do. Our challenge is not simply to train the best and brightest individuals. We also are mandated to argue for the importance of architecture, the importance of design, the value of beauty… outside the community of architects. With the enhancement of such senses of appreciation, we will create greater value for architecture and architects.

We are also living at a time where we have the responsibility to design and describe what is contemporary about architecture. This is not just about having certain know-how but also having sensitivity to the world around us. That’s an immense challenge for the next generation of practicing architects- to develop a discipline and mode of practice that is genuinely contemporary in its approach. This sounds simple but believe me, it’s a big task.

Q: What does the next quarter century hold for architecture?

[Martha Thorne] I cannot tell you architecture will do, but I can tell you what I hope it does.
I think the most pressing issues that are facing the world today have to do with the great social needs of a huge percentage of the world’s population. Architecture has an enormous challenge and an enormous opportunity to design for that 90%! Not the 10% or 20% that may benefit directly as they do now… but for the larger population of humanity that has enormous needs for housing, schools and so on.

That may mean we don’t build in the conventional sense that we’re used to. We may undertake design much more with people. I think of architects like Shigeru Ban of Japan and the work that he does for disaster relief. This is another area where architects have a lot of potential to do incredibly valuable work. How do you quickly care for people after disasters, and provide shelter, privacy and some sort of help? how do you take people away from the devastation and prevent it becoming chronic? That type of issue is somewhere that architects can have a profound impact.

When it comes to questions around the use of resources, we realise that a lot of the world’s solid waste comes from buildings. That is an area where I hope architects will focus their interests and see what can be done. How do you deal with ageing building stock? how do you deal with landfills that are full of residue from building sites and demolitions?

[Richard Rogers] Materials are getting smaller, lighter and stronger. You can do more with less.

I also hope that we will recognise our responsibilities more as citizens. We live in a period where we absorb information from around the world, and information that allows us to be critical of things.

There are also huge explosions happening around the world. The first time I went to Shanghai was around 15 years ago. It had 9 million people and 7 million bicycles. I went back 10 years later and the city now had 19 million people. Shanghai had added a New York in just a decade! Unfortunately, there were now 2 million bicycles… pollution and congestion were also now terrible.

[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] We can imagine that technology will become more ever-present but the use of technology is important. If we see computers as a device for drawing, imagining and so on… they become less the drivers… but more the catalyst for how we imagine. We do think about architecture in its own right and in the sense of the beauty of buildings. This goes back to the question of autonomy and leads us to the question of how we can advance the discipline itself.

I think it will be critical for us to think about urban environment, how we relate to people, the places we live and the places we work. All these things are up for grabs! In the last 20 years, we’ve already seen a lot of changes in patterns of living and working- and these trends will continue.

We must also consider these things in context of the new paradigms we face, meaning we have to be clever. The buildings of the future will have to take into account reduced energy, so the buildings themselves will have to be sustainable as will our actions in terms of the city. We will have to be more resourceful but not at the expense of aesthetics and at the expense of creating pleasurable spaces and experiences. We must not think about the reduction of energy use in a scientific fashion, but rather in a creative fashion.

We will also need to think differently in terms of our relationships to others. One example is the growing differentiation between rich and poor, creating more gated communities. In places like Dubai and others… the poor are literally hidden from site. Hopefully we will resist this, and think about cities with more community… more interaction and more engagement of people from different backgrounds. I hope we will really see the city as a place that is understood as somewhere that enhances democratic operations. You could argue many modern cities don’t promote democratic relations.

The challenge is how we think about cities, and how can we bring people together to enhance democracy. One of the elements of such an existence is the role of infrastructure- the provision of services, for example, mobility, transportation, access and enabling people to move around. Many cities are being designed with outlying suburbs with difficult access which de-facto creates a certain notion of ghettos.

I hope we resist this and create radically more engaged and collaborative environments, but there is a lot of evidence that things are going the other way… but I continue hoping.


In his 2009 book “The Thinking Hand” architect Juhani Pallasmaa notes that, “…architecture provides our most important existential icons by which we can understand both our culture and ourselves. Architecture is an art form of the eye, the hand, the head and the heart. The practice of architecture calls for the eye in the sense of requiring precise and perceptive observation. It requires the skills of the hand, which must be understood as an active instrument of processing ideas in the Heideggeran sense. As architecture is an art of constructing and physical making, its processes and origins are essential ingredients of its very expression…” Linking art and architecture he continues, “…as today’s consumer, media and information culture increasingly manipulate the human mind through thematised environments, commercial conditioning and benumbing entertainment, art has the mission to defend the autonomy of individual experience and provide an existential ground for the human condition. One of the primary tasks of art is to safeguard the authenticity and independence of human experience.

Pallasmaa asserts that, “Confidence in future architecture must be based on the knowledge of its specific task; architects need to set themselves tasks that no one else knows how to imagine. Existential meanings of inhabiting space can be articulated by the art of architecture alone. Thus architecture continues to have a great human task in mediating between the world and ourselves and in providing a horizon of understanding in the human existential condition. The task of architecture is to maintain the differentiation and hierarchical and qualitative articulation of existential space. Instead of participating in the process of further speeding up the experience of the world, architecture has to slow down experience, halt time, and defend the natural slowness and diversity of experience. Architecture must defend us against excessive exposure, noise and communication. Finally, the task of architecture is to maintain and defend silence. The duty of architecture and art is to survey ideals and new modes of perception and experience, and thus open up and widen the boundaries of our lived world.

At the heart of this discourse comes an even more fundamental realisation. Architecture does not manifest by itself, it is not a natural process such as the growth of a tree or movement of the oceans, it begins with the mind conceiving a question, rationalizing the context, understanding the ethic and ends with the imagining of a solution. Architecture is thus in its purest sense, the tangible manifestation of our imagination, interwoven with our lives to an extent matched only by our own biology.

Architecture is not manifest apart from us, it is us manifest.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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