For Vittorio

Photo by ?? Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

The dismal reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit with the first death of a colleague and hero.  I write this just after learning that Vittorio Gregotti has died of the virus in Milan at age 92.  Gregotti was a fine architect, but excelled in our ephemeral calling of architectural criticism, and as curator and cultural entrepreneur, being a crucial spark plug in bringing the Venice Biennale of Architecture up to speed.  A few years ago he was guest of honour at a London dinner I organized at “Critical Juncture,” a global gathering of architecture critics celebrating Joseph Rykwert’s receipt of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the first scholar-critic to be so honoured.  As always, Vittorio was warm, radiant and gracious that night. Many more intellectual and design pioneers of his generation will pass in weeks to come, and not just in Italy.  Rather than eulogize him and the others we’ll lose too soon, it is more in his spirit to direct my writing to shape some speculations—a few unexpected connections—something the Italian architect-critic was very good at.

In determining the impact on architectural culture and practice of COVID-19 and a simultaneous melt-down in oil prices, the law of un-intended effect kicks in brutally.  It is beyond doubt that there will be a recession which will diminish the range and ambition of our buildings, and will close many of our businesses.  Except here in Vancouver—which because of the infusion of global investment has known no full construction recession (a couple plateaus, but no sharp dips) since the 1980s—every Canadian architect of middle age or more has learned to hunker down and survive through a building recession. Because of volatile commodity prices, we Albertans may be the global experts in this, surviving through a major downturn every decade or more.

This time it is different.  A stock market and investment crisis is still underway, demanding a huge re-direction of government funding and controls.  More personally, most of us are isolated and not spending, and many will lose our jobs or contracts, with knock-on impact, especially for the housing market.  Money is being poured in to stabilize things, but cannot come close to replacing what has disappeared.  This has all happened before, but what has not happened is a simultaneous collapse in oil prices, triggered by a deadly roulette game involving not just the Russians, but the Saudis and Americans. Consider the alignment: huge demands on health care and the incapacitation and death of so many; a financial crisis of enormous and complicated dimensions; oil prices cut in half, with no end in sight.

The first society-wide death of the current crisis has gone un-remarked, but will become clearer in years to come.  The era of “Climate Change” as a global explain-everything narrative has ended. Even before things began in Wuhan, climate change was over-extended as meta-narrative, and increasingly shrill and apocalyptic predictions were having less and less impact, our coping instincts numbed.  The planetary hive-mind has shifted from things meteorological to things virological (excuse the neologism—you’ll use it).  As human beings, we are only able to assimilate one huge existential threat at a time, and it has shifted from rising temperatures in our rainforests to rising temperatures on our foreheads.  What makes this conceptual shift so dangerous is the arrival of cheap energy prices at the same time.  Recovery will come, and when it does there will be huge temptations to return to the worst of previous practices: urban sprawl; single family enclaves; tank-like automobiles; concrete and steel where wood could be used; ever-increasing social inequality; tacky housing as mere consumable; ‘forget-your-troubles’ easy references or nostalgic symbolism.

I watched this horror movie at least once before.  In the late 1970’s the University of Calgary offered us one of the first and most intensely Green architectural educations in Canada.  We graduated, then were stunned as energy prices tanked in the mid-1980s, reversing broad public policy and personal commitments to sustainability, and it took decades to push things back.  When the economic recovery starts next year or later, architects are obliged to become the memory flywheels of conservation practices, reservoirs of opinion and expertise to diminish this relapse. This will not make us popular, but we’ll have a social mission we have not had for two generations.

If we are to connect with the public, we’ll need new rhetoric to advance our cause, because collective mental circuits for “Climate Change” and “Global Warming” have burned out. This said, I am happy to predict that new and powerful design languages will emerge out of this.  When construction resumes, history teaches us that everyone will be in the mood for an entirely new look, and almost certainly, the seeds of this new style are growing right now in the smallest of our design studios. As a critic, I am compelled to find them.

There is one hugely positive impact on architecture and city-building that is emerging from our current condition of social distancing.  This is the rediscovery—the recovery via absence—of the importance of “the public.”  I intensely miss my civic swimming pool and gym, the UBC and SFU lectures downtown, Happy Hours at the local, and most of all, the symphonic sounds and balletic movements of crowds of people.  In their absence, we are all coming to appreciate as never before the ‘missing public.’  This is an epochal, once-generational opportunity for architects, to plan for the public spaces and public buildings that will be an infinitely better place to invest recovery funding than corporate bailouts.  The tales may be apochryphal of Sir Christopher Wren and his assistants preparing their plans for the rebuilding of London by the very light of the 1666 fires, but I find the idea irresistible.  Let’s get down to the boards to imagine anew, mumbling to our selves the new and powerful arguments we’ll need to shape the Green cities we all need.

Vancouver-based Trevor Boddy, FRAIC was the instigator and co-convenor of the 2014 “Critical Juncture,” the largest-ever global gathering of architecture critics at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Architectural Association.

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