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Three Giant Leaps for Mankind, Three Grave Threats to Architecture
Common Edge
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Media, Non-profit, Architecture, Design
Mark Alan Hewitt
Date Published: 
Opinion, Essay, Future Trends, Economy, Politicals, Wealth, Culture, Globalization
Tapestry Statistics:
2021-02-22 16:16:56
2021-02-22 16:20:10
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Common Edge
Historians will be writing about, and debating, the most significant epistemic changes that occurred during the final two decades of the 20th century for a long time. Following the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the influx of products from China, and the Arab oil embargo, the world economy changed dramatically. Globalization was the term most often used to describe the overturning of the old order in markets, finance, and economic policy. Thomas Friedman published several books that attempted to explain these events in laymen’s terms, but I think it was an impossible task. How was anyone expected to consider the planet while looking for a job, watching family members die in the street, and wondering whether homes would be standing the next morning?

Laying aside the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and the tinderbox in the Middle East, tech mavens noted that people began using personal computers for nearly everything beginning in the early 1980s, as Apple, Microsoft, and IBM changed the nature of information processing and business with astounding speed. I remember receiving my first Macintosh computer in about 1982 while at my first academic job. I was overjoyed. Little did I think that I would use it for anything but writing books and doing research. I kept on buying books and CDs. I kept drawing by hand.

In fact, I was so bamboozled by the technological wizardry that was swirling around me I failed to notice a third Paradigm Shift aimed right at my solar plexus. I had spent the better part of my academic life studying the arts and humanities, believing that the fate of world culture would be decided by those with the education—the literacy—to be able to advance aesthetic achievements in such pursuits and architecture and music, while other aspects of human progress carried on at a similar rate of change. It has taken me decades to recognize how naive I was about the importance of my chosen field of study.

Global over Local. Cyberspace over Personal Space. Wealth over Culture. The three astounding, world-shattering shifts that have made much of what I care about cease to matter after the millennium snuck by under the radar, not only for me but for almost every architect I know. The smartest people I worked with over the past three decades were barely aware of how destructive these forces were, only now recognizing that a crisis has beset our old and esteemed profession, and the civic art we believe we make and curate for the public.

Last week, while participating in a radio call-in with Common Edge’s Martin C. Pedersen, Richard Buday, and Duo Dickinson, it dawned on me that these accomplished, observant men were talking about not only changes in home, work, and the environment, but about the fundamental reorientation of architectural production following the Covid-19 pandemic. When I reflected further on the conversation, I recognized the outlines of an attack on things I valued as an artist and cultural historian. They weren’t new. They happened while I was in the middle of my career, right under my nose, much like the attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.

Globalization, the cyber-information society, and the capitalist substitution of monetary value for culture are facts. In a post-truth society, these facts are not disputed. Books like Thomas Piketty’s two studies of capital in the 21st century unveiled the savage inequities wrought by wealth-seeking elites under the guise of global “open” markets. Dave Eggers put substance on the studies of social critics decrying the rise of surveillance commerce under the cloak of Google emoticons in his novel The Circle. Wired magazine and Fox News boldly proclaimed the irrelevance of cultural discourse amid the tsunamis of Big Data and 24-hour media feeds to all of our devices. The message from all three arenas is clear: Architecture doesn’t matter because the public realm has become virtual, capital chases capital without touching concrete things, and we can’t look at our environments objectively while checking our backsides for viruses, boogeymen, and hackers.

Let me unpack some of that for you, and for myself as well. Architects are still educated, correctly, to believe that what we do benefits everyone in some measure, but especially the people who work and live in spaces we design. I have written recently about how important it is for architects to understand biology and bra