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Let's think our way out of this slump

The economy has been hit hard, and architectural thinking can be key to the recovery, says Stephen Greenberg

The ‘age of austerity’ will last a long time; many say it took 30 years and a World War to recover from the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The ‘new dawn’ will be a rude awakening, but architects could turn this into a call to arms. It could be a wonderful opportunity for some bright people to rethink the practical art of architecture and reposition the profession’s outdated business model.

It doesn’t have to nestle into the embrace of the property industry. There are problems to solve for which architectural training is a unique gift: housing, water, urbanisation, transport, sustainability, recycling and food production. Architecture is a great discipline for joined-up thinking, presenting thinking in the round, connecting and explaining.

But architects have to learn to collaborate with other disciplines, to look for ideas in the cracks between them, and to pose questions the other way round, such as: is a building the solution to this problem? We have to learn to think, rather than to sell. Invention is all we have left in a digital world where we can outsource much of what a Part 2 student with a £20,000 overdraft does to the other side of the world for less than half the cost.

Yet when architecture is in coalition with, rather than dominating, other disciplines, that is how new ones are invented. When it is the enabler rather than the finished product; when the end, the photographed icon just before the occupants move in, is not the means; when experience, installation and activity made by others bring it to life, then it has a role to play in remaking our environment.

Where do we begin? We need a root-and-branch start with the next intake of first-year students. In the extended boom they were shown a career path that led to practice, lots of work and lavish materials. A total pedagogic rethink is needed – counter-intuitive exercises that turn career-path thinking on its head.

Less really will be more, but the glass could still be half full.

  • Stephen Greenberg was editor of AJ from 1990 to 1994, during the last recession. He is now principal of Metaphor

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