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Perhaps it’s worth mentioning as an introduction the fact that during an extended interview to Lus Fernndez Galiano (editor in chief of ‘Arquitectura Viva’ and director of the architecture congress ‘Ms por Menos’ (More for Less) which was opening two days later , broadcasted on CNN+ channel, Iaki Gabilondo (one of Spain’s top journalists) slipped into a lapse of memory and forgot the name of Francisco Mangado (in the picture), the Spanish architect who is at the frontline of ‘Arquitectura y Sociedad’ (Architecture and Society), the foundation organizing the congress that was held in Pamplona (Spain) between June 9th 11th.

That involuntary lapse appeared somehow not irrelevant from an architect’s perspective, since it could be interpreted it as a clear evidence of the lack of knowledge that society has about architecture. The incident was just proving how architecture and the debate about its current state seem to be issues that have ended up standing very far away from the concerns of society.

Maybe as an effort at trying to rectify such alienation of architecture in its own reverie and to prevent this congress from ending up being a minor gathering of architects, or maybe because of some devious understanding of what does bestowing an event with prestige may mean, the Lus Fernndez Galiano Francisco Mangado tandem (director and instigator of the congress, respectively) wrapped the event in a pageantry, which included an opening speech by the Crown Prince of Spain and the preparation of a panel of speakers which featured two former ministers of the Spanish government, the deans of the schools of architecture of Columbia and Yale and two members of the Pritzker jury, in order to ensure the grandeur and repercussion in the media for an event which was introduced (and expected to be) a meeting that would aim at fostering the necessary turn of the tide that could release architecture from the cul de sac where it has remained blocked during the most recent years, engaging again architecture and society in order to built a new architectural territory.

Under the motto ‘More for less’, this congress aimed at analyzing which could be the key factors to develop an architecture based on principles of ‘more fairness and efficiency, an architecture able to face critical periods and to optimize resources in order to obtain more quality at less cost’. This seemed, at first sight, a necessary and timely manifesto, which seemed to embody the chance of many positive expectations.

However, on a closer look, the motto appeared excessively ambiguous and reductionist, incapable to contain and convey the depth of the changes that are actually needed today in architecture: nowadays, architecture does not only require more quality at lower cost (something which would a mere pragmatic requirement, in obvious logical accordance with the requirements of a period of economical recession). Architecture has been suffering from a profound crisis of ideas, criticism, ethicsfor a long time now, but he alarms have loudly rung only when that grave identity crisis has collided with the hard economical crisis.

It is about time we start reading beyond the surface of that time that has triggered icons and deifying. It is compelling we start seeing the buildings during the recent years as more than mere despicable material rubbish that, in most cases, have become utterly useless just shortly after their completion, in order to diagnose their obsessive grandiloquence as a symbol of the ideological erring our culture has been sinking into.

Therefore, when this congress started to promote itself without taking any real distance from the distinctive aspect of that era of excess, but by resorting to the flashy news about the attendance of a number of Pritzker award laureates and many other names that had been participants in a way or another of the hyper capitalist abundance and the iconic architecture show, it seemed very pertinent to start posing this question: what interpretation and utilization of the state of crisis was going to be made in this congress. Would it become the occasion for those prominent figures to make aloud a critical self reflection or would it end up becoming yet another scenario to host convenient blackouts and metamorphosis into prophets of sustainability and social commitment?

The first answer is that unfortunately, during ‘More for Less’, it was impossible to perceive a real intention to question a worn out model, which condemned itself to its own collapse. Very clearly, this congress has corroborated how the apparent criticism towards that period of architectural fanfare has become nothing but a very attractive device to feign the rising of a supposed critical reflection that aims at inducing a renovation and change in the high architecture behaviour but which is actually nothing more than another very seductive and very politically correct concept of new values for media consumption. And which, as an absurd and dangerous paradox, comes from individuals that backed this system they abhor today.

Such criticism defines its position from an attitude that feels itself safeguarded by its supposedly inherent ethic / moral respectability but it is actually a criticism that is formulated lacking any awareness about the fact that the approach of its condemnation is not involving an analysis of what has actually led to the prevalence of the despicable attitude of ‘anything goes’ that has been ruling over these years. It inveighs against the effects and attitudes of the star system architecture but revels in a superficial position as it does not seem to dare to undertake a severe self criticism to comprehend in depth why ‘high architecture’ has swapped the values of the Modern claim for a social and humanist architecture for the values of neo capitalist cynicism.

‘More for Less’ has been conceived from the very same structures of showbiz ness it was supposed to be reacting to. Otherwise, which is the argument that can explain the invitation of a number of A list architects and introduce them under the aura of being Pritzker laureates? Hasn’t the Pritzker Award ended up being one of the crucial supports of the damaging culture of architectural show biz?

Still, paradoxically, this approach has made evident how many of the figures that have had more prominence during those ‘iconic years’ put themselves into a bad light, unveiling themselves as vacuous individuals out of touch with factual reality. They unwillingly made clear the badly urgent deep change of attitude that architecture is in need of , while, confirming, at the same time that such a change will by no means flow from any of those ones who have holding the hegemony during that period that has caused architecture to be under this comatose state.

Arguably, (and with some exceptions) some of the interventions in this congress could be regarded more as a sort of getaway where, worryingly, conformism and shallowness became defensive shields. The tacit ideological affinities between most of the panel members and political correctness, fostered by the stagnant attitude of the congress’ director, provided a context where the lack of self criticism and a tone of speeches, which seemed more suitable to be used in front of potential clients rather than between colleagues, allowed no chance for the debate to flow or to listen to differing heterogeneous opinions, which could have been the factors to ground a creative and productive discussion on the status quo of architecture. The most stimulating or controversial moments that took place in the event happened only by chance instead of being directly instigated by the moderators.

The most sincere confession of Renzo Piano went probably unnoticed. ‘I’m lost nowadays’ he said, and gave proof of it by means of a flat speech aimed at justifying the validity of his architecture, when there was actually no need for it, as nobody is going to put into question the importance of his input into the history of recent architecture. However,
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his efforts at trying to portray himself as an ‘ecological architect’ avant la lettre were too contrived, particularly when he resorted to a portrait of himself sailing in his fast in order to impress the audience with his high class version of sustainability and ecological awareness. It seemed that the only interest of Piano in this congress was using his participation as means to stay in the architectural limelight.

Anyone who has followed the career of Herzog de Meuron from their beginnings until the present day, was indeed not expecting to be surprised by a social discourse from Jacques Herzog; but there was nonetheless a huge expectation to see him answering and fitting his intervention within this congress’ theme. Herzog, who over the last few years has been producing a snobbish architecture and including totalitarian regimes among his office’s clients, attacked to play his defense: he argued the congress’ motto was ‘stupid’, however he did not bother to clarify the reasons of his attendance or to propose an alternative concept to it.

Cunningly, he managed to keep under wraps Herzog de Meuron’s most excessive recent projects (such as Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, the BBVA Bank headquarters in Madrid, the Paris’ pyramidal tower, the Bond 40 condominium and the tower in Leonard Street both in New York , or his ventures as curator for the ORDOS 100 project: a residential development for millionaires in a remote site in China. In ‘More for Less’, Herzog did not stop his getaway, blaming promoters and giving a lesson in cynicism that nobody dared confronting, except for Glen Murcutt. However, the little argument that started between the two of them ended up as being nothing but a mere anecdote.

Herzog resorted to a rough argument to justify the iconic nature of the architecture of recent times, claiming that the XVIIth century popes also advocated for the spectacular monumental architecture. That was a blatantly confused perception, as it is just impossible to propose any analogy between such different social and cultural contexts while also overlooking the importance of the modern vindication for an architecture that serves society.

Glenn Murcutt made clear he is a very good architect, a very responsible professional and a great individual. However, his participation betrayed the fact he has been surpassed by the present time, as some of his views exuded certain conservatism and referred to aspects that are only applicable in exceptional outstanding cases, such as his own one, a rara avis who still runs his office by himself. Murcutt left an excellent impression: he is an inspiring role model, somebody who still embodies the transcendental concept of architect and the ethical values of architecture. In spite he did not posed any opinions or widely applicable solutions that could become common references that could help to shape the upcoming future of architecture, listening to his words was a privilege and we definitely have to value the greatness of his spirit.

The very same call to retrieve the ethical values that architecture conquered during the XXth century was the driving force underlying in the very interesting presentation of Spanish architect Victor Lpez Cotelo.

Anne Lacaton and Matthias Sauerbruch described very correctly, but without too much implication, their projects. This was also applicable to the talks of Carlos Jiménez, a member of the Pritzker Award jury, or David Chipperfield. These were lectures that we could have presented in whatever other architectural events, thus reinforcing the impression that what would have been really desired from these participants in this specific congress would have been their engagement in fruitful dialogue debates. However, again, the moderation of the conversations was more aimed at flattery and the repetition of lazy clichés than at instigating a critical revision of the present situation of architecture.

4. An introduction made from a worryingly reductive view, as it is utterly wrong to state that countries like Chile or Colombia are ‘poor countries’, since they are not: they are actually countries where the unbalance between the social classes is extremely severe but they are by no means ‘poor countries’.

The former intervention of the charismatic and fashionable architect par excellence (namely, Jacques Herzog) had disenchanted the audience, but a potential successor was about to take the stage: Alejandro Aravena, who became one of the main figures of the congress, and who is beginning to take the shape of the perfect ideal hero for an architectural world who is badly in need to put new idols on a pedestal.

Still, sometimes it is necessary to be the party’s spoilsport to expose the deception contained in the illusions people yearns to believe in. Aravena’s profile is grounded on pretences that become exposed after a light scratch on its surface.

This Chilean architect (Silver Lion to the most promising architect at Venice’s Biennale in 2008 and a current member of the jury of Pritzker Award) is an interesting case study. He managed to skillfully adequate his intervention in this congress highlighting exclusively his ‘social’ profile, embodied in ELEMENTAL, a do thank, as he labels it, while keeping undercover the dubious social nature of many of his other architectural projects to persuade the audience that he is basically an architect primarily caring for social issues.

He started with a long dissertation about his Chairless (here under scrutiny at the Design Trial within the Abitare Talks), a seating structure designed for Vitra whose original concept, as Aravena explained, belongs to Ayoreo Indians (living in areas between Bolivia and Paraguay) must be noted that Aravena said he donated to them a fraction of the benefits. He also extensively disserted on the recent earthquake in Chile, talking about the usage of tyres to transport water.

The talk about Chairless unwillingly summarized Aravena’s philosophy: copying simple designs and wrap them in a cool packaging. This is essentially what he has carried out with his project for the dwellings in Quinta Monroy (Iquique, Chile): the appropriation of a basic and already tested design and cover it with an appealing halo of social sensitivity for the taste of 21st century.

Aravena’s project was devised to house a hundred of families that had been occupying illegally the area for over thirty years, and it is entirely based in the concept of ‘incremental dwelling’ that has been applied since the 60’s in specific areas of Latin American countries: the architect takes care of the most essential aspects of the design and delivers an unfinished house to the client future inhabitant, who will take care of extending the built surface up to a regulated dimensions in accordance to his own domestic needs.

During his speech, Aravena stated some opinions that were more coherent as an appeal to marketing and a concept of architecture as alms. He candidly admitted having found in social architecture a factor that could draw media attention to his work; he confessed he was no altruistic and that he did not aimed ELEMENTAL becoming a NGO. And he concealed, or whispered too low, that his company is funded by Chile’s main oil company, COPEC. He also seemed to overlook the need to mention that the ‘incremental dwelling’ has not been developed through his research in Harvard but as mentioned above has been applied in South America since the second half of the 20th century.

The media dynamics has led to overrate this project without any real knowledge of its actual reality: the Quinta Monroy dwellings are wretched places to live in. Delivering the house unfinished included not providing dwellers with elemental resources, such as hot water. This reality transforms a project which seems to intend to foster a social improvement in the short term into Pharisaical charity,
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where the real beneficiaries have not been the people in need but the architect for whom a manifesto of social awareness has been a springboard to reach a desired (and considered indispensable) celebrity.