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Announcing the publication of our first book

We are delighted to announce the publication of our first book: Towards Another Architecture: New Visions for the 21st Century. Read an excerpt from the book’s introduction by Farrell Centre Director and editor of the book, Owen Hopkins.

A great epoch has begun.
There exists a new spirit.
There exists a mass of work conceived in the new spirit;
it is to be met with particularly in industrial production.
Architecture is stifled by custom.
The “styles” are a lie.
Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character.
Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.
Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.

—Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture (1923)

Reading these words now over a hundred years since they were written, it is hard, even if one disagrees with them entirely, not to be carried away just a bit by the urgency and clarity of their rhetoric. With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily see why they set the tone for architecture over the following 50 years and why their impact is still being felt – for better and for worse – today.

Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture reads as the series of essays from which it originated, published over the preceding years on the pages of the journal L’Esprit Nouveau which he had co-founded with the artist Amédée Ozenfant, in 1920. At root, Le Corbusier’s argument was an Hegelian one, that architecture should reflect the zeitgeist, the new spirit of modernity. The industrial age necessitated a new style of architecture that would take advantage of its technical innovations and at the same time, in its planning and form, reflect the spirit of the new epoch (to use Le Corbusier’s word).

But modernism was not a style, even if that was the terminology Corbusier used. It was a mission: a set of architectural principles – part philosophical, part practical – conceived to be applied anywhere and to any situation. Although it claimed to sweep away all before it, modernism was, on one level, the logical progression of the Enlightenment project of seeking to understand the world through reason and rationality. But where Enlightenment thinkers dealt with the world as it was, modernists aimed to remake it.

That Le Corbusier succeeded in setting the architectural agenda (and of putting himself at the centre of it) was due in no small way to his formidable talent for publicity and self-promotion, the rhetorical force of his polemic, and later built work. But his success also rested – perhaps pivotally – on the fact there was an audience willing to listen and adhere to what he had to say.

Vers une Architecture culminated with the famous provocation: ‘It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution.’ And it’s here that the often noted paradoxical conservatism at the heart of Le Corbusier’s seemingly progressive mission becomes apparent, because, for him, the answer was clearly the former. Modern architecture, he somewhat self-servingly argued, was the means by which the social, political and economic transformations that industrialisation had unleashed could be mitigated before they spilled over into social and political revolution. In other words, a revolution in architecture was the way in which a broader societal ‘revolution can be avoided’, as he concluded.

Over following decades, this turned out to be both modernism’s greatest strength but also its biggest weakness. Architecture did transform itself – and then the world. Mass housing estates, new schools, new universities, new hospitals, new places of work and production, new civic buildings, new urban infrastructure – modern architecture has been one of the most transformative forces in human history.

Yet while it has indisputably been a force for good, it has also perpetuated power imbalances, discrimination and violence at odds with its apparently emancipatory mission, both locally and globally. This was not simply a noble cause or mission leading to unintended consequences, but the conceptual basis of the mission itself: the contention that its philosophies and prescriptions were universal. As things panned out, architecture was not just a decoy, but also part of the problem.

With a hundred years of hindsight, one of the great ironies of Le Corbusier’s messianic vision is that the very thing he so celebrated – unbridled industry – has
led us to our present predicament. Industry and technological progress have undoubtedly delivered transformative changes to living standards, and no one is sensibly suggesting any kind of reversion to pre-industrial ways of living. But the transformations that industry has enabled have come at great cost: global heating, declining biodiversity and pervasive pollution. We are now belatedly coming to the realisation that a world built on fossil fuels is unsustainable on every level.

While the climate emergency is by definition a global phenomenon, its effects are felt locally. The western world remains responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions, yet it is the developing world and Global South, which have benefited least from industry, where the effects of climate change will be – and already are – felt the hardest. Such geopolitical imbalances – the legacies of colonisation – mirror social and racial injustices in the western countries that were very often the colonising forces. It is doubly ironic, then, that modernism’s universalising mission did not erase difference, but arguably helped entrench it.

Having hurtled along one trajectory for the last 100 years or so, the world has arrived at a crossroads, with the path we choose now determining the next century – and maybe much further still. The levers – architectural or otherwise – we pulled in the past in moments of crisis no longer work and in fact make things worse. If architecture – in its modernist form and since – has played a significant role in leading us to the present predicament, then to help us find a way out, it must change fundamentally, just as it did a hundred years ago. The question this book aims, if not to answer, at least to point a direction towards, is not how architecture has to change, but to what.

About the book

Edited by Owen Hopkins, Towards Another Architecture brings together contributions from practitioners, researchers, educators and curators, working in a range of fields and geographies, to explore what ‘another architecture’ might mean. Rather than privileging any single agenda, the book is conceived as a platform for debate and discussion through which an architecture that operates as an instrument of liberation, empowerment and transformation might emerge.

Features contributions by Nzinga Biegueng Mboup; Dávid Smiló; Superflux / Anab Jain and Jon Ardern; Xu Tiantian; Gonzalo Herrero Delicado; Marianela D’Aprile; Ruth Morrow;  Alice Brownfield; Xenia Adjoubei; V. Mitch McEwen;  Marianna Janowicz; Adam Nathaniel Furman and Joshua Mardell.

Purchasing information

The book is priced at £29.99 and is available to buy from bookshops as well as directly from the publisher Lund Humphries.