As Europe lay in ruins in the aftermath of World War I, the scrupulously practical Walter Gropius remarked, "The future architect would make gardens of the deserts and heap wonders into the sky."
Architecture is an instrumental discipline: it is directly concerned with the minutiae and matter of quotidian existence and completely folded into the prevailing cultural, technological, and economic winds of its time. As torch-bearers of the cultural critique, architects perch just outside the realm of society from a vantage point just far enough to maintain a critical distance, but still close enough to raise a wet finger to the sky and feel which way the wind is blowing. When those winds are blowing strong with a robust economy and extraordinary technological advancement enabling an accelerated proliferation of methods of cultural production, architects are busy responding, reacting, and scrambling to maintain the critique in a storm of progress. It is in times of crisis and calamity when the engine of progress stalls that architects can stop responding just long enough to anticipate something new, to imagine, to be visionary.
We find ourselves in the faint dawn light of the future. The global economic expansion of the last 15 years has produced vast global flows of capital and raw industrial material that have pooled in various eddies around the world making extraordinary technological leaps possible. Past utopian visions of the future have been realized under different names in seemingly less conspicuous ways (flying cars are airplanes, robot assistants are iPhones and Blackberries that keep track of personal and professional lives, and our conquest of the galaxy has begun with strange mechanical creatures roving the surface of Mars). In many ways, less utopian ways, technology has caught up with our collective imagination of the future.
The gift of imagination is truly a wonderful thing in times of great upheaval. Only when the presiding zeitgeist becomes unhinged can an architect's imagination have free reign. Only when the winds of progress are still can visionary work become unfettered and establish a new collective imagination of the dawning future. Only in these times can an architect act in anticipation of the future rather than in reaction to the present.
It is interesting to note that this current crisis, the global economic crisis, is a crisis of imaginary structures. The capital lost never really existed, it was simply collectively imagined and that faith in the value of imaginary capital produced the boom and the loss of that faith brought on the bust. In fact, this hits even closer to home: the imaginary capital was imagined into buildings through over-inflated real estate speculation and irresponsible property-backed credit gymnastics. Imagination is clearly a powerful player capable dramatically and tangibly affecting the course of human history when it metastasises in buildings and cities making the maintenance of that imagination seemingly essential to the health of civilization. Hmm, I think that's our job.
Get to work architects.