It Was the Best of Times...and the Worst
The profession was roiled by news last year, while new projects exemplified the beauty that architecture has to offer our changing world.
As we look forward to a new year, we can’t help but look back at 2018—and, frankly, a lot of what we recall isn’t pretty.
The #MeToo movement burst onto the architecture scene, unleashing widespread allegations of sexual assault and mistreatment of women (and some men) in offices and design schools. But outrage also fueled new activism in the push for gender equity in the profession.
The news on climate change grew more dire. A government report released in November painted a grim picture of the impact on human health and the economy by the end of the century if nothing is done to combat climate change. And nothing is just what the current administration is doing—despite the warnings from scientists in 13 of its own agencies—as it rolls back existing environmental protections and prepares to leave the Paris climate accord. If anyone needed more evidence of the clear and present danger, 2018 was one of the biggest years on record for wildfires, as well as for storms, droughts, and other catastrophes that, most scientists agree, are affected by the global rise of temperatures.
Cities continued to lead in taking steps to fight climate change. But metropolitan areas felt intense pressures last year in many areas—with scant resources to tackle aging infrastructure or the crisis in affordable housing.
It didn’t help that Congress was mostly gridlocked, and the stock market was riding a roller coaster down from record highs.
Meanwhile, the architecture profession was feeling tremors from such disruptors as Katerra and WeWork. These Silicon Valley companies began to encroach on the world of design, by building housing and workplaces with new models of efficiency, snatching up young talent and potentially taking a bite out of business. RECORD covered these developments last year and, as we reported in our special issue in June on the Future of Practice, the most forward-thinking firms have begun to retool traditional ideas of how to operate.
Still, the year ended on a good note for many offices, with a bump up in the Architectural Billings Index for the 14th month in a row. But the question remains: how long can such good times last?
So if you’re still feeling a little jittery about the future, one distraction is to look at the kind of innovation that architects brought to some of last year’s most intriguing projects, whether the engineering of OMA’s Qatar National Library Doha, with its massive spans and lifted corners, or BIG’s curvy two-towered Energy Mansion, with its pleated skin reducing the solar load by 30 percent in subtropical Shenzhen.
And, closer to home, at least three very different new projects exemplify the unique capacity of architecture to elevate the human experience.
Glenstone Museum, by Thomas Phifer and Partners, in Potomac, Maryland, was designed to appear as a cluster of pavilions that seem rooted in the earth like ancient ruins. A master class in the exquisite detailing of simple materials and the deft deployment of natural light, the building possesses a discreet ambience that makes it an extraordinary backdrop for a private collection of contemporary art. As the latest addition to the legendary Houston art campus, the Menil Drawing Institute, by Johnson Marklee, is itself a quiet piece of sculpture, with folded steel-plate canopies hovering above wood-clad volumes that echo the original Renzo Piano museum nearby, and an interior of muted intimacy for viewing art. And, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, MASS Design Group has created a haunting open-air pavilion of Cor-Ten, concrete, and wood in honor of the more than 4,000 African American victims of lynching. In its stark simplicity, it speaks eloquently to the unspeakable, once-buried crimes in our country’s not too distant past.