ERA Architects

What do architects do?

Apartment complexes at 1440-1442 Lawrence Ave. E. in Toronto

David Watkin’s book on The Rise of Architectural History has always held for me an almost Darwinian appeal — which I’ve interpreted as a delicious recognition that the cultural value related to architecture has never been static but has had its own evolutionary process.  This strikes at the heart of the idea of architecture as a monument forever holding meaning and veers towards architecture as something that is intrinsically mute.  Architecture may have cultural meaning only as an interested community applies it, from time to time.

Why and how do we apply meaning to architecture?  The publication of Concrete Toronto by ERA and Coach House Books (edited by Graeme Stewart and myself) was intended as a deliberate provocation to explore this production of cultural meaning and valuation. We didn’t approach the topic as historians, but as architects. The writing in Concrete Toronto is intentionally addressed to a broad audience leaving the theory to lurk beneath the text, theory from architectural writers like Watkins and Juan Pablo Bonta, or sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, or philosopher Richard Rorty, or even the artists General Idea. We started with some of the city’s most neglected buildings and collected what Bonta would call the pre-canonic voices — the many different opinions about the buildings and how they are perceived.  As architects we express our enthusiasms. We are honest but we also recognize that negativity does not make a city and that architects must have a heightened sense that it is their obligation not only to build buildings but to assist in the cultural production of their associated values.  General Idea asked, “if we are artists, what do artists do?” and in producing Concrete Toronto we asked, if we are architects, what do architects do?

photo by Jesse Colin Jackson