Austerity Aesthetics
originally published in Monocle, Jul/Aug 2009

The new era in architecture began last autumn, when the world's financial markets imploded. The world of architecture as the US knew it – boisterous new buildings, cranes on every skyline, unlimited budgets – came screeching to a halt. An era of bombastic, willful and self-centered architecture has changed to a new sensibility that will characterize architecture from now on.

So what does architecture need to become? New projects must now embrace the aesthetics of austerity and make a virtue of economic necessity. Beauty must be a function of simplicity, composition, and quality rather than expensive materials or structural gymnastics. Architects must do more with less. The new architecture of austerity demands a redefinition of the sorts of projects we even consider worthy of the question, "Is it beautiful?" Promised improvements to our national infrastructure must have a vision for their physical presence.

While we should applaud the Obama administration's commitment to spending on infrastructure, we should be made very nervous about the concept of "shovel-ready". It can only mean no time went into thinking about what it looks like. To paraphrase Einstein, you can't solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it.

Infrastructure is important enough for us to care about its physical form. That requires a stunning shift. It means talking about museums and hospitals rather than access roads to green-field McMansions; schools rather than highways, and soaring bridges and train stations rather than mundane road repairs and widenings. It means including what is required by citizens of a civilized country: parks, schools, libraries and housing. The list of "what is infrastructure" must be expanded to enrich its aesthetic potential. Financial constraints can lead the masses to appreciate the beauty of projects that come under the prosaic rubric of "infrastructure". Infrastructure deserves an aesthetic and one that exalts austerity. Think "back to basics" with a twist of social responsibility. Think about Utopia. —Deborah Berke