Here and Now

(Excerpted from Deborah Berke)

“Reviewing projects for inclusion in this book I could not help but think back on their creation, and the influences—internal and external—that helped shape them. The work featured here, twenty-one projects out of nearly 200 designed since I started practicing more than twenty years ago, reflects an evolution in my thinking over those twenty years, although the majority have been done in the last decade.


Taking a second look at projects, with the perspective offered by time and distance, is cause for me to consider what it is I think, or believe, about architecture. Ten years ago, I was deeply engaged in the concept of the everyday in architecture. This philosophy of embracing and learning from that which is not expressly constructed through high culture or self-conscious design was crucial to my development as an architect and as a teacher. The results are evident in my work of that period, as well as most explicitly in the book I co-edited with my dear friend and colleague Steven Harris, The Architecture of the Everyday. What I was trying to do through my buildings was see if it were possible to make an architecture of exceptional everydayness.

However, the irony of being the poster child for the anonymity associated with the everyday was not lost on me; nor were, as the 1990s unfolded into the new century, the limitations of a philosophy based on the status quo. The evolution of my thinking is less a case of no longer believing in the everyday and more a case of the everyday itself transforming under the impact of our hyper-accelerated, mass-mediated civilization. The world that has replaced the former everyday world is no less authentic (how can it be anything but authentically what it is?) than what I was initially inspired by and drawn to, but it is no longer everyday in the way that I once used the word. We, the world of architecture, and it, the everyday, have become too deeply self-aware, imitative, global. Everyday architecture may still be anonymous in its making—maybe even more so as culture becomes ever more placeless and production ever more "offshore"—but it is no longer local in its references. It has specific and identifiable attributes, but they are now not specific to a place or a people. Today I am more inspired by the contradictions of this new everyday than moved to emulate it.

That an architecture of the everyday is no longer my primary concern is also the result of changes in the world of architecture. Architecture’s full ascendancy to celebrity status, which began a decade ago or more, has reached a level previously unimaginable, I would suppose, even to those who are now at the pinnacle of this phenomenon. How the individual architect is treated, regarded, respected is of little relevance to my thoughts, though the celebrity of a few has most definitely improved the conditions for all architects. However, the way architecture itself continues to be produced and experienced is of enormous interest, and concern, within the context of this phenomenon. I find many of the buildings born of this condition to be bombastically present yet sadly disengaged from their physical situation. My instinct is to suggest that these signature pieces of celebrity architecture each require much more local distortion and a much less legible signature. What I am proposing is an architecture of a far more nuanced signature shaped, above all, by local conditions.

As I have continued to make architecture during the process of making this book, I have recognized an evolving tendency in my work, the philosophical underpinnings of which have grown out of the proposal put forth the above. I will call this position “local knowledge,” or the “here and now.” This philosophy suggests that architecture must strive to be both of its place and of its time. By “of its place” I do not mean that the architect must be local, but rather that the architecture itself must be, foremost in all of its creative criteria, bound to and grounded in its site. I am interested in an architecture so grounded in its site that it can be nowhere else.

Site-specificity emphasizes the importance of particulars of place and denies interchangeability even in today’s global context. “Interchangeable” so often means a dumbing-down, a one-size- fits-all approach. If something can work everywhere/anywhere, this is only because it has reduced places to their most common elements at the expense of their unique ones.

While the notion of things being of a place was once called “vernacular,” that word has come to convey—at least in architecture—quaint, old-fashioned, or nostalgic. My desire for buildings to be of a place is not that they be quaint, old-fashioned, or nostalgic, but that they be anchored. This quality is the antidote to so many places being placeless, interchangeable, and unrecognizable while also being completely familiar. In other words, it is, paradoxically, placelessness that has become all too familiar today. I believe that architecture still has the capacity to challenge this, through its own qualities.

My philosophical position no doubt stems in part from my love of New York City. I love all cities, but New York City above all confirms my belief in the power of the everyday place to be absolutely unique. I love the New York City of grime and confusion, of trestles and bridges and streets and streets of anonymous buildings, just as I exult in the new New York City of glass and more glass. New York has taught me that a building can be an icon without being a monument. I do not at all long for it to be as it was, but I do not want it to lose the bits that remind us daily that it is a working city. I strongly object to the obliteration of the things, old or new, that make this place this place alone, that distinguish it as a place from any other. It is not that I am nostalgic for the New York City of a certain era. I simply like the feeling New York City inevitably gives me of knowing where I am. And that desire applies to everywhere.

I believe in the power of architecture not to transform but to underscore, highlight, and direct. We need not only to build of a place, but to build in an effort to enhance and underscore the nature of that place. We need do so because this is the most resistant, dig-your-heels-in response to banal, uncaring placelessness and the obliteration of the here and now. Reasserting the here and now, which is the antidote to placelessness and homogeneity, demands absolutely that one avoid predictability. To bring out the here, something might have to be quite unexpected, jarring us into the moment, asserting the now. Today I believe in both the here and the now, the here being someplace very deeply specific, the now being an architecture of today, totally responsible in its making. A building that can say what here is will also imply what there is, and it can do so without rhetorical posturing.

If this were a manifesto written for architects, it would start boldly and stridently. Make no buildings that are not anchored in their place. They can be made of anything you wish, and in any way you wish, but once they are complete, you are gone and they must be more of the place and less of you. This does not mean they cannot be totally recognizable as yours, it just means that they would not be complete if they were anywhere else.

This is local knowledge; this is what I am calling the ‘here and now.’”

Publisher: Yale University Press (2008)