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Global Architecture Platform

The Great Pandemic Depression

by Hans Ibelings

The idea that the pipe dreams of intellectuals will come true now that we have a pandemic is just another form of wishful thinking. As Bas Heijne, a Dutch public intellectual, has recently put it, everybody is predicting a post-pandemic future that meets their own worldview. Anti-globalists foresee the collapse of globalization, climate activists consider this as a moment to take decisive action on global warming. Anti-capitalists see this as a chance to end the Neo-liberal myth of free markets and small governments. Etcetera.

After reading his piece in a newspaper in March I have become very reluctant to give my two-cents on anything. But still, thank you for asking. I would wish the pandemic triggers a rethink, and will change our environmentally destructive behaviour. But I am not certain it will happen, or at least not enough to save us from ecological collapse. Yet, there are glimmers of hope. Even for me as a frequent flyer (and knowing it affects the livelihood of many people), I somehow like the prospect that it will take years for airlines to recover, particularly if in the meantime it becomes clear it is unsustainable and morally questionable to board a plane for what will be increasingly seen as frivolous and unnecessary reasons. It may give us time to break a very bad habit.

If this sounds naive, or stupid, to my defense, our current collective lockdown has affected me mentally. And I think I am not alone. I am sorry to say that I cannot escape the impression that many of the brightest minds seem locked down as well. This is perhaps the smartest observation I have to offer right now.

For the rest, I don’t know what will happen. The only thing I can do as an historian is what I am trained to do: to look back. And then I can see that the penultimate pandemic, at the end of the First World War, heralded an unprecedented cultural period. I cannot evaluate causations and correlations (see mental lockdown above); I also realize that many great avant-garde movements, from Cubism and Futurism to Expressionism and Constructivism, predated the Spanish Flu, and the Great War. But the period right after, produced architectural marvels like Le Corbusier’s villas, Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Building, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and Tugendhat House, Gropius’ Bauhaus, Brinkman & Van der Vlugt’s Van Nelle Factory, the Weissenhofsiedlung, Schindler’s Schindler-Chace House, Asplund’s Stockholm library, Rietveld’s Schröder House, and please feel free to add some of your own favourites to this list.

Then came the Great Depression, which had a disastrous effect on economies and societies, and the life of people, but still, great architecture prevailed in the 1930s. More villas of Le Corbusier, Wright’s Fallingwater and Johnson Wax, Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, Chareau & Bijvoet’s Maison de verre, Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool, Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, Van Alen’s Chrysler Building, Hood and Harrison’s Rockefeller Centre, the early work of Niemeyer, and so forth. (Please fill in your favourites again).

If there is any lesson to be drawn from history, it could be this: Despite the building industry’s dependency of the economy, architecture can survive severe recessions. So, based on passed events it cannot be inferred that the pending Great Depression will have a negative effect on architectural culture. Nobody is expecting that art, literature or music will get worse, so why would one be concerned for architecture? It may be bad for architects, but that is not the same. The conditions under which architecture is produced may change, but it remains to be seen if this will be detrimental at all for its quality and significance.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from history, it could be this: Despite the building industry’s dependency of the economy, architecture can survive severe recessions

Regarding the pandemic, I have no idea if, and for how long, I will feel uncomfortable in public spaces but I hope that Amara’s law (1) of technological innovations may apply here: that we tend to overestimate the effect in the short run. In lockdown and isolation, the pandemic is a profound disruption of our lives, but just as normalcy returned after the epidemics that hit many European cities well into the late 19th century, it may be premature to completely change the practice of urban planning and architecture. The second part of Amara’s law is that we underestimate the long-term impact. I certainly like to keep the option open that in the long run the pandemic’s effect will be larger than we now can imagine, in our mental lockdown.

Notwithstanding the pandemic and economic depression, and unrelated to both, there is an undeniable and unchanged urgency to address the environmental crisis. The world of architecture might be fine in the near future, but the planet won’t. And here our behaviour in the pandemic may offer not so much guidance as a caveat. The pandemic has shown, in country after country, the near-universal human incapacity to act decisively until it is almost too late. It could offer a — last — warning that we should get real with climate action before we are completely overwhelmed by it.

In the light of global warming, it is not so much the impact of the Great Pandemic Depression we should be concerned about, but rather what the global warming means for the future of humanity.

I find it hard to imagine what the global warming future of architecture could entail. My way to try to comprehend where we are, and where we are heading, is to go back to where we came from (I know, this is self-serving for a historian). After the successful global turn of architectural history during the last decades, away from a predominantly Western, and usually Eurocentric, focus, I believe it is now time for a global warming turn of architectural history. A reading of the recent history of architecture through the lens of humankind’s increasing ecological footprint.

After the successful global turn of architectural history during the last decades, I believe it is now time for a global warming turn of architectural history

For this it is necessary to return to Europe, the continent where modern architecture and global warming originated, both ignited by the Industrial Revolution. Given modern architecture’s reliance on the Industrial Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution’s complicity to global warming, a history of modern architecture in this day and age can no longer simply continue to repeat the familiar narrative of the Industrial Revolution as the source and driver of architectural innovation. In addition to what is gained in the ongoing process of “creative destruction” (2), to use the term of economist Joseph Schumpeter, a global warming history has to take stock of the destructive creativity of architecture as well.

This is not intended as a blame game, no matter how much the West, modern architecture, and building activities in general, have contributed to today’s ecological crisis. The aim is to outline a history of global warming which could help to understand how we have ended up here and to raise ethical and political questions what to think of architecture, in the knowledge that it is simultaneously a means to make the world a better place and detrimental to the planet’s future.

In addition to offering new interpretations of canonical modern architecture and to question if and how forms of architecture which are evidently bad for the environment, such as brutalism, should be appreciated aesthetically, a global warming history will also amend the canon, by highlighting what is commonly omitted from general histories, ranging from the geological inspirations of Henri Hobson Richardson to the bioregionalism of Patrick Geddes; from Otto Koenigsberger’s studies of tropical architecture to Ken Yeang’s bioclimatic work; from Kenzo Tange and Frei Otto’s Arctic project to Troppo’s regionally responsive architecture, from the New Alchemists’ Arks, to Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building.

This much I can predict: such a Global Warming History of Architecture will keep me busy for a while.


“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”, Roy Amara (1925-2007), head of the Institute for the Future (1971–90)


“Creative destruction refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones”, Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942)

21.May.2020 1543 views
Hans Ibelings

Hans Ibelings (Rotterdam, 1963) is an architectural historian and critic. He teaches at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design of the University of Toronto and is editor and publisher of the Architecture Observer. Before moving to Canada in 2012 he was editor and publisher of A10 new European architecture, an Amsterdam-based magazine he founded together with graphic designer Arjan Groot. Ibelings has written a number of books, including Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization, European Architecture since 1890, and several monographs. He is currently co-editing (with Boris Brorman Jensen) a book on the early work of Danish architects Knud Friis and Elmar Moltke, and writing A Global Warming History of Modern Architecture.

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

TRANSFER NEXT aims to invite shared reflections on the new scene that coronavirus will probably usher in.

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