The Art of Being a Passive Dilettante

/ by Miloš Kosec

Small communities have many unspoken, self-obvious assumptions – a set of beliefs that are either not doubted or, conversely, have to be rejected explicitly, in order not to generate confusion. I think that this is something of a general rule, but it holds especially true for the architectural community I know best. In Slovenia, a rich and internationally-relevant architectural tradition, disproportionate to the country’s size, has more or less continuously thrived since the establishment of Jože Plečnik’s architectural school of the first half of the 20th century. A continuity of discontinuities with tradition created a conflicted, stimulating and varied environment that had its last creative eruption in the early 2000s. It was a trajectory that was, in many ways, following the economic hubris of pre-2008 economic growth. Then, of course, the crisis happened.

The economic slump hit architects and other workers in the so-called “creative sector” particularly hard. It is no coincidence that creativity became an all-present buzzword precisely when the available funds, together with the belief in an optimistic (that is, speculative) future, ran out. Creativeness became an obvious euphemism for economic optimization, individualization and outsourcing. Among its first victims were public spending and open architectural competitions that had, up until then, provided relatively equal opportunities for young designers and architects. But if crisis was more or less a catastrophe for architects, it did a lot of good for architecture. It put a halt on many of disastrously gargantuan construction projects. It also created a new class of architects: An army of young (or not so young), highly-educated and reasonably-cultivated professionals who suddenly had nothing, or at least not as much, to do as they had before.

To some, the frugal years of crisis meant primarily economic despair. To others, it meant both the chance and fear to redefine the workday (that is, every day). To most, it meant a bit of both. But as architects stopped planning and drawing, they started to think, to write and to communicate more. They sometimes even attempted to reappraise their role in the swollen years of plenty that just passed for good, as it seemed. This newly-gained intellectual freedom, bounded by financial worries, was at least partly founded on the fundamental perception of every crisis – that it is more of an empty waiting time for the curves to turn upwards again, rather than a new reality to which all must grow accustomed. But as architects ran on empty stomachs, they also, albeit briefly, seemed to form a class of true dilettantes: Disinterested and educated individuals who were free to follow their impulses in relative independence from market forces and cultural patterns.

This ideal of a creative architect, knowing a bit about everything and, at the same time, not being an expert on anything in particular, was a freedom that was not gained or asked for, but rather given, no, shoved onto the architects. And yet it seemed that, maybe for the first time since the enlightened 18th century, the label of the non-instrumentalized existence of the dilettante was not, by definition, pejorative. This appeared to bring an unexpected degree of freedom to a society where specialization reigned supreme, and where finding one’s marketing niche equaled justifying one’s partaking in society. Of course, this contemporary dilettantism was not sustained by a couple of hundred serfs’ souls (the usual minimal condition for so many past aristocratic Russian poets and writers), or a couple of thousand farmland acres (the usual minimal condition for English gentlemen architects of the Enlightenment). This is perhaps why it quickly turned out to be less dilettantism and more a combination of a very contemporary self-fulfillment, with a pinch of bohemianism. The latter is, after all, as Walter Benjamin pointed out when writing about Baudelaire’s Paris, the phase of the artist on the way out of the pre-modern permanent employment for the patron, but not yet quite comfortably positioned on the free market. A bohemian’s apparent disinterest is still merely a transition phase, a respite for reorganization, a “running room” through which new employment can be found. In the end, it turned out to be just another creative strategy in the cycles of optimization of the free market. Any possible gains of this architectural running room, with all the critical discussions, writings and less tense everyday routines of the architects, seemed to very quickly evaporate into thin air, as soon as demand for architects was present again, as if the pre-crisis routine remained a suppressed, but silently longed-for, mistress throughout. The architects, together with stockbrokers and construction workers, dutifully returned to their work places. How could they do otherwise?

At this point, switching Ljubljana for London seemed like a sensible idea for me. Becoming a contemporary derivate of a travelling artisan or a wandering academic is something that is not only usual, but almost expected of the growing masses of young, predominantly south European design professionals. It is especially typical in Slovenia, because of the country’s small size, good knowledge of languages, and an almost universal domestic opinion that “one has to go abroad, because knowledge here is just not valued as it should be” – something one hears over and over again, not only from the Everyman on the street, but also from policy and decision-makers, who seem to be able to combine this implicit self-criticism with a striking degree of cynicism, which makes it harder for them to acknowledge the paradox so obvious to their listeners.

But then again, it turns out that every architectural community is a small community, wherever it is, and that it always possesses self-obvious assumptions. London is everything that Ljubljana, a small national capital with Catholic, central European cultural heritage and the remnants of a welfare state, isn’t. It has a multitude of renowned architectural schools and a rich history of intellectual dissent. It is perhaps the most multicultural European environment. But it is also an environment where architectural academia and practice seem to exist not only independently, but also largely oblivious of each other. A centuries-old hortus conclusus of English academic critical thought seem to still thrive, not despite but because of its careful delineation from the worldly theater of unlimited laissez faire across the wall. Nowhere is there quite as much critical and high-quality intellectual discussion reacting directly to what’s happening around it than in London; and yet there is, nowhere else, quite as much banal, violent and destructive development as in London’s last 30 neoliberal years. After all, this is a city with a thousand-year-old architectural tradition and, at the same time, a metropolis where buildings are far less likely than humans to celebrate their centenary.

The lack of influence of critical thought on the dystopian urban reality that has recently so tragically incarnated itself in the charred shell of the Grenfell Tower is, of course, paradoxical only at first glance. It quickly turns out to be a contemporary structural condition. Is there a different way to address the everyday, self-perpetuating and impotent dichotomy of criticality and neoliberal laissez faire? After all, people on both extremes work extremely hard, sincerely trying to outdo the people on the other side. The work conditions of the demanded over-production of both poles inevitably end up being blended together in a surprisingly greyish middle ground of all work and no play. Work conditions bind them together as intimately as stated principals that so clearly distinguish them from each other.


 

This is why I decided to bet on the notion of a passive architect. Meaning passivity not as a rejection of partaking in architecture and society, not as a technique of keeping one’s hands clean - conversely, passivity as transformative architectural credo. A Bartlebian creator with the disruptive “I would prefer not to,” the “Artist of the No” of Vila-Matas: These seem to be the biggest challenge to the self-perpetuating spiral of contemporary over-production. But are they the face of future progressive architects, or merely the heralds of self-elimination of the profession?

So here I was in London, proliferating instead of resolving the surmounting dichotomous paradoxes of contemporary architects. I’ve started out with more general dichotomies of architectural ideals and market reality, of theoretical criticality and practiced pragmatism, of nominal equality and unspoken hierarchies. To those, I’ve added the more intimate dichotomies of Ljubljana and London, of activity and passivity, of professionalism and dilettantism. I’ve alternately ignored and cherished the irony of the fact that the only way to research passivity is to be active in the extreme as, of course, the notion is not exactly a fund-raising buzzword. But I’ve at least managed to bypass the dichotomies that seemed to be served to me as a starter. For the time being, I’ve also managed to resolve the dilemma of either architectural theory or practice, through pending the decision indefinitely – a decision that has both a dilettantish and a passive streak about it.

Instead of trying to formulate the start of the answer to my dilemmas, I rather tried to formulate a different question: How to contemplate one’s inability to act, the inability to meaningfully and critically intervene in one’s world, through one’s professional capabilities. And furthermore: How to do this without the 200 or so souls, or an estate, and still try to salvage the good name of the dilettante. It is the dilettante, after all, who remains the natural author of architectural, as well as political, action: The planning of the architect and the policy-making of the politician necessarily encompass many diverse professions and levels of complexity. This is why it is no surprise that “dilettante” (let alone “passive dilettante”) has a damningly pejorative undertone in a world where total instrumentalization, and the supposedly uncontrollable level of complexity, the
managing of which can by definition not be
professionalised or specialised, enables the triumph of laissez faire and the dismantling of regulation and planning. But this is also precisely why imagining architects of the future as an army of passive dilettantes seems less ludicrous and more optimistic than, for instance, the self-destructive mass of creative design individuals of today.

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Miloš Kosec

is an architect, editor and publicist living and working in London, UK and in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of the book Ruin as an Architectural Object, published in 2013. His research work is focused on architecture, architectural history, political and social aspects of architectural design. Miloš is also a practicing architect and landscape designer with a number of landscape realizations. He is a member of the editorial boards of Praznine and Outsider Magazines, and the editor of the internet site Outsider.si.