To incorporate contingency into our fundamental thinking about architecture contradicts the way we theorize, practice, and historicize the field. Accidents happen, but they are rarely left to chance, and architects rarely let chance play role in their visions. Through genealogies, logics, and analyses, historians are more likely to write narratives that create continuities and coherence, while the present unfolds with uncertainties and ambiguity. Some narratives are about contingent conditions, but few offer explanations that are themselves contingent. Histories of cities and buildings cannot help but address contingencies, yet even these scripts resist multiple, contradictory, and inexplicable scenarios. Increasingly, both architects and historians must account for the contingent, open, and indeterminate. Whether considering a new climatic regime or alarming political turns, the “contingency plan” is fast becoming a core aspect of architectonic projection. If we imagine the architect (or theorist) standing at the edge of the realm of possibility, her counterpart, “circumstance”, is receding into the distance. Lying between these two poles is a topography of contingency—the topic for this issue of ARDETH. Contingency flies in the face of authority over a work, over a world that favours certainty. When histories of the built environment are written as if accident plays no part, the unpredictable and the inadvertent lurk between the lines. To this end, contingency as a mode of interpretation guides us toward the multiple and the collaborative and away from the authoritative. Context, circumstance, and relevance can be embraced in order to poke at the canon, destabilizing its comfortable narratives.
In moments of crisis, the received narrative pushes architecture out of the picture, to the exterior. This in turn leads architecture toward its own disciplinary interior. Autonomy for architecture – like populism for the nation – creates a featureless exteriority, and while it may promise its adherents identity, tradition, and protection, it simultaneously renders its own position irrelevant.
In the complexity of this historical moment, can new directions be charted without abandoning the discipline? The present paths through these conditions range from resilience, implying triumph without criticality, to resistance. Yet an ethics of resistance falls out of step with architecture as a practice. If Manfredo Tafuri asserted the architectural historian’s significance in the midst of crisis in the late 1960s, Felicity Scott instead upholds the Italian New Left’s radical experimentation as a form of agency, a “line of flight from the institutions of the capitalist state.” Now, the dawn of the 2020s is witness to a new necessity: a radical line of flight into those same institutions. Similarly, a reassessment of “western democracy” once constructed as universal and natural, favors what Judith Butler calls “contingent foundations,” positing instead stronger narratives that are open, contingent, and contested.
For this issue of ARDETH, we seek proposals that acknowledge the experimental, radical, and everyday ways that contingency is built-in to architectural narratives, histories, practices, and projects. The call invites scholars to submit proposals that understand contingency as a cultural and geographic problematic, spatialized across three areas: contingency planning, resilience reconsidered, and the historically contingent.
It has been well theorized that since the 2008 financial crisis architects have been called on to operate under increasingly fluid and tenuous conditions, resulting in practices that are financially flexible and organizationally nimble. The young office of today might share part-time teaching positions across three countries, take on a wide spectrum of paid jobs, and work with an increasingly diverse set of professional and public partners. To say “I am an architect” is being redefined. To build a more cohesive picture of the past and present of this scenario, the call seeks contributions that theorize what mercurial conditions mean for a professional and the practice, their pitfalls, shortcomings, and benefits alike.
Architecture’s own native connections to capital can be viewed through the doctrine of resilience, a concept that began as a pitch and is gradually working its way into building code. It is also proof of the ability of architecture to morph into another flow associated with neoliberal capital, lending double-loaded valence to “speculation” as both the possible and the financial. Innocuous as it may seem, resilience is a magical rubric for connecting urban security and capital to the environment in ways that give architecture newfound meaning, and contributions that probe this embeddedness are particularly welcome.
A number of shifts in architectural history point to its recent reshaping, from minor histories and their subjects, to a gradual decolonizing of the architectural curriculum and globalizing of the survey. Likewise, Hayden White’s “practical past” reveals history’s potential to cast its net into the future. The call seeks narratives that contain contingency at its core, of historical processes that decenter and rescript traditional formulas of architectural thought. Such narratives reveal the importance of the unplanned as well as the willful, and the counter-plans that go adrift.