Manifestos and How to Use Them

Manifesto_1Architects often struggle with explaining the relevance of what we study and practice.  We can talk about the different modernist movements or the latest applications of 3D printing until the cows come home but no one wants to listen to us unless we make it relevant somehow.  As a personal challenge, I’ve decided to discuss a topic that even architects sometimes find irrelevant (though I PROMISE it isn’t).  That topic is architectural manifestos.  Architects throughout history have sat down and poured their hearts and minds out into thousands of manifestos. Only a few have achieved major recognition but they have all helped shape the world around you. A manifesto can change the world or it may simply help you pick an architect for your next project.

A manifesto is simply a fancy word for a mission statement.  They can comprise a lengthy novel or just a paragraph but they typically describe the architect’s opinion of the world and how we should improve upon it.  They can be absolutely awful reading, but sometimes they illuminate amazing new ways of thinking. The people at BUILD Blog say,

[…]the number of arcane and incomprehensible documents attempting to pass as design manifestos out there is disturbing. Exposure to an overly theoretical manifesto also requires immediate medication (2 parts bourbon, ½ part sweet vermouth, ½ part dry vermouth, 2 dashes orange bitters, garnish with an orange peel).

Manifestos explain why certain architects design a certain way and if you’re looking to hire an architect, it would be wise to search for their “manifesto” or whatever term they use for it (today it might be disguised as a Mission Statement or a blurb about the firm’s design process.)  I’ll introduce you to one famous historical manifesto and one example of what a modern-day manifesto might look like to someone looking to work with an architect.

One of the most famous manifestos is the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (Full Text) published in 1914 by the outrageous Italian duo of Antonio Sant’Elia and Filippo Marinetti.  If Filippo Marinetti was alive today, his craziness would be plastered all over Twitter and TMZ alongside Kanye or Donald Trump.  Seriously. He once challenged a harsh critic to a sword fight and won. Anyway, the futurists EMPHATICALLY rejected architecture that borrowed anything from the past and insisted the only way to design is to look to the future and design for speed, power, and violence.  In reaction to popular movements of the time such as Art Nouveau, the futurists wrote:

No architecture has existed since 1700. A moronic mixture of the most various stylistic elements used to mask the skeletons of modern houses is called modern architecture.

And instead of looking backwards for architectural inspiration, the futurists argue:

We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine. The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass.

Part of the 1914 series La Città Nuova by Sant'Elia. This is his proposal for a power station.

Part of the 1914 series La Città Nuova by Sant’Elia. This is his proposal for a power station.

The futurists never built anything in their vision but their influence can be seen today in the works of popular architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Libeskind.


Pierres Vives Building by Zaha Hadid

Some would argue that in today’s digital age, the architectural manifesto has transformed into a more palatable, more widely distributable format (most often called a Mission Statement to make it more relatable.)  The firm Public Architecture has written one of my favorite examples of a “modern manifesto.”

Public Architecture's mission statement/manifesto is also their logo.

Public Architecture’s mission statement/manifesto is also their logo.

Their logo itself clearly spells out the aims and goals of the practice but their entire “modern manifesto” is spread out into different categories on their about page.  They elaborate their beliefs and intentions in sections titled How We Work, Founder’s Vision, and What We Don’t Believe.  If you look at any contemporary architect’s website, you’ll find some form of  manifesto and it can reveal everything that makes that firm tick.

Although many architects suffer flashbacks to their days in grad school reading hundred-year-old documents, you will probably never have to because manifestos have adapted to the digital age.  Now, if you’re ever curious to find out more about a certain architect’s intentions, the underlying motives of an architectural movement, or if you just need help selecting an architect,  don’t fear the manifesto!


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