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Sabine von Fischer:

Architektur kann mehr

Review by Marc Angélil

To open a book with a love letter may come as a surprise. Yet, this is what architectual historian Sabine von Fischer decided to do in her new collection of essays, articles, and interviews entitled Architektur kann mehr (translated to mean “architecture can do more”)—or, in her own words, “architecture can do more than provide a roof over one’s head,” “be conspicuously beautiful,” “consume energy and material resources,” or “linearly delimit functional requirements in space.”1

 

The Fourth Estate

As optimistic as this might sound, von Fischer’s “declaration of love” is dedicated to a dying breed—namely, the art of discussing architecture in the daily press.2 She recalls a time when newspapers still saw it as their responsibility to engage in a discourse on the art of building, thereby valuing architecture as a culturally determined and determining discipline deserving of public debate.

For her, this is not unknown territory. On the contrary, she had the opportunity since the mid-2000s—besides her work as editor of professional journals—to be both a freelance journalist as well as the in-house architectural columnist of one of Switzerland’s main daily newspapers, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In these capacities, she published over 400 journalistic exposés—37 of which are now presented in her book—on contemporary environment-making practices, including articles on architecture, engineering, infrastructure building, the construction industry, as well as landscape and urban design, to name but a few of the fields covered by her substantial body of work.

But she also personally experienced how the publishing sector gradually, yet no less fundamentally, changed over the past decades—a transformation initiated by the digitalization of procedures in all domains of life, the optimization of workflows, the diversification of media formats, and the externalization of services associated with the disintegration of a company’s in-house workforce. Newspapers have been replaced by platforms; the written word has succumbed to the power of the image; reporting is being substituted by soundbites; in place of reading, surfing. Under the pretext of seemingly unavoidable restructuration measures driven by economic considerations, entire editorial departments have disappeared, among them those dealing with the built environment. No wonder that the public discussion on architecture has been compromised in the process, if not fully eradicated.

In a brilliant move, von Fischer turns the tables around. What at first sight might have been a love letter is in fact a critique, one combined with the plea to cherish the public debate on architecture and on the very forces at work in the making of the habitats we collectively inhabit. Deliberations on these matters are, she hence argues, one of the key responsibilities of the press as the fourth estate.

This is one of the uncompromising messages of von Fischer’s book. She writes: “The public discussion on the potential contributions of building (in all its forms) is not only sensible, but necessary, particularly considering that societal and environmental transformations are currently at the forefront of the civic debate. It is in this regard that architecture can do much more than secure monetary values and satisfy vanities: if done well, it can create space for social cohesion, stimulate the senses, be political, and help achieve ecological objectives.”3 Inasmuch as architecture is co-responsible for the everyday spaces we inhabit and, accordingly, also implicated in the challenges we face, it must be publicly debated. Architecture is and must remain a public affair!

 

A Matter of Agency

Her criticism notwithstanding, the book can be considered deeply optimistic in what it aims to convey. What becomes clear from the outset is that von Fischer’s essays are first and foremost an expression of her true love of architecture. The initial “declaration of love,” in other words, can be broadened to include other addressees, foremost among them: the material, physical environment of which architecture is a part.

Rather than lamenting the state of the discipline and blaming architecture for all the ills of the world, so to speak, as is frequently done in present-day academic discourse, she manages in essay after essay to carefully and critically unravel the conditions within which a particular project evolved, highlighting in the process its successes and shortcomings for society at large—without shying away from hypothetically suggesting how things could be or could have been improved.

It is as if von Fischer is arguing that the things and objects that surrounds us—architecture included—are not inert. They are not passive but active agents in determining the contexts within which we operate. The title of her book is, in this respect, fundamentally revealing: Architektur kann mehr points to the performative potential of building—understood both as a verb and noun—in the making of the world.

Possibly in alignment with a host of contemporary thinkers (among them Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, and Bruno Latour), von Fischer might agree that “matters of fact”—i.e., objects, things, buildings, infrastructures, urban ensembles, and so forth—are always intimately tied to “matters of concern.” Matters of fact have thus the capacity to allow collectives to gather around them. That is to say that the things around which we gather constitute—with us—an assembly. Things are always socio-spatial, socio-technical, socio-ecological assemblages, which are not only material constructions deployed in processes of world-building but are also actively engaged in the making of the world. They have agency, they have politics, and at times seem to even have a will of their own. Artifacts have something to say and, therefore, must be given a voice. One of the key tasks of “independent architectural criticism,” von Fischer argues, is to give things a voice.

This position is explicitly made clear by the four-part structure of her book. Instead of presenting the essays chronologically as they appeared in the press over the years, she groups them according to particular “matters of concern,” in which architecture as actor takes on an active role.

Chapter 1, “Living Together,” focuses on how contemporary urban and territorial arrangements might provide the necessary frameworks for collective habitation. The increased demand for more and more density of the built fabric in cities is pitted against the need for open, public space. Architecture can enhance the civic realm. If this high-rise building manages to address the city at ground level, she observes, then why does that high-rise over there fail to acknowledge the city at all?

Chapter 2, “Political Constellations,” highlights the fact that architecture is inherently enmeshed with prevalent power structures. Architecture’s recurrent complicity with political and economic regimes is considered in view of its potential to act as an agent of democratic representation and spatial justice. Architecture can foster social relations. If this house manages to empower its inhabitants, she observes, then why does that house over there not care?

Chapter 3, “Environmental Concerns,” takes on the challenges confronting architecture in the age of climate change. The detrimental effects of the building sector on ecosystems are vigilantly evaluated in reference to architecture’s potential to mitigate its environmental impact. Architecture can establish balanced conditions with its host environment. If this structure manages to passively improve microclimatic conditions, she observes, then why does that structure over there rely on so much technology to do the job?

Chapter 4, “Entangled Perceptions,” foregrounds the notion that architecture is always affectively perceived. In this context, von Fischer asks whether architecture—in view of the manifold and contradictory challenges it must address—can still contribute to everyday aesthetic culture, without having to resort to excessive form. Architecture, if done well, can positively affect common culture. If this building—in all its ordinariness—has the capacity to please the eye, she observes, then was it necessary for that building over there to do nothing other than call attention to itself?

Though treated separately, the four chapters—or “matters of concern”—overlap, making clear that architecture’s agency is not a clear-cut affair but requires to be negotiated and renegotiated across different terrains. The essays and interviews—even when written decades apart—resonate with one another, creating a judiciously edited web of associations and connections that spans the book. Most important, architecture’s agency, as von Fischer implies, is a construction which must be sensibly tended to as one would tend a home, a building, or any architecture, for that matter. From that perspective, one might deduce that architecture is above all a “matter of care,” which von Fischer manages to tend to with great care.

 

The Love of Writing

Care is also given to the art of writing. Every word is carefully selected, every sentence is to the point. Form and content align. “Writing has remained a passion for me,” writes von Fischer, a passion she appropriately puts to work when writing about the art of building.4 One love is reciprocated with another. Marked by an economy of means, her language is succinct. She does not mince words and gets right to the heart of the matter. In doing so, she tends to give more importance to the issues themselves than to the projects or cases at hand.

Complex matters, von Fischer claims, must be straightforwardly presented to make them accessible to the public. Avoiding simplifications and banalizations, she succeeds to maintain the complexity at the core of the themes addressed, particularly for audiences interested in informed discussions on building culture.

If this sounds overly serious, readers should not worry. There is plenty of humor in her writing. Statements such as “a house is a house and not a refrigerator”5 or “a few trees at 50 meters height don’t make up a forest”6 or “architecture can be pleasing to the eye yet should not be nothing other than eyewash”7 are as witty as they are critical. As is well known, humor can indeed serve as a vital means of critique.

Her mastery of language is made even more effective by her ability to narrate the arguments at the core of her writings. Her interviews, for instance, are simply brilliant. They are either exceptionally short, getting straight to the point without further ado, such as those conducted with Anne Lacaton, Saskia Sassen, and Francis Kéré. Or they oscillate between dialog and commentary, thereby allowing interpretation to enter the debate—a method used, for example, in her conversations with Jacques Herzog, Rem Koolhaas, and Peter Zumthor. Likewise, the short essays prefacing each chapter, though written long after the essays were published, lay out the grounds on which her arguments will unfold—setting the stage, so to speak, for a choreography yet to come.

Lastly, a few words are warranted about the book as an artifact. A compliment must be extended to graphic designer Esther Rieser for her work on the book’s architecture and visual choreography. Printed on the equivalent of newspaper paper, the pocket-sized book fits perfectly in one’s hand. It is undoubtedly an object crafted with care. 

If this review turned out to be a love letter in its own right, it is simply because I loved the book.

Footnotes

1 Sabine von Fischer, Architektur kann mehr (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag 2023), 14.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., backcover

4 Ibid., 17.

5 Ibid., 154.

6 Ibid., 149.

7 Ibid., 153.

Sabine von Fischer: Architektur kann mehr – Von Gemeinschaft fördern bis Klimawandel entschleunigen

Birkhäuser Verlag, 2024 (release date: November 2023)

Language: German

Euro 42.00

256 pages, 60 illustrations

Black and white, with some inserts in color

ISBN: 978-3-0356-2741-1

eBook ISBN: 978-3-0356-2742-8