In celebration of the UIA International Congress in Denmark in 2023, Copenhagen Architecture Festival has created a thoughtful and insightful publication—a living document in an agile format to spur conversations. The 45 manifestos from around the world collected in this digital publication, in different formats, represent the most pressing concerns of the day as put forward in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. But why would a festival undertake this?
Copenhagen Architecture Festival, established in 2014, has expanded beyond its city and beyond a short timeframe to become a consistent voice in the Nordic countries and abroad. The aim of its many actions and activities is “to challenge the field of architecture and promote critical thinking, inspiring, engaging and raising public awareness of how architecture and urban planning shape our lives and the world—and vice versa, how our cultures, ideologies, and immaterial practices affect space.” The digital publication of current thought from across the world is an attempt to bring together many voices from a profession that is often fragmented or exists in small, atomized units. It is an attempt to evaluate what concerns we share and where our opinions diverge. This will, if nothing else, allow us to gain a broader understanding and perhaps develop effective strategies to approach the challenges facing the profession and the planet.
Manifestos are declarations of principles or aims. They are ideas that often lead to action. Manifestos may be a vehicle for criticism or a source of inspiration. The important thing is, like other public displays, a manifesto goes beyond its predefined audience and extends itself into the larger public realm. This is a risk because it entails clearly stating what one stands for and opening oneself to evaluation and potential criticism, if goals are not implemented. If manifestos are common in politics or art, they are not so common in architecture. I have asked myself, why not? Art, as a creative endeavor and expression of an individual’s approach and medium, lacks the service component of architecture. Manifestos are an additional communication mechanism for artists to understand the moment and to communicate their concerns. Likewise, the field of politics often needs declarations to define and explain ideas.
Architecture is a field that is not prone to quick or major shifts. This may be logical due to the slow processes involved in design and construction. With many small-sized firms around the world, the structure of practices makes it more difficult to undertake research, collaboration, or maintain constant dialogue. The construction industry, policymakers, banks, and clients are not naturally risk-takers. They normally resist change in favor of the status quo. Investing large amounts of money in buildings and spaces means that experimentation is not at the top of the agenda. Rather, using proven methods and materials is more common.
Therefore, bringing together a variety of voices in architecture from around the world to publicly declare their hopes and criticisms has the potential to be a powerful tool, both for the dissemination of ideas and for the impacts that they can have, now and in the future.Authors contributing to the International Manifesto Relay were invited to ponder the question, “How Can Architecture Contribute To Social And Environmental Change?” This is no small feat, as can be seen in the variety of contents and formats of the manifestos submitted. Copenhagen Architecture Festival embraced the framework of the six themes based on the United Nations 17 SDGs developed by the Science Track of the UIA 2023 CPH Congress: design for climate adaptation, resources, health, inclusivity, resilient communities, and partnerships for change.
The overlap and connection among these themes are clear in many, if not all, manifestos. Many authors spoke of the need for a shift in our relationship with nature or the imperative to build less, if at all, or the need for new typologies for building community and healthier conditions in which to develop our lives and ourselves. Some authors spoke of the relationship of architecture with technology, or of the imperative of architects to always supplement a very local view with responsibility towards the planet. The manifestos are at the same time aspirational and real. They challenge us to think and act differently and provide examples and strategies to do this.
The manifestos taken together are uplifting. But for many, I fear, the question remains: can and should architects move into social architecture, activism, and climate change mitigation? Should they diverge from their traditional path, pushing the transformation of what is effectively a service industry into advocacy? And if so, what are the steps to advocacy that can change the profession—both its view of itself and society’s view of the role of the architect?
The 45 manifestos, from Portugal to Peru, Malaysia to Mauritius to Mexico, and Hong Kong to Denmark, illustrate that architects are conscious of the challenges we are facing—as never before in the history of our world—and committed to action. Let the manifestos be the first step in redefining and implementing new roles and new positions of leadership for the profession.
We can do no less and hope to survive.
Martha Thorne, Hon FRIBA Hon COAM
Senior Advisor to the Obel Award