Where do we stand now?Domus N.1051David Chipperfield3.11.2020Role of the architect

“As the world becomes full of specialists, we become specialists in nothing special.”

— Álvaro Siza, October 2020


The “Agenda” articles of these ten issues of Domus 2020 have sought to focus attention on our professional position in a dramatically changing world, emphasising the role of practice rather than the publication of projects. When we started preparing this project in 2019, we could not have foreseen that a pandemic might dominate our lives and our view of the world. While this period has brought its own profound confusions, it has also highlighted and exaggerated the existing ones, encouraging us to reflect with even greater seriousness on the world we have temporarily lost as well as the parts of it we are set to lose forever, and the often limited priorities and values within which we as architects, planners and designers have accepted operating

Where do we stand now?

“As the world becomes full of specialists, we become specialists in nothing special.”
— Álvaro Siza, October 2020

The “Agenda” articles of these ten issues of Domus 2020 have sought to focus attention on our professional position in a dramatically changing world, emphasising the role of practice rather than the publication of projects. When we started preparing this project in 2019, we could not have foreseen that a pandemic might dominate our lives and our view of the world. While this period has brought its own profound confusions, it has also highlighted and exaggerated the existing ones, encouraging us to reflect with even greater seriousness on the world we have temporarily lost as well as the parts of it we are set to lose forever, and the often limited priorities and values within which we as architects, planners and designers have accepted operating.

When we embarked on this editorial project, the concerns about environment and social inequality were becoming ever more present in our professional discourse. Despite our tendency to feel helpless within the boundaries of conventional practice, we have increasingly begun to respond to the critical situation as we search for ways to adjust our social position. Professionally, we have collectively started to integrate into our processes a more serious consideration for the environmental consequences of the materials we use, the performance of the buildings and objects we create. Our real challenge, however, is to find more convincing ways to evaluate and influence what we build and where we build it, what we design and why we design it, and ultimately whom we do it for.

Although the lasting effect of this period is unknown beyond the devastating personal suffering of those most immediately affected, the economic fallout will inevitably be profound, compounding the misery of large parts of society. From our newly imposed perspective we can see more clearly the influence of our built world in comforting or discomforting us. We have understood that the quality of our home and our neighbourhood is critical to our quality of life once other compensations or distractions are removed.

This situation has brought vivid attention to our built environment. We have realised the value of common and public space, enjoying the benefits of infrastructure devoted to comforting the citizens of our towns and cities, giving further evidence that where we live is not just a collection of buildings but depends on the provision of amenity and social infrastructure and, of course, common space that both separates and connects us. At the same time we have precise and scientific evidence that reveals what we already know: that the disadvantaged poor living in bad and cramped conditions, comforted neither by the quality of their homes nor by any public open spaces, are the most badly affected by the virus and its deadly consequences. Meanwhile, the dramatic reduction in the normally excessive presence of the pleasure/ consumption economy has left many of our city and town centres hollow, exposing the fact that they are no longer places to truly live despite an illusion of urbanity.

From our individual dwelling to the local infrastructure of squares and parks, the importance and the failures of architecture and the planning system have never been more explicit. So many of our towns and cities have forgotten their potential as places to live, defined by their inhabitants, providing the liberty and protection that settlements of all sizes have always striven to provide. The alienation of so much of our built environment is the consequence of decisions and actions that are not disciplined by a vision of urban life, ideas of dwelling, individual comfort or social inclusion. Instead they are being defined by developments whose scale is not determined by human measure but by investment mathematics or global infrastructural frameworks. In turn, projects are devised according to the logistics of implementation rather than ideas of place, material and texture are determined by construction efficiency, and superficial image prevails over human needs or the desire to satisfy.

Our situation is precarious. The fibres that seemed to hold the fabric of society together are not as strong as we imagined. And yet this time is surely an opportunity to challenge the more fundamental assumptions on which we determine our lives, the way we treat the environment around us and how we focus our professional efforts. If we do not take this opportunity we are condemned to be confirmed as the specialists of nothing special.