Architecture in the age of incrementalism

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Political science states the difference between rationalism and incrementalism. A rationalist approach aspires to create an ideal system, identifying the factors, elements or activities that are essential to its foundation and providing the necessary resources to put them into practice. The latter approach, of incremental nature, is based on a contrasting set of principles. It is founded in the belief that a perfect system is impossible to establish. To create a system from what already exists consequently becomes the challenge, starting from the available knowledge and means and, from these, gradually introduce the necessary changes in order to achieve the best possible outcome. In conclusion, one could say that these approaches reflect the difficulty in reconciling the ideal with the real.
Both approaches have benefits and disadvantages. A rationalist model can eliminate barriers and promote radical transformations, achieving greater impact and visibility. It is more likely, however, to disregard existing assets and know-how by virtue of impositive measures. On the other hand, an incremental philosophy may benefit communication and participation, suggesting a bottom-up model of governance, but it is also more permeable to popular views that are not always conducive to effective solutions. The incremental approach is more vulnerable to demagoguery.

Our academic culture promotes theoretical, rational methodologies, in detriment of a more grounded, preconditioned, form of thinking. It is easier to envision a theoretical model based on analysis and synthesis of a controlled set of variables than to elaborate from the complex reality that comprehends innumerous factors and a broad range of uncertainty. One of the problems we face, then, is a tendency to generate simplified models of thinking.
As architects, Modernism is still a big part of our intellectual heritage. In no other time in history was the notion of rationalism engaged so deeply. As a movement, Modernism was an attempt to face urgent problems within new urban realities. It was a world pressured by industrialization, primary issues of urban health, housing needs, the introduction of the automobile. The depression and the war dictated systematization and economic restraint, which reflected deeply in the principles and work of architects such as Gropius, Breuer, Mies, Aalto, men that would personify the theoretical core of the international style. But Modernism as an ideology was firmly grounded on a world dominated by the ideals of a powerful, leading State, in the realms of politics and economics.

We are very distant from the world these men lived and believed in. The political centers of government are no longer the most influent forces of society. In the face of an unparalleled post-global economic austerity, the institutions of central government are likely to lose further influence and authority. This is not unrelated to the way architecture is evolving, not only in its aesthetic dimension but as a force of social transformation.
As the architectural landscape of our times is being shaped by the media-driven corporate world, few real movements have been able of pushing forward a new paradigm of architectural production. Although new web-based communication structures and an open-source mentality have been feeding remarkable possibilities (the most noticeable of which is the example of Architecture for Humanity) such manifestations remain overlooked as a source of investigation by both academies and published opinion. These incremental architectural manifestations are disregarded as marginalized forms of practice, perceived by the critics as lacking influence within the sphere of architectural discourse. Undoubtedly, the Cameron Sinclair crew isn’t trying to appease the critics taste for aesthetic radicalism and intellectual edge. What they are doing is promoting ground-breaking global conversations that acknowledge the importance of small, cheap and impactful design processes. And they are actually trying to build stuff on communities that lack means and resources most of us would take for granted. So maybe it’s time for us to start questioning what being influent is all about. Do we aim to establish our names as brands and feature in magazine covers, or have a deeper impact in peoples lives instead. It’s a matter of choosing which role we, architects, choose to play in the future of our discipline and in the society we live in.