Session at the European Architectural History Network Sixth International Meeting

Throughout the twentieth century flexible space as an architectural quality has been widely celebrated by architects and critics of built and unrealised projects alike. Since the first usage of the term ‘flexible’ by architectural critic J. G. Wattjes to describe the possibility of a variety of spatial arrangements in Rietveld’s Schröder House, Utrecht in 1925, flexibility as a desired technical aspect of buildings and their elements continued to be pursued as one of the central tenements of functionalist design (in Forty, 2000). Flexibility in architectural programme and discourse has been equally often called in to dispute the functionalist rigidity and unreserved design authority of the architect, thus coinciding with the post-war cultural shifts and youth revolt against hierarchical social institutions, as potently demonstrated in writings by Henri Lefebvre, or projects by Cedric Price, and Constant Nieuwenhuys. Spatial flexibility credentials came to be associated with the newly-embraced potential of the user’s radical agency in everyday life, with the ultimate aim to challenge the capitalist property relations. Yet, the concept was simultaneously recuperated by the employers’ interest in the open-plan office, which promised to better motivate its workforce. Recent cultural critique identifies flexibility as a behavioural imperative which has been facilitating neoliberal economic change towards decreasing public administration since the 1970s (Boltanski and Chiapello, 1999), a Foucauldian, modern self-disciplining power that structures everything from workplace performance standards to personal attributes.

Taking into account this contradictory and abstract character of the concept of flexibility for architectural practice, and beyond the mere analysis of flexibility as a matter of architectural discourse, this session aims to deepen the understanding of uses of openendedness in the twentieth century design techniques and technologies. Indeed, Nicholas John Habraken proposed in 1961 that the architect’s role may approach that of the industrial designer, as his SAR system (a critique of mass housing uniformity) conceptually and economically separated structural elements from the flexibly-realised, user-chosen in-fill components and finishes. This session particularly welcomes paper proposals which explore through specific case studies what deeper technological, professional, and industrial implications the espousal of flexibility as culturally-conditioned value might have had. What kinds of building materials, or structural systems did the praise for flexibility in design and use require? How did the flexibility imperative affect the hierarchies and social relations among the many practitioners involved in architectural production?

Tijana Stevanovic, University College London and University for the Creative Arts

Contact : Tijana Stevanovic, Email : [email protected]