Notes on Post-criticality: Towards an Architecture of Reflexive Modernisation


  • Robert Cowherd



Since around 2002, the performance of critical theory in architecture and the humanities has itself undergone a critical re-evaluation. Authors representing divergent perspectives, from theory’s perennial naysayers to the standard bearers of critical theory themselves, have converged towards a similar conclusion: judged by outcomes, critical theory has proven ineffective at best, and arguably, corrosive to human progress. In architecture, the debate has revolved around the identification of a ‘critical architecture’ in education and production since the 1970s. In apparent rejection of the isolation and purity of critical architecture’s orthodoxy, Rem Koolhaas and others have chosen engagement with the forces (and commissions) of late capitalism to which the term ‘post-criticality’ has been applied.

Beyond the confining dichotomies of the post-criticality debate is a perspective offered by sociologists Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash and Anthony Giddens on what they have called a ‘second modernity’ or ‘reflexive modernisation’. This literature re-contextualises the modern-postmodern pairing within the larger trajectory of modernity and identifies a characteristic distinction from former modernities in the term ‘reflexivity’. Where high modernism pursued utopian ideals of pure form and functional simplicity, reflexive modernisation acknowledges contingency in human systems establishing feedback loops that trigger course corrections in the process of modernisation itself.

Operating against the ossifications of twentieth-century modernity, reflexivity opens prospects for a second modernisation characterised by a heightened capacity to deal with complexity and time. Speculative architectures of reflexive modernisation benefit from a re-engagement in real-world problems, particularly at the scale of the city. To what extent can considerations of political economy, culture, globalisation, and environmental crisis be translated into the explicit performance criteria and computational parameters? What role is there for tools forged in the fires of ‘critical architecture’ in the emerging architectural creativity increasingly characterised by complexity, provisional outcomes, and unpredictable form?

Author Biography

Robert Cowherd

Robert Cowherd is Associate Professor of Architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston. He received his BArch from The Cooper Union and PhD from MIT. His latest publication is ‘Constructing Discourse, Constructing Space: The Heterotopian Divide in Jakarta’, in Heterotopia and the City, edited by Lieven De Cauter and Michiel Dehaene (London: Routledge, 2008). His work on the history and theory of architecture and urbanism is informed by emerging conditions in Asia and Latin America.