The Great Depression brought destitution to millions. It also transformed politics and society and produced great architecture. Amanda Levete asks: could the present downturn do the same?

Is the credit crunch good for architecture? Sure, a downturn brings pain for everyone, yet the cyclical nature of construction is well understood – it brings prosperity and famine to architects and contractors equally, and it happens over and over again. It is not unexpected and we should be prepared.

This is a time in which commercially driven projects have no place and that can be no bad thing. Everyone is a bit leaner and hungrier and that leads to change. There are reports of declining profits in the industry as a whole, the stalling of housebuilding programmes and of architects downsizing. But it is not all gloom. We can use this time to reassess our values. A downturn demands we think harder; it requires us to design harder and better and to avoid excess. And if you are a developer it demands that you be braver.

There are reports of declining profits in the industry, the stalling of housebuilding and of architects downsizing. But it is not all gloom.

Some of our greatest buildings came out of adversity. Take as a rather extreme example the Great Depression of the thirties. It was one of the worst economic crises in history, but did it result in a hindrance of architectural projects? No, quite the contrary. That was a golden period for thinking, for big ideas, for politics and for architecture. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal forced through legislation that resulted in a comprehensive redistribution of power and resources. It set up truly innovative partnerships between public and private financing and gave birth to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam and the Rockefeller Centre. I am not trying to draw a parallel, because what we have in the UK is hardly extreme, but I do think there is value to come out of this period, if only to put the idea of ideas back into politics.

Staying in the US for a moment, I was in Chicago last week and got to see two of my favourite buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax building and Mies van de Rohe’s Farnsworth House. As is often the case when you have seen a million photographs and built up a picture in your mind, the reality seems so much smaller. That was certainly the case with Johnson Wax, also from that visionary era of the thirties. The great hall with the mushroom columns that I had imagined as much higher, was one of the most astonishingly beautiful, uplifting and humane workspaces I have ever been in. The level of innovation (the glass tubes clipped together to let in daylight, the motif of overlapping circles at micro and macro scales, the attention to minute details such as the wastebins attached to desks so you can clean under them) holds the building together in such harmony that it evokes a strong emotional response. And it still functions as an administrative space.

Edith Farnsworth, although a cultured and accomplished woman, didn’t realise what she was letting herself in for when she asked Mies to design her home

Farnsworth House is another such classic. Designed for Edith Farnsworth after a chance meeting with Mies at a dinner party in 1945, it is a seminal building; an essay in the poetry and purity of a space. It is a single idea pursued ruthlessly to its ultimate end. A simple platform hovering above the landscape with an absence of walls, the inside becomes outside and the outside becomes inside. I visited it many years ago when it was still used by Peter Palumbo as a weekend retreat. He had restored it immaculately and you had a sense of how easy it was to use the space and how mood-altering living there must have been.

And yet this is a building that provokes opposing views. When I was there with my husband, we fantasised about spending time in the house and talked about how sublime the experience would be, but there were other people who felt threatened by the notion that this could be a proper home. Where was the storage? Where was the privacy? The house brings into focus the client–architect relationship at its most extreme. Great buildings are by definition extraordinary and they demand extraordinary clients.

Edith Farnsworth, although a cultured and accomplished woman, didn’t realise what she was letting herself in for. She was not prepared to alter her life or suffer for art. And had it not been for the tenacity and vision of Palumbo to pull this house back from the brink we might have lost it for ever. It comes back to where I started. It is extreme circumstances and extreme design that change people, that move things forward, that provide lessons for the future.