Thursday, January 20, 2011

Worlds Collide: A critique of the contemporary

This is an essay I wrote for a class in the second year of my architecture degree. Meant to address our hopes and expectations for our future careers, it was an opportunity for my classmates and I to examine the choices we had made, and I found it an enjoyable exercise, though those with less conviction found it to be a difficult task. Though my views have since changed in many ways (it was written before I became seriously interested in urban issues), it is largely still applicable to the person I am and how I view architecture. 

Worlds Collide: A critique of the contemporary

The world is undoubtedly going through enormous changes. Cracks are starting to show at the upper echelons of society and unrest is growing. Back home unemployment has surpassed its highest levels in a quarter of a century and keeps growing exponentially. Especially in Europe, a tide of dissatisfaction is sweeping the lands, with protests and riots in traditionally restless countries such as France and Greece becoming increasingly frequent. And yet, the purpose of them is not altogether clear. Certainly the economic crisis is to blame, but it was little more than a trigger, as Mark Mardell writes for the BBC. A senior diplomat tells him that he “can’t believe that people are still walking around just doing their jobs, going about their lives.” Mardell concludes that “maybe it is because they don’t know what to demand”. It is a vague thing, this dissatisfaction, felt but not wholly defined. Millions protest, yes, but for what? I must agree with Mardell when he says that they shout for everything and yet nothing. People know that life is not as good as it could be, and it is not hard to see that modern Western society is crumbling, but they are lost as to what to do about it or who to blame. This very same vagueness permeates through every part of life, whether it is family, fashion, design, you name it. It is commonly said that architecture reflects the general mood of the time, the spirit of the time, or zeitgeist. It is no surprise then that architecture today is in a state of limbo, a random assortment of styles present. None of which, it must be said, shows clear conviction. Architecture, like life, is lost. 

Architecture has not showed clear conviction since the first half of the century, when Modernists such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, among many other illustrious names, set out to change the world through architecture. They had clear visions for society and how their architecture would fit in it. They were disciples of the Machine Age, proponents of a global world dominated by technology. I feel no shame in admitting that I do not like the architecture of these men, but I respect the conviction their work shows, higher ideals that surpass the simple act of designing and building. They had a singular vision that guided their work. The work of their followers is the most prominent style of architecture today, but what it lacks is vision. It almost seems as if a vision is actively discouraged, labeled as ridiculous rhetoric and tossed aside. Instead rules are followed, rules whose origins are unknown, their purpose not fully understood. Architecture, they say, must be of a “singular language”. It must be pure, readable, simple, and on and on. Who says? Is there some all-knowing architectural God I am not aware of who set these rules? Such rigour goes into maintaining these rules and yet the vast majority of architecture built today is absolute drivel. The renowned social psychologist Erich Fromm said that "creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties." Too few architects follow this, to the detriment of their work. I do not believe in rules, especially as they relate to design. I do believe that a design can be good or bad, but more often than not this is as a result of cost-cutting and other such measures beyond the designer’s control. 

A “western” tide has engulfed much of the world now. I almost feel I could take a person from one country and move them to another and very little would be different if not for the language. Travelling around the world, I see the same clothes, the same brands, the same pastimes, and even the same smiles, honed from Hollywood films. We are all becoming nation-less and yet we are all becoming one nation. This could be seen as a good thing. It is a happy thing to think that everyone is of the same world, free and equal. And yet variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. A monoculture leaves no room for variety and diversity. And not everyone wants the same thing. 

What will result from our growing monoculture, this globalization of an increasingly large amount of our lives? Our built environment is the strongest testament to what globalization has done and is doing in more and more countries. Modernist ideals of functionality have stripped buildings of any local character they had. One office building looks much like any other, in all corners of every city in every country. Architects would undoubtedly like to think that it was they alone, with clients they themselves “enlightened,” who brought about this change. But architects can never stand alone in their ideological pursuits. Except for the rare occasion they build their own home, they must always have a patron, a client willing to indulge them. Commonly it is a large developer honored with this role. Developers, as we all know, are in the business of making things “cheap, functional, and fast”, as James Wines states in his book Green Architecture. In my opinion it is this pursuit for cheap buildings that has allowed Modernism to spread as quickly as it has, as Modernist buildings are far less expensive to build than many other styles. Wines later quotes from Lewis Mumford’s book Culture of Cities: “The chief thing needful for the full enjoyment of this architecture is a standardized people.” That so many architects have been tricked into it is testament to the standardization of society. Mumford wrote his book in 1938, at the turn of the tide. Modernism and more liberal ideals in general were something people all over the world were starting to sense at that time. It was a break with the old ways, and in with the new. Even the popular fictional work The Lord of the Rings is known for representing J.R.R. Tolkien’s disillusionment with industrialization. 

Sometimes I wake up and wonder if I have chosen the right profession. The daily tasks of an architect, such as regulations and costs, are completely beyond the realm of my interest. I certainly have the self discipline to overcome such barriers, but do I really want to do that for the rest of my life? Thankfully that is not all architects have to do. The primary concern of architects is to design our built environment. It is our built environment that envelopes us for every waking moment of our lives, save for the rare occasion when we venture fourth into nature and leave civilization behind us. Despite this, despite buildings being with us at all times, we pay such little attention to them. Architecture is an art form, the most noble in my view due to its practical qualities. Unfortunately, little of architecture is treated as such. Walking around every street corner I should be in awe of the city around me, just as I am of nature. But I am not. Instead the average contemporary building shows no inspiration, no regard for beauty. Most likely the only consideration in its design was value, as distant as possible from beauty as any aim. We are a self-destructive species, humans. It would be easy, so very easy, to create a beautiful world, a paradise on earth. But instead we continue to cling to capitalist ideals that leave little room for beauty and the enjoyment of life. 

From an early age children are taught to solve problems they encounter both in school and life. The common motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is used as a guide by many. And yet in capitalism we have a system that has proven time and again to fail in delivering a high quality of life for the majority, but still it stays. It is a broken system, aimed solely at making money for a few while totally unfit for beauty and happiness, the only aims that should matter. I believe that a new system is needed. The failings of the past hundred years have stoked an increased sense of nostalgia in me and others, nostalgia for a simple life, uncluttered and honest. But as much as I admire architecture of the past, they are just that, the past and never to return. To recreate them would be dishonest and self-defeating. The energy of that time, however, it can be regained. We need not just a new system, but a new age, guided not by principles of money but of humane interests. This age of ours, the technology age, information age, whatever it is called, it is wrong. James Wines advocates for an Age of Ecology. I could not agree more. This could be an age where the interests of all people take centre stage, united by a common spirit of mankind. In uniting together, all the other pieces could fall into place: a respect for nature, beauty, and peace. That is the age my architecture will be a part of. 

I am afraid that much of the profession has no desire to be a part of this. Among my peers I find little acceptance for change, or perhaps they choose to ignore the problems around them or do not believe they themselves can possibly have any influence. But the attitude of some in the profession completely perplexes me. They vehemently oppose any form of architecture that deviates from Modernist ideals. Is it fear that provokes their hatred, fear that it could become reality? Or is it just so different in the eyes of a conservative architect, so far removed from what they see as architecture? I can only guess, but I do see it as unfortunate that the level of acceptance in architecture is not what it could be. That freedom of expression is not quite free. Many of these conservative architects turn to other architecture for references. I really do not understand why other architecture should be called upon as a reference for architecture. Why copy others? That smacks of lack of confidence in ones’ own abilities. 

My references are, and always have been, art, nature, music, and other design fields. I will only look at other architecture for technical reasons, such as how to build a structure or materials. Some of my favourite sources of inspiration are to be found in concept artists, those who produce concepts for movies and games. They are extremely creative, coming up with innovative ideas of the kind that the average architect cannot even comprehend. They are unrestrained from budgets, structures, and all the other daily concerns of architects. They are free to do what they want, to design a fantastic world that would be a joy to inhabit. I wish architects would have more of that spontaneity, to make the unreal real. That is how I see myself, a concept artist/architect hybrid. No problem with that, thank you very much. The work of many concept artists is filled with such energy, and a deep sense of love for life. It fills me with optimism. 

Much of life is full of constant disappointments and missed opportunities. As prevalent as these feelings are, my willpower is turned against them, and I hope for something different, something that channels my hope and optimism, for I do have much optimism. It is my sole drive. Distantly I fear that it will never amount to much, but hope remains while a possibility exists. But the world is lost, so very lost. It cries for help, the warnings becoming ever direr. We, humanity, and I am very proud to count myself among us, we must radically change if the world is to remain livable. Do we even deserve that, though? We have done little but destruction for thousands of years, stripped the lands of forest and creature, and dammed our rivers and lakes, all for selfish, shortsighted aims. Should we even be given another chance? I believe we should, for I believe that we can change. Faith keeps me going, the faith that we can pull ourselves out of this deep black hole we have dug ourselves into. Why the belief by some that those such as me call for sacrifice, to let go of personal comforts? Why do they believe that we live in some kind of paradise that the “eco freaks” want them to give up? I see little in contemporary lifestyle that is worth preserving. Pollution from cars, wasting electricity, shopping for useless accessories, what is there in that worth saving? Those are things I would happily give up even without the need to save the dire state of our planet. We do not live in paradise. Paradise lies in letting go. 

This world, our world, is so beautiful, so utterly, completely, achingly beautiful. As part of a profession whose sole purpose is to build things, to make the world less natural, where do I fit in, one who most loves nature in its rawest form? I suppose it is a case of damage limitation, but undoubtedly the best architecture is capable of enhancing nature. Or rather, it enhances our view of it. We enjoy seeing ourselves exploring a charming Italian hill town or English village. I think there is a tendency to prefer a tamed view of nature over nature raw and wild. Humans always seem to want to assert their authority and demonstrate their superiority, which is unfortunate. Rather, architecture in harmony with nature is my goal. It is not a goal in opposition with modern living, train travel, or commerce. This goal, however, is incompatible with skyscrapers and a booming population, but statistics point to population growth in wealthy countries rising much slower, even falling, compared to developing nations. It is all entwined. I do not believe architecture can be looked at in isolation. Richard Rogers has stated that “architecture is not just aesthetic; it has social, moral and political dimensions”. Architects cannot hem themselves in solitude but must be active in all parts of society. Only then can they develop a vision for the world and in turn for their architecture. A vision is something lacking among all peoples. You must have a vision to know what you want and how to get there. I am always asking myself what my vision is and interpreting my architecture from it. What is my vision? Peace, beauty, and happiness. I can only achieve this if I never lose sight of my vision and from whence it came: my reference and inspiration, nature.

Perhaps because I grew up in a country with a far less developed history than England, I have enormous respect for historical structures. Just being in and around old buildings fills me with great emotion, knowing that many generations before mine had passed through these walls. I stroke the bare stone, worn away by hundreds of hands. Old buildings are a testament to the past, to that past that is a foreign country. But as much as I do love the past, it is to nature that my heart owes its allegiance. To nature, which is the ultimate beauty and irreplaceable my man. Evolved over millions of years, nature is ancient, pure, and honest, free from the strife humanity creates for itself. At nature I look with awe but am always filled with a deep sense of sadness, to know that we humans destroy great swathes of it on a regular basis. My life experiences with nature define my architecture more than any other source possibly could. To come anywhere close to the beauty of nature is the aim with all of my work, something I am striving to do but often find much resistance to. I am starting to accept an unfortunate fate that I may have to postpone that exploration to a freer period of my life. In the past year I have evolved more as a person than in any other time in my life. I am starting to understand what kind of person I want to be, though how to get there exactly is more of challenge. That is reflected in my architecture, which is also going through great changes now.

Architecture was much more considered when various aspects were taken into account, before some architectural firms grew as large as many other moneymaking corporations. There is certainly a popular opinion that one must stick to what they know best, with little influence of one profession on another. Should architects just design buildings? I think the strongest architecture comes from those who answer no to that question. We do live in a society where we are afraid of each other, uncomfortable with ourselves and others. An architect is not just an architect, but a human being as well. Every human has a duty to fight for what they believe in. Complacency leads nowhere. So where is the harm in an architect identifying problems with society in general? Just because Le Corbusier designed some questionable buildings and plans as a result of such an attitude does not mean the door should be closed. Architects spend their life studying people, cities, and the lives of others. I see few professions more qualified to take an active role in shaping society. What, after all, does a lawyer, as most politicians are, know about such things?

Erich Fromm has identified a specific development of society wherein a distinction is made between passive and active actions. The saying “time is money” best represents this modern view. In some cultures, where Buddhism prevails for example, meditation is an important part of any day. Spending time solely to think is seen as a colossal waste of time in our society, and any passive activity is seen with little regard. Where then, is the time for thought and contemplation, to invent and most importantly, to dream? Architects, like most professions, have become work drones, too tired to dream and occupied by regulations and long hours with little sleep. Certainly that is no recipe for creativity. Unfortunately it is something instilled in us starting with architecture school. I often find myself under immense pressure to deliver work that I know in advance will be rejected. Such a system does not encourage time for new ideas, but it is only a small part of my complaints about the state of architecture education. Students are boxed into studios for a year with no trial run, often with tutors who have far different views than they themselves. I cannot help thinking that many students with opposing views are stifled creatively, unable to express themselves. Education should be about helping students express their own visions rather than forcing that of the tutors on them.

I have never quite understood why, but it is residential architecture that most interests me. It could be more an act of elimination, that of knowing that other categories do not interest me nearly as much. Certainly I could not bear to work on large-scale projects, for I wish they would not exist at all. No, it is small and medium scale projects for me. I suppose I am fascinated by lifestyles and peoples’ integration into the greater whole. Maybe I just want to see how people can live life to its fullest. Or I am disappointed by how I see most people living. Frank Lloyd Wright focused on residential for much of his career. It is not as common today but I do not see why it could not happen again, to gain influence through residential work. Wright introduced a new kind of living, open-plan, so it just takes doing something beyond the ordinary and doing it consistently over an extended period of time. It is also with residential projects that architects can be most experimental, provided they entice wealthy clients with open minds. I think it is important to treat a client as a partner in a mutual pursuit. One can never reach satisfaction upon completing a project if the effort is not appreciated.