Monday, November 30, 2015

Time for a change

Language is a very powerful tool. Not just for communication, but equally importantly for conveying feelings and emotions. If I use the words beautiful or delightful, you understand immediately and start to visualize what they may apply to. If an architect’s work doesn't convey those words and the associated emotions, they are not doing a good job. Furthermore, in such a case they are letting down their duty to make the world a more beautiful place, which to me is by far an architect’s, designer’s, and their clients’ most important role. In such a case they are betraying the users of the building and the hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of people who will walk or drive by on a daily basis. It is therefore unfortunate, even a tragedy, that most architects are far removed from this view.

I get the sense, or rather I know for a fact, that a lot of architects purposefully don’t focus on beauty, something akin to teenagers rebelling just for the sake of it. But that’s bordering on insanity, sort of like a chef consciously cooking bad tasting food in an attempt to shock. Fortunately for restaurant goers, chefs like that are in the minority, but unfortunately for all humanity, there are a lot of architects like that, and many architecture schools teach in that vein.

The malaise of architecture in this age is certainly not a solo degradation but reflective of a wider degeneration of culture and society globally. We, on average, dress uglier, speak uglier, eat uglier, and of course, build uglier, than at any other time in modern history, and craftsmanship is disappearing into a bygone era.

Fortunately, a recovery is evident in some areas, mostly with food, a result of a backlash against low quality and commercialization. There’s the slow food movement, organic, farm-to-table, craft beer... but where is architecture’s recovery? When will we be able to say about the average new building that it has soul and character? The general populace hates modernism yet among the profession it clings on like an incurable disease.

Beauty and the Beast: Corb was not ahead of his
time, rather his architecture was unusually soulless.
A case of car design being many steps behind architecture? Hardly. Rather, a case of car designers resisting the unfortunate decline that befall architecture. It wouldn't be until the 1980's that cars reached a low point, boxy and boring and devoid of personality. A lot like modernism. Luckily everyone hated these years and a recovery started in the 90's. Today, the best Alfas have almost as much soul as the best of the 60's. The Alfa 8C is a stunning car, all sensuality and passion. Real personality.

Le Corbusier often claimed that his architecture was a product of the machine age, contemporary with modern automobiles and other inventions of a bold new world. A car can often be seen in commissioned photographs of his homes. The reality, however, is that his 1920's homes are wholly incompatible with 1920's cars. Those photographs look really jarring, those beautiful classic cars and their sweeping, sensuous curves up next to his blank white walls. I don't know what Corb was thinking, but he got it all wrong. Clearly he did not understand early machines, which were used not to suck out all emotion, but to make the same beautiful things as before, only faster and cheaper. In fact, cars would continue to be more in tune with traditional design up through the 1960's. It’s a real delight to see photos of a 1950's Mercedes in the grounds of a historic palace, for example. You get a real sense that here everything is in harmony, that among these surroundings this vehicle is in its natural habitat. Is it any wonder that these pre-60’s cars now fetch millions at auction?

On the other hand, modernist buildings of the same age more often than not end up being bulldozed, sold for no more than the value of the land. Except for architects, no one wants them. Unlike what Corb and other modernists were doing with buildings, classic cars were not a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Classic cars were evolutions, a carriage without a horse, so the designs were not revolutionary. They were not some magical devices which arrived without any historical context, and how lucky we are for that. Only an architect would think to wholly disconnect function from form, as if our millennia quest for beauty was for naught.

Architecture is so entrenched, however, that I fear it will still be many years before beauty is permitted to return by the establishment. When it does, I hope all architects will take up the challenge to make the world a more beautiful place, to design buildings equally as, or even more beautiful, than the best traditional buildings. I do not believe this has ever been accomplished. Pause for a moment and think deeply about this. Some buildings, in their own way, are in the ballpark, like Fallingwater and, from a distance, the Sydney Opera House. That’s... about it. Nowhere is this more evident than with the average home. A traditional 1890 Victorian, whether in the US or UK, was a work of art compared to what the mass home builders plop up today, and that’s before we even take build quality into account. They don’t build ‘em like they used to.

Right now, almost everything we build desecrates the natural beauty of an area, or even wipes all traces of it. Architects should not rest until every square inch of our good earth is no less beautiful than the day man set foot here. The vast majority of what we have built falls far short. Depressingly, achingly, furiously short. We should all fight for this to change and pick up the banner for beauty. Ironically Corbusier would abandon his strict modernism in his later years, even as others continued to cling on, and himself would have the last word when he said "you know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong." Indeed.