Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Absence of Restraint

It has often been noted by architects and designers that great design is born out of constraints, and the more challenging the constraints, the greater the chance of a better design. We see a parallel in the natural world, where plants grown in challenging conditions produce more abundant flowers and tastier fruits. The extra stress forces designers to work harder and come up with more creative solutions. Think of the beauty of Tuscan hill towns or Fallingwater, buildings which could not have been anywhere else.

Today, technology has allowed us to sweep aside constraints. We no longer have to work with the environment. We can level the building site, use whatever materials we want, and ignore climatic challenges thanks to HVAC systems. Who cares if something as simple as louvers or awnings could drastically lower the AC load in the summer? Fossil fuel energy is cheap, and tenants pay the bill anyway. We choose the easy way and show no restraint. 

Restraint has been a necessity throughout most of human history. Architects and builders have had to work with a limited pallet of natural materials, difficult terrain, and rely on their own muscles or simple machines to construct buildings. Yet the results were beautiful. 

Today, the sky is the limit. We have access to advanced materials, powerful machines, and can level the earth however we please. We're also "free" of the constraints of traditional design. We can build whatever we want! Yet our buildings have never been uglier. Humanity could have taken advantage of the advances in technology to build more beautiful buildings than we ever have before, buildings more integrated with nature, and more humane than ever. Instead, we're putting up glass and steel monstrosities, paving our cities with concrete and asphalt, and defacing our cities and our planet. 

We have let the worst tendencies of our imagination run wild, with catastrophic results. The natural goal of humans should be to create a paradise on Earth, but we seem to be bumbling towards a dystopia. Among many modern architects, where even discussion of beauty is taboo, and ugliness something of a fetish (just look at the obsession with brutalism), it's less bumbling, more conscious aiming.

Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. Image credit: Evan Goldenberg on flickr
If anything is a cautionary tale about the perils of a lack of restraints, our built environment is close to the top of the list, affecting the lives of nearly every person alive, especially in urban areas. Newly sprouting cities in Southeast Asia are the scariest examples of what happens when there is a development free-for-all, with old neighborhoods destroyed and social cohesion obliterated by shiny new districts. Devon Zuegel made some excellent posts about her travels through some of these cities (such as this one about Jakarta), highlighting what alien and dehumanizing landscapes they can be. Unfortunately, rather than seeing these cities as examples of what not to do, more and more cities are building large, out of scale and disharmonious developments (Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square comes to mind). 

As I've pointed out many times before, architecture is a product of its culture, and again we see parallels in our everyday lives, with restraint less and less evident every year. Where once civility in speech was the order of the day, curse words now feature prominently in everyday conversations. Whereas at one time the goal in dress was to show as little skin as possible, today it seems to be as much skin as possible without breaking the law. At one time, before mass manufacturing, the focus was on buying a few things of high quality, and so clothes were high quality, toys were solid, and everything meant to last a long time. Today we have fast food and fast fashion, phones we replace every two years, and gadgets we play with for 5 minutes before chucking them in the closet forever. Quantity has replaced quality. 

So we come to buildings, where the same cultural transformation is evident. Many architects couldn't care less about a design integrating with its surroundings, and most developers only care how cheap a building they can get away with, at a time of record profits. Where once buildings were designed to stand for hundreds of years, today it's a miracle many buildings stand at all. Throwaway culture leaves no stone unturned. 

As children we're taught to leave a place better than we found it. Lamentably, that lesson hasn't carried over to how we treat our planet and expand our built environment. In fact quite the opposite, as every year we do more and more damage to both, much of it irreparable in our lifetimes.

Was all this inevitable? No! Technological advances (with the help of the advent of advertising and consumer culture) tapped into our base instincts, and we showed no restraint to resist. We thought we were breaking free of the shackles of restraint, only to step into a new swamp of the opposite extreme. How do we get back on track? The environmental movement could be the answer. 

Another hallmark of our time is materialism, so only rational arguments hold sway in public discourse. It may be difficult to convince a materialist of the importance of beauty for beauty's sake, but the importance of preserving the environment is a logical enough argument for most. Therefore, as individuals, we can support walkable towns and cities, where the car and all that goes with it (strip malls, surface parking lots, etc.) doesn't dominate our built environment. We can choose smaller, yet higher quality homes. 

Architects must design human-scaled developments made from natural materials and built in harmony with the natural landscape and climate. The health and well-being of end-users must always take precedence over making grand gestures. Controlling that urge takes a lot of restraint, as would breaking free from modernist ideology and once again prioritizing beauty. As for developers, they are both the most responsible for what is being done to our cities, as well as the most able to save them. They must see their role as more than just manufacturers of "units", but rather of homes and communities. A city is not an oil well which can be sucked dry for the sake of profits, and then abandoned. It is home to real people and must be cultivated, like a garden, over the long term.

Just because we can do whatever we please, doesn't mean we should. The greater our powers become, and the lesser our constraints, the greater our restraint must be. Just as architects abandoned restraint over the course of many decades, it will easily take a generation or more to reverse the trend, assuming wider cultural changes. Buildings not designed to be beautiful are merely construction, not architecture. It will have to start among practicing architects before trickling down into education, but first architects will have to understand their role in spreading beauty. When beauty becomes the priority, everything else falls into place.