REFLECTIONS AT 70
Who might be interested in these reflections?
Those who seek help from the experience of others or simply companionship in their own quest?
As for myself, though these reflections may have only limited interest now and in the future, they could help me see more clearly in the sea of doubt that surrounds those who work in the public domain.
Unlike dentists and undertakers, many people see, use and are affected by the work we do. That is why we are so easily crucified or, by the same token, sanctified.
And why we become so distracted. We waste so much time worrying about what image we project.
In the days, as they say in Mozambique, the architect’s only concern was to do a good job, safe, comfortable and economical.
One didn’t even know who the architect was.
Today, without publicity there is no work. Without self promotion there is no self respect.
Without magazines, exhibitions, books, you are nobody.
The time has come to return to an architecture that is not a performing art.
To an architecture that is a constant search and a permanent discovery, and whose price and value reside in itself.
What are the problems confronting architects today?
Too little work for many? To much work for a few? The impact of real estate speculation? Clients without culture? Partisan afiliations? Corporate manipulation? Competition from unqualified technicians who sell themselves for a pittance? Clients beholden to local officials for approval of their projects? Their own lack of culture?
The truth is that there has never been so much talent in this world; it is also true that the need for talented architects has never been greater.
But are they prepared to work where, when, and in whatever way is needed?
I am not going to try to answer such impossible questions, though I cannot help asking them. I can envisage a situation where the architect can again assume the role of the master builder, solving what needs to be solved from conception to completion, job by job, with particular care, dedication and competence.
It may seem “un-natural” to think this way at a time when huge enterprises control the development of the project, “garanteeing” so-called efficiency, immunity from civil liability, technical performance, corporate credibility, and, ultimately, brand value.
Should they be blamed? After all, those enterprises run huge risks. Hundreds of employees must be paid every month. The overhead costs are enormous. And efficiency is often illusory.
On the other hand, interest in architecture has grown exponentially in the last fifty years. With the liberation of women, what had been a “man’s profession” has been opened up to the other half of the world. Another sensibility has been brought to bear on design issues and a novel aproach introduced to social and psychological factors.
The complexity of the construction process fosters a growing remoteness from the job site. This, together with legal provisions of building contracts, increasingly restricts the architect to the computer screen, leading to a literary aproach to space, to synthetic imagery, and to rhetorical representation rather than to a keen awareness of sensory experience.
The computer is a magnificent tool but it’s devoid of critical judgment and therefore unable to prevent the architect from imagining the impossible. So formal invention can become an Escher-like exercise passed on to the technologists whose job it is to make it buildable in spite of it’s lack of tectonic sense.
At this point, we have become technocratic nouveau riches, confusing irresponsible construction with formal imagination. It has become only to easy to push the means at our disposal further and further, creating the illusion of nearly perfect control over formal outcomes.
And so a fictional self-referenced reality is constructed which spills over into the real world, wrapping itself in a diaphanous cloak of fake architectural culture while distancing itself from the four-dimensional materiality of the built world.
This narcisistic vision depends on constantly inventing and destroying new “heroes”, the larger than life protagonists of today’s architectural literature. The publishing industry promotes this state of affairs through uncritical and self-serving glorification of formal novelty to the detriment of rational and intelligent responses to the problem of sustainable habitat as a standard attainable by all.
But the the most difficult and deeply rooted ills are, as they have always been, at the scale of the city.
At the scale of building an urban environment where social life embraces the values of civic life, where people can celebrate the human richness of public spaces, where time is recovered and revalued, where lack of safety is no longer a design factor, where natural space and urban space complement and balance each other, where human scale and appropriate size prevail and establish time and distance, and where architecture becomes a logical consequence of those parameters and dimensions.
Only on this basis can a good urban architecture be built.
As architects and urbanists, what role and responsibility do we have in the task of building that kind of architecture in that kind of city?
A large role, though much of the responsibility belongs to the politicians, because the space of human life is always political.
The vectors of power are physically manifest in space; and power has always been and always will be the first goal of political struggle.
Social class, material advantages, the conforts of daily life, real estate profits, the luxury of leisure time, priviledge and the thirst for power are all defined in space.
Unfortunately, the universal phenomenon of the city is evolving systematically towards a less and less democratic reality. It’s becoming more and more segregated, divided, deserted, distant, uncomfortable.
The argument is made that historic urban centers are becoming more desirable, richer in cultural opportunities, more livable and more beautiful.
No doubt. But by contrast with those isolated minor cases, the marginal city grows ceaselessly, proliferating dormitories of danger and fear, slums multiplying with no services or infrastructures, the distance to the workplace strained to breaking point.
The only escape is through chauvinism, paroquialism or alienation.
The global village is now the global city. The city of billions of the damned from which there is no escape, growing every day.
Paris, London or Lisbon. Rome or Barcelona. Beijing or New Delhi, Sao Paulo or Mexico City, Tijuana or El Paso are filling to bursting point with human masses no one wants and no one can stop.
Trying to prevent it is like trying to stop the wind with your hands.
The great political and economic blocks are becoming more and more permeable.
The US and the EU, the Scandinavians and the Mediterraneans, the Californians and the Brisbaneans, the people from Brindisi and Venice are going to have to get used to the idea of becoming less closed, more cosmopolitan, more exposed to the human misery they want to avoid or thought they had avoided.
Cities are inevitably going to change.
If we don’t take that unstoppable avalanche seriously, they are going to change for the very worst for everybody.
If, on the other hand, we are ready to be open to what is already possible and to act with the means we already have to solve global problems, cities will change for the better for everybody.
What has that got to do with architects?
Nothing at all, if architects take refuge in lyrical aestheticism, in professional cynicism or in mercenary technocracy.
Or it has everythingto do with them if they realize that architecture is a civic act, a field of action guided by ethical values, a constant effort to be ideological coherent.
Everything, furthermore, if the search for the formal and poetic values of each decision is the result of technical and environmental wisdom, of economy of means in the broadest sense, of rationality and intelligence.
Two factors are inextricable from architectural practice today:
Ideological coherence and environmental determinants.
These are clearly not new factors; nor were they less understood before. Their relative importance, however, is new because they are critical at the global scale.
So critical that our long history is of little use to us. So new that a new architecture is needed.
An architecture uncompromised by formal history and habitual practice; an architecture that would arise from new circumstances and apply new knowledge; that would welcome tbe joy of inevitable discovery that is only possible when a wider and clearer vision replaces the narrow view of a particular moment and place.
It’s up to each of us to find the nexus between those potentialities and the decisions we make about each project every moment of every day.
In architecture, perhaps more than in any other creative activity, “the dreams of reason produce monsters”; and, at this point, the most vocal and respected critics want monsters because monsters are what sells, what goes down well.
The most current (and least honorable) method has been to select a single formal, social, environmental or technological factor and to make it into a strained leitmotif blown up out of all proportion to its actual importance in relation to other spatial determinants. This disproportionate emphasis of an arbitrary theme is assured of easy success. The distortion it creates brings about a simplified reading by default on the part of both laypeople and the converted; and imparts a diagramatic and somewhat powerful plastic presence to the work that hides, in most cases, an absence of real spatial content and/or positive impact on its urban context.
By adopting these methods and processes of composition, a pathological trend has recently evolved with the enthusiastic encouragement of the opportunistic press: architecture as object, the bigger the better; of low or zero habitability; wrapped in a skin with no relation to interior spaces or any role in environmental control; and, to boot, criminally negligent in economic terms.
This alienation from all non-visual factors impoverishes the work by voiding it of any meaningful content and reducing it to little more than a toy, as ephemeral as a passing fashion.
Not that one could expect anything more from the product of a society driven by the need to consume, and especially to consume images.
And yet no one denies the value of those structures that have served us so well for hundreds and thousands of years and that we admire for their tectonic quality, their utility, their spatiality, and their powerful image. In this context, we should remember that many of the interior and exterior spaces with the best acoustics that are still in use today were built between two and twenty five hundred years ago. They were built according to canonic rules and without the need to epater le bourgeois.
On the other hand, as we surround ourselves with scaleless sculptures and technological tours de force, we are rapidly squandering the best chance we’ve had since the stone age to create a truly new architecture; a timely and intelligent architecture, resolutely committed to defending the environment and genuinely democratic.
A new architecture is an imperative need. An architecture new on the inside, not simply clad in novelties on the outside. New because it responds to new political, social, economic and environmental conditions. It’s imperative because architecture is inextricable from the compelling need to ensure, for the first time in history, the survival of humankind on the planet.
An architecture that is an integral part of the history of ideas, not just part of the history of forms.
The roots of such an architecture already exist and there is a sturdy growth of new ways of thinking. All over the world conscientious professionals are making efforts to solve the environmental problems of buildings in ways that are more efficient and less compromised by skin-deep formal effects.
There is already an important body of scientific knowledge at our disposal and many industrial enterprises are gearing up to to respond to sustainable building requirements. If they wish, architects can already design “smart” structures... if and when their clients are willing to pay for them and building codes require them.
But we are not even close to a widespread “smart” attitude. The overwhelming majority of projects planned and built today are inefficient and environmentally negative, as well as socially inadequate and urbanistically destructive.
The danger is the same as ever: our problems are perceived as technological rather than preeminently ideological.
But here is the quandary: what use is a building superbly designed as a sustainable spatial and tectonic machine if only half the built square footage would suffice to satisfy the same functional needs?
What use are spatial and functional improvements in our city centers if the peripheries continue to deteriorate and their population reaches unmanageable densities?
What use are symposia, congresses, scientific meetings, environmental action groups, publications, all the media, if the decisions about the quality of the built environment are made by the system of real estate speculation instead of the government-- who’s duty it should be to establish elementary rules and standards of urban development and sustainability?
What good is sustainability if it does not apply to all?
In fact, there is no such thing as sustainability for some. For as long as there is descrimination in access to basic living conditions as the birthright of all, there will be no sustainability for any one.
Have these reflections strayed too far from architecture? Too far from what we do every day?
I don’t think so.
The development of the professional architect’s role as agent for positive change in human habitat requires from us a greater capacity for philosophical analysis and ideological positioning.
Having served in the roles of gothic master builder and humanist counselor to renaissance princes, the present day creator of architectural forms and spaces must now become the thoughtful inquirer into the social justification for those forms and spaces.
To achieve that goal, architects now dispose of fabulous means of realizing their architectural and urbanistic ideas.
Architecture and urban planning have increasingly become fields of activity in which specialists deal with the technical and technological aspects, control the implementation process, and calculate returns on investment including environmental provisions. Architects and urban planners can now spend much more of their time on what should be their exclusive responsibility: to conceive, plan and design social space in accordance with universal principles of environmental balance and social justice.
Are these notions too abstract or too broad to mean anything?
I don’t believe so. In fact, I believe there is nothing abstract and meaningless about them.
However, I do believe that the forces of speculation are very powerful, destructive and unstoppable.
The terrible temptation of easy results and easy gain corrupts professional careers from the very beginning. It marginalizes whoever does not succumb to it. Even more sinister aspects poison the profession: commissions accepted as legitimate and “natural”; the undeveloped schematic design, a demonstration of the “genius” of the artist for whom details are a nuisance to be worked out by the builder... and paid for by the client; economy of means and of space as stinginess; social responsibility as somebody else’s problem; undercutting fees to get the job and making up for it by not caring about the quality of the project; and establishing all this as acceptable current practice.
And more, much more, that corporations conveniently ignore or are helpless to deal with.
So, is there any hope left?
That is a question that sadly must be followed by a profoundly pregnant pause.
So, then, is there any hope left?
Perhaps not much, but is there enough, barely enough?
To nourish hope, there is the richness of the architect’s means of expression. There is the density of materials; there is geometry in three-dimensions plus the dimension of time in what the architect invents and builds.
There is the immediacy of forms and the sounds they contain. There is light that reveals or hides other depths, other transparencies, other layers of the tangible and intangible.
There is the sanctuary that can be sensed in those dimensions, the presence of those spaces, the feeling of freshness, and the protection offered by shelter.
There is the chrysalis of the job site from which the building emerges whole and pristine.
There is the logical quality of form and the process of arriving at it.
There is doubt and there is certainty, passion and disillusionment. There is the struggle, an irrational struggle based on the faith that it is all worthwhile.
There is the blank sheet of paper and the dark monitor; there is the hope that lies beneath their surfaces.
There is the first mental sketch, the first intuition, painfull or explosive; there is the detail that uniquely fulfills its purpose in the place that it creates; there is the discovery of forms unfolding through time; there is the the smell of architecture being built.
There is the brotherhood of builders, the expressive profanity that get things done; there is the noise of machines, of things happening, of people; there is the danger in the scaffolding, the dust and the dampness of the job site, the sweat under the hard hat.
There is the passage of the years and the return to projects completed long ago.
There is the hope of doing better.
That hope implies, however, that we will be allowed to do better.
It implies wanting it to be better.
All that now remains in these reflections is to harness hope in artistic values to the hope that ethical values will prevail...