Several missteps in architecture

I was just over at Architecture and Morality, for no other reason than to appreciate the moment of casual commendation my brother received in the recent podcast. Since I was really only listening for the name-drop, I didn’t pay close attention to the podcast or the blog posts I was reading at the same time, yet they managed to strike a nerve.

Architecture is one of the fields in which I might have occupied myself, in an alternate version of my life. The efficient, serviceable use of space, and the aethetics of attractive architecture, have always fascinated me, but only at the level of a boy and some mud. I stop, I ponder, I prod, and I move on. A scholar’s interest, such as “Corbusier’s,” is more fixed, develops deeper roots, and bears more significant fruit. While I will indulge my opinion in my own space, I intend no disrespect to Corbusier as implying that we approach the topic from an equal level of introspection.

At some point in the podcast, Corbusier says something to the effect that he prefers New Urbanism as a philosophy to meet the actual needs of architectural users, while still saying something new. I think this is a fundamental confusion of ideals.

Saying something new is a modern conceit. I use “modern” in its broadest possible sense; the distant boundary I put as far back as the Enlightenment, though I think that at that early stage ‘newness’ was a minor note and ‘better accuracy’ the dominant theme. And there, I think, is the gestalt of the ‘old art.’ Nothing is completely new, including the attempt at creating something new, so without doubt there are ancient examples of artists, philosophers, and magnates attempting to create. Still I think that in bygone ages the general spirit was one of improvement. Build a bigger pyramid, build a taller cathedral, build a stronger wall, build a bigger empire. New technologies were invented; forms and concepts evolved. But the thought at any particular time was of superceding the old, outdoing it; conquering it, if you will. Whatever the modern jargon of “evoking” or “growing out of” or “developing the form or concept,” to me the modern spirit seeks not to surpass what has been done, but to dismiss it; to nullify it, to render it moot or at least quaint.

It is not merely a movement in architecture. Perhaps the best expression of what I mean is the familiar cliche, and too often reality, of a trend-conscious high-school girl huffing and tsking over her mother’s culture. In every age the generation of the children has sought to surpass the generation of the parents, but formerly, I think, in the same terms. Where the ambition once was to have more land, or more children, or more money, or more social status, now it is to have a different society, a different kind of car and house and children.

Where it pertains to artists, or poet or prophets of the times, the former idea was to say something true. It might also be new, insofar as it was a more clear expression, or an extrapolation, or a restatement in the terms of the times. But modernism, and especially deconstructionist post-modernism, has gone after the very terms themselves. Rather than saying something new in the language of the times, as profound artists have done through the ages, they attempt so far as they possibly can to say something new by using new language. This is as stupid, vain, corrupt, and barren, as my saying something new in this manner:

alkdj &&90 * [[!]]–~lajdl. .. TkjdIID Mk
nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. …….. . .. . . . …


There you go. Deconstructionism at its best.

Since I see the same fundamental goal in all forms of modernism, I consider them all ideological failures. Thus to my mind, Le Corbusier (the original) was an utter failure, except in that he demonstrated quite well all that modernism was capable of: again, abject failure.

Corbusier demonstrated the bankruptcy of modernism so well, along with his peers and successors, that the spirit of modernism is beginning to wane. It is still regretably common, but some contemporary architecture is again about aesthetically pleasing forms: beautiful curves, marvelous proportions, entracing surfaces. But one ill fruit of modernism is still taken for granted: that architects can build homes.

All planned architecture has always been didactic. Powerful people have always tried to declare what they have done and also to further accomplish their goals through architectural means. Only in modern times, however, has planned architecture been built for people who have nothing to say. And by “for” I do not mean “for the use of,” because again it is doubtless that powerful people have tried to indoctrinate those under their influence by obliging them to use certain architectures. But in within modern egalitarianism, democracy, and affluence, didactic architecture has been built supposedly on behalf of the common man, purportedly to reflect his values and meet his self-desires, and to speak for him.

It has never come to be. Architecture actually built by the common man, to meet his needs, has for thousands of years been pragmatic. “Vernacular” architecture, to use the scholar’s term, reflects all sorts of local exigencies. A merchant builds his dwelling on top of his shop, that he can attend to his business more readily; he may be in and out of “the office” at all hours of the day, like the modern businessman, but at least he can transition to home life with zero commute time as well. A farmer builds his dwelling mindful of the dirtiness that goes along with all forms of agriculture, often spending far more architectural resources on his barn than on his house (or even combining the two, in very cold climates, to save a cold walk to the barn and to use all available sources of heat).

When the actual user of the house is the builder, he has no ideological hesitation to modify his house to meet his changing needs. He wants another room on the back of the house, he builds it. He wants another door, he puts it in. Thus the infinite richness of “traditional” architecture is not in any particular form, but in its adaptation to reflect the present needs of its occupant. It is not a philosophical essay or a treatise of any sort, but it is an autobiography, a diary.

Nowadays we have the hideous soul-numbing fill-the-blanks diaries. “I was born on _________. My favorite food is _________. My favorite music is __________.” It is ironic that I should call such things hideous, for as a youth this is exactly the kind of predefined template I tried to create for many endeavors. It works well and is even necessary for the occupation that has currently supplanted architecture; in database design, you must develop a master template that can accomdate all lesser forms, or the database fails. As recently as yesterday I have tried to imagine the super-adaptable house plan that anyone could modify to suit them. Good thing I am not an architect.

When Thomas Jefferson built Monticello, it was didactic and it was a dwelling. But Jefferson had something to say. When Frank Lloyd Wright built his domestic structures, Wright had something to say–and the original purchasers admired what he had to say, we hope. But the whole modern age, and its architecture, has become increasingly obsessed with the message and increasingly devoid of content. There is a place for abstract statements. Even Corbusier and Wright, who I dislike more than I admire, I could admire very much if they were counted as mere theoreticians, essayists, philosophers. I don’t think their ideas have proven timeless, but ideas rarely do; they have to be tried, shaped, experimented with until something lasting finally does emerge, from a generation more than an individual visionary. But architecture, out of all forms of art, ought to be lasting, and supposedly, according to modern accolades, the works of these artists still do have value.

It is only a theoretical value. The buildings have no more functional value than they ever did. They remain awkward to any actual application, celebrated as a perpetual place to be only if you wish to constantly make a statement. Some people do, in this age of protest marches. But most people have nothing to say.

Again, in former times, nothing need be said. The dwelling simply reflected the life. It was autobiographical and had all the virtues and faults of an autobiography. Nowadays, though, people don’t need their homes to support their life-work. Ironically, when people were doing all kinds of things out of their homes, you were much more likely to find all of those functions taking place within one or a few rooms. Processing food for long term storage, whether vegetables or meat, requires space and equipment. Creating home goods, whether carved, cured, woven, sewn, or otherwise fabricated, takes space and equipment. Cooking, actual preparation of food for every single meal, takes space and equipment.

But now all we need that we will actually use is a few provision points: a spot for a TV, a PC, a refrigerator, a microwave, a toilet and a place to sleep. There is some variation among life styles, of course, but very few people who build new homes have any purpose for most of the space they build. Mainly the architecture just screams that they have everything that the should have–a hollow, circular sort of statement. Who needs a living room, a formal living room, and a den?

Admitting beforehand that television programs give a very narrow and skewed glimpse of reality, I am astonished and disgusted to see on home progams single people shopping for multi-bedroom homes–with “bonus rooms!” Or building “butler’s kitchens” or “breakfast areas” or what have you. Yes, sure, people need a place to keep their wine and drink their coffee. What happened to the kitchen? There is no functional need for the rooms upon rooms upon rooms that people now expect, and it is hard for me to say whether we need space to put our stuff or stuff to fill up our space. Either way, both the space and the stuff is used very little in the course of our lives (comparing to a kitchen in 1800’s rural America), and exists mostly to ensure that we have what we ought to have. What a statement.

Of course, this kind of dumb materialism is reflected in the McMansions and suburbs. They are planned architecture, but the planning reflects the same shallow, circular, and indefinite philosophy that fills these houses once built. The artist-architects shun such structures. But they do no fundamentally better, because they also are building only statements.

I am not deriding art or the common people (well, at least not their architecture by itself; the whole lifestyle is another matter). I am deriding the forced mingling of what ordinary people can use and specialists can build. The modern age has produced real results from which I benefit as much as anyone; superhighways, impossibly common goods, and vast amounts of information. But some products are truly of limited use. The forefront of architecture is like the forefront of science; unstable, far more acclaimed than actually proven useful, risky, exciting, sometimes greatly misled. Like the the furthest reaches of science, the contemporary ultimate of architecture simply is not suited to every person’s needs. How foolish would it be to build a particle accelerator into my personal residence? How monstrously vain and useless to build a space shuttle launch pad? Or how prententious to subscribe to technical journals if I know nothing of the field?

This, also, is the great offense of throwing up modern architecture all over the place. New ideas must be tried, but they ought to be tried at the expense of the artist, or within the constraints acceptable to the client. If an office building is needed, than a place for office work should be built; not a structure that embodies a commentary on office work, or contemporary society, or the environment. If someone like Donald Trump or Bill Gates wants a structure that will incorporate a statement, by all means they ought to incorporate their statement. But the common planning committee has been cowed into letting the architect make at least a superficial statment of whatever theme or trend or philosophy that the architect wishes to embody. We must have some kind of artistic statement; isn’t that why we pay architects in the first place?

Doubtless architects have great frustration in how the budget constraints and aesthetic tolerances of the clients do limit them. Well, get over it. It is your job to come up with a vision that convinces us, not our job to be convinced by your vision.

In nothing so far have I addressed the problem with the architecture that tries to address the problems I have described. One such style of architecture is New Urbanism. It concurrs with my condemnation of the vacuity of modern domestic architecture, but it seeks to address this by using forms from older styles of architecture. And that is how it completely misses the point. Those styles of architecture that we associate with “better living” were not inherently superior architectural forms. They reflected the mode of living that was going on. (I am saying much the same thing as my brother.)

Put another way, the architects might just as well build an actual medieval castle, or an American frontier log cabin, as a 1930’s “Leave It To Beaver” domicile or a Cape Code or a Victorian. Don’t start by saying, “In the good old days people walked more, therefor my client want to walk.” Begin by asking, “Do they own more than one car?” If the answer is yes–and especially if they own more than two–the clients do not wish to walk much. Don’t start by saying, “In the good old days families spent time together, therefore my clients want to spend time as a family.” Instead ask, “Do they own more than one TV?” If the answer is yes–and again, especially if more than two–they are not very interested in spending a lot of time together.

Frankly, if you need more than one bathroom for every four people, the lives of the individuals in your house probably run more independently of one another than together. If we are talking about dwellings shaped by the actual activities of our lives, what the “average” family needs has an uncanny resemblance to a hotel or college dormitory: enough bathroom for use without delay, private individual space for sleeping, reading, TV, PC, a communal area, and rudimentary food service. Laundry might be communal or individual.

Some of the modernists tried to build these as huge block houses, but psychologically most people in our culture prefer to dwell apart. I suggest the above as individual houses. But the reason this kind of house is not already the common type is because the desire for space and seperation that keeps the “average family” out of apartment houses is now creeping into the family itself. People–including children–want more space, sheer space, than they need or can actually use. It seems to be a reflection on one’s status, not as a social figure but as an individual; a minimum of space is easily associated with a miniumum humanity.

In a way this makes sense, as a prison cell is designed to be small and afford an absolute minimum of dignity. But we have taken it to the extreme, we continue to ride the pendulum in a widening radius of entitlement, of sqare footage we need to have in order to have “decent” living accomodations.

Le Corbusier rightly said that a house is a machine for living in, but he understood nothing about living. Likewise the architects of today can produce many kinds of marvelous machines. Many of these machines are occupied by people who know nothing about living; a perfect match. But sometimes there are people who know what kind of life they want to have, yet know nothing about machines. They wind up living in the wrong kind of machine, unhappy. The don’t need Colonial or Victorian homes. Perhaps there is something in New Urbanism that would work for them, but let us be clear: we must start with a demographic of clientel, not with an architectural style. We cannot simply use tradtional or classical architectural forms, or references, to recreate pieces of the lives and times. Corbusier (of Architecture and Morality) recognizes this; that is why he speaks slightingly of the use of traditional or classical architecture. But he seems to think that making a new statement, rather than quoting an old, will somehow help the substance of the problem. (Likewise with Relieve Debtor.)

How shall we build? According to how we live. How then shall we live?

Indeed, architecture and morality.