Why Architecture Matters

Toronto's Old City Hall, by Simeon Posen (Liss Gallery)
Toronto’s Old City Hall, by Simeon Posen (Liss Gallery)

 

 

I’m a great admirer of scientist and architectural theorist Christopher Alexander and the New Urbanist movement begun by Jane Jacobs.

Both have been controversially supported by the Prince of Wales, who was in Winnipeg the other day for a visit. The Prince’s other wacky ideas (sarcasm..) include things like environmental sustainability, small business creation, and youth leadership (see this recent interview by CBC’s Strombolopoulos).

There exists a great tradition of writers devoted to sustainability, beauty, and science when it comes to architecture, and teachers should be more aware of this tradition when they teach geography and sustainability.

Architecture faces an incredible challenge today – growing cities, the continued  suburban sprawl due to zoning laws, the domination of the car, and the need to become more sustainable and build humane multi-use communities.

I love architecture. It is a complex discipline that takes into consideration human nature and what is good for us, aesthetic considerations (which may be related to the Good), environmental and site factors, and current manufacturing and labour standards. Good architects are geniuses who integrate questions of philosophy, engineering, politics, and science. Architecture is about reason and feeling, and it shapes a society on a more regular unconscious level than any other art form.

Recently, one of my past students returned to visit her old classroom (always nice) and mentioned she was thinking of going into architecture.

I asked her why she loved architecture.

She said she had a picture in her mind of the perfect type of house, (a “fairytale” kind of house, she said) and that she wanted to build these kinds of houses.

I was both amused at her naivete, and saddened by the incredible challenges in her way. I told her she would quickly be disabused of such ideas (what I actually said was “brainwashed”) in architecture faculties, to which her response was: “oh no. I know what I like already.”

There are a number of reasons I was worried about this exchange. First, there is her naivete. Like all beginning desires, they are inarticulate but forceful. She didn’t have reasons for her love of traditional building, only an emotional connection to a personal “style.”

Then there is the reality she will face. Here was a bright, forceful and cheery personality about to embark on a mission suited for Don Quixote (literally charging against modern buildings).

Architecture faculties are notorious for being both intellectually pretentious and dangerous. Dangerous because they foster orthodoxy, rather than freedom of thought, and fashions rather than systematic study. Their ideas may be based in some kind of Hegelian and post-structuralist blend, but you will never find a practicing architect who has had the time to read the theories they believe (or I have yet to find one, though I know many architects). Just look at the narcissism and idol-worship of Frank Gehry, who recently said in a Toronto city hall hearing that the only buildings worth saving from demolition in Toronto were the ones he frequented as a child.

Finally, there is the general trend in our society (or “zeitgeist,” if you want to be pretentious) to view questions of value in purely utilitarian terms. What is the value of a building? It’s function . Function has always been a maxim of classical architecture, alongside beauty. Moderns too easily ignore beauty as an element of function.

There are many reasons to be deeply suspicious of this common-sense view. The first is that it favours a mechanistic view of nature, even human nature, and defaults to current industrial standards of efficiency as “better” simply because they are cheaper, or because they “get the job done.” In the case of Gehry’s buildings, he sees them as creating value by attracting tourists and money. Is that what we mean by a “good” building?

The same double-edged sword pervades environmental causes. In order to be sustainable, we need efficiency. But efficiency is the very principle that got us into this mess in the first place. The solution is always more technology, for the sake of standard of living. My point is not that technology is bad, but that focusing on function and utility ignores the question of human virtue, choice, goodness, wholeness, etc.

Form follows function is the current gospel according to modern architects. I’m using “modern” here for all architects who follow Le Corbusier as seeing buildings mostly as “machines for living in”, and who denigrate traditional forms of building for the sole reason of not being modern (buildings that are not modern are “fake”, if you are a fuzzy post-structuralist historicist, because they do not represent the age in which they are built). Louis Sullivan, who is often credited for the “form follows function” maxim, did not do away with ornamentation altogether, but realized it was important to create beauty in his buildings that would connect with the human psyche.

detail on Sullivan's  Prudential Guarantee building in Buffalo, NY.
detail on Sullivan’s Prudential Guarantee building in Buffalo, NY.

 

The second reason to be suspicious of the “form follows function” argument is that questions of aesthetic value tend to be banished to the realm of personal taste. Function is the lowest common denominator in the absence of objective criteria in design. The beautiful becomes associated with individual style and genius, panache,  and fashionable “star” architecture. Beauty is no longer a category of objective discussion, but an arena of will and force – hence the authoritarian and anti-intellectual nature of architecture faculties.

Call me crazy, but there is a reason that my student saw the “fairy tale” house as beautiful and worth producing. The fact that this desire remains inarticulate is not evidence of it’s pure subjectivity.

It is easy to be skeptical about beauty. But there are good ethical and scientific reasons not to be. Perhaps the best reason is this –  if you are committed to being skeptical about beauty, then are you also committed to being skeptical about beautiful, or ethical, actions (to kalon)? Beauty is inextricably linked to our idea of goodness and perfection.

I would argue that function and utility are modern liberal substitutes for the more robust concept of beauty, which encompasses moral action, environmental sustainability, and wholeness.

The fairy tale house may be emotionally significant to my student, but it is also an image of wholeness and of goodness to her. Don’t modern architects have the same feeling about their own buildings – as contributing to the good of society?

Sidestepping this rather complex argument about beauty, I wanted to highlight Christopher Alexander’s audacious argument about the nature of reality.

Architecture matters because it reflects our current beliefs about nature and humanity. It is not surprising that in our post-industrial age, we would think of buildings as “machines for living in” and nothing more.

As both a scientist and architect, Alexander proposes an entirely new understanding of matter as not just a mechanism, but as exuding varying degrees of “Life”, or wholeness. He does this by first asking the question – “what is order?” Nature exudes order. What makes natural form intuitively appealing, or beautiful?

The crux of his argument is to see a hierarchy in nature of increasing order, of complex geometric relationships. This degree of “life” is objective, in that we can observe 15 different properties of order in nature. What is truly amazing, is that the same 15 different properties exist in different scales throughout the entire universe. They occur both in living and non-living structures, and to a greater degree in living ones. For me, reading this part of Alexander’s The Nature of Order Vol. 1, was one of the greatest catalysts for sheer wonder at the universe.

resilient geometries - Alexander

These 15 properties have been intuitively copied by vernacular architecture throughout the history of the world, and described mathematically – most recently through Benoit Mandelbrot’s discovery of fractals.

Really when it comes down to it, both moderns and traditionalists agree: our relationship to matter and nature has a profound effect on the human psyche. As one of my architect friends says – steel and glass allow us to peer onto nature better.

Tall Grass Prairie bakery in Wolseley, designed by my friend Chris Knight
Tall Grass Prairie bakery in Wolseley, a modernist design by my friend Chris Knight.

But Alexander goes a step further, and says that the same psychologically appealing order must be incorporated into design. The ordering of nature has inherent value, and we can either ignore or encounter this order in our own built environment.

I believe that this order, or life, is what my student sees in the “fairy tale” house, and that she will be told (forced?) to ignore her intuitions, which is a great personal and social tragedy.

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