Monday, May 30, 2016

The Lamp of Obedience

Obedience. The very whisper of it ellicits abhorrence within modern sensibilities distrustful of authority, often with good cause. This distasteful notion of obedience, as well as related concepts of law, order, discipline and restraint are considered suspect if not an anathema in the domains of contemporary art and architecture. During the course of the 19th century artistic authority was wrested from the church, state, guilds and academies evoking the inviolable ideal of freedom. "L'art pour l'art" or "art for art's sake" became the rallying slogan for this aesthetic war of independence. The hard won alleged autonomy championing individual expression has been on continuous display ever since as prima facie evidence of progress and liberty in the arts.

Nevertheless, there was and continues to be a problem. Romantic, social reformer, artist and critic John Ruskin clearly articulated how the polemic of revolution obscured their view of the reality surrounding them, "There is no such thing in the universe. There can never be. The stars have it not; the earth has it not; the sea has it not...if there be any one principle more widely than another confessed by every utterance, or more sternly than another imprinted on every atom, of the visible creation, that principle is not Liberty, but Law."

Freedom and Expression

Maintaining Ruskin's primary focus on architecture, I'll ask what type of freedom was being sought? Freedom from nature, such as the "law" of gravity and the properties of materials? Well, certainly there was the urge to shun traditional materials in favor of industrially produced ones such as steel and portland cement by the mid-19th century. However, the rejection of traditional materials and corresponding embrace of industrial materials along with the new forms made possible by them would only provide a short lived illusion of freedom. The architects' exploration of form soon became exhausted, of course being subject to the physical properties of the new materials. The turn to industry for freedom undermined traditional manufacture and craft, ironically diminishing the total available materials, means and methods available to the field of architecture. The construction materials of industry have since been increasingly standardized leading to further consolidation of production thru global distribution. Admittedly, advances in engineering and now computer technology occasionally generate a new material or method; however, this is often at great economic and ecological cost. Ultimately there is today scant prospects to liberate architecture from the ever limited material selection of industry.

Modern São Paulo, Brazil

As previously alluded to, there was also an autonomy that was being sought for, the freedom for the architect as an artist to pursue his art. Ruskin here challenges architecture as an individual art and provides several points of reason in support that also demonstrate that such an individualistic approach undermines freedom more generally. He opens his essay by maintaining that architecture is, "the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History and Religious Faith of nations." Otherwise stated, architecture is wholly civic, the very antithesis of an individual activity. Yet, in so being it is elevated beyond the possible caprice of any one individual to attain the crowning grace of the arts. He goes on to stress this exalting social dimension of architecture indicating that it, "requires for its practice the cooperation of bodies of men", and also that is extends a, "continual influence over the emotions of daily life." Added to this is the temporal dimension, architecture having the potential to affect the individual and collective life of families and peoples over many successive generations. Ruskin allows that there is opportunity for a measure of individual expression in architecture, in point of fact that it can't be helped; however, he maintains that the arts of painting and sculpture are more intrinsically expressive as a medium in composition and use. Reaffirming the social nature of architecture he adds that the restraint brought to bear ought to be, "commensurate with the greatness of the numbers whose labor it concentrates or whose interest it concerns."

Style as a Linguistic Analogy

"Style" is a term that has been sullied, vilified really in contemporary architectural practice. It has been ridiculed as affected, copyist, unoriginal, pastiche, kitsch and every other derisive label that can be mustered. Yet, style is nothing more than a convention, architectural in nature. Similarities can be drawn to language, a convention linguistic in nature. For example, out of all the possible sounds within the range of what can be physically voiced and heard by human beings, in the process of maturation we "copy" a few and discard the rest which constitute our language or alternatively our "style" of communication. That language is limited is uncontroversial. That a fully developed language has an infinite range of expression is likewise uncontroversial. The fact that many other people use the same communication style, "language" is the social benefit that makes it extraordinarily beneficial. Our lives are better because of it. Ruskin makes the case that infinite expression and similar social benefits hold true for our built environment, a culture adhering to an architectural style.

Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck
Flemish Style
What though about the charge of copyism, doesn't learning a style inhibit creativity, an important personal development for the artist or architect? Ruskin responds to this reasoning so, "When we begin to teach children writing, we force them to absolute copyism, and require absolute accuracy in the formation of the letters; as they obtain command of the received modes of literal expression, we cannot prevent their falling into such variations as are consistent with their feeling, their circumstances, or their characters. So, when a boy is first taught to write Latin, an authority is required of him for every expression he uses; as he becomes master of the language he may take a license, and feel his right to do so without any authority." This is easily recognized as the initial path to literacy that most of us have undertaken. Upon mastery of the alphabet, script, grammar and syntax of a language we embark upon composition and sometimes even poetry where liberties with the language and personal expression come to the fore, wielded as mature masters of the style. Explaining the correlation to architectural style Ruskin proceeds, "Originality in expression does not depend on invention of new words; nor originality in poetry on invention of new measures...a man who has the gift, will take up any style that is going, the style of his day, and will work in that, and be great in that, and make everything that he does in it look as fresh as if every thought of it had just come down from heaven."


This draws to a close the seventh and final of John Ruskin's "Lamps" or essays on architecture. Living from the dawn through the maturation of the Industrial Revolution he witnessed both sides of the chasm between a traditional versus an industrial economy, with its severe impacts on architecture and human culture more generally. He advocated for architecture not to forego its ethical, moral obligation to the social order as guardians, trustees of the build environment. Concerning craftsmen, we've never had a more eloquent and passionate advocate, zealously publicizing our invaluable contribution to the civic realm. I'll conclude with a wise parting exhortation on his behalf:

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.” - RIP John Ruskin

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Deformity follows Dysfunction

Make no mistake. Modernism has won.

Advocates for traditional approaches to architecture, urbanism and craft may feel they have millennia of precedent on their side, Modernism just being an aberration in the course of human history. This is a hopeful daydream. The quantitative present reality is that there has been more industrially wrought infrastructure and architecture erected in the past century than the sum total of all traditional architecture produced throughout the long history of previous civilisation combined. Man's built environment by volume is today more Modernist than far. This is partly attributable to two factors. Firstly, there is simply more people that have lived and been provided housing, workplaces, transportation infrastructure etc., under the dominance of Modernist ideology. The population in a single lifetime, from the 1930's, has soared from under 2 billion to over 7 billion and continues to rise exponentially. Secondly and more significantly, the industrial efficiency of extracting resources from the earth and converting them into capital withers all previous traditional capabilities.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned factors of population increase and industrial efficiency in and of themselves were not determinative. Human society did not inevitably have to be organised as it is. There must be an underlying consciousness, an entrenched ideology, serving as the intellectual basis (or perhaps pathology depending on your point of view) that drives the choices we've made. Perhaps taking a moment to review the spoils of the Modernist victors will provide some insights.

A Multinational Style

The early efforts at coalescing a Modernist architectural ideology were directed towards alleviating social issues facing early 20th century European lower middle class society. Due to rapid industrialisation, there occurred a massive implosion of production to centralised locations, often cities where unprecedented accelerated growth contributed mightily to deplorable working and housing conditions. The conceivably noble ideas of using the efficiency and surplus wealth of industry to address the social problems it generated set early Modernists about the task of designing industrially produced worker housing schemes that were to apportion adequate space, light, plumbing combined with an aesthetic that was to provide continuity with the industrial life, a "factory away from factory" as it were. As it turned out, factory workers didn't much care for these schemes; ironically they would later be constructed en masse for public housing, mostly for those who weren't part of the workforce at all.

Undeterred, the Modernists quickly abandoned their initial ethical foundation in search of a more reliable clientele with deep pockets, the industrial, commercial and financial institutions of a burgeoning global capitalism. For faceless, privatised centers of economic coercion, an anonymous architecture of glass and steel was just the stylistic imagery for the growing sterile, impersonal power of the multinational corporation. Propaganda of apparent transparency is embodied in glass towers of what are truly opaque, autocratic institutions that dictate virtually all means of production and control all access to capital.


Whereas large corporations are generally content not to draw too much attention to themselves preferring non-descript, mid-century revival Modernism, trustees  of the civic realm (museums, universities, concert halls and the like) seem to fall over themselves to blow budgets or endowments in their care on the latest architectural deformities. Why?

Actually, I don't have a good answer. They're onerously expensive, impractical for their purpose, impossible to maintain. Most of these starchitects proudly assert that their "art" is intended to subvert the status quo. Give me a break, who are these privileged brats subverting? Each other? They're certainly not calling for any social change of the system that has made them rich. Others claim they wish to reflect the fear, anxiety and tension of contemporary society. Is this the moral responsibility of an architect towards the civic realm? Hopefully starchitecture is like disco; one day we're going to wake up, someone will have declared it dead and we'll finally be rid of it.


Nothing represents the modern concept of freedom like the independence of the automobile and the open road! Of course automobiles aren't technically free. Neither is the open road free when you stop to think about the trillions of dollars of taxpayer dollars invested in them. Let's not forget the dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels used to power them and the industrial military complex used to secure those resources. That reminds me, I've got to pay my auto insurance premium. They weren't kidding when they sang "freedom isn't free"...

But I digress, suspending reality for the moment; Modernism loves the "symbology of freedom" that the car represents. For decades Modernist planning theory crafted the zoning that allocated more and more space for the automobile. Single use zones for living, working, school, shopping etc. with arterial roads or highways to travel between by car. Virtually all of the public funds of course went into roads instead of public transportation. Architecturally, more funds and space are now allocated for the automobile than for human beings. It's a great time to be a car!

West Village "Texas Doughnut"
I've been reminded recently, scolded is more like it, that folks love their cars. Not yet having utterly destroyed the environment, the sprawl of the suburbs has a little ways to go yet before it completely exhausts itself. However, at least some see the writing on that wall, concerned about the crumbling architecture and infrastructure, tired of the long commutes, sick of the non-stop traffic so that many are returning to the cities, lured by the density of mixed-use and walkability. The problem is that they're bringing their suburban ideals and their cars with them. The bureaucrats and architects seem only too willing to oblige their automobiles by approving and designing practically every sizeable infill as some form of parking garage. Developers appreciate the public handouts from transportation coffers that fund the costly parking garage core of these superblocks, around which they can profitably build commercial retail and rental property. As a result, our cities are becoming as snarled as sprawl and just about as inhospitable to the pedestrian.

Don't like Modernism? Not to worry, it won't be around for much longer! By the time it's fully replaced it will have had a good run of 100 years. Even all bad things must come to an end. The capacity to design, fabricate and construct buildings is being wrested away from human beings as I write this. In a follow up essay I'll explore the dystopian future of architecture...Parametricism.

Contributed by Patrick Webb