Message - local/peripheral practices and the need for critical feedback

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Posted by  Cuneyt Budak on October 03, 2002 at 06:16:46:

There was an old joke in Soviet Russia about a guard at the factory gate who at the end of every day saw a worker walking out with a wheelbarrow full of straw. Every day he thoroughly searched the contents of the wheelbarrow, but never found anything but straw. One day he asked the worker: "What do you gain by taking home all that straw?" "The wheelbarrows." This paper is about the straw and the wheelbarrow, about shifting attention from figure to ground or, rather, about turning into figure what is usually perceived as ground.
Reuven Tsur (2000)

Architectural discourse is usually about Architecture per se, why not? It will be quite a long story, until we reach the conclusion that before talking about individual architects and their work, we have to investigate from a global perspective the processes and conditions they live in. This premise is fundamentally different from the well-known architectural positions like Regionalism, Contextualism, or Situationism: they all take this world and the architectural condition as granted, why not? Ideology, modernization, alienation, identity, postmodernism, globalization, et al.: all these vague concepts in vogue have been widely consumed in architectural studies in vain. If you look for architecture in architecture you will find architecture and nothing else. All straw, modeled after straw, whether submissively or subversively, but why not?

It is exactly this rhetorical question "why not?" that characterizes the ideology which is implicit in the habitual. And following are some arguments which may help us to start questioning the rhetorical question so surely uttered.

Institutionalized Architecture is a starry night. The pedagogical and theoretical discourse of the discipline is articulated with reference to acknowledged Masters. Current criticism rarely diverts from Stars if it does not create new ones. The professional community is made up of Stars and would-be ones. Every architect remains a potential star until s/he becomes one and gets pretentious.

Actually, there seems nothing wrong with all these, except that:

a. A Star system can be quite useful in reproducible art forms, where you can choose among stars for a film to go or a novel to read, but architectural production is situation-bound and each case needs a unique design. In this respect, architecture expects good improvisational performance from the practitioner on every occasion and thus good competence from all architects.

b. Architecture is a basic need in the sense that we can not do without it. It is everywhere and we are in it. It is not a part-time engagement as other arts may be. You can not always resort into a "Resort" designed by a Star. And there are not enough stars to design all the world. People need architects; they can not easily reach the Stars as they do for other needs such as entertainment, cars or dress.

c. It would be fantastic if all architects really remained potential stars and tried as such, but the fact is that they turn into ignorant professionals, because an artist can only make a living when he is reasonably competent if not a Star, but a local architect can in any case.

d. Other art forms usually enjoy a lively audience and an interested public, which make good performance a joy and motivate the improvement of one's competence. Criticism is sine qua non for any practice to develop; monologue only inflates the ego. But ordinary architects rarely hear anything about their efforts but the complaints of their few clients.

e. The formation of architects educated in an esoteric discipline based on universal values nobody cares about anymore makes them struggle upstream whatever the consequences will be. Neither the star nor the loser gives up this habit. The star gets more chances to perform and practice, but only by stardom and not because people understand him finally. The ignorant fellows, on the other hand, easily turn their business into a commercial success.

f. This compulsion for improving style, taste and behavior of the society is perfectly concordant with the nature of the discipline and its modern definition. Architects give form to the world; and this is the mission of all intellectuals, the inheritors of the Enlightenment. But the latest acceleration of global affairs is eroding the self-confidence of all kinds of "advise", even in practical matters, let alone ideological or aesthetic ones.

g. Whom should an ordinary architect emulate? The stars, in order to become another one? How much realistic is this program for a local practitioner whether in a developed country or in an underdeveloped? Conditions for an international practice and a local one are fundamentally different, practically, even if not "essentially".

h. How else could a local practice develop, if not by studying the work of others, all of whom are stars if one recourses to professional publications whether in the printed medium or in its reflection, the WWW? What alternative can the Establishment offer to ordinary architects who actually are responsible for almost all architectural production which shapes our world?

i. Outside the developed world, the conditions for defining and surviving a honorable and meaningful architectural practice are much more blurred than it is in that civilized context. The architect either turns into a representative of the Western elite or finds himself in a regressive position. Attempts to reconcile these contradictions usually end up in formal atrocities, especially if not tinted by humor to be legitimized as postmodernist.

j. Many developing countries are represented in the international arena by some outstanding architects they are proud of. Whereas these masters are admitted access to international media recently, their work is usually judged by standards reserved for inferior nations, while this condition simultaneously provides an accuse for the grotesque and queer qualities in their syntheses foreign to established taste.

Once we leave behind the glossy images or the literary discourse of the Establishment for a walk in the real world it has produced, we face the fact that the institutionalized architecture has never developed reflexive mechanisms to improve the competence of its proponents practicing in the abyss of capitalism going global. Architecture as such presents a starry night for the layman today if not a darkroom with occasional flashlights. What good are the stars when we are waiting for the dawn to come, i. e. a condition when the majority of architectural practices come in terms with the expectations of their native public as well as with the universal values of their discipline.

No matter how well we study architecture and refine our knowledge of it, our architectural environment will continue to be determined by the external conditions summarized above. My doctoral thesis under construction looks forward for formulating alternatives leading out of this impasse.

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