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Message - THE DEATH OF ARCHITECTURE, essay

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Posted by  John Henry AIA on October 11, 2000 at 15:12:00:

In Reply to:  Is architecture dead. posted by Alex on April 22, 2000 at 15:12:09:

“By now, many architects have become aware of a self-imposed poverty..(they have) neglected the valid claims of the human personality. In properly rejecting antiquated symbols, they have also rejected human need, interests, sentiments, values, that must be given full play in every complete structure. This does not mean, as some critics have hastily asserted, that functionalism is doomed: It means rather that the time has come to integrate objective functions with subjective functions: to balance off mechanical facilities with biological needs, social commitments, and personal values”
Lewis Mumford, 1951


The sentiments of an age are expressed in their literature and arts. Historians have assigned descriptive labels to sweeping changes and subtle shifts of public awareness, religious and political beliefs in every era. While the formative values are in flux and until a definite period may be set in time the humanities struggle for expression, for commentary, for descriptive analysis.
Cataclysmic events, such as war or technological change as for example the invention of the printing press and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, profoundly alter the consciousness and livelihood of entire generations.
Now we are in the Information Age. This particular Nome emphasizes the great effect of the rapid and continual stream of exchange of data of all types between individuals and nations. The river contains an amount of information that, although possible to disseminate instantaneously to anyone in possession of a personal computer, is increasingly difficult to absorb, quantify, or organize in a meaningful way.
As the electronic print media proliferates and offers up vast raw data a fingertip flick away the electronic audio/visual media overwhelms the senses with film, television, video, and simulated fantasy worlds where the imagination is educated or titillated. Human contact is being decreased as well as the need for direct observance and experience. Mating by ‘e-mail’ or through electronic ‘bulletin boards’ has made personal contact appear safe hygienically and emotionally. And working electronically at home or from any location away from the traditional workplace will represent over 50% of doing business in the very near future. The social implications of all this have yet to be measured but negative effects are being conveniently buried in favor of convenience, extra time to “dedicate to family”, reduced traffic congestion and waste of resources, etc.
If you take the fact that we can shop electronically and have any consumer item delivered to our homes including food, to the availability of every conceivable form of entertainment also at home including ‘virtual reality’ descriptions of people, places and things, the future has cast a certain foreboding mold regarding the relationship of mankind to our natural and built environment.
That the preceding events have been accelerated over the last 15 years (it seems that ‘1984’ is finally come upon us) the root cause has been the embrace of science after the turn of the century as the harbinger of positive social and economic change. Rationalism, logic, and functional dictate supplanted and cut the lifeblood of the historical evolution of the ‘Arts’ to affect and mold the human consciousness.
At first these immediate results to the pocketbook and lifestyle of Western Culture were anxiously absorbed. As material prosperity increased and as the homeless were quickly housed after the world wars the purely utilitarian, practical, and serviceable results of the ‘Machine Ethic’ were grudgingly accepted as the new aesthetic. Jonathan Hale claims in The Old Way of Seeing that indeed “by the time abolition came, the machine age had already pushed intuitive wisdom into the background.” Siegfried Giedeon wrote in 1948 that”...mechanization, has split our modes of thinking from our modes of feeling.”

..”we are in danger of surrendering to a mathematically extrapolated future which at best
can be nothing more than an extension of what existed before.”
Edmund N. Bacon, 1967
The minimalist style was not only a pragmatic effort for reconstruction but in combination with the shattered view that man was not capable of achieving the highest good as the popular existentialists theorized the entire art world became consequently jaded and, throwing aside the great weight of tradition forged over two millennia, sought to find the ultimate expression from the raw callow sensibility lying deep within.
Such motive and consequence has almost completely played out over the last 50 years. That the Modern Movement as exemplified by the artists, musicians, and architects who wholeheartedly supported this stance wreaked works of either profound meaning or dissipated masquerade upon an unblinking audience is left for the common man to ponder. Concerning the built environment at least, the overwhelming evidence is that the physical blight offered up by the majority of the pupils of the Manifesto must, as a total volume, be more injurious to the psyche of continuing entire generations, due to the utter lack of artistic sensibility in these experimental years, than at any other time in history.

“About a hundred sixty years ago, early in the Victorian age,
the old way of seeing began to go out of American Design.
With it went the magic, and with the magic went the old feeling of being in a real place.”
Jonathan Hale, 1994

Architecture died when science reigned supreme. Architecture has always been the result of the delicate balance between art and science (weighed always in favor of the former) as manifested in the built environment. When one aspect of the equation overwhelms the other, for example as in the most severe extension of the Baroque or Rococo conversely, the result is obscured in the favor of pure art--sculpture, painting-- as the practical component completely disappears. In both cases the end still is termed architecture. But my contention is that architecture is first an art, then a science. “Architecture has lost the root meaning of the word, as many architects have lost faith in their art.” (Hale) When Le Corbusier intended for the masses to accept his concept of house as machine, the people reacted negatively. No one wishes to live in a machine. We prefer wood to plastics and synthetics, terra cotta to metal, enclosing stucco to expansive glass. We want to feel secure in our homes at least, not balanced on the edge of a cantilever or supported by metal cables. And we wish our environment to be imbued with an ethereal quality that speaks to the soul in addition, and probably more directly, than to the intellect.
The formation of the Bauhaus and the importing of those famous Germans and their stripped down views of architecture charmed the academics and delighted the financiers and developers who now did not have to invest a single penny more on ‘ornament’ in order to market their vast commercial buildings. This economic advantage over traditional detailing has taken maniacal hold over the accounting departments of every developer since, and the schools have dutifully obliged to churn out the hand-servants in order to produce the faceless, uninspiring mass of public, institutional, and commercial work we have all around us.

“For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places.”
Eugene Victor Walter

For the purely minimal legal requisites for construction design in order to protect the public (the States have mandated the schools impart), licensed architects in effect are no more than building planners whose eye is to safeguard the welfare of the public more than inspire or to teach. Since functionalism continues to be the emphasis (amid scattered moments of social science and energy consciousness) bland, ill-conceived abortions litter the land. In his book The Decorated Diagram Klaus Herdeg iterates that buildings now are merely “literal expressions of functional relationships”. His critique of Gropius’s effect in the 40’s through the 60’s on America’s leading design university Harvard, conclusively states the ideologically obsessive “bias in favor of pragmatism” with the concomitant distrust of history and theory resulting in driving “considerations of design development on the levels of idea, form, and social content out of existence.”
Hale adds that “Modernism was an elite style. Only artists could make it work...only artists could design,” and though the “simplicity of the International Style made it much easier to express elemental form, ... the designer who used it walked a knife edge.” Let’s face easily admitted facts: The majority of today’s ‘commercial’ architects are aesthetic incompetents.
Computer science now commands the bulk of research funding at many of our respected design institutions. The exams are increasingly weighted towards technical matters in an effort to weed out the scores of graduates, more in the province of Structural Engineering. The result is that the artistically minded are discouraged from continuing their studies and the status quo is maintained. This author was shocked in retrospect (many years later as the brainwashing was so well managed) that the licensing exam had no measure for artistic or aesthetic sensibility. How completely different was the training of the graduate of the Beaux Arts in Paris who could expertly delineate the most beautiful expressions of the spirit manifest in all forms of glorious piles of stone, stucco, wood, and terra cotta! Our graduates can barely draw freehand, know little about art history, or the humanities in general. How Vitruvius would turn over in his grave if he knew how little the training of today’s architect followed his strong recommendations in the times of the Caesars:

“The student of Architecture should study literature, drawing, geometry and arithmetic, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and optics (astronomy)...Men cannot rightly profess themselves architects offhand, but only unless they have climbed from boyhood the steps of these studies and thus, nourished by many arts and sciences,
have reached the highest domain of architecture.”

We have gone absolutely too far and killed the spirit of Architecture in the process of bowing to the god of technology. That entire cities are dying on such a massive scale due to ‘function first’ dictates and other Modernist planning ideology is tightly interwoven with the symbiotics of a people’s identity and culture.
Architecture now does not have the mandate of a religious authority or political system in which to disseminate propaganda (except in the developing third world). In the hands of the people -- a populist majority who has not cared for the fine arts for over half a century -- it is an awkward, unnecessary topic of debate. There is none. Greater issues and fundamentals of life precede discussion of those things that mirror the yearnings of the soul. And the electronic media, technology’s Archangel, comforts, entertains, pacifies, and vaguely informs us of our world view.

“...this is not the time and ours is not the environment
for heroic communication through pure architecture.”
Robert Venturi, 1972

Architects are superfluous -- a vestige of a tradition that communed with the land and a history of a people. This elemental physical and psycho-social communiqué has been replaced by immediate sensory gratification -- on an intellectual, graphical commercially visual and even overpowering acoustical level.. Engineers with the direction from social scientists are perfectly capable of duplicating the function of the modern day architect who merely orchestrates a pre-written script, one distilled by economics, greed, and ambivalence. Except for the occasional vanity project, the architect is no longer a visible force in our culture and has lost the esteem of fellow professionals. We are no longer the form givers but merely the translators of a dimly delineated social contract manifested by the gauche manipulation of forgotten symbols. Probably we could eliminate over 90% of the Profession without much notice.
There is little positive change anticipated. If we are to stay at home for longer periods working and playing maybe we will be more sensitive to our immediate environment. We know that we hate the vacuous office shells we must commute to and from. Will we accept our visually insipid bereft of detail gypsum board walls and ceilings during increased hours at home or will it matter even if our attention is focused entirely on television screens?
Hale asks “must we have one or the other, practical information or intuitive vision?” Contemporary architects in each of their own times will weigh the elemental forces of emotion and intellect, listening to the relative values each accrue from societal norms, as they pick up their drawing instruments desperately trying to find the proper balance of art and science in every manipulation of the line.

 
 
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