Talk the talk on buildings

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McMillan Plan for national mall, conceived before decline in civic arts. (Wikipedia)

An essay by Marianela D’Aprile, “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Buildings,” on the website Common\Edge, gathers together some strands of discourse about architecture that I’ve posted on recently. Most particularly, I refer to a post called “Architecture’s deadly lingo,” about a lecture at Harvard’s GSD, and another, “Modern architecture is crazy,” in defense of Ann Sussman’s theories connecting the craziness of modern architecture with the suspected mental illnesses of its leading pioneers.

A fascinating panel was held recently by the National Civic Art Society, in Washington, D.C., with architects Michael Imber and Duo Dickinson discussing “Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” In the video of the event (an hour and 12 minutes), they danced around the problem of ugly architecture. Dickinson is the most accomplished of artful dodgers, and seemed to want to distract the audience from the myriad problems for the profession that arise from its dedication to designing buildings nobody likes. He sees the problems but doesn’t make the connection. Imber is an excellent architect and tried gamely to inject some common sense into the discussion, but was rumbled over by Dickinson’s Mack truck of bloviation. Toward the end Imber showed signs of Stockholm Syndrome. The segment where they discuss beauty had me wringing my hands in despair. The video of the event is perversely alluring.

Dickinson’s language isn’t as confusing as the random-phrase-generator prose used to introduce the lecture at the GSD, linked above, but in a way it’s more confusing because he is so good at stringing together sentences that mimic common sense but that don’t add up if you do the calculation.

In her essay, which came today through Kristen Richards’s indispensable ArchNewsNow.com, D’Aprile writes that “[t]he desire to want to get rid of this dusty catalog of Buildings You Should Know Because Some Dead Guy Said So, is well-founded.” She wants to hear less about Paul Rudolph and more about Lina Bo Bardi. But then she goes on to complain that the profession’s discourse isn’t about architecture anymore. She cautions us about the dangers of

over-reliance on the canon to teach and practice architecture, which, as we know, can be an enterprise that redoubles many of the negative cultural symptoms of our capitalist societal structure (individualism, self-exploitation, competition; not to mention sexism, racism, ableism). But ultimately, the panelists’ intimations of how to change the state of affairs in the discipline of architec- ture aimed less at expanding or changing the canon and more at getting rid of it altogether in order to replace it with, well, some- thing else, something new, something not architectural at all.

Her thinking is strangely divided against itself. Neither she nor the GSD professors nor Dickinson nor perhaps even Imber, sensible as he may be, seem to realize that they do not discuss architecture because they cannot discuss architecture. Architecture today has no canonical design language with which to discuss architecture. Discussing architecture nowadays is like playing pickup sticks where sticks that are straight are not allowed. To compare one modernist building with another is rhetorically difficult if not impossible. To debate how buildings should help address the problems of architecture, let alone the problems of society, requires a consensus, to some degree, of what a building is and even what it should look like.

Several times in the Civic Art Society discussion, Dickinson and Imber wondered how architects can address the rapid change coming at us faster and faster. I wanted to get up and shout “Use architecture to create cities people care about!” Buildings should serve as anchors of stability people can hold on to and steady themselves in the face of onrushing evolution in our society, politics, technology, etc. Houses that look like houses, churches that look like churches, city halls that look like city halls – there’s a starting point. Why not try to recreate what humans were blessed to have for thousands of years – civic space that leveraged beauty to soothe the savage breast, in order to foster civility in the discussion of diverse viewpoints toward the goal of living together. We’ve lost that, but architects, who threw it away, will not admit it. Without admitting it, useful discussion cannot take place.

Architecture is sick. Maybe it is mentally ill – not because modern architects are mentally ill but because, wittingly or not, they work with tools and ideas that are purposely incoherent. That’s crazy, whether Corbusier was autistic or not. Architects are just part of the problem. The blindness of civic leaders, developers, planners, clients and others, including citizens who accept like sheep what those who design human habitat have dumped on us, share blame as well. But somebody must start to look reality in the eye. Might architects be the most logical candidates for the job? Let’s discuss.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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16 Responses to Talk the talk on buildings

  1. These sound very interesting, Mark. Do the books take on architectural rhetoric directly or as part of a broader consideration of language as it is spoken by professionals and average people today? I will try to give them a look.

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  2. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    David,
    On what Architecture should do, I repost excerpts from FB with edits (preaching to the choir no less -apologies for length):

    Citing Boston, the city has great examples of what to do, and to avoid. For decades, Preservation and Adaptive Reuse, combined with new, compatible, traditional, and at times modern construction was its calling card. Ben Thompson’s successful Quincy Marketplace was an influential benchmark by which communities could renew local economies through ancestral vernacular (Let’s call this “Architechnomic Stability”). The Thompson approach has not faded, but with respect to wholly new construction, Boston’s Seaport District is wanting, and badly.

    Giving exception to Henry Cobb’s Federal Courthouse, no attempt is made to establish a familiar vernacular. Instead we are served a bewildering array of glass and aluminum curtain wall, whose comfort induction and aging potential appear suspect. Developers here have rejected masonry and tradition as a catalyst for human scale, preferring instead a bloodless digital design and construction ethos, where, like Kendall Square before it, a hyper-expedient landscape populated by (profitable) “Babbitts, and Poindexters” evokes techno-servitude, personal anomie and in this writers opinion portents of cultural instability.

    We must provoke a fight; a call for equilibrium. We can be just as wordy in any attempt to wrest influence from Kunstler’s “Mandarins” and Autodesk’s Group-thinking guru’s. Lets show these control freaks why Architecture needs a counter reformation, and let’s do it now!..

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  3. Thank you, Steve. Originally I had framed that thought not as cities people can care about but as architecture serving as an anchor people can hold onto to steady themselves as everything around them changes faster and faster. I’m still wondering which would be the better way to sum up the broad sense of what architecture should do.

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  4. Steven Semes says:

    David, yes you are right. The best way to meet “the future” with all its menace and promise would be to hold onto those things that we most need and are most threatened. Instead of letting a handful of “innovators” impose their view of the future on the rest of us, or just lying down and taking whatever technologies come along to run over us, people could say, “we’re open to change and the future so long as these particular things remain.” Then we could talk about what we want to change and what we want to hold onto. That would be a worthwhile conversation, but who is even attempting it on the contemporary stage?

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    • David, you are correct that the language we use is polluted with terms and false logic that make dialogue impossible. You may know of the book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, including Metaphors We Live By, that discuss these problems and embrace embodied cognition. My new book on neuroscience and architecture will get at some of the problems as well.

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