Here is a post of mine from Feb. 7, 2018, “Talk the talk on buildings,” about the incoherence of architectural language. It was originally illustrated by a map of the 1901 McMillan Plan for the National Mall, a fine example of coherence. In reprinting the post, I have provided new illustrations that exemplify incoherence. They are buildings designed by this year’s Pritzker Prize winner. Here is the post:
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 [in 2018] 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 to me 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.