Architect David Rau gave a lecture called “Reawakening” last week, sponsored by the New Vitruvians, the youth wing of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. He tracks four “awakenings” in the world today, involving food, happiness, genetics and our increasing knowledge of ourselves as human. Rau concludes that in the future, architecture need not be “futuristic” but can build upon the increasing awareness that architecture has been on the wrong track for a century. We must treat technology with greater skepticism and embrace local craft as the way to build if we want bring a true sustainability to design and construction, and the sort of beauty than can make us happy.
Rau describes the slow-food movement, recent studies in human happiness, the discovery by neuroscientists that our brain hasn’t evolved as much as we thought it had since prehistoric times, and the re-emergence of craft as vital to human self-worth and the survival of the planet.
It was a great lecture. Rau spoke for an hour and a half, and answered questions for another half an hour, but the ICAA has not yet posted its recording of the lecture. So I am posting the TEDx version of the lecture from six years ago, which sums up Rau’s main points in just eleven minutes.
Rau starts us out with a photograph of himself and his wife (an architectural historian) on the Grand Canal in Venice, and notes that in the print they bought of an 1742 engraving of the canal that Venice looked today as it had for almost 400 years. It was built with local materials by local artisans, highly ornamented, beautiful and beloved around the world. It was here in this ancient beloved city that Rau had his awakening, which he describes by summarizing the trends in thinking that have arisen from those who have noticed that the world is on the verge of epic fail in many realms. Many of these failures are embodied in today’s architecture, from whose errors we all can and should learn.
In the TED version, Rau seems to end with the suggestion that architecture in the future will look more like it did in the past. He said much the same to the ICAA, but hesitated to say what I think he might (and ought to) mean: that society would go back to the classical and traditional architecture that worked so well until it was interrupted by modernism in middle of the last century.
After his lecture (on Zoom), I asked him to cite a building of recent vintage that might give us some idea of what he was talking about. He named a children’s library in Africa, which seemed to me to resemble what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander might design. Rau had mentioned Alexander and his pathbreaking book A Pattern Language in his lecture but not in his TED talk.
In spite of the fact that it is featured in Dezeen, the library is lovely, and its photo atop this post is delightful, for reasons beyond the building itself. It is highly ornamental and highly local in its materials. Still, traditional architecture features all of the avenues of reawakening that David Rau cites in his own reawakening. I will post his lecture as soon as it is available, and the reader may judge more fully whether he is calling for a new architecture or calling us back to an old one.
The ICAA’s New England chapter has just posted David Rau’s lecture.