An architectural reawakening

Children’s library in Burundi, designed by BC Architects and Studies, in Belgium. (BCAS)

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.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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14 Responses to An architectural reawakening

  1. LazyReader says:

    Classical is nice, Question is, Can it accommodate new demands
    Industrial buildings.
    Affordable housing
    Public housing

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  2. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    This was a wonderful experience, thank for the share David! To me, its nice to know there might be a new solution beyond the polemics of modern vs traditional.

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    • I agree that David gave an excellent lecture, but I disagree that there is “a new solution beyond the polemics of modern vs. traditional.” And I don’t think that is what he was saying either, though I could be wrong about that. I hope not. What he spent his lecture describing were changes we could make to society and architecture now that would result in buildings that looked very much as they had in the past. Anyhow, that was my understanding, and I stand willing to be corrected. The last thing we need is yet another proposal for a new type of architecture when what we once had worked perfectly well. Bring it back – as so many ICAA members are trying to do.

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  3. TBH says:

    “In spite of the fact that it is featured in Dezeen…”

    Have to admit this gave me a chuckle. Can I take it, David, that you also have a slight contempt for Dezeen as I do?

    On a side note: David, have you noticed a trend among western designers that celebrates the return of indigenous or local vernacular in developing countries while despising any attempt to do so here? I only ask because the comment reviews on the Dezeen article were overly positive regarding the library. Had the library in question been a sustainable-oriented colonial revival on the U.S. east coast I’m quite sure it would have been met with the usual dismissive epithets such as “copying the past” or “uncreative” and such.

    Also, any architects that do have views similar to Rau, I find, seem to hold the elitist view that they’ve “discovered” or otherwise invented the existing theories that have been in practice for centuries because it allows them to come across as sustainable and avant-garde while still designing the same trash, just wrapped up with a pretty architect-babble ribbon.

    I haven’t read every piece you’ve written but this might make for an interesting future article in tandem with this subject if you haven’t done so. Looking forward to hopefully hearing Rau’s presentation soon.

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    • Quite so, TBH. I would only disagree that writers for Dezeen and other magazines, and architects generally, are “celebrating a return to indigenous or local architecture” in developing countries. They may say that, but they are not doing it, and your observation that they are still producing “the same trash” is on target. The children’s library in Burundi seems to be an anomaly. I recall when there was a web site that took photographs of people in modernist houses and portrayed them as saying things that belied their enjoyment of those houses. What a laugh. Dezeen is a joke. If there are photographs of anything beautiful in the magazine (aside from the women occupying the photographs), it is purely accidental.

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  4. John the First says:

    Here is what this slightly evolved prehistoric, ehmm.. ‘awakening’ or reawakening brain thinks of TED talks: that is that the speakers most often appear as hyper reflexive pretentious maniacs, at times mere plain copycats, using some kind of parrot language, leaders of some tendentious church of progress, preaching for a confused and eager to believe congregation. There being always exception to the rule of course, but the best indication of the non tendentious, and of quality is when you get banned by this modern church, like what happened to Rupert Sheldrake.

    So craftsmanship is starting to get highly valued again? They tried this at the end of nineteenth century too, not limited to the architectural scene, but failed unfortunately.

    It is possible for anything to keep it out of the hands of tendentious hyping these days? Is it possible in times of ubiquitous hyping, of overall chasing of ephemeral trends to establish something solid like craftsmanship, through the means of short lived hyping like TED pretty babble and twaddle talks? Isn’t this a cultural paradox?

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  5. John the First says:

    “discovery by neuroscientists that our brain hasn’t evolved as much as we thought it had since prehistoric times”

    Dear Sir Brussat,

    Even when expressed in the usual soulless euphemistic modern language, accompanied by the usual democratically required soothing and consoling egalitarian ‘our’ and ‘we’, would you please mind your readers. That to paint them as near barbarians and primitives even in such seeming and alleged neutral language might have consequence for our online ‘friendship’ based upon the shared cause.

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    • Of course I don’t mean you, John. You have evolved to the tippy-top, obviously.

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      • John the First says:

        The science of neurology must be the product of some alleged tippy-top evolvement, if not, it follows that it would be the science of sightly evolved prehistoric brains. Unless you grant science to be neutral in this respect.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m curious if you share John Ruskin’s views of Renaissance architecture.

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    • It’s hard to assess the breadth of Ruskin’s views of architecture. His writing was enchanting, but his the intensity of his support for the Gothic and opposition to the classical, or Renaissance, forms is hard to reconcile with today’s revivalry between modern and traditional (including classical) forms. The more so in that his support for craftsmanship renders ridiculous the widespread attempts by later critics and historians to label him a precursor of modernism.

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