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Apostasy, Settled Law and The Truth

September 13, 2010

Human beings are obsessed with The Truth.  Rather than smell the roses and simply enjoy what is, our fate seems to be a long term wrestling match with competing versions of what The Truth is.  Obviously, gravity holds us on the Earth, you gotta eat, and death and taxes are givens.  But these are facts, not The Truth. 

Religion, for many people, is the most real thing in their lives.  The recent controversies over burning the Qur’an, building a mosque in downtown Manhattan, or our President’s avowed (or for some, secret) religious beliefs, show that America remains focused on what the essence of religious belief is.

For virtually all my scientist friends, climate change is The Truth.  Given my limited knowledge, I’m happy that they are secure in the knowledge that the polar ice caps are going to melt and downtown Manhattan will become a series of 5,000 manmade islands formerly known as multi-story buildings.  But I do know that until the late 19th century, North America was in what is commonly referred to as “The Little Ice Age”. 

My scientist friends also know that something called “dark matter” is The Truth.  Without “dark matter,” the vast majority of calculations and measurables involving the observable universe simply don’t work.  Lower tech versions of things like “dark matter” are called “fudging” by people with less scientific knowledge (me).

Similarly, in my own profession, architecture, Modernism is viewed as The Truth.  For just about every school of architecture and professional journal, Modernism is what buildings should be.  That Truth actually appeals to a tiny segment of the 60 or 70 million American homeowners who still own their post burst bubble houses. The average homeowner defines the word “modern” as equitable to the word “un-sellable”. 

Given these challenges, these Truths are revealed to be “settled law.”  The concept of “settled law” is a convenient legal fudge.  In Supreme Court nomination hearings, things like Rowe vs. Wade and other landmark cases are viewed as “settled law” rather than The Truth, because for a good long while “settled law” said that a black person was 3/5’s of a Caucasian. 

Those rejecting “settled law” to declare what the Truth really is are apostates towards the dominant paradigm.  Apostasy is one of the great conundrums in architecture.

Apostasy created Modernism.  The bold insight of early 20th century architects to reject superficial, historic styles of building as meaningless wallpaper during a time when the rest of the world saw technology explode was an obvious move in retrospect.  The Industrial Revolution changed the way we made buildings into a world of prefabricated parts, lightweight strong and durable materials, and whole new systems for illumination, heating/cooling and movement.  But architects went beyond that truth to create The Truth. 

“All ornament is crime,” noted Adolf Loos at the advent of the Modern Movement.  Fifty years later, when his clients added a pitched roof over a never-ending leaky flat version in a house of his design, Peter Eisenmann noted that they were committing “cultural violence.”  With Cromwellian zeal, Modernism became religion, with saints and sinners, believers and heretics.   

Over the last 70 years, my world, the world of architecture, has taken the apostasy of its origins into the defensive practice of “settled law.”  It is now apostasy to think that any other “style” of architecture other than Modernism is valid.  In this world, pitched roofs are a fringe expression.  Any form of overt decoration, allusion to the past, “fitting in” with an existing context, even crafty detailing, is either cast into the oblivion of unpublished darkness or it is routinely mocked and chortled over during academic lectures and crits.

The “let them eat cake” attitude of the elites in architecture toward those who use the buildings we design condemns what I do, sight unseen, to irrelevancy in the minds of many.  To the typical housing consumer, Modernism is an apostasy to the traditional “look” that makes them feel comfortable and “at home”. 

So one person’s Truth is another person’s apostasy.  “Settled law” can be completely unsettled when The Truth “shifts.”  When things go beyond death and gravity, there is, inevitably, a faith-based  assertion of what constitutes the Truth.

The Emperor’s New Clothes looked pretty chic, ‘til a wee little apostate noticed there was not much there there.  Are we there yet?

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