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December 13, 2010

“You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” In all things, there are two basic realms of existence: perception and reality.  Perception is the essence of what we subjectively believe.  Reality is the empirical truth that is the essence of the objective.  Two plus two objectively equals four, but four may subjectively mean a cloverleaf or the numerological equivalent of a square.

In the murky world of aesthetics and architecture, the objective and the subjective are perpetually in a dance.  Despite a couple of millennia of often strenuous convictions and efforts, the aesthetics of art and architecture are not objective truths. However, artists and architects and those that teach or write about their craft fabricate objectification of these exquisitely subjective “takes” on what is valid, and what is flawed. This impulse is also natural in politics, religion, philosophy, and even economics where there is precious little to hang a literal hat upon. It is natural, but it is also perverse in the world of building design, aka architecture.

By definition, all architects and how they view the basis of their designs are undeniably subjective. But today’s High Modernism and its predecessor, the 20th century’s International Style, has in truth, gone the extra mile.  For the true believers, mostly academics and journalists,  Modernism is viewed as the objective truth of what all building ‘should’ be and ‘would’ be if only they were objectively ‘real.’ Legitimacy (and thus illegitimacy) have been tacitly and directly conferred on all buildings everywhere.

This mindset basically objectifies the subjective.  To me, this decisive declaration, evident in an overwhelming number of academic, professional and journalistic judgments is dangerous. Obviously, “taste”, “style”, and “fashion” have been a wildly swinging pendulum for thousands of years. But the ultimate truth of the entire 20th century’s breaking down of social, political and, yes, aesthetic preconceptions is that pretensions are inherently dishonest. Ancient wallpaper on steel-framed skyscapers seemed pretty silly after the Industrial Revolution, and was.

But making a leap from what you believe to what you assert is objectively factual has perhaps been the greatest human force for hypocrisy, intolerance and prejudice.  There is a danger to denying reality even when that reality is the reality of subjectivity.

In the world of architectural design, creating fact from interpretation means that the real facts, the residue of specific truthes that underlies all aesthetic judgments, become so murky that anything can be rationalized. A self-serving view is the ultimate form of prejudice.  Prejudice in architecture essentially means pre-judging only in terms of the way the present aesthetic sieve has been set up.  When a design is viewed to be ‘correct’ it has to toe the line of current prejudice – in this generation that means a distilled sculptural expression – designed to be viewed first, responding to context second, and adapt to its use third. These are judgments that have  produced works of undeniably compelling beauty, especially in photographs.

But to assert that other approaches betray limited talent, illegitimate moral underpinnings, or cultural tone deafness is as silly as the gothic skin draped on a steel frame. But being silly does not mean that motives or results are venal, intellectually flawed or perpetrating aesthetic violence. Lately, the intensity of aesthetic verdicts have become sweeping, self-reinforcing and deadly serious. But the lock-step conclusions that one approach fits all situations is faith-based in the religion of Modernism.

Of course there are thousands of architects operating out of that sphere of influence and judgment, dozens of schools that offer real alternatives to the Modernist mode, a smattering of historicist publications and competitions, but virtually all of the national architectural media, competitions, and front-and-center academic institutions have devined a central objective reality ironically based on fully subjective criteria: High Modernism has won, all others need not apply.

The deep desire for cool over client, context and common sense has betrayed the type of self-reinforcing logic that can undermine all the best intentions of those who value the spirit of innovation and progress Modernism nobly offers up. When opinions are stated as facts, when the subjective is declared to be objective, when a point of view is believed to be truth, it is a quick ticket to delusion.

Personal delusion is bad enough – it hurts people around the deluded party.  But mass delusion creates huge misjudgments.  Coming from New Haven, I’ve seen those across the board judgments rip a city into shreds in the 1950’s. That use-blind, art-forward mindset saw buildings built there then get torn down simply because they are beyond useful redemption despite their ‘neat ideas.’  As a practitioner for over 30 years, I’ve seen architecture students from premiere universities be wonderfully prepared to design buildings of one aesthetic that are made without any idea of materiality, history or its personal meaning to those who use it.

Creating fact from philosophy is the ultimate betrayal of the academic ethic where exposure to the truth should be the most elevated principal above all that is taught. If there is more than one truth, ignoring any one of them is no longer teaching – it is indoctrination.  When the earth was seen to be the center of the universe, when eugenics was considered a science, when doctors promoted cigarettes, we as a civilization allowed subjective perception to be manipulated into objective fact.

It’s a dangerous road when the subjective is declared to be objective.  We are on that road in architecture and it is not a good thing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2010 2:24 pm

    “It’s not a lie if you believe it,” said George Costanza, and we usually believe what we think and say. For a paranoid schizophrenic, it might be reality that the CIA is broadcasting messages through his molar, and telling him it’s not true won’t have much affect. But all married couples have had numerous experiences of completely different memories of what one said to the other. In that case, when there was no camcorder around, whose memory is reality? The one they remember.

    • duo permalink
      December 17, 2010 2:35 pm

      A famous publicist (unnamed) is reputed to have said: “The single and only truth to success comes down to one central skill: Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”

      Naked emperors still feel chilly.


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