“Moderates” are the Holy Grail of political Conventional Wisdom. Neither “progressive” nor “conservative,” “moderates” are the thumb on the scale of many elections. Conservatives hate moderates because they “have no core values.” Liberals are suspicious of moderates because they have voted for Bushes.
In my world, architecture, and in Fine Arts in general, there are also “progressives” (Modernists, aka those who design “contemporary” buildings) and conservatives (those who use Traditional/Classical aesthetics). However there are scant few aesthetic “moderates” celebrated in journalism and virtually none in academia.
Despite what every aesthete would like to believe, it is the non-aesthetic world – money, weather, politics, natural disasters and technological miracles that shapes aesthetics. Despite the collective Fine Arts Canon of Salvation via the “Cutting Edge” fostering self-delusion and rationalizations, aesthetics rarely, if ever, mold anything. They are a mirror.
Today, that mirror is of the Fun House variety, where distortions are the rule and reality is both murky and moving.
We’re all in a place we haven’t been before, our culture is not so much at a crossroads as it is waking up to choking on realities that are at once politically incorrect and threatening. America, as usual, has become the Poster Child for these riptides of information inconsistency trending to incredulity:
We’re told simultaneously that our children are obese and that many are on the edge of starvation.
A subatomic particle called Higgs Boson and a force called Dark Matter are foundations of science in search of facts to verify their existence.
Smart phones have put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and yet most of us use them for frivolous distraction.
While there is a massive recession and a huge debt, there are no breadlines.
It was easier in the ‘60s – there were true “devils” that were sanctioned by the status quo – homophobia, sexism, racism, and ecological carnage were obvious piñatas we beat on to vent our righteous outrage. To a large extent, those absurd injustices have been at least exposed, and, at best, pushed down the road to extinction. Those old battles gave many of us Boomers the sense that we could “make a difference” – perhaps ultimately crescendo-ing in the election of a black President. But we have never, ultimately, controlled the uncontrollable.
In this time of shape-shifting for almost every element of our culture, our aesthetics are in a paralytic fugue state, caught between the old, knowable, reliable “safe places” of idealistic, abstracted Modernism and comfortable, nurturing Traditionalism – the binary I call “Mod” and “Trad.”
Not surprisingly, the stalled state of ambiguity and ennui in aesthetics precisely reflects the fact that we are in neither a boom nor a bust time. It seems our society has fractured into two distinct (and now defined) groups – a 1% who get “it.” The “it” of money. The “it” of fame. The “it” of aesthetic truth. Ultimately, the “it” of happiness.
Contrasting the 1% who get “it” are the rest of us, the now bally-hooed 99%, who are not feeling in-between so much as left behind by circumstances we can’t even begin to understand in a time when the ground we stood upon is in seismic distress. Religion has fallen from solace and inspiration for many. Science has become politicized – weather is a point of angry discord. Faith in a career path has been shown to be a fool’s errand unless what you do is measured by more than money. Patriotism has been co-opted into shallow vulgarity – evidencing the worst in us, rather than our best hopes.
I submit that there is a large place between the 1% and the 99%. In architecture, it is a place that is rawly creative without being elitist and tone deaf to popular culture. A place that does not put the blinders of pander and profit on to hew to the rut of old answers to new opportunities. I believe those who have had their eyes opened to the true costs of brain dead Style Obsession are ready to build again.
It is a time where aesthetic moderates can lead, simply by being successful. I think of these aesthetic moderates as “Tweeners.” Neither “Mod” nor “Trad” these architects think about context and clients and budget as being as important as innovation and exploration in forming buildings.
I am one of those “Tweeners” – not by calculated design or conscious positioning, my aesthetic disposition has naturally settled into a guileless place that has proven to be unpopular in the world of aesthetic recognition of “Starchitects.” I am not alone. There are architects who practice a “tweener” aesthetic – not looking over the shoulder at “hip,” nor calculating a caché of bankable antique stylings to curry favor with our patrons.
It is my contention that “tweeners” like me have work simply because the dire economy has rendered those who consume design services deaf to hollow hype. “Eco Chic” is a joke. “McMansions” are now seen to be as heinous as they always were. Mod “boxes for living” are not selling either. In these depressing realities my office has as much work as we have ever had simply because what I do is an open book. A few of us have dubbed this ethos as “Open Design” – where aesthetics are in play, cost is always on the table, and the means and methods of construction shape what is built.
Unlike Mod that rejects the “how” things have been done simply because they have been done before, or Trad that rejects anything that has not been done before, it’s time to open up design to a place where named Style not an issue. Finding cover in precedents or rejection of them is a cop-out. Embrace of any and all design criteria, independent of style is not SOP for either Trad or Mod, which is precisely why those twin do-loops are in paralysis.
Open Design considers all design inputs from client fantasy, cost reality, creative play with each context and site, and the essential truths of materials, we are too trad to me mod, and too mod to be trad. “Tweeners” like me neither rely on the traditional preconceptions and pandering of spec building nor the autonomic fine arts Modernist rejectionist response driven into the craniums of almost every student and magazine editor in America.
One in seven standing finished homes in America is unoccupied.
Even with a record number of foreclosures and 30% of homeowners “underwater,” we also have 30-40% of homeowners that have no debt at all on their homes. It is an upside-down, inside-out, confused situation.
Where does that put architecture? The fewest number of architects in a generation are employed while the greatest number of potential architects are being graduated from our schools.
The Mau-Mau-ing of all but Modernism by the Academy and the Press is ringing hollow for more and more architects. The world’s economic bubble was popped by the unsustainable Ponzi perspective of mass-for-profit building that used sentimentalized traditionalism to excuse absurd overvaluation. The worlds of Design and Construction have crashed into inevitable truth that unfettered art and unlimited profit were twin sirens of suicidal hubris.
At least 40% of architects are virtually unemployed (either working as Baristas or having a “freelance” practice). Fewer than 300,000 new homes are being built this year where nearly 2,000,000 were being started 5 years ago. The Mod and Trad worlds of home design and construction are left holding air where once ego reigned. Our confused state is manifest in things like the magazine literally titled “New Old House.”
Where does that leave me? I am the virtual poster child for the “Tweener” – throughout these last four recessions, the work that I’ve done is neither Mod nor Trad. It is in the strange middle zone of creative craft – I think of it as a “sweet spot” that allows me simultaneously to be rejected from this year’s Record Houses [Record Houses 2012] (reputedly after a bit of debate) for being too “Trad” while at the same time being fired by a client last week for being too “Mod.” Here it is:
Our office, and others, naturally work in this aesthetic in-between state seem to have more work than those that pander to profit (spec builders who postured to seduce the 99%) or use affect and pretense to create the value of fashionista aesthetics (the 1% architects).
This week I received a letter from an editor who had seen the gist of this piece, talking about the architecture of the in-between. Remarkably, after receiving that gist, that magazine’s annual gathering of residential architects will be focused on that very topic. Whether my note inspired this direction or was parallel-play, it is clear that this is not a time of the bottom or the top.
It is not the time of reflecting from a mountaintop forward or back, or steeping at the bottom of a pot of despair. It is somewhere in-between.
I am not sure what it means, but that’s the point.