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“Safe” Architecture

December 9, 2015

In perhaps the safest place on the Planet Earth, the very top of the tallest Ivory Tower, tippy top dwellers do not feel safe. At Yale a letter by a dorm head’s wife about halloween costumes evoked calls for the author’s removal by students because it ignored deep anger and anxieties present in the rest of the world that Yale inadequately shielded their charges from.

The anger is not limited to Yale. A few millennia of brutally unfair inhumanities remain threatening even in cultures where laws and justice have more sway than violence and ignorance. Slavery, women as chattel, racial and gender stereotypes are real and present and hurting billions: but at one place that fully acknowledges these cultural realities. and in every way attempts to address them, the results were clearly inadequate for some.

For some, even Yale is not a “safe” place.

Its easiest to feel “safe” when you are surrounded by validation that you are “right”. Being “right” alone is courage, but finding an orthodoxy that’s “right” makes personal views facts on the ground: its why orthodoxies happen. Orthodoxies can become fundamentalist, where essences and ideas become distilled into crystalline facts, and then radical, when those facts are projected as required laws for everyone.

Exclusion of disagreement makes you feel very “safe”.

Beyond Yale, our culture is trying to create “safe space”, sometimes at the cost of freedom. Mel Brooks’ films are hilarious, but dozens of words, characters and plot lines are completely indefensible now. Offensive terms become a correcting alphabet encoding: “n”, “c”, “b” – and I am sure others. Beyond words, some people threaten the safe zone – white males are impossibly prejudiced from birth: born behind the 8-ball of the historic heinous history of their forebears.

Beyond cultural outrages, the same righteous intolerance conveys to attitudes that elicit denigrating labels. “Birthers” created racially charged conspiracy theories about a black president. “Truthers” weave conspiracies into 911 absurdities. “Deniers” take science into politics for those who believe in climate change.

But just like doctors scorn “anti-vaxxers”, and mainstream biologists gag at “intelligent design”, architecture long ago came to dismissively snort at the word “postmodernism”. The consensus of circled wagons has made Modern far more than just an aesthetic preference, it is both Beauty and Truth, and to quote John Keats:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

So, in almost all of its academia, journalism and professional celebration the architecture that architects legitimately “need to know” that proposes a universal approach to the design of everything is Modernism. For 20 years in the 70’s and 80’s a few intellectuals, Tom Wolfe, Vincent Scully, Christopher Alexander and others, asked to widen the lens to popular culture, history, decorative arts and craftsmanship: a brief moment of diversity called Postmodernism. Perhaps encouraged in the wake of some notable failures in the mid-century Modern Movement’s approaches to housing, technology and social relevance, it flamed bright and brief. A few architects, Michael Graves (see below), Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and others were inspired beyond abstraction, embracing historic allusion, humor and popular culture into their built work.

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Like Voldemort, Radical Islamic Terrorism, or the alphabetized words, “Postmodern” is a largely unspoken word by anyone who was ever swimming in its brief countercurrent.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are this year’s recipient of the AIA’s highest honor, its Gold Medal. Totally deserved, but for reasons that may be discomfiting for both recipients and for the AIA.

Over forty years ago, the young architectural couple completely revolutionized architectural thinking by writing Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and then Learning from Las Vegas that challenged Modernist orthodoxy with a simple idea:

“To make the case for a new but old direction in architecture, we shall use some perhaps indiscreet comparisons to show what we are for and what we are against and ultimately to justify our own architecture. When architects talk or write, they philosophize almost solely to justify their own work, and this apologia will be no different. Our argument depends on comparisons, because it is simple to the point of banality. It needs contrast to point it up. We shall use, somewhat undiplomatically, some of the works of leading architects today as contrast and context.”

Contrast this wholly reasonable mindset, to the fundamentalist rejection of any and all existing culture, history and “comparisons” by the very image of 21st century High Modern Starchitecture, Zaha Hadid, in this bit of archispeak:

“It is insufficient for architecture today to directly implement an existing building typology; it instead requires architects to carefully examine the whole area with new interventions and programmatic typologies.”

The solidarity of today’s comrades in architecture is remarkable, and exclusive. Alternative ideologies and aesthetics are few and far between, and seem more like a Mel Brooks movie than a legitimate alternative to a dominant aesthetic paradigm.

Into this new “safe” consensus rationalizations are made to avoid any sense of heresy. Unlike scientists that follow data to the consensus of climate change, architects reverse the method and divine data from consensus: where, as said,  Modernism is Truth.

So in 2001, 20 years or so after writing “Learning from Las Vegas” Venturi essentially denied its content. In a cover article in the then AIA’s magazine, “Architecture” he declared:

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The broad brush of clumsy affect in hack Postmodern work (no worse than hack Modern work) discredited the application of thoughtful precedent or cross-referencing in architecture, and painted PoMo as wholly intellectually illegitimate, in effect declaring any alternative to the dominant aesthetic “Modern Deniers”.

Venturi and Scott Brown had proffered existing culture and vernacular, un-architected building as having lessons for architects:

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20 years later, their circumspection was replaced with derision by the thought leaders in architecture:

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where “vernacular” architecture for the academy was synonymous with “Grandma Moses” painting in its anti-intellectual regressive illegitimacy.

To me, the opening up of architecture to the influences of popular culture and its relevancies to bourgeois life has made Postmodernism equivalent to the “unsafe”, incorrect world below the Ivory Tower. Engaging things we do not control is so scary to the dominant architectural paradigm that the academy, journalism and institutions are silent on other perspectives,  silly old postmodernism becomes that which shall not be spoken: like the Yale dorm director’s wife’s letter.

I know Venturi and Scott Brown edited their thought process in that 2001 cover declaration because I got to know the firm’s earlier perspective when I spent a day or two with their late partner Steve Izenour in Arkansas in 1988:

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None of us want to be wrong, and, clearly for whatever reasons, some of the laughably bad Postmodern work had received unmerited focus and laud. But bad buildings happen in any style, but I also believe Beauty happens in every style, and thus Truth does not reside in any one aesthetic.

Somehow Venturi and Scott Brown felt that the ideology they practiced with Steve Izenour had become delegitimizing, and the repositioning obviously worked as there is no greater legitimizing kudo than the AIA Gold Medal.

When things do not go as hoped, we often retroactively reframe the basis, or even reality, of what was hoped for: your child does not get into Yale: and VOILA East Blosgosh University is “THE PERFECT FIT!”

When we kill many people to find Weapons of Mass Destruction and they are not there, we are “Ridding the world of a murderous tyrant”. When its not that hot in many media capitals after 15 years of “Global Warming” it becomes “Climate Change”.

The retroactive rationalizations of those who bet on the wrong horse are not limited to children or public policy. But in today’s “safe” architecture, when an image on a magazine cover even hints at incorrect vernacular, the rush to proffer pre-emptive plausible deniability is both confusing and laughable:

this is not a barn

However, plausible deniability does not work so well after the fact: it is not Monday Morning QB-ing: that’s called being in denial.

In truth no place on planet earth is perfectly “safe”, because every place has uncontrollable dangers, including human attitudes. When you confuse the profession of faith in your values with a profession you practice in the world, apostasy is virtually guaranteed. When you think any one aesthetic like Postmodernism, Modernism or Classicism is exclusively Beauty and thus Truth, the alternatives are thus Untrue.

The lack of Truth is the essence of the lack of Safety. If humans think creating Truths provides Safety then failure is assured, because Truth is not made by us, its of the world – a place that we cannot control.

Constructed orthodoxies make adherents feel safe, but they ignore the reality that until there is universal consensus there is always danger. Architecture, for some, is a perfected idea, one that is corrupted by the rest of the unarchitected world. For a couple of decades the idea that the rest of the world could be the inspiration for architecture had traction with some thought leaders, but some bad buildings, glib rationalizations, and ultimately fear of illegitimacy made that minor reality fade.

The problem is that minor reality is how almost all of our buildings are actually inspired, built and valued – regardless of any aesthetic. Most building is a response to needs and requirements and inspirations from the world outside of architecture’s echo chamber of the academy, journalism and the AIA. Most everybody outside Yale lacks circumspection about their preferences and prejudices – that may be shallow, it may be evil, but it is true, and ultimately incurable and unavoidable. Life is spent dealing with the world, because the world really does not change to support you.

Robert Venturi dealt with a small world, architectural orthodoxy, when he disavowed a brief apostasy he was central in creating, and that little world just rewarded him with arguably its biggest honor.

Beauty is Beauty, named or not named. The inevitable inconvenient truths, and aesthetics, can be scary things.

 

 

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