I walk through these spaces everyday, almost taking them for granted. Beautiful spaces with beautiful buildings that are calm and unpretentious. A somewhat “ordinary” design, perhaps often overlooked by young designers because it simply doesn’t have the “excitement” of buildings or public spaces that scream,” Look at me! Look at me! Look at how novel and unique I am!”
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
The following is an article written by Theodore Dalrymple, a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In many ways, this article captures why I have often come to denounce my own profession. Many architects that we revere believe they are artists. For them, the power of architecture often comes from within as an irrefutable, God-given divine act of creativity. Thus, they defend architecture through philosophical and artistic arguments that are impractical and nonsensical, disregarding the fundamental fact that architecture is a service for people. Architecture is not, and should not be, a cryptic and enigmatic practice out of touch with people.
We, architects, often revel in distancing ourselves from normality and glorify these individuals for their “radical” and “bold” creativity by placing them on pedestals through awards, publications, photography, journals, etc, driving the architectural practice and discourse further down the toilet. This attitude and spirit towards architecture is one of the major reasons why a lot of modern and contemporary architects are terrible urbanists. They fail to see what their contributions to society are and decide to wield power in unquestionable made-up truths. For them, if you don’t get it, you’re just not in it. How dare you question the genius of Le Corbusier?
Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform. In one sense, he had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. Like Pol Pot, he wanted to start from Year Zero: before me, nothing; after me, everything. By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him canceled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.
Writings about Le Corbusier often begin with an encomium to his importance, something like: “He was the most important architect of the twentieth century.” Friend and foe would agree with this judgment, but importance is, of course, morally and aesthetically ambiguous. After all, Lenin was one of the most important politicians of the twentieth century, but it was his influence on history, not his merits, that made him so: likewise Le Corbusier.
Yet just as Lenin was revered long after his monstrosity should have been obvious to all, so Le Corbusier continues to be revered. Indeed, there is something of a revival in the adulation. Nicholas Fox Weber has just published an exhaustive and generally laudatory biography, and Phaidon has put out a huge, expensive book lovingly devoted to Le Corbusier’s work. Further, a hagiographic exhibition devoted to Le Corbusier recently ran in London and Rotterdam. In London, the exhibition fittingly took place in a hideous complex of buildings, built in the 1960s, called the Barbican, whose concrete brutalism seems designed to overawe, humiliate, and confuse any human being unfortunate enough to try to find his way in it. The Barbican was not designed by Le Corbusier, but it was surely inspired by his particular style of soulless architecture.
At the exhibition, I fell to talking with two elegantly coiffed ladies of the kind who spend their afternoons in exhibitions. “Marvelous, don’t you think?” one said to me, to which I replied: “Monstrous.” Both opened their eyes wide, as if I had denied Allah’s existence in Mecca. If most architects revered Le Corbusier, who were we laymen, the mere human backdrop to his buildings, who know nothing of the problems of building construction, to criticize him? Warming to my theme, I spoke of the horrors of Le Corbusier’s favorite material, reinforced concrete, which does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays. A single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape, I insisted. A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything except itself.
The two ladies mentioned that they lived in a mainly eighteenth-century part of the city whose appearance and social atmosphere had been comprehensively wrecked by two massive concrete towers. The towers confronted them daily with their own impotence to do anything about the situation, making them sad as well as angry. “And who do you suppose was the inspiration for the towers?” I asked. “Yes, I see what you mean,” one of them said, as if the connection were a difficult and even dangerous one to make.
I pointed the ladies to an area of the exhibition devoted to the Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier’s scheme to replace a large quarter of Paris with buildings of fundamentally the same design as those that graced the outskirts of Novosibirsk and every other Soviet city (to say nothing of Paris itself and its alienated banlieues). If carried out, the plan would have changed, dominated, and, in my view, destroyed the appearance of the entire city. Here, the exhibition played a 1920s film showing Le Corbusier in front of a map of the center of Paris, a large part of which he proceeds to scrub out with a thick black crayon with all the enthusiasm of Bomber Harris planning the annihilation of a German city during World War II.
Le Corbusier extolled this kind of destructiveness as imagination and boldness, in contrast with the conventionality and timidity of which he accused all contemporaries who did not fall to their knees before him. It says something of the spirit of destruction that still lives on in Europe that such a film should be displayed to evoke not horror and disgust, or even laughter, but admiration.
Le Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, in the small French-Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where his father was an engraver of watchcases and his mother a musician. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps; but as an adolescent, Le Corbusier showed precocious artistic ability, attended the local school of fine arts for a time, and then wandered Europe for several years in a program of aesthetic self-education. His extraordinary abilities were evident in the brilliant draftsmanship of his early (and conventional) drawings and watercolors. He also made furniture of great elegance before the bug of intellectual and artistic revolutionism bit him.
Le Corbusier adopted his pseudonym in the 1920s, deriving it in part from the name of a distant ancestor, Lecorbésier. But in the absence of a first name, it suggests a physical force as much as a human being. It brings to mind the verb courber, to bend, and, of course, Le Corbusier was a great bender of townscapes to his own will. It also brings to mind le corbeau, the crow or raven, not a conventionally beautiful bird in plumage or song, but one that is simple and unornamental in both and therefore, metaphorically speaking, honest and undeceiving, as Le Corbusier claimed his architecture to be. In French, le corbeau has a further meaning: that of a bird of ill omen—and perhaps that is the architect’s little joke upon the world. He was certainly of ill omen for the cities of Europe and elsewhere.
Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.
André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.
Le Corbusier managed to communicate this elitist attitude to his followers, apologists, and hierophants. Here, for example, is a passage from a book about him by the architect Stephen Gardiner:Le Corbusier remains, for many people, an enigma. Probably the chief [reason] is the vastness of architecture, for this means that it is an art that is difficult to comprehend… . And, while buildings are large, cities are even larger: here, before us, is an immensely elaborate patchwork threaded with a multiplicity of strands that lead in from all directions. At first it seems quite impossible to see a clear picture where there is, in fact, order, shape and continuity: all we see is a jumble. Yet it is at this point that one may make the discovery that the pattern is not possible to follow because a crucial piece of the jigsaw is missing… . In the twentieth century, Le Corbusier provides it.
Has anyone ever stood, overlooking, say, the Grand Canal in Venice, and thought, “What I need in order to understand this is the missing piece of the jigsaw with which only an architect can provide me, and only then will I understand it”? Gardiner is a true disciple of Le Corbusier in his desire to intellectualize without the exercise of intellect, in his failure to make elementary distinctions, and in his use of words so ambiguous that it is difficult to argue conclusively against him.
In fairness to Le Corbusier, three extenuations can be offered for his life’s appalling work. He came to maturity in an age when new industrial materials and methods made possible a completely different architecture from any previously known. The destruction in northern France during World War I, as well as social conditions generally, necessitated swift rebuilding on a large scale, a problem that no one else solved satisfactorily. And he had grown up at a time when bourgeois domestic clutter—heavy, elaborate gilt-and-plush furniture; knickknacks everywhere—was often so outrageous that an extreme revulsion against it in the form of militant bareness and absence of adornment was understandable, though not necessarily laudable (the diametrical opposite of an outrage is more likely itself to be an outrage than to be a solution to it).
Nevertheless, Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.
Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many). Everyone else has “eyes that do not see,” as he so tolerantly puts it.
Here are a few more musts:We must see to the establishment of standards so that we can face up to the problem of perfection.
Man must be built upon this axis [of harmony], in perfect agreement with nature, and, probably, the universe.
We must find and apply new methods, clear methods allowing us to work out useful plans for the home, lending themselves naturally to standardization, industrialization, Taylorization.
The plan must rule… . The street must disappear.
And then there is this similar assertion: “The masonry wall no longer has a right to exist.”
Le Corbusier wanted architecture to be the same the world over because he believed that there was a “correct” way to build and that only he knew what it was. The program of the International Congress for Modern Architecture, of which Le Corbusier was the moving spirit, states: “Reforms are extended simultaneously to all cities, to all rural areas, across the seas.” No exceptions. “Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Port Said, Rio or Buenos Aires, the solution is the same,” Le Corbusier maintained, “since it answers the same needs.”
Le Corbusier’s imperatives apply to more than building or even city planning, for he was nothing if not a totalitarian philosopher, whose views on architecture derived at least in part from his self-appointedly omnicompetent viewpoint:We must create farms, tools, machinery and homes conducive to a clean, healthy well-ordered life. We must organize the village to fulfill its role as a center that will provide for the needs of the farm and act as a distributor of its products. We must kill off the old voracious and ruthless kind of money and create new, honest money, a tool for the fulfillment of a wholly normal, wholly natural function.
There is to be no escape from Le Corbusier’s prescriptions. “The only possible road is that of enthusiasm … the mobilization of enthusiasm, that electric power source of the human factory.” In his book The Radiant City, there is a picture of a vast crowd in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, with the legend, “Little by little, the world is moving to its destined goal. In Moscow, in Rome, in Berlin, in the USA, vast crowds are collecting round a strong idea”—the idea being, apparently, the absolute leader or state.
These words were written in 1935, not a happy period for political thought in Moscow, Rome, or Berlin, and one might have hoped that he would have later recanted them. But in 1964, on republishing the book in English, Le Corbusier, far from recanting anything, wrote as an envoi: “Have you ever thought, all you ‘Mister NOS!,’ that these plans were filled with the total and disinterested passion of a man who has spent his whole life concerning himself with his ‘fellow man,’ concerning himself fraternally. And, for this very reason, the more he was in the right the more he upset the arrangements or schemes of others.”
Among these fraternal plans were many for the destruction of whole cities, including Stockholm. (Other cities he planned to destroy: Paris, Moscow, Algiers, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, and Geneva.) In The Radiant City, Le Corbusier provides an aerial photograph of Stockholm as it was, an astonishingly beautiful assemblage of buildings that he saw only as “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” He dreamed of “cleaning and purging” the city, importing “a calm and powerful architecture”—that is to say, the purportedly true variety that steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete as designed by him brought with them. Le Corbusier never got to destroy Stockholm, but architects inspired by his doctrines have gone a fair way toward doing so. As the blurb to the 1964 edition of The Radiant City prophetically puts it, the book is “a blueprint for the present and the future … a classic work on architecture and city planning.”
A terminal inhumanity—what one might almost call “ahumanity”—characterizes Le Corbusier’s thought and writing, notwithstanding his declarations of fraternity with mankind. This manifests itself in several ways, including in his thousands of architectural photos and drawings, in which it is rare indeed that a human figure ever appears, and then always as a kind of distant ant, unfortunately spoiling an otherwise immaculate, Platonic townscape. Thanks to his high-rise buildings, Le Corbusier says, 95 percent of the city surface shall become parkland—and he then shows a picture of a wooded park without a single human figure present. Presumably, the humans will be where they should be, out of sight and out of mind (the architect’s mind, anyway), in their machines for living in (as he so charmingly termed houses), sitting on machines for sitting on (as he defined chairs).
This ahumanity explains Le Corbusier’s often-expressed hatred of streets and love of roads. Roads were impressive thoroughfares for rushing along at the highest possible speed (he had an obsession with fast cars and airplanes), which therefore had a defined purpose and gave rise to no disorderly human interactions. The street, by contrast, was unpredictable, incalculable, and deeply social. Le Corbusier wanted to be to the city what pasteurization is to cheese.
When one recalls Le Corbusier’s remark about reinforced concrete—“my reliable, friendly concrete”—one wonders if he might have been suffering from a degree of Asperger’s syndrome: that he knew that people talked, walked, slept, and ate, but had no idea that anything went on in their heads, or what it might be, and consequently treated them as if they were mere things. Also, people with Asperger’s syndrome often have an obsession with some ordinary object or substance: reinforced concrete, say.
Le Corbusier’s hatred of the human went well beyond words, of course. What he called the “roof garden” of his famous concrete apartment block in Marseilles, the Unité d’Habitation, consists of a flat concrete surface in which protrude several raw concrete abstract shapes and walls. Le Corbusier wanted no other kind of roof henceforth to be built anywhere, and wrote passionately denouncing all other “primitive” kinds of roof. One might have hoped that Le Corbusier’s characterization of this concrete wasteland as a garden would have occasioned derision; instead, pictures of it are reproduced as evidence of his inventive genius.
The only city Le Corbusier ever built, Chandigarh in India, is another monument to his bleak vision. In the London exhibition, pictures of it were shown to the sound of beautiful classical Indian music, as if some intrinsic connection existed between the refined Indian civilization and ugly slabs of concrete. Le Corbusier’s staggering incompetence—the natural product of his inflexible arrogance—was revealed, no doubt unintentionally, by pictures of the large concrete square that he placed in Chandigarh, totally devoid of shade. It is as if he wanted the sun to shrivel up the human insects who dared to stain the perfect geometry of his plans with the irregularities that they brought with them.
His ahumanity makes itself evident also in his attitude toward the past. Repeatedly, he talks of the past as a tyranny from which it is necessary to escape, as if no one had discovered or known anything until his arrival. It is not that the past bequeaths us problems that we must try our best to overcome: it is that the entire past, with few exceptions, is a dreadful mistake best destroyed and then forgotten. His disdain for his contemporaries, except those who went over to him without reserve, is total: but a stroll through the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, to take only one example, should have been enough to convince him, or anyone else, that right up to World War I, architects had been capable of building differently from, but in harmony with, all that had gone before. These architects, however, were not mad egotists determined to obtrude their names permanently on the public, but men content to add their mite to their civilization. At no point does Le Corbusier discuss the problem of harmonizing the new with what already exists.
In denouncing Gothic architecture, for instance, Le Corbusier says:Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones and cylinders… . It is for that reason that a cathedral is not very beautiful… . A cathedral interests us as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem, but a problem of which the postulates have been badly stated because they do not proceed from the great primary forms.
So now we know why people like Chartres and Rheims Cathedrals! They solve badly formulated problems! Le Corbusier reminds me of the father of a Russian friend of mine, a man who was the greatest Soviet expert on plate glass, who, on visiting London for the first time, looked up at a modernist block of Corbusian design that ruined an eighteenth-century square and said, referring to some aspect of its plate glass, “That is an interesting solution to the problem.”
The most sincere, because unconscious, tribute to Le Corbusier comes from the scrawlers of graffiti. If you approach the results of their activities epidemiologically, so to speak, you will soon notice that, where good architecture is within reach of Corbusian architecture, they tend to deface only the Corbusian surfaces and buildings. As if by instinct, these uneducated slum denizens have accurately apprehended what so many architects have expended a huge intellectual effort to avoid apprehending: that Le Corbusier was the enemy of mankind.
Le Corbusier does not belong so much to the history of architecture as to that of totalitarianism, to the spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity of the interbellum years in Europe. Clearly, he was not alone; he was both a creator and a symptom of the zeitgeist. His plans for Stockholm, after all, were in response to an official Swedish competition for ways to rebuild the beautiful old city, so such destruction was on the menu. It is a sign of the abiding strength of the totalitarian temptation, as the French philosopher Jean-François Revel called it, that Le Corbusier is still revered in architectural schools and elsewhere, rather than universally reviled.
Seoul Urban Design 2013 competition, hosted by Seoul metropolitan government and 9th annual space syntax symposium
I had a very interesting conversation with a good friend of mine the other day about owning a small architecture practice. It wasn’t the typical discussion of “how much does an architect make”, but it was very much about the fact that small architecture practices are often terrible business entities., i.e. they are not financially able to sustain themselves and the lives of their owners. This lead us to a much more interesting discussion on professions within the academic realm of architecture.
I vented out my frustration by telling him that I found most of the work being done in architecture schools around the world are highly inapplicable to professional practice. The school of architecture is perhaps the most distant academic institution from its professional world. Architecture schools rarely teach students the necessary skills to perform well in the professional world. There are many issues such as building codes, regulations, financing projects, and structure that are almost never emphasized. Heavily influenced by the pedagogical model of the Beaux-Arts, American schools of architecture place so much emphasis on design as if architects exist in a vacuum of the fine arts world where absolutely nothing other than design matters. Of course, one can argue that those things don’t need to be taught in school and can be learned in practice, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.
Neeraj Bhatia - The Drift House (theopenworkshop.ca)
However, there is a trendy phenomenon that seems to lead us even further away from pragmatism. It’s the notion of architecture as “research”. This can be interpreted as a new form of the Beaux-Arts pedagogy cloaked by pseudo-scientific studies and analyses in an attempt to ground itself in pragmatism. One of the trendiest research agendas around the world of architecture academia is disaster/environmental resilient design. This might sound blasphemous, but I don’t think we should be talking about architecture “design” when a disaster strikes, when food, clothing, health services, and simple shelters are preeminent. Instead, many disaster relief projects being undertaken in many architecture schools are so fantastical that there is no other way to take them other than with a grain of salt. None of them are built, perhaps because they are financially disastrous or the designers simply think their work is done when the act of design is complete without having to get involved in the politics and bureaucracies of getting them realized. Architects love to think that architecture design can be the answer to everything, shown through the huge array of works claiming to solve world problems from social, cultural, economic, environmental, and even political! This is of course different from projects such as Shigeru Ban’s work in Turkey, which is creatively pragmatic and economical, exactly what the community needed to protect themselves from the cold and wet surroundings, which is a very fine example of what architects can contribute to a disaster relief program.
Shigeru Ban - Paper Log Houses (shigerubanarchitects.com)
Through our discussion, my friend and I concluded that one of the reasons architects must do this is to achieve academic relevance and recognition, partly because academic institutions are their main source of income. These architects all have their own small practices and have accepted the fact their professional architecture practices are financially unsustainable (see article and comment section of http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/money-money-money-an-architects-salary/). Universities, on the other hand, give a steady and reliable stream of income. Therefore, in order to augment their position in universities, which in turn will give them better pay, academic freedom, and admiration (e.g. through lecture invitations, tenures, promotions, or “research lab” directorial positions), they must propose grand ideas with the aim to shock and awe regardless of their impracticality.
I can’t help but to think that architecture students are the ultimate victim of this system. Students have to pay expensive tuition and take studios being taught by faculties with their own design beliefs and methods. If they are stellar students, they may be lucky enough to be a part of a faculty’s research agenda, hoping that the research takes off and gain recognition in order for them to be able to claim partial authority of the project. Once they graduate, they are left with a harsh epiphany of confusion. They’ve done everything right according to what their teachers have asked them to do and wonder why offices refuse to hire them since they lack “practical” skills and knowledge to become a sound financial move for the office. With whatever mental conviction left they have, they tell themselves that they will start their own practice, not knowing that they have just begun their race for academic relevance.
The following is an excerpt taken out of Jonathan Barnett’s book Urban Design As Public Policy page 186, published in 1974, in which he elaborates the differences between a planner, an architect, and an urban designer.
What is the difference between an urban designer and an urban planner, or between an urban designer and an architect? We were forced to consider these definitions quite seriously in New York, because we were creating a new institution and the public employees’ union and the City’s personnel department required that the new urban design jobs we proposed be established under civil service regulations, with the appointments made on the basis of performance on examinations.
A city planner, it seemed to us, was someone who was primarily concerned with the allocation of resources according to projections of future need. Allocating funds for a capital budget is a series of planning decisions, because it involves determinations of need for, as an example, a new school in a particular district, and balancing off that need against that of other areas.
Architects, on the other hand, design buildings. They prepare a set of contract documents so that the building, let us say a school, can be constructed, and they take legal responsibility for the process.
There is a substantial middle ground between these professions, and each has some claim to it, but neither fills it very well.
Planners tend to regard land use as an allocation of resources problem, parcelling out land, for zoning purposes, without much knowledge of its three-dimensional characteristics, or the nature of the building that may be placed on it in the future. The result is that most zoning ordinances and official land use plans produce stereotyped and unimaginative buildings.
Land use planning would clearly be improved if it involved someone who understands three-dimensional design.
A good architect will do all he can to relate the building he is designing to its surroundings, but he has no control over what happens off the property he has been hired to consider. If you visit New Haven, Connecticut, you will see some of the best recent work of American architects, both at Yale and in surrounding urban areas, but the city is not correspondingly improved.
Someone is needed to design the city, not just the buildings.
Source: Barnett, Jonathan. Urban Design As Public Policy. Architectural Record, New York, 1974.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a short article written by an alumnus of MIT, Christine Outram, titled “What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don’t”, explaining her reason of leaving the architecture profession. Here’s the link to it: https://medium.com/what-i-learned-building/a844ec3343da.
In short, Outram believes that architects are cynical beings, who must have their way in architecture, “don’t listen to people”, and are “outdated”. She writes how Starbucks essentially is a better designer because they understand and respond to “people’s needs and desires” while architects “seem to pray at the feet of the latest hyped-up formal language”, worshipping “obscure angles and the place where two materials meet”.
On the other extreme end is Patrick Schumacher. In his interview with Georgina Day, Schumacher said,
Architecture must evolve to keep itself relevant for society. To do this architecture must absorb influences and must innovate to adapt to contemporary societal and technological conditions. However, it does so on its own terms, through its own unique discourse, on the asis of its own unique accumulated wisdom. Just like scientists - and only scientists - determine what is proper scientific knowledge through their collective scientific discourse, so it is architects - and only architects - who determine through their collective architectural discourse what is good, appropriate contemporary architecture.
I sympathize with Outram in many ways (See my post “How to Make Architecture, Not Art” http://www.archdaily.com/337603/how-to-make-architecture-not-art/). In her terms, nonsense, ignorant, isolated, and self-absorbed conversations, ideas, and projects are prevalent all over architecture education and profession. This is the artistic approach to architecture: the way of seeing architecture as a manifestation and articulation of one’s creative ideas or artistic endeavor. Outram believes that architecture has to be primarily socially responsible because it is after all built for others.
However, Schumacher also has a point. In his defense, he is simply trying to legitimize and augment the power of the architecture profession. His comparison of architects and scientists is perhaps more appropriate if the term “scientists” is replaced with art critics or artists as science is typically much less subjective than architecture or art. Today’s architecture profession is facing challenges from all directions. In the book Urban Design As Public Policy, Jonathan Barnett wrote,
Architects and planners have inherited some funny ideas about themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of culture and the guardians of society’s conscience. There has been a tradition that a true professional, and, certainly, a true artist, should not be too closely involved in the day-to-day process of government, or politics, or real estate development. Instead, he has sent his instructions to the policy makers as manifestos or visionary drawings, and, not surprisingly, the policy makers usually find them impossibly idealistic and irrelevant to the problem at hand.
Architects have slowly moved away from buildings and constructions to concern themselves with perhaps what they perceived as the more noble image of the artist or creative designer. This caused the profession to lose so much pragmatic value and Schumacher’s way of dealing with it is to take it all the way and claim architecture as, in fact, a noble and heroic creative endeavor in which architects are the only ones who can tell others what is good and bad.
I wonder, if the profession becomes completely about public service, will the value of the profession diminish rapidly? Clients often say they know what they want and it is the architects’ job to materialize it. In that case, architects no longer need to generate any “creative”, self-expressive designs since the client has taken over that role, and instead focus on the best ways to bridge the gap between client’s vision and user’s satisfaction through the materialization of the vision.
Actually, both approaches to architecture already exist in today’s practice. I think what Outram is bitter about is the fact that the most artistic and self-expressive architects are ones typically lauded and placed on pedestals as the zenith of architecture.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
This bus stop serves as an urban landmark in Como, Italy. Located immediately across the street from Como’s train station, it is a stop with access to multiple bus routes. Despite its resemblance to Villa Savoye’s driveway loop, the covered path is dedicated for pedestrians with parking spots around it for vehicles.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
During my travels, I came across two places claiming to be urban catalysts. Each one of these places was supposed to generate urban growth, through density of people and activities, to its initially relatively empty surroundings.
The first one is the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. This place is packed with buildings designed by some of the biggest names in architecture design, with the most recently completed building designed by SANAA.
It never crossed my mind that this place was supposed to be an urban catalyst until my campus tour guide mentioned it. When she said it, I couldn’t stop myself from displaying a confused look on my face. Seeing how I reacted, she said to me,” I guess you are from a big city. Where are you from? But here in this part of the country, it’s totally countryside and small towns. So this, this is urban.” I smiled and let her proceed with the tour.
But this couldn’t be further from the reality. The campus is a sculpture park and an absolute playground for architects. Because the buildings are so huge, they occupy a whole “block” (although arguably there isn’t any “block” in this campus in terms of a city block) while only providing one or a few entrances. Most of the time, you are left wandering around in a barren wasteland of over-sized roads with nothing much to look at as you pass each building.
Of course, this was never meant to have the actual vitality of a city with busy commercial streets, parks, playgrounds, etc. In fact, this is a fine industry and warehouse complex with a few galleries or showrooms, which is exactly what it is. The buildings are so big to accommodate storage and production. The roads are so wide to increase accessibility of large trucks and containers.
The second scheme I encountered is the “Killesberg Urban Quarter”, designed by David Chipperfield, located almost immediately next to the Weissenhof estates in Stuttgart, Germany. I got the impression that either I happened to be there when all of its inhabitants were away or it is still devoid of tenants.
This is a quite common present-day type of developments in which there is probably one large owner/developer involved with one mastermind design team creating the whole scheme. This results in a fully unified and monotonous environment. In my hometown Jakarta, there are so many of this type of mixed-use developments. In fact, right across the street from my home, there is a row of vacant office and commercial spaces that have been empty for years. The buildings all look the same, are of the same size and height, and there are lots of them.
As an urban scheme, the Killesberg Urban Quarter includes a few plazas, very much inspired by traditional public spaces surrounded by what I call an urban wall, which is a series of planes composed of building facades that form and define the public space.
However, as much as it is called an urban quarter, I did not feel that I was in an urban setting. Obviously, everything surrounding the scheme is not urban, but being in the middle of the plaza surrounded by the buildings still did not give me the feeling of being in a city, or even a small town. I wondered if it was because the lack of activity, noise, and people, but figured that was not the case. When I went to the Marktplatz near the heart of Stuttgart at night, it was quite empty and quiet, but the variety of glimmering lights, colors, shapes, textures and buildings (heights, widths, and materials) still resonated life and exuberance.
I wonder if this means a successful scheme can never be conceived as one idea by one developer and one design team. Perhaps, a better method of urban design is to outsource many individual designs to various designers with various ideas and design approaches and let them collide in exciting and unexpected ways. Every housing complex I have been into in Jakarta, carried out by one developer and one design team, has always been bland and boring. The charm of cities lie in its seemingly chaotic appearance with so many different shapes and colors, each representing a designer’s or an owner’s vision, working together in an orchestra composed of various buildings.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)