Emancipating Architecture: Toward a More Serious Aesthetic

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Contemporary architecture has been trivialized spurred on by a profit-driven construction industry on the one hand and aspiring intellectual designers on the other. At a time of increasing social inequality, threats of nuclear proliferation, widespread spiritual and moral fatigue, disintegration of the social nucleus, lifestyle- and environment-dependant illnesses of epidemic proportions, alarming frequency and intensity of natural disasters, terrorism, global warming, deforestation, air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, the extinction of species, limited natural resources and a dwindling food supply, architecture has either been absent or responded with inconsequential metaphors.

Trivial Pursuit
Intellectualizing, imagery, and metaphors have been one of architecture’s trivial pursuits that have compromised the profession’s credibility and effectiveness.

For example, over a decade ago Daniel Liebeskind’s metaphor for colliding, collapsing, chaotic architectural expressions was his personal worldview, summed up in uncertainty and mortality. A structure by Frank Gehry, completed in 2004, also appears to be collapsing. But the scary tilted columns and teetering, colliding walls of the Stata at MIT are “a deliberate metaphor for the freedom and daring of the research that’s supposed to occur inside.” Two different decades, different architects, different geographies, different contexts, and vastly different metaphors, yet similar architectural expressions?

Even sincere metaphysical meanings when used as catalyst for design are soon lost, forgotten, or become irrelevant. Either the novelty expires or the intended communication changes over time in ways beyond the designer’s control. I concur with Schuman’s conclusion that “a socially responsible architecture is both compassionate and savvy,” but it cannot be either “through imagery alone” (Schuman 1991).

Another architectural trivial pursuit is the high premium placed on novelty. The need for new and different expressions that correspond to modern life is a dogma left over from Modernism. Colquhoun remarked fittingly that even though many aspects of Modernist theory seem still valid today, much “belongs to the realm of myth, and is impossible to accept at face value. The myth itself has now become history, and demands critical interpretation” (Colquhoun 2002).

Technology has often been cited as the catalyst for design and it has been charged with having fundamentally altered the human condition. But merely external circumstances have changed while significant life events remained the same. I concur with Alex Callinicos who rejects as false “the claim that we are currently experiencing an epochal change in our social life” (Callinicos 1989). Has the mystery of new life or the despair of death been affected by the modern life-style? Has the wonder of childbirth been intensified by a high-tech delivery room? Has a parent’s pride over a child’s first smile or word been lessened by modern communication? Has the mystery of falling in love faded because of technological achievements? Have computers alleviated the pain of hunger? Has television changed our sensory perceptions of a sunset? Clearly, television, cars, computers, and airplanes have significantly influenced modern life, but the feelings of anticipation, excitement, or anxiety remain the same whether we travel by camel or by plane. So if yesterday, today, and tomorrow are not entirely dissimilar, why do we maintain a demand on architecture to find new expressions? In contrast to Immanuel Kant, who viewed space and time as separate, William Blake “more prophetically than Kant, saw both as components of a unity” (Shlain 1991). In reuniting past, present, and future we free architecture from its false obsession for novelty.

While Post-modernists can be credited with shaking off history-phobia and lifting society out of the Modernist’s monotony, it has also belittled the past and the present with facetious improvisations of ancient themes. Instead of reforming architecture towards a more serious aesthetic, Post-modernism did not take its social responsibilities seriously.

One would think that the pessimistic worldview of Deconstructionists would have brought about a reformation in keeping with the solemn issues its proponents focused on. But while darkness, horror, chaos, and derision were enthusiastically embraced as metaphors for cool designs, they did more to embellished architectural magazines than to activate social healing. Alex Callinicos bluntly challenges the “strange mixture of cultural and political pessimism and light-minded playfulness with which—in a more than usually farcical reprise of the apocalyptic mood—much of the contemporary Western intelligentsia apparently intends to greet our own fin de siecle” (Callinicos 1989).

Architecture’s long-standing identity crisis has resulted in more trivial pursuits. Every architect is torn between two concepts: “On the one hand, architecture is seen to consist of unique works of art…. On the other, it is seen as belonging to the public sphere, where private sensibility is under the control of “techniques” in the broadest sense of that word” (Coluhoun 1981). When formalizing its first curriculum, architecture was housed in the Ecole Polytechnique (the school of engineering), which later became the Ecole des Beaux Arts (the Fine Arts program). Contemporary architecture, never sure whether it was an art or a science, favored the arts. Whether expressed in the struggle between the university’s technical teaching staff and the design faculty, or the designer and the production team, there has been an alleged superiority of art over science. It is not surprising, therefore, that architecture has imitated art’s follies.