Sunday, May 21, 2006

Architecture at Issue

I just finished working my way through the NYTimes Magazine Architecture issue, and the final reward was at the back, in personal essay by a small Indian architect on his reaction to the biggest, fanciest bit of architecture that India has put up to date. He points out the ways that "high tech" architecture avoids simple solutions for expensive, environmentally unfriendly ones, and the ways in which they avoid involving or engaging human beings.

Now I should say that for someone who spent the formative years of her adulthood training in the study of high culture (literature), I'm a disturbingly low culture sort of person. For all that I'm a Shakespearean by training, I often fail to be engaged by the debates and battles of contemporary high culture, not excluding literature. Quite often, I frankly couldn't give a shit. This may well be a personal failing. But I also suspect that great art of every kind comes out of cultures less priveleged and personally comfortable than our own. I suspect our wealth has come to destroy some of our capacity to make art. Or rather, I fear it.

I've seen a lot of "high culture" buildings from this half of the 20th century (although I've never lived in one - Eric lived in one of the infamous Groepius dorms at Harvard, but I merely lived in a succession of nearly equally hideous but much less famous ugly dorms at Brandeis), and I admit, I'm rarely engaged by them. They often fall in the category of "Well yes, but so?" which is my own personal, awkward construction. I invented it to apply to literary studies, in which scholars or novelists so often laboriously struggle to reach a conclusion that offers you nowhere else to go and illuminates nothing else (to be fair, I've written quite a few papers of this sort, which is why I'm so expert on them ;-). The nuances of most architecture can be appreciated in about 10 minutes - and when you are done appreciating (look, the building looks like a bird's nest, and the pipes are on the outside - wow!) what else is there to do - except, of course, if you live next to it or work in it, when its central deficiencies (office buildings suck no matter how you pretty them up) provide amusing commentary for your guests. There are buildings one goes back to again and again and sees something new in - but most of them are old, and none of them are office buildings.

The Times magazine is, of course, the mouth piece of a kind of middle of the road, capitalist liberalism, and so it sort of gets the conflict between the idea that buildings can be radical and the recognition that most of the so called radical buildings in the world are office buildings, where the most reactionary forms of capitalism are practiced. Or they are museums, monuments to establishment high culture and nostalgia. So they interview an architect who critiques the American habit of lighting buildings at night, never noticing any incongruity in his habit of building big wonking buildings so that people can commute to work in them from Pennsylvania, or they write an article about the problems of New Urbanist visions of Biloxi, and the tragedy of trying to bring overpriced yuppie housing to the poor. But the basic premise of contemporary architecture, which is about building big structures that are environmentally unsustainable, mostly ugly, and kind of pointless, is never really reconsidered, except by this lone person piece from India. And it is presented by the magazine as resolutely localized, about in part the loss of a local, indigenous culture, rather than a problem of architecture everywhere, which for the most part is about erasing nature, and people.

It isn't just architecture that has failed its form and function mission - literature has as well, and so has art in many cases. But writing a novel is comparatively cheap, and so is buying one. We all have the chance to control the environmental impact of our fiction - don't waste trees on it by buying it if it sucks. Art may need a bit of climate control to prevent deterioration, but compared to a building, it is perfectly green, no matter how much turpentine was used. Buildings are big, expensive, bits of something that is supposed to be art. But big and expensive and resource consumptive and good for business, with lots of lights and desks and climate control can never, ever, truly be radical. If it is art, it is radical, and it challenges basic assumptions.

That's not to say that architecture can't be radical. But stadiums and museums and office space can't truly be radical. Your house can be. Make a house that uses less, and is beautiful in a simple, clean way, that contains things made by you or friends, and that meets your needs but not every want, and has meaning, and you'll make better art than most practicing architects.