Anyone familiar with my work knows that I reserve a special place in my feelings and thoughts for what I call ‘dumb boxes.’ These are buildings that are often little more than rectilinear solids of brick or stone facing with holes punched in them for windows and doors. Sometimes they are all glass, with no holes at all. Most architects today consider them the antithesis of creative design, but I believe they are essential to it. The worst thing I can imagine is an urban world of idiosyncratic buildings that jostle each other for attention with no reference to any deeper form of order. The next worst thing I can imagine, though, is a world of dumb boxes embellished by architects determined to disguise their dumbness with all manner of distracting shapes, colors, materials, or tectonic doodads. I say, a box is inherently dumb, so let it be dumb, by which I mean, let it be what it is.
What is dumb about the box? Well, it’s actually we, when confronting it, that are able to be dumb. We know what it is. We don’t have to think about it. In the same way, we don’t have to think about an urban street grid. Thirteen blocks up and two blocks to the right and we’re there. What we find when we get to our destination is another matter, and it may shake, though probably not, our comfortably routine world of assumptions. The same with the dumb box. Within it, we will probably find ‘normal’ life, totally predictable. But we might find the abnormal, even the world shaking. Serial killers live in dumb boxes, as did Karl Marx and Wassily Kandinsky. Right now, a genius is sitting in a dumb box somewhere, thinking through a knotty problem that, if solved, will transform our ways of thinking, even of living. Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” is a concise movie play on dumb boxes and their everyday, sometimes profound, human mysteries. Those of us who live in cities don’t need a movie to tell us that we never really know, for sure, what lies around the next corner.
Architects, however, are today routinely indoctrinated against the dumb box. Even advertising urges us to “think outside the box.” Why? Because it is thought we all hate the box for being too dumb, too boring, and we want to escape it. If we do escape, by buying the advertised product, we usually find ourselves inside another dumb box populated by boring people just like us. It is clearly possible to live an extraordinary life inside a dumb box. Question: is it possible to lead an extraordinary life in anything other than a dumb box?
The extraordinary can only be measured against the ordinary. If the dumb box, and all the predictability it embodies and symbolizes, is the ordinary, then we need it in order to transcend it, if that is what we choose to do. In the world composed only of the extraordinary, the only extraordinary thing to do would be to design a dumb box.
Or, there is another way to look at it. In the world of the extraordinary, which becomes, in effect, the ordinary, the only way to transcend it is to design the more extraordinary—to up the ante. This is what seems to be happening in architecture today, in the post-Bilbao era. It brings to mind the comment by Edward Hanslick, the 19th century music critic, about the operas of Richard Wagner, which their author proclaimed as ‘The Music of the Future.’ “They are all superlative,” Hanslick said, “and superlatives have no future.”
Perhaps, though, there is another way, a way out of the trap of the extraordinary for its own sake, as a kind of ‘can you top this?’ syndrome. Let us make the extraordinary only when extraordinary conditions demand it. Radical social and political changes. Recovery from war and natural disasters. The reformation of slums. Cultural ‘paradigm shifts,’ such as computerization, or the greening of technology. Let us refrain from dressing up old building types in extraordinary new forms that do nothing to transform the way we actually inhabit or use or think about them. Instead, let us deploy the extraordinary in architecture as a way of bringing about changes we believe are important to the improvement of the human condition.
In the meantime, let us inhabit our dumb boxes, striving for the extraordinary when it is necessary, at the same time sustaining as high a standard of the ordinary as we can. After all, it is the common ground—quite deep at that—we all share.
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- April 8, 2008 / 2:53 pm
- Lebbeus Woods