Architects love to take on the easy problems—the ones already solved—and make them difficult. This way they can have it both ways: operating safely within the boundaries of the known and, at the same time, being daring innovators—but with a minimum of actual risk. For example, the high-rise office tower. This problem was solved by Sullivan and Adler, in 1894, with their Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York. You can make an office building taller, wider, twist it, sculpt it into all kinds of shapes or give it a variety of new skins and it will still be essentially the same as Guaranty: a vertical stacking of level floors with grouped stairs and elevators, with public access and service at the ground floor and mechanical services on top. Knowing this, one has even more respect for Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, because it tacitly acknowledges the precedent by earnestly recasting it and nothing more. There are other examples, but the point here is different: architects are reluctant to take on the difficult problems—the ones not yet solved—such as the restoration of slums; the reconstruction of buildings and cities damaged by war; those devastated by earthquake, hurricane and other natural disasters; and especially, the invention of architecture that mitigates the tragic effects of such catastrophes by, in effect, anticipating them.
The reason, I believe, is not the obviously daunting difficulty of such problems, but the risk of being stigmatized by taking them on. Architects who do so—and they are few—are often accused of preying on human misery for their own gain, or at least to advance their careers. Architects are particularly susceptible to this accusation—doctors, for example, who search for a cure for cancer are not. Perhaps it is because architects present themselves as following a ‘higher cause,’ meaning a higher ‘class’ of clients and projects. The best architects prefer to be thought of as great artists, not as benefactors of the great numbers of common people, and so ignore the problems that most affect these people. Hence, their problems are unaddressed and remain unsolved.
One of the most common charges leveled at architects who address these unsolved problems is that they are “aestheticizing violence.” In other words, they make violence, or at least its effects, look good. The violence of poverty. The violence of war. The violence of nature. Not unlike Hollywood action movies, which glamorize violence by making it seem heroic or visually exciting, architectural designs incorporating the effects of violence—in order to transform them into something at the least non-violent—are seen by many as an acceptance of the causes of the violence. I do not believe this is the case. Architects are by nature pragmatists who want to deal with real conditions—even the most idealistic ground their designs in the actual. So, why would it be surprising that they want to deal with the effects of violence that has already occurred? Perhaps many do—but they are afraid.
It is important to distinguish here between causes and effects. No architect would wish for the violent destruction of human communities just to enhance his or her career, just as no doctor would wish for the creation of cancer just to win a Nobel Prize. But once cancer exists, its destructive effects have to be treated, and—by anticipating them—its cause eliminated or ‘cured.’ The task of the few architects who dare to engage in their work destructive forces and their effects in our time must not only struggle with them but also with the stigma of doing so.
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- January 15, 2010 / 12:50 am
- Lebbeus Woods