(above) Experimental architecture hand-drawing by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, (1991).
The task of the experimental architect is to take us to places and spaces we haven’t been before. That is more difficult than it sounds, particularly in this age of hyper-rendering by computer that can also look back over, and exploit ad infinitum, a long history of imaginative and speculative architectural design. It is also an age when many social problems—such as the rapid growth of urban slums and the need of low-cost housing for what used to be called the ‘working class’—remain not only unsolved but unaddressed. So, we might ask, why should we even care to make, let alone support with our interest, more or less abstract speculations about new and unfamiliar kinds of spaces?
This question evokes the common argument against the exploration of outer space—to the moon, Mars, and beyond. With so many problems here on Earth, why should we devote precious financial and intellectual resources to off-planet exploration? What’s to be gained, in terms of our terrestrial concerns? Better that we devote ourselves to ‘real-world’ problems. It’s a hard argument to counter. Indeed, it’s clear that we should put the problems of our home planet first. Then, when we have those solved or at least have them on the right track, we can turn our attention to the stars.
This, in turn, is something like the argument against government funding of art. We understand that paintings, sculptures, poetry and the like are luxury goods—only the well-off can afford to take the time for them. Most of us are working too hard to make ends meet to afford the luxury of time, and price of tickets, to go to museums and concerts where art is displayed in plush settings. Better that the taxpayers’ money go to solving urgent problems like poverty and sub-standard education for our children. Well, yes.
The problem with these arguments is twofold. First, if we have to wait until the world is made right before we can afford the satisfaction of beauty (in whatever terms), we will never have it, because the world will never be made right enough. Second—and this is the more subtle point—it may be that the apprehension of beauty in art, music, poetry, even architecture, is necessary to solve the grittier real-world problems. The experience of beauty–especially difficult or ‘terrible’ beauty—is one that gives us a sense of personal connection to a wider world. No doubt this sense of belonging to a world inhabited by a complex multiplicity of people and things inspires us and gives us the desire to concretize our relationships beyond the fleeting moments given by music and art, or, say an experimental architectural drawing. Without art to broaden our world-view we might well stay mired in our narrow personal problems, isolated and apathetic.
If this seems esoteric, then we should consider the ‘spin-off’ effects of many forms of research and experimental projects. The Apollo program that put men on the moon in the late1960s is a good example. A decade or so before the first moon landing in 1969, the very idea of rockets and the exploration of the moon and other planets was the stuff of pulp science-fiction. However, a handful of serious scientists, led by Willey Ley and Werner von Braun, began to speculate on practical ways to go to the moon in the early 1950s, long before the vicissitudes of Cold War competition with the USSR spurred the US government to actually make it happen. The Apollo and the other programs that led up to it were very expensive, and there were many who questioned their value, though criticism was muted in the general atmosphere of patriotic fervor. Americans were inspired by visions of ‘manifest destiny,’ that it was they who were destined to conquer a new frontier in the name of “all mankind.” Interestingly, the 60s was also a period of political and social upheaval and change, giving us another, malevolent upsurge of manifest destiny, the Vietnam War, but also the enactment of revolutionary civil rights laws.
In the end, as we know, the moon was ‘conquered,’ not once but numerous times. With ‘mission accomplished,’ and home-world problems pushing to the forefront, the desire to continue planetary exploration faded, the rockets and technologies supporting the moon flights languished, and fell into obsolescence. While it is hard to argue with critics who say that nothing much was accomplished by the act of landing men on the moon, there is plenty of evidence that the technological spin-offs of the space programs have been significant, impacting society particularly in the development of telecommunications, computers and earth-satellites.
There is a more critical reason for experimental projects of different kinds than the practical benefits that may—or may not—result from them. The truth is that most experiments lead nowhere and judged from a strict cost-benefit viewpoint are a waste. However, learning and invention are notoriously inefficient, requiring many failed attempts and dead-ended explorations to find one that is fertile enough to open out onto a rich new landscape of possibilities. If a society is unwilling to tolerate such waste it will stagnate. In today’s world, which is under tremendous pressures of change, a vital and growing society not only tolerates but actively supports experimentation as the only way to transform the difficulties created by change into creative opportunities to enhance and deepen human experience. This is doubly true for the field of architecture which, charged with continuously remaking the world, is at the forefront of this struggle.
(below) Drawing/construction by LW from the San Francisco: Inhabiting the Quake series (1995):
See and hear Larry Rinder’s commentary on this project:
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- August 12, 2010 / 3:20 pm
- Lebbeus Woods