Apart from dressing like an undertaker, wearing black-rimmed circular glasses, and driving Swedish cars, modern architects’ most conspicuous trait is their aesthetic honesty, which is dangerous. Sincerity leaves little room for imagination.
Fellow architects, can we talk? This is gonna hurt, but it needs saying. Were I a poet, I’d write, The end is nigh, and we are why. I’m no bard, though, so I’ll put it this way: Most of us suspect anthropogenic climate change will lead to civilization’s end. Some architects deny the science (“The climate is always changing!”), while others ignore the obvious (denial is a good coping mechanism), but buried within the folds of all angst-addled designer brains lies the fear that today’s toddlers could be the last of us.
I’ll pause here to let the weight of that thought depress you.
Architecture lost itself in an identity crisis not long ago. The discipline wandered in self-reflection, reexamining how practitioners go about their work, how the built environment should appear, and why. Movements came and went. Promising paths dead-ended. Eventually, the profession gave up looking for ways out of its uncertainty, leaving us where we are today.
In premodern eras, new construction techniques, evolving opinions on art, and shifting societal beliefs drove styles. Advances were slow, but once established, became long-lived norms. The Gothic period lasted four centuries, the Renaissance three. From the nineteenth century on, though, more than a hundred aesthetic and philosophical movements lived quickly and died. As historian Charles Jencks notes, there were “a plurality of live architectural traditions” even during the International Style’s forty-year hegemonic heyday.
A few years ago, while visiting, or rather exploring, Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure corner of one of the towers, this word carved upon the wall:
These Greek characters, black with age, and cut deep into the stone with the peculiarities of form and arrangement common to Gothic calligraphy that marked them the work of some hand in the Middle Ages, and above all the sad and mournful meaning which they expressed, forcibly impressed the author.
For a discipline that thinks of itself as learned, scholarly research eludes the architectural profession. This is a long standing problem. “Failure,” John Ruskin wrote in his 1848 introduction to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, “is less frequently attributable to either insufficiency of means or impatience of labor, than to a confused understanding of the thing actually to be done.”
Roughly 150 years later, Harry Nilsson—surely singing to architects—opined in his song, Joy that if you’re unable to find the answer to a question, you may not have a question worth asking (and probably don’t have a problem worth solving). In between Ruskin and rock and roll, is William Peña, the author of the architectural programming guide, Problem Seeking, who nearly a half-century ago wrote that “you can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.”