pulp #35: uncomfortable architecture
originally published on friday, january 5, 2017.
Having dinner with two pulp participants this week, one noted, growing up in China, that his mother discouraged him from becoming an architect, because China had already built out all of its cities. There was nothing left to do. It reminded me of a scene from Gay Talese's profile of The New York Times, "The Kingdom and the Power." When one of publisher Adolph Ochs's talented assistants quit, he offered as his reason that there was nothing left to be done at the Times: Ochs had finished building it into a powerful paper. Finished? Ochs replied. Why, we have hardly begun!
Seemed like an appropriate sentiment to start a new year.
Now for the feature: Elisa Iturbe stands up for the uncomfortable building.
One of our readers replied to pulp #34: "I enjoyed your year-end round-up. But please, people die, they don't pass. Kidney stones, on the other hand, pass."
Indeed, in last week's Year in Review we stated that, in 2017, Fred Koetter, Gunnar Birkerts, and Vincent Scully all passed. They did not pass. They died. We mourn their deaths.
This week's comic is by ANDREW STERNAD
REGARDING THE MERITS OF THE UNCOMFORTABLE BUILDING
BY ELISA ITURBE
Uncomfortable buildings – buildings that are difficult to understand, perhaps due to abstract agendas or unusual form – have, by their nature, many critics. This has been true throughout history. Today, this criticism has taken a specific form, claiming that an architecture that is difficult is undemocratic.
Surprisingly, those who make this argument do not belong to a single line of architectural thought, yet both camps are united by a misunderstanding of democracy and the relationship between the political economy and the built environment.
The first critique, exemplified by a Current Affairs article by Brianna Rennix & Nathan Robinson, "Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture," dwells not on the historical implications or the elitism of uncomfortable architecture, but rather simply its aesthetics: ugly buildings threaten democracy. They suggest that beauty is self-evident and the imposition on the masses of anything other than beauty is a tyrannical expression of an architect’s ego. This line of thinking assumes that consensus around beauty is not only possible, but has been reached. As a result, nuanced or marginal forms of beauty cannot be considered, for beauty is only relevant when aligned with the will of the masses. In their view, only consensus can bring freedom, otherwise inhabitants of architecture will inevitably be oppressed.
Democracy was not designed in order to reach consensus, but rather for the radical distribution of power. As such, democracy as a system is meant to codify conflict into the structure of governance so that as many people as possible participate in the dominant social contract. In the exercise of democracy, consensus is only one possible outcome, and in fact, in a true democracy, it is quite rare. To recognize these basic qualities of democracy is not to say that architecture must literally embody conflict, for that would imply that architecture should relate symbolically to our social system. But rather, this is to say that catering to aesthetic consensus is a sorry version of democratic practice, unlikely to generate an architectural discourse based in empowerment and liberty and more likely to produce Celebration, Florida, the aesthetic of which explicitly serves to reproduce the discourse of homeownership that maintains the economic status quo of the United States.
Furthermore, a consensus that is truly democratic must be reached as a conclusion to a debate, yet architectural discourse has never once reached a conclusion.The history of architecture is constituted by change in forms, materials, and practices. Architecture evolves, and as it does so, pushes modes of perception, inevitably generating resistance. The Renaissance was unpopular with gothicists, Mannerism was disliked by artists of the High Renaissance, and so on and so forth. It is impossible to maintain consensus in architecture, and so it should remain. An architecture that promotes a stagnant history generates and barricades itself behind a status quo, denying the fact that our social contract must constantly be renegotiated, and entrenching specific power dynamics and hierarchies. So while architecture and power are undeniably entangled, we depend on change in architecture to keep them productively at odds.
Though beauty may lift the spirit, it is not intrinsically democratic. Today, many architectural works aim towards some kind of “unobjectionable” beauty (by deploying, for example, fluted columns, intricate brickwork, and stone tracery) in order to become the most exclusive places in any city. In other words, our current system of rampant commodification prevents ornamental details from gaining “democratic” status on pure aesthetic grounds. On the contrary, they are often instrumentalized into generating exclusivity and gentrification, entrenching class divides and further transforming cities into engines of perpetual displacement. A blind faith in the redeeming qualities of beauty can occlude the way architecture actually plugs into the political economy. Capitalism has changed the way we build, and no single architectural style has the intrinsic capacity to avoid commodification. Corinthian columns cannot resurrect the public sphere, and beauty alone cannot guarantee change in society’s balance of power.
Indeed, some of the most magnificent works of architecture have been constructed in the name of, or in support of, tyrannical regimes and civilizations. Take, for instance, the Hagia Sophia. In the Nika Riots, the Emperor Justinian was almost swept from power by a popular uprising. The rioting masses wrecked parts of Constantinople, including the main church. Justinian indicated to his opponents he would leave, and instead ambushed them with an army: 30,000 unarmed civilians killed in the hippodrome. Within a few weeks, he ordered the construction of a new church, so awesome no one would remember the bloodshed. Architecture is compromised by its material reality: the construction of a building of great beauty requires an accumulation of wealth and access to labor. If one is to seek architecture’s capacity to improve human life, one must be honest about its limitations. Without this recognition, we are all living in a dangerous fiction. Arches in themselves are not democratic and the human soul requires more than mosaics to be free.
My aim is not to claim that beauty has no place in architecture. But rather that architecture must always be in dialogue with both its possibilities and its limitations, lest when given the choice between democracy and a fluted column, one mistakenly chooses the latter. There is a difference between dignity and beauty, and each have different roles to play in society. For example, a housing project by Mosei Ginzberg may have a challenging aesthetic for someone seeking unobjectionable beauty. However, the project re-conceptualizes the social relationships within the building, including spaces for shared food production, child care, health and athletics. This is modernity beyond style, in which the political possibilities of the human subject can be reconfigured in space, and in which modern architecture can participate in the provision of human dignity, progressive change, and resistance to capitalist appropriation.
The second view, which I find prevalent in the world of sustainable architecture and public interest design, finds the internal language of architecture inaccessible to most, and thus irrelevant. This camp rejects disciplinary history, arguing that exclusivity is elitist, and furthermore, a damaging distraction from political and environmental considerations. That which is esoteric is undemocratic, and as a result, ineffective in the face of our sociopolitical imbalances, or at worst, entirely complicit.
Architecture gives those who care about the environment and social equity cause for concern. Architecture requires material extraction, wealth accumulation, and often dovetails with problematic labor practices - a fitting tool for capitalist processes. The material condition of architecture is inherently problematic, and thus architecture can hardly be considered innocent. In this respect, their view can be at least comprehended. Yet, even as we condemn architecture, it also embodies its own source of redemption. The evidence for this is the proliferation of a built environment made without Architectural considerations, without a sensitivity to its history and its medium: space. Buildings built strictly according to a capitalist logic — big box stores, suburbs, strip malls, ATM lobbies, supermarket parking lots, mid-range hotels — have a lot to do with building, but little to do with architecture. Walmart, McDonalds, Best Western: giant corporations have executed an unparalleled land grab that has shaped this country’s landscape over the past century. In this light, one starts to see that if there is any hope that buildings can elude the brutality of capitalism, it lies with Architecture, because in a spatial relationship carefully conceived there is the capacity to challenge received notions, forcing us to look at the world more carefully. And there, in the moment of close reading, of questioning and reimagining, seeds of societal change are inevitably found. Architecture has a potent social role to serve, and while I understand and share activists’ impatience, architecture must operate through the means at its disposal: architecture. So to place architectural language at the center of this conversation requires the reassessment of what constitutes political subversion. Architecture has the capacity to raise questions, to push us out of our comfort zone, or, as Adorno said, to refuse to reconcile in image what is unreconciled in reality.
An architecture that is challenging is one that honors the inhabitant’s propensity for thought, and to demand perception in a cognitive mode is to demand a public that is awake. That is a politic befitting of a democracy, where the people are not meant to be passive recipients of an imposed order, where humans live in dignity and beauty is not predetermined, but perpetually reinvented and reimagined into the indefinite future.